Adventures in Book Genre Stereotyping

Bootkissing Author

Another day, another Guardian article.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Guardian’s Book section. It feeds me. But I don’t like it when it makes me feel guilty and ashamed. Especially when they’re right.

Today’s offensive (i.e. read: far too close to the bone) article points out that there is no such genre as “women’s fiction”. The article springs from a great rant by Joanne Harris. There should not be a separately designated genre on Amazon/GoodReads etc for women’s fiction, she says. It is literature. Or it is a book. It is not a woman’s book.

I couldn’t agree more. (Only it’s not just “women’s fiction” that gets this shoddy treatment. It goes for several more so-called genres too, maligned and derided by the Literati.)

And yet, as an emerging author, yet to properly sell myself on the open market, and yet hoping to do so in the near future, I have this desperate, grasping need to categorise myself, like as if it’s proof that I am a part of the industry, yah? Or at the very least, that I understand it, and am worthy of being part of it, begging your pardon, sir. Etc.

I find myself in the middle of cringeworthy, buttock-clenchingly imbecilic exchanges with people I’ve just met, where I am the sole underminer of my own work, whilst simultaneously denigrating the work of others whom I admire greatly.

Writer's PitchPicture the scene: I have grabbed 2 minutes with someone after an event they’ve probably chaired. Now’s my chance.

*******************

Industry Person: Hi, yes. Tara. I recognise your name from the shortlist for Blah. You write novels?

Tara: (simpering) Yes! I mean sort of. I mean I’ve written three, but none of them are published. I mean, I haven’t actually sent them out anywhere yet. Except for the competitions, but you know about those, ha, ha! But yes I write novels as well as a blog and as well as some other stuff like screenplays and film treatments and oh lots of things really.

Greek Chorus of Writers In Tara’s Head: Please stop talking, you’re playing it down. Please stop talking, please turn it around.

Industry Person: Oh, right.

Tara: (swallows) I mean, I am a writer. But I have a day job. In finance. In a bank, so don’t hate me, ha, ha! So that takes a lot of time. Because a full-time job is, well, full time. But I suppose I am a writer. I think. I mean. You know?

Greek Chorus of Writers in Tara's HeadGreek Chorus of Writers in Tara’s Head: For shame and for pity, she’s losing the crowd. For the love of self-marketing, this can’t be allowed.

Industry Person: Sorry?

Tara: I spend a lot of time writing.

Industry Person: Quite. But you’ve written three books, do you say?

Greek Chorus of Writers in Tara’s Head: And now comes your chance! There is interest! They listen! Take aim and make target! Pitch your story: your mission!

Tara: Yes! Um, yeah! Well, I’ve written three, but two of them are only first or second drafts, whereas one of them has been redrafted, like, twenty times. But that was my first book, you see, and I think I was really only learning on that one, so I suppose the other ones are more, well, fully formed, although the first one did get long-listed and short-listed a couple of times, which was a total surprise, because I think the others might be better, and the second one was long-listed this year, but I suppose it depends on the market…

Greek Chorus of Writers in Tara’s Head:  Jesus H. Christ.

Industry Professional: Uh, okay. But what genre are they in? What are you writing?

Greek Chorus of Writers in Tara’s Head: You know this is your last chance, right? You’ve just been thrown your last lifeline by someone who’s trying to help you sell yourself. But we’re pretty sure it’s useless talking to you. We can’t even be bothered rhyming any more.

Tara: Well, it’s contemporary fiction, I suppose. Commercial, you know?

Industry Professional: (blankly) Women’s Fiction? Chick-lit?

Tara: I’m pretty sure it’s not chick-lit. But it’s, you know, about stuff which probably women would be interested in more than men. Although maybe not. But I suppose, is that women’s fiction? I mean, you feel silly saying that, because it’s like people think it’s not that great, you know? Ha, ha! But I think it could be great. Like, great fiction which might be read by more women than men but not exclusively because really it’s about men as well… (Gulps.)  Um, did I mention it was funny?

The Greek Chorus of Writers In Tara’s Head are silent. They have expired.

Industry Professional: Oh look! There’s Virginia Woolf! [Exits.]

Tara: Didn’t she die in, like, 1941 or something?

************************

Every time I’m in a position where I have to categorise my writing, I belittle it. And that’s what calling something “women’s fiction” does. When we think of women’s fiction, we diminish it in our heads to scribbles tied to family and home. These are viewed as quickly-written books about romance and doing laundry and baking cakes and raising ungrateful children and the rise and fall of marriages.

But if men write about family, the awkward relationships between fathers and sons and daughters and husbands and wives, it’s literary fiction. It’s born out of the sort of deep thinking which leaves cuts and grazes on the soul. It’s prize-winning. It’s philosophical and clever and bloody important.

