Genre hard to pin down

Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Sarah Madden

A photo of Sarah Madden lying on a squiggled hot pink couch on a mosaic floor. Sarah is wearing a black dress and has a bowler hat partial;ly covering her face
Sarah Madden

Ahead of the launch of her novella ‘Blue in the Red House’, Sarah Madden explores how genre labels can be hard to pin down – in life and in writing.

Genre is a funny old thing. You think you’re one thing, and then you’re another. I didn’t know what ‘Blue in the Red House’ was when I finished writing it; not really. I thought it was some odd fiction, a made-up string of weirdness straight from the depths of my imagination, and that was how it sat in my mind until I’d stepped away long enough to see what it really was.

I knew, after some time thinking about it, that the magical happenings in the story mirrored my internal experience after being diagnosed autistic, but I still thought of it as a tall tale, something not-really-real-really. I sent it out all over the place, pitched it as fiction and watched it fall. But it wasn’t fiction and it still isn’t.

When I think on all the big changes in my life they’ve almost all been a slight bend of genre. Motherhood, diagnosis, thinking of myself as a writer – these things all changed where I sat in the genres of the world, and they dance and play under the spotlight of existence like tiny, friendly crystals. Their refractions overlap, and I see that genre can change from person to person and reader to reader, and it mixes and swirls as it does.

I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I dabbled – I was a dabbler – and that was what I did. I even stopped doing it for ten years, because, well, I wasn’t a writer. Then I wrote part of a long thing that took me over and stole my time and kept me thinking. I saw an opportunity from Writers Victoria for disabled writers, the Write-ability Fellowship, and I submitted my dabbling. My dabbling came back to me as writing, and I knew then that I’d been a writer the whole time. My genre had shifted again. Write-ability helped me see myself as I was in a writerly sense. That was 2014, and things have shifted again. I’m going to be a published writer.

‘Blue in the Red House’ was a short story and it sat for months, was rejected by literary publications, and I was sad about it. It felt like a lot more than it was, and I was right – because it wasn’t a short story, it was a novella. It also wasn’t fiction. It is experimental non-fiction, magic realist memoir – a crystal overlap of genres that makes no sense and all the sense at the same time. It is what happened in my head, and that makes it even more real to me. So I finished it. I sat down and made it what it was supposed to be and I sent it out again, this time mentioning that it was based on my neurology, and my reaction to finally knowing my neurology. My soon-to-be publisher, Obiter Publishing, saw what it was, and though it felt strange to know they thought of it as non-fiction, the more I think on it the more I know it to be true.

I changed genres the day I was diagnosed autistic, too, and so I don’t know if any other way of getting to this point would have worked. I just know, for me at least, that keeping to genre is tricky, and maybe it’s best to write the thing before you decide what it is.

About Sarah Madden

Originally from New Zealand, Sarah Madden is an autistic writer currently based in Geelong. Sarah's writing style is a hybrid of memoir and magic realism; a sparkling, down-to-earth-and-up-in-the-clouds form of experimental non-fiction with a unique voice. Her first novella, ‘Blue in the Red House’, is to be released in November 2018 by Obiter Publishing. Sarah has been published (as Sarah Widdup) by the likes of ‘The Big Smoke’ and ‘Hot Chicks with Big Brains’, as well as being a 2014 Write-ability Fellow.