labels and labeling

Everytime there’s a label put to a division of fiction, there are those who embrace it and those who rebel against it. Interesting, that….

I once did a workshop which focused entirely on this subject. At the start of the presentation, I read selected copy from cover flaps out of my own library. I’d gone deliberately out of my way to find books with descriptions that didn’t match their publication. For example, “Set in the wilds near Cornwall’s sea-tossed coastline, [this novel] concerns a young man’s experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and his travels back and forth in time to the mysteries of 14th century England. Gradually growing more involved in the lives and emotions of early Cornish manor lords and their ladies, he finds his own life pale in comparison and the presence of his American wife and stepsons a hindrance to his new-found existence.” There were a few more along these lines and I then asked brave souls to volunteer their guesses as to which genres these fell into and gave extra points if they actually could name the books. (Go on — this one was an easy one. It’s a fun game – feel free to post your own. *g*)

The point was that of story vs. sales packaging. The thesis of this was that, naturally, every author is an original, and their story is unique, similar to others only in the most superficial of ways. (Okay, not always true, but it’s what everyone wants to think, right?) But the other side of that coin was to state the obvious truth that publishing is a business (which escapes people more often than is reaonsable, imo). And we can’t do away with categorization — it’s how our retail system works and how our sales reps pitch, and in nearly every case how the readers hunt down new material written by authors they are not yet acquainted with — because of similarities in packaging and placement. Because of labels. How else would they find it among the myriad of “general fiction” published evey year? If a person wishes to be commercially successful, they unfortunately have to subscribe to this view. (Of course, commercial success is not always the goal of every author — but in the case of people attending such writers’ conferences, I think it’s safe to generally assume they want to be published and make a lot of money doing it.) I don’t always like it myself. I hate finding a manuscript that I think is really good but won’t fit in a publishing niche because then it has to be extra-super-good for me to take on that marketing challenge and sustain my passion throughout. (I’ve got one now. Set in one of those difficult periods that isn’t history and isn’t contemporary and has a story that doesn’t squarely fit any genre. I feel stubborn. It *is* a book of the heart – for the writer, and now for me.)

To sum up: Art vs. Commerce is hard. Argh.

Where is this coming from today? An article that popped up in my Publisher’s Lunch. Speaking of which – stomach growly, so just a couple of quotes from that before I go…. It’s about chick-lit (or chic lit, or metro chic, or whatever….) – for those as aren’t acquainted, a subgenre of romantic fiction popularized by such things as “Bridget Jones Diary.” It’s another label, which is unsurprisingly, both embraced and resisted.

“To feel that every piece of literature has to empower women to come out on top, well – what I write is just real life, about those days when you aren’t empowered and winning corporate wars or whatever. You’re losing your pantyhose and you’re lusting after a bag you can’t afford. I mean, there’s room for both,” — Sophie Kinsella, 34, best- known for her amusing trio of novels known as the “Shopaholic” series.

“I think that the term is meant to be pejorative, to put women down: Oh, you silly little women with your silly little concerns in your silly little books. But chick lit authors for the first time are helping post- feminist women navigate this world, trying to be the best friend, have a job, have a thin body, have the shiniest hair. For the first time, those conflicting concerns are being addressed, and with humor. The term has made it easier to denigrate these books, not address their substance.” — Marian Keyes, author of “The Other Side of the Story”

On the other hand, Elaine Showalter (Princeton professor emeritus) – who contributed an essay on lad lit for a 2002 Oxford University Press book, “On Modern British Fiction” – says she thinks chick lit is developing in two directions, one thoughtful and the other commercial, such as Miramax’s commissioning of a chick lit novel by Kristen Gore, Al Gore’s 26-year-old daughter, to be published in September. “They were looking for a D.C. Bridget. It’s just like marketing Barbie dolls – surgeon Barbie, beach Barbie.”

Full article, including scathing quotes from Erica Jong and info about new marketing possibilities here.

Of course, it’s quotes like this one: “But she does think it “unfair” that books that appeal to women often are shown less respect than those that appeal largely to men, such as science fiction.” that make me laugh and laugh. Working in both genres gives me a view quite a bit different. It’d be grand to make a chick-lit author switch writing brains with someone from the SF/F ghetto for a week.

14 responses to “labels and labeling

  1. …books by women have always been valued less than books by men. Genre has always been valued less than mainstream (mystery is a ghetto too, after all, just one with nicer plantings–).
    Ipso facto, any genre largely written and read by women will be valued less than any genre not largely written and read by women. There are more women reading/writing fantasy than SF: thus SF is more serious than fantasy, even though both of them inhabit the ghetto….
    More realistically, and when not speaking in terms of bias, Sturgeon’s Law applies. So does Jenny Casey’s Law Of Cops and Other Things–in any given category of things, 5% are good, 10% are actively bad, and the rest just muddle along. *g*

    • …books by women have always been valued less than books by men.
      Historically true, but nowadays? The world’s bestselling writer (and first billionaire author) is a woman, five of the last eight National Book Awards and three of the last eight Booker Prizes went to women – I don’t much evidence that books by women are presently valued less. (Though, granted, the Pulitzer seems to go overwhelmingly to men.) Heck, even in SF, a traditionally male ghetto, there’s Willis, Bujold, McHugh, Cadigan…yourself…
      Anyway, on the larger point, I have the sneaking suspicion that books are often ghettoized by genre because that’s the way most readers want it. Sad but true.

