Friday, June 4, 2010

The Business of Genres, or Thoughts on Indicating OTHER.

Apprentice Writer brought up an interesting point in one of her May posts - see numbers 1-4 under "Overall." (You remember AW, right? Reviewer of humorous fiction, blogger extraordinaire, forgiver of this American's disinterest in hockey?) It was one of those subjects that pushes my buttons big time and so I thought I'd say a few words about it (ok, probably more than a few). And I'd certainly be interested in other readers' thoughts because maybe I'm blowing things out of proportion.

When you've got to decide where a book belongs in the stacks you usually start with genre. My third edition of The American Heritage College Dictionary (and yes, I do still pull it out even when online) defines genre as: A type or class. I, for one, like genre as it gives me some idea of what to expect in a book.

Let's start with big picture genre:

Classic literature
Modern literature
Popular fiction

Now let's get a little more specific:

Science Fiction
Current Events
Young Adult
Historical Fiction

You'll notice that everything listed so far reflects in some way on the tone and/or content of the book. This is very useful information for a reader looking for something that falls within their interests.

Now let's explore those buttons I mentioned. Here are some other commonly used labels:

[Race/Ethnicity] American
Women's fiction

Those four tell me fuck-all about the book I am going to read. But rather than go into that I'm going explain what really burns me up: these are an indication of OTHER which presumes a DEFAULT. In this case the default becomes WHITE HETEROSEXUAL MALE. Have you seen a Whitey McWhiterson section? A straight section? How about men's fiction? Where can I find that? The not-so-subtle message that I receive from this is that we can all relate to the white heterosexual male books but these OTHERS are for, and will almost exclusively appeal, only to the OTHERS. Bull, and might I add, shit!

I'm an avid reader. I read practically everything. I'm looking for a good story that's well-written with authentic characters. PERIOD. I also happen to be a white, heterosexual, female reader and I feel that a mere accident of birth should not be looked upon by an entire industry as an excuse to pigeonhole me. Far worse than this though, are the authors that end up pigeonholed because of assumptions regarding their potential audience.

And since I'm calling the publishing industry to task I feel it's only fair to point the finger back at me. I volunteer with my county's adult literacy program and one of my colleagues was very helpful in reminding me that I have my own prejudices to overcome. Age-wise he is almost old enough to be my grandfather, also he was born and raised in Mexico which has, I think, a male default mentality like the US (and many other countries though I would be happy to be corrected), and so when we started chatting about movies and he was trying to remember the title of a recent movie he liked I was surprised (unfairly, I see now) to realize that he was describing The Proposal. He then proceeded to list about three or four other recent rom-coms. I asked him why he enjoyed them so much and he said he really likes stories about interpersonal relationships. He likes to see how families, friends, and significant others work out their differences. So the kicker here (besides the fact that I obviously need to work on my assumptions as much as the publishing industry does) is that while I don't read much of what is found under the so-called women's fiction/chicklit labels, my male colleague would very much enjoy these stories.

So you tell me, is it wise to purposely alienate potential audiences? And also, what do you think about this? Does it get your hackles up, too, or do you like these labels because they tell you right where to go in the stacks?


  1. Your point is well taken, and I think it stems from those wishing to better sell their wares. I think they believe that targeting their potential customers (by labeling as opposed to truly categorizing) will bring them more sales. However, I also think doing such automatically limits the audience by ghettoizing authors and the stories they wish to tell.

    My example would be my own ignorance and bias in thinking I know (or expect of) chicklit. I likely shut myself off due to the label and believe I know the content sight unseen. Being male, I'm also visual. The publishing industry knows this, and markets certain kinds of covers to draw me to at least pick up a certain category set of books. I'm thinking again it's a self-limiting strategy.

    So, I agree that this kind of thing alienates other groups while pinpointing their perceived audience. But, human beings have an innate ability to group and selectively socialize. That has been both good and bad, if history tells us anything. Excellent post, with food for thought, Rachel. Thanks for this.

  2. First: Smoochies. I love you too.

    Second: "...a mere accident of birth should not be looked upon by an entire industry as an excuse to pigeonhole me."

    Well spoken, wordy scientist, well spoken.

    Third: "...Far worse than this though, are the authors that end up pigeonholed because of assumptions regarding their potential audience."

