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I had an interesting e-mail exchange this week. A gentleman who is writing a biography of John Williams, the author of Stoner (among other works), contacted me because he had found a folder in Williams’ papers with my name on it.

I had written to Mr. Williams back in the 1980s, when I was working on my doctoral dissertation, with some questions about Stoner. He answered courteously, and to my surprise I now find that he rarely talked about his own work. So my letter from John Williams was of some worth to his biographer.

One of the things I asked him about was his thoughts on genre. Stoner was published in 1965, when the “academic novel” was in its first heyday, and I had wondered whether he had gone out of his way to flout the conventions of that subgenre. He replied that he was aware of the academic novels, disliked them intensely, but wasn’t consciously setting out to “correct” them. As with all statements of author intention, I took his opinions with a dose of skepticism.

Nowadays, I find myself in a similar situation. I write “historical novels.” But the phrase “historical novel” is all too often a pigeonhole. Calling something a “historical novel” automatically sets up certain expectations in people’s minds, for better and for worse. The challenge for the writer is to use the conventions of a genre without becoming trapped by them — something that Williams did marvelously in many books, but especially well in Butcher’s Crossing, which in my opinion has always been underappreciated.