      • I wonder if really it’s not necessarily that it’s the way most readers want it, but it’s the way most readers need it — given that we are trained to buy according to brand from our youngest years (and name brand Cheerios really are better than the store brand).
        As for the statistics, romance writers, while apparently living with a huge disrespect for both their genre and their gender (according to some *raised brow*), also tout the fact that romance fiction accounts for over 50% of all mass market fiction sales in the U.S. every year. (If you’re curious about the numbers, check out the statistics brochure of the RWA – wherein a graph explains that romantic fiction covers over 1/3 of all trade publishing while science fiction (which in the minds of many includes fantasy – these are not considered distinct genres according to marketing) weighs in at only 6.5%)

        • Yeah, I hear that all the time about romance. It must be a weirdly fragmented market, though, because romance novels basically never make the bestseller lists, no? You’d think with eight times the market share, there’d be several romance Robert Jordans. (Maybe there are and I just haven’t noticed…?)
          I think people go back to bookstores looking for books that are as much as possible like the books that they have already enjoyed, and that bookstores are arranged to make this feasible. Chicken-and-egg, like you say, but really, how hard is it to walk another aisle, or to make just one curious selection from “New and Hot” or “Cult Classics” rather than “New SF”? And yet so many people never venture outside their ghetto.
          (Please note that I mean “ghetto” in the simultaneously kindly and ironic sense. Heck, I currently live in the thriller ghetto.)
          For example, every time I talk about books to SF readers (the latter category includes a plurality of my friends, and also myself), I wind up recommending Rushdie or Marquez or Chabon. I generally sense it’s a futile effort – people nod politely, but (if my intuition is correct) are left with no intention whatsoever to look any of the three up, because they’re not officially branded as SF/fantasy.

          • romance novels basically never make the bestseller lists, no? You’d think with eight times the market share, there’d be several romance Robert Jordans.
            I think one reason you don’t see more romance novels on the bestseller lists is that the folks collecting the information deliberately exclude romance novels, or look for their information in places that don’t sell romances.
            The “Left Behind” books don’t show up much either, I understand.
            Another reason might be that there are so many romance novels out there that they fragment the vote.

          • It must be a weirdly fragmented market, though, because romance novels basically never make the bestseller lists, no?
            I have two words for you: Nora Roberts. I’m afraid Robert Jordan doesn’t have a patch on her. Counting her writing as J.D. Robb, she had 13 different titles on the New York Times list (only one of which was not in the top 10 titles) in 2003. If you go to today’s USA Today list, which has the 150 top selling books (all books, fiction or nonfiction) listed every week, she’s got #7 and #11 right now.
            Also, Suzanne Brockmann, Sandra Brown, Catherine Coulter, Julie Garwood, Iris Johansen, Lisa Kleypas, Judith McNaught, Carly Phillips, Amanda Quick — all made the NYT list in the top 10 during 2003. Most of those had a title on it in 2002.
            Plus there are a number of writers who began in romance and have now slid over into other genres (mystery/thrillers via romantic suspense, in most cases) who make the NYT list – Janet Evanovich, Tess Gerritsen, Linda Howard, Lisa Scottoline were all on it in 2003.

            • two words for you: Nora Roberts …
              Freeow. And, embarrassingly, the name rings no bell whatsoever. None so blind as those who will not see – which in this case would be me.

          • but really, how hard is it to walk another aisle, or to make just one curious selection from “New and Hot” or “Cult Classics” rather than “New SF”? And yet so many people never venture outside their ghetto.
            I think for the majority of people it might be too hard. People, in general, seem to like comfort and avoid change. After all, how many people do you know who want to go out and try new food or a new restaurant that just opened? Sure, there’s some. But most people would rather go to the place where they know they can get what they like. Believe you me, if I knew how to get people to experiment with what they read, I’d be right out there preaching it. After all, not only do I read in a wide variety of genres, but I represent in them. So it would help me both ways!

        • PS: Thanks for the link. Interesting stuff. And it’s cheery to see that my ghetto is thrice the size of the SF ghetto, where I always assumed I was going to live…

  2. This was very interesting, you’ve given me a lot to think abut. It seems to me that when we have trouble categorizing authors with such broad terms as “Science Fiction” and “Fantasy”–poor Ursula Le Guin is always shelved as one or the other, and Orson Scott Card can’t get his non-SF books read–then there’s big downside to such tightly-focused categories as “chick lit,” right? (And I think it is meant to be disparaging, because of the connection with the gum, imo.)
    Also to me it smacks too much of Hollywood gee-whiz, sure-thing, repackage-everything marketing: “It’s Bridget Jones meets The Graduate! And Renee’s available!” I guess it’s too late to purge that kind of “high concept” thinking from publishing, especially since as you say we sort of have to sell books the way we do (or the way Barnes and Noble does), but I think it’s a canker that demeans all literature. (“Narnia–it’s Lord of the Rings–with a big talking lion!”)

    • (And I think it is meant to be disparaging, because of the connection with the gum, imo.)
      Heh. The funny thing is that when I say that to the writers at RWA, a number of them look at me blankly, having not heard of the stuff apparently.
      I guess it’s too late to purge that kind of “high concept” thinking from publishing, especially since as you say we sort of have to sell books the way we do (or the way Barnes and Noble does), but I think it’s a canker that demeans all literature.
      Unfortunately, publishing, like many media endeavours (e.g. music, movies, etc.) has become corporate driven. Which means the bottom line is important. Which means getting the largest number of titles to the largest number of people in order to beat the competition. And soundbite descriptions are apparently the way to do that. As for demeaning literature, though, I wonder…. Does it make the book any less good because Joe-B&N-Buyer hasn’t read it but gets a handful on the shelf in every store and makes it accessible? Does packaging something and pitching it in such a way to induce selling mass quantities degrade its artistic value?

      • I take your point, but the selection of which books he gets the sound bite of in the first place will promote the mediocre but commercial and shoulder aside the difficult but enlightening.

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