Books for Men and Women

I have to find a better way of describing what I write. And all of you other genre writers out there – the crime, the romance, the horror, the fantasy and paranormal lot of you – we have to stop believing that categorisation imposes any sort of quality stamp on our work. Crime is not less literary. Romance is not shallow or childish. Fantasy is not formulaic. Genre fiction is not a stereotype, nor is it less inventive than literary fiction. And as writers, we are not women and men. We are just writers.

If we want to sell, we have to categorise. But we could also help each other to learn how to pitch it better.

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  53 comments for “Adventures in Book Genre Stereotyping

  1. carolannwrites
    May 17, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    Just finished reading this in the Guardian and thought ‘There’s one for tarasparlingwrites’. Next thing I knew you had it written! I’m sticking to Contemporary Popular Fiction!

    Like

    • May 17, 2014 at 5:33 pm

      You really have to stop reading my mind, Carolann. It’s freaking me out. It’s like that time you bought me a vat of wine just when I realised I was a wee bit thirsty. Freaky, I’m telling you. Freaky 🙂

      And yes, there isn’t a damn thing wrong with contemporary, popular, commercial, you name it fiction. I just have to learn how to talk it up!

      Like

      • carolannwrites
        May 17, 2014 at 10:13 pm

        From here on in we hold our heads up high and say ‘yes! I write contemporary popular fiction!’

        Like

    • May 17, 2014 at 5:47 pm

      Now that I’ve discovered “fusion fiction”, I think I’ll see how much mileage I can get out of that one.

      Like

  2. May 17, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    We’re doomed. Talk about your book at all, and you’re regarded as some species of narcissistic, needy anorak. They invented categories just to see us squirm on the hook.

    Like

    • May 17, 2014 at 5:36 pm

      You’re not wrong, it’s awfully tough. I don’t know if it’s a matter of learning to talk about it better; it’s the same as they say about people who talk the talk in an office environment – their confidence makes other people think they’re worth it, even when they’re not. As long as you’re not arrogant or over-confident – but that could be masked with enthusiasm, perhaps.

      Like

  3. May 17, 2014 at 5:38 pm
  4. May 17, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    Hi, Tara, I’ve just arrived home from a wonderful hour or so listening to Joanna Trollope and Jo Baker on their respective Jane Austen inspired novels for the Dublin Writers’ Festival. Now there’s so-called ‘women’s fiction’ for you – still being read ,discussed and influencing other writers over 200 years later! I reckon Jane herself would’ve been happy with contemporary commercial fiction. What do you think?

    Like

    • May 18, 2014 at 12:58 pm

      Hi, Katie, sounds like a great afternoon! I think Jane was used to being undermined herself. Is it true that her family and close acquaintance never really acknowledged her success?

      I would love to know how books were marketed at all back then, though. Bar ads in magazines, etc., they can’t have had many outlets for getting the word out, which makes Jane’s achievement all the greater.

      Like

  5. May 17, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    I like the idea of fusion fiction – is there a fission fiction too? lol Now THAT sounds exciting!

    Fiction genres suck mostly, especially commercial fiction because that’s assuming it’s going to sell, so how embarrassing will it be if it doesn’t (or not enough)? With online publishing you usually get to have 3 genre options to lumber your work with – I chose literary fiction (cop out covering a multitude of sins and ‘difficult’ or unpopular subject matter, in my case, genocide… ><), action & adventure (elephant poaching, safari high jinks and disaster relief work) and War/Military (more killing and PTSD) which more or less covered some of the topics for love, life and death in Southern and Central Africa.
    If I could invent my own genre then chameleon or kaliedoscope fiction would be my shot at it because then you can blend away or keep on changing the 'rules' as to what you're writing about – life doesn't really come in categories does it so why should writing about it, even if you're making it up? 😛

    Like

    • May 18, 2014 at 12:51 pm

      I know as a reader of non-mainstream fiction I will rely on genres and categorisation in general to make buying decisions online. So I know they’re necessary. I just wish they were better. There should be a geographical genre category. That could suit your sort of fiction. For instance, sometimes I have a hankering to do some armchair travelling by reading a story set in China or Nigeria, and pretty much any type of story reflecting life at all in those places would do.

      On the other hand, I never have a hankering to read “women’s fiction”. Romance, yes. Comedies of manners, yes. But women’s fiction?

      Like

      • May 18, 2014 at 6:04 pm

        I think I’ve been reading too much Viz – as I tend to think of ‘wimmin’s’ fiction as being extremist feminism…

        The Female Eunuch Kicks Ninja Butt anyone?

        Like

        • May 18, 2014 at 6:39 pm

          Oooh yes! Shortly before The Fat Slags Successfully Campaign Against The Use Of Emaciated Child Models (Using Lard Bombs)

          Like

  6. May 18, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Reblogged this on Jane Dougherty Writes and commented:
    Someone else with the genre angst.