    I agree in principle. Yet - I'm puzzled by the chicken-and-eggness of this. I followed a bit of heated cyberdiscussion about this with respect to African American romance authors awhile back, and remember some authors being adamant that they wanted their books shelved separately like that, so their readers would find them. Which, to me, begged the question of whether, say, African American scifi writers also have separate shelves, and if not, what makes romance so distinctive a subgenre that it needs differentiation by culture. I never did get an answer to the question, but have to say, all told, that I'm glad I've never seen such separate shelving in any Canadian bookstore I've visited despite having some stellar African Canadian authors (*cough, cough* everyone go read 'The Book of Negroes' by Lawrence Hill *cough cough*).

    Fourth: I'm a fan of good quality chicklit, and yes, I'm aware of the implications of slapping that descriptor on. I'm also trying to crack the humorous womens fiction market, and do appreciate the validity of your point that calling it that (which would not have been my choice had I been given one) tells my target demographic almost zilch about content of my stories.

    Having said that, I felt almost vindicated when I recently learned that it's not just chicklit that gets classed along greater/lesser quality lines, that scifi has the space opera perjorative as well.

    Fifth: I'm in love with your Mexican gentleman friend who is so empathetic with characters and secure in his masculinity that he proclaims his affection for romcoms. I'd die happy if he liked my stories.

  3. oh, and by the way, my breath bating practice is going well now that I know what it is. I'm firmly on the 'bated is right, baited is WRONG' side

  4. Thanks, as always, for the lovely comments! Personal matters have arisen and I anticipate being MIA in the coming weeks but I look forward to continuing this discussion when I'm able.

  5. lp13, so so true about the limitations and ghettoizing! As a reader of romance I am quite familiar with ghetto assumptions, the sneering looks and prejudices. My standard response is usually: What is the last romance novel you've read? Oh, you haven't read any? Well, then come on back when you have an informed opinion. I don't mind someone having zero interest in certain types of books but I very much mind them having "opinions" when they know fuck-all about what they are talking about. (I ranted about this not long ago except having to do with the sci-fi genre.)

    Very insightful point to mention label vs. category. Such a simple way to illustrate the problem!

    Also, I don't mind targeted marketing; it makes sense and I doubt we'll ever lose it. Likewise with covers... in fact, I prefer cover messages to the stupid "genre" titles. If I hit the popular fiction section, cover design can often tell me a lot about the book. I look at many covers and make decisions about the books HOWEVER I've not once looked at the covers and been inspired to make up a genre. I don't mind having specific information communicated to me but I do mind assumptions regarding my reactions to that information.

  6. Maya - xx's back at ya! :)

    Regarding black lit (I am a little uncomfortable with "African American" as not every black person I know (and of course, every black writer) is actually American or having their previous country of nationality be in Africa - for instance, if I have a friend from France who is black but living here on a permanent residence visa what then do I say? The whole business is very confusing to me. I try to stick with nationalities that are listed on an individual's passport and not bother too much about skin tones but I digress...): I have also observed a bit of the debate myself - and fully realize my opinion may carry less weight since I'm not a black writer or a black reader - but here's an example that makes the whole thing seem ridiculous. I recently read a fantasy novel by a black author. Her main character was biracial reflecting parentage similar to white n. european and south american indian. Most of the story centered around these two fictional racial groups. Yet the book can be found in the African American section. Hunh???? How is this not a slam dunk for the fantasy/sci-fi section?

    Regarding chicklit: oh yes! folks used to hide their sci-fi covers just as some folks feel the need to hide their romance covers now. The reason chicklit confuses me is that it is romance. If we have to get really specific it's contemporary romance. Why was a new, and uninformative, genre needed? In fact, the publishing industry owes me some time because I prefer my romance to be of the historical variety and if chicklit had just been labeled properly I would not have had to bother sifting through so many to get an idea of what they were.

    Same goes with women's fiction. From my experience most of the books getting this misnomer are usually about everyday experiences. I don't usually enjoy this type of story. Again, if they had just been shelved in the fiction section I could have used covers and backcopy to discern the gist, but no, I've got to sift through a few because I'm like, hey, I'm a woman, I must belong here. Uh no, these are just all those regular stories that you usually avoid anyway for no better reason than that they are not what you prefer.

    Taking this further, if I'm reading a book about three young guys trying to make their way in the world with comic stops including sex gone wrong in a building under construction and dick measuring with calipers why is this not men's fiction? (don't worry, i don't want it to be i'm just saying:) It's all about regular people doing regular stuff but somehow if the protagonists are all women all of a sudden only women can enjoy it!

    I go back to what I said to lp13 about covers. It's easy enough for me to pull out a book and see a beach house with a tagline including "coming of age" or "the summer s/he learned the strength of human will" to know pretty damn well I don't want to read it. The gender and relationship focus is completely irrelevant to all that.

    Agreed, bait can't be right!