kim westwood – articles

falling through the genre cracks and finding wonderland

This week, I admit, I’ve been sneaking around the local bookshops, transferring copies of my freshly published novel The Courier’s New Bicycle from the Science Fiction section into Crime. If I had my druthers, I’d stash another copy under Australian Authors and one in General Fiction too, though usually, there aren’t that many copies to spread around—and it would make me too obvious in my activity. So why bother? Because The Courier’s New Bicycle is a hybrid creature, a genre amalgam; but who could know it from the bookshop shelf arrangement, one category denying the possibility of others?

My book rep tells me my real problem is that my surname begins with ‘W’. Chastened, I scuff my boot against her bag slung on the café chair. If only I’d had the perspicacity of Jim Grant, who, with a clear and canny eye to his future as an author, carefully gathered together the correct letters and syllables to make his nom de plume, and turned himself into Lee Child.

About labelling, I remember the first story competition I sent in to. It required that the work be ‘speculative’. I’d just written about an Australia turned on its head, so I thought, well, my stuff’s that. At the time, I didn’t realise the term was part of a highly structured system of categorisation—one a writer and their writing could become permanently ententacled in, despite the term itself being a superfluity, all fiction surely speculative. Anyway, this first story won that competition, then one called an Aurealis, and my trajectory as a writer of speculative fiction was set.

My first novel, The Daughters of Moab, was published in 2008 by HarperCollins under the Voyager imprint, and so it came out with a science fiction label. I preferred to call it ‘poetic apocalyptic’, a descriptor I’d come up with in an effort to flag to readers something of the style and substance of its interior, which was a conglomerate of mythology, SF and the supernatural—all with a literary bent; its bedrock resting on a post-apocalyptic Terra Australis, and its preoccupations being with humanity’s capacity for destruction and equal instinct to survive.

Unfortunately, fiction that crosses genre lines runs the risk of being judged not on its own terms but according to the label it comes with, preconceptions firmly attached. The Daughters of Moab, viewed through the lens of science fiction, was critiqued accordingly—and more often than not it vexed expectations: the prose deemed too obfuscatory for the genre. And while I maintained that a broader readership might get something out of a dose of the poetic mixed with the apocalyptic, apparently the story’s SF label made it too lowbrow for literary inspection.

I remember how my first-time novelist’s ego plunged like a bungy jumper into a bucket when (I shan’t say a close family member) saw the book cover’s shout line, Assassin. Protector. Blood Sister… and said, ‘If you write something like that, you have to expect lots of people won’t want to read it’. Sadly, my close family member wasn’t wrong—labelling and shelf allocation all but killing a broader interest; and alas, the novel fell through the genre cracks.

By now you’re thinking I’m dark on labels. In fact I like labels, and sorting things. Some (family members) would say it’s my anally retentive Virgo nature coming to the fore; but I think labelling was invented to help everybody, not just me, organise a confusing world.

One of my favourite activities as a kid was to put all the animals from my big bag of plastic creatures into groups. Sometimes it was according to ‘kind’—farm animal, wild animal, mythological animal, etc; other times it was by biggest to littlest or best to worst; and other times it was according to the new alliances and friendships each had made with the others while I was off eating my breakfast. Eventually abandoning my bag of animals, I went on to list-making and room-tidying, my clothes drawers being organised by colour and my files alphabetically. This, I said to myself, was so I could find things. Little did I know that this entirely sensible rationale would return later in life to bite me in the bum.

Back to the genre amalgam that is The Courier’s New Bicycle. I’m happy to report Australian Bookseller+Publisher has described it as ‘a disturbingly credible and darkly noir post-cyberpunk tale’. This quote-worthy phrase opens up the field of interest: the ‘noir’ a nod to crime fiction, the ‘cyberpunk’ to SF, and the ‘credible’ to current societal aptness. And hopefully, it will spur a variety of readers into wanting to know more about a bike courier and accidental sleuth who has a mystery to solve in the alleyways of a dystopian Melbourne just around the socio-political corner from now, despite the book’s despatch solely to the SF shelves steering it too towards the genre cracks. Which brings me to Venn diagrams.

Unlike fractions (those sharp-edged and unyielding divisions that caused me no end of pain in primary school), the circles I learnt about geometry class, with their intersections alluringly shaded, hinted at a world with grey areas, ambiguities. These days I wonder if my fascination for Venn diagrams was because I knew from quite young that I was attracted to girls as well as boys. Desire was floating in an as yet unnamed place, and those grey areas were speaking to me of the possibilities that might live inside me and at the interstices of things. This might explain, in part, the gravitational pull cross-genre writing has always had on me, and maybe now’s the time to mention that Salisbury Forth, the primary protagonist in The Courier’s New Bicycle, is gender androgynous.

I don’t remember when I stopped believing in the binary labelling system used to decide sex and divide gender, and began to see both as continuums with any number of identity positions along them; but a non-intersecting binary now seems as blunt and flawed an instrument of categorising as the labelling system used, say, to keep literary and genre content apart.

An either/or world is a brittle, lifeless creature. The pleasure that sorting animals gave me as a kid was also the pleasure of re-sorting—that is, the freedom to change perspective and make endless rearrangements in the order of things. In my fiction, I go to the grey areas and in-between places because they hold the most promise. And for those willing to read a novel that slips between the genre cracks, there’s always the possibility of finding wonderland.