Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tag You're It

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

Genre or literary. Toh-ma-to, to-mah-to. Sort of. I would love to be able to say that it makes absolutely no difference. Yet it does. Genre or literary matters to the business side of writing far more than it matters to the actual writing itself. The labels determine where you get placed on the shelves of your local bookstore. It affects who stocks your book, who reviews it, which book clubs consider it and whether or not Oprah will give it the magical wand treatment. Literary means you are somehow more “important” and are, therefore, more likely to win a major award. Genre isn’t considered for Pulitzer’s or National Book Awards even if that designation was made by a marketing team trying to figure out the best way to promote a book that could easily fit either category. Genre is code for I know some people who might read it. Yes, it’s important for them. For the reader, it can pull you away from books you might find fascinating. Beware the genre or literary tag. It can deny you a world of pleasures.

My first great review came from the Romantic Times. I love them for it. I do not consider Catnapped a romance but I can’t actually tell you why. Someone with more imagination than me at RT saw my book and thought it was good enough to make their list regardless of the imprint’s backlist or the book’s placement on some arbitrary shelf. My protagonist’s love interest was added after the first draft. Probably after the fifth. That’s how much I considered my book a romance. Yet, that first review brought many readers to my work who couldn’t have found it another way tucked as it was on the mystery shelves.

Look at Tim O’Brien. He’s a National Book Award winner who frequently writes about his experiences, fictionalized, during the Vietnam War. He’s Mr. Literary. He wrote a book called In the Lake of the Woods. In my opinion, it’s a romance. It’s a nuanced examination of a long-term relationship and how our assumptions about another person can become our reality if they are never challenged. It’s as complex a relationship story as any written by Nicholas Sparks yet it’s somehow treated differently. A man reading The Notebook on a commuter train is likely to have it hidden in a book cover while Tim O’Brien’s book can be viewed openly, possibly eliciting engaged conversation with an intellectual co-passenger. Tim O’Brien’s book is also a mystery. I won’t spoil the end for you. If you haven’t read it, or anything by him, I beg you to give him a try. But in Lake of the Woods when you get to the last word, if you’re like me, you’ll double-check to make sure you’re not missing another chapter. The one that answers the questions. How great a mystery is that? It’s got as much heft as Hammett, surprise equal to Christie and a twistier end than the one from The Usual Suspects. I don’t care what the business calls him. I just think he’s great.

There’s a famous quotation I can’t seem to find the attribution for that says (I’m paraphrasing here) that a forgery is still art if that’s the way you see it. Genre is art. Literary is art. Good stories are good stories regardless of their marketing strategy. Seek them out in all their guises. Never judge a book by its cover or library location. Keep in mind that books aren’t pillows. You can go ahead and remove the label.

Thanks for reading.



Shane Gericke said...

I just LOVE that last line about books aren't pillows so you can remove the labels. SO apt!

You're right in that labeling is mostly a business decision, not a writerly one. I just find it a shame that it makes people think that literary work is more important than genre. And keeping genre work out of serious contests like the Pulitzer, National Book Awards and the Nobel, to name three, is annoying at best, obscene at worst.

But we do it ourselves in genre-land, too, in hardback vs. paperback. Major book reviewers will not touch paperback originals, and I cannot recall the last PBO that won best book for the Edgar ... because PBOs have long been placed in their own little ghetto called Best PBO.

ITW's Thriller Awards came close to parity by merging the two last year--correctly, in my view--to create a true Best Novel competition. But this year it went back to the two-track system because of author pressure. I think that's an unfortunately step away from true parity.

But I sympathize with the reasoning. Some PBO authors I greatly respect say they'd be happy to compete with hardback for Best Novel ... except that a PBO would never win solely because of its format and that ancient belief that paperbacks are only for stories not good enough for hardback. Which is bullshit; format decisions are economic and controlled by publishers, not authors. Yet, the prejudice remains.

So genre vs. literary will remain forever, no matter how silly. Because deep down, we all enjoy our secret prejudices.

Which is my long-winded way of say, Gabi, great post today!

Gabi said...


Like you, I get frustrated by the business decisions that I think sometimes make it harder for a potential reader to find my book. From the writer side, you still have to have a story, clean up your plot, give characters personality and meet deadlines whether you come out in paperback or hardback, as literary or genre or even in the big bookstores versus the small independents. As a reader, I'm challenging myself to drift further afield. I hope others do the same. Then we can all rip the tags off our intellectual pillows.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Great post! thought provoking and so true. Cheers~

Sophie Littlefield said...

isn't RT great? They are such a great bunch of book enthusiasts. It's kind of funny that some folks slap labels on them when they are among the least label-slappy people out there.

Gabi said...

Thanks, Nancy. Nice to see a new face.

Gabi said...

You're so right about RT. Voracious readers and they don't care about anything but the story. I love them.