    Like

  7. May 18, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    Just reblogged this as I’m delving into the same murky waters on my blog. Women’s fiction is a good example of where Amazon genres become meaningless. General fiction is another. I mean what exactly is general about fiction?

    Like

    • May 19, 2014 at 12:00 am

      Hi Jane, and thank you for reblogging! And I agree with you, the idea of general fiction is more pointless than reading a compass after you’ve had 17 pints.

      But if you think about it, I suppose we could say in general that fiction is, well, made up. So we can file that on the same shelf as political and sports biographies and textbooks for economics and business ethics. That should help sales a whole lot. 🙂

      Like

      • May 19, 2014 at 9:56 am

        That’s rather like what I say to the daughter of mine who says she hates fantasy. All fiction is fantasy or else it would be called non-fiction. How she thinks absurdly improbable romance is less fantastical than 1984 I don’t know!

        Like

        • May 19, 2014 at 8:00 pm

          I suppose it seems less like fantasy when the same story has been written a million times… or in the case of absurdly improbable romance, a million times a month…

          Like

          • May 20, 2014 at 7:59 am

            It helps to know that a million unattractive, stupid, shy, gauche heroines with superpowers have managed to get the class football hero in the end—just in the last month 🙂

            Like

            • May 21, 2014 at 11:27 am

              Ooh that’s great news! Tell you what, if you can just add in a bit of self-loathing (for both hero and heroine), you have my subscription for life!

              Like

  8. aedmonds315
    May 19, 2014 at 1:22 am

    I don’t know why but I can’t re-blog this post.
    Wow, this is an eye opening, And I do see what you mean. I write Fiction, Erotic Romance and I’m so proud of my Genre. Did you know that there are people afraid to comment on my blogs or write a review. Hell I even have family members that won’t even speak to me about my books, blogs. It’s as if I write disgusting filth to them. If only my name was E.L. James, lol.

    Putting women in a category all their own kind of puts us back a hundred years. Doesn’t it?
    It’s not easy to write a book in any genre. To tell a complete story and then have the guts to publish it. Women’s Fiction? Really?

    Like

    • May 19, 2014 at 9:56 am

      Hi! I think that’s a good point about putting women back… it’s like a pat on the head, really. “Here are some lovely stories for ladies, written by lovely ladies. Aw!”
      Fiction written by men is only categorised regarding its subject matter, as it should be.

      And sorry for the delay but your re-blog should be posted now… (As Oscar Wilde said, everything in moderation, including moderation… although I don’t think he was talking about WordPress perhaps 😉 )

      Like

  9. aedmonds315
    May 19, 2014 at 1:23 am

    Reblogged this on Annie's Blog and commented:
    Really?

    Like

  10. aedmonds315
    May 19, 2014 at 1:23 am

    Got it!

    Like

  11. May 19, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Amen!
    I am so re-blogging this for my rant page tomorrow 😀 The second I say I write genre fiction most doors are slammed in my face – we need a revolution!!

    Like

    • May 19, 2014 at 7:58 pm

      Oooh yeah! Reblog to your heart’s content, and let’s say if we get 2 guerrilla soldiers out of it, it’s revolution at teatime on Friday? 😉

      Like

  12. May 20, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Oh, I dunno, she said decisively. Categories are useful. We don’t have to let that fact diminish us. The trouble is that when you say women’s fiction, the sub text is that men will find it beneath them, and if you say men’s fiction the sub text is that women, poor souls, won’t get it. However if we’re not careful we’ll just end up with some mealy-mouthed definition ‘I’m writing an empowering novel from the feminine perspective’ and everyone will just go, ‘yeah right, chick lit.’

    Like

    • May 20, 2014 at 1:19 pm

      It does be ourselves that shoot our feet best, to be sure! I don’t think men deride women’s fiction as much as women do, at least not publicly.

      We’re far too preoccupied with worrying about what people think to simply let it be with confidence… Having said that, women’s fiction is still a nonsense genre.

      Like

      • May 20, 2014 at 2:12 pm

        yes it is. just as the women’s pages in newspapers used to be. we could just number the different categories… oh, but then some of us would have to say we specialised in number 2s…..have to go and think again.

        Like

        • May 20, 2014 at 2:58 pm

          Perhaps it’s best. I mean, one could specialise in number 2s. Although it would turn the conversation into a very awkward space, unless one was, quite literally, 2.

          We could use colours… purple for E.L. James. Red for Mills & Boon, black & white for Tom Clancy, and iridescent polkadot for Terry Pratchett. But then, don’t you know, all us X chromosome-types will just end up pink, probably, without actually being in the pink, of course, and it’s back to the drawing board.

          Like

          • May 20, 2014 at 3:09 pm

            Bar codes? ‘I’m in 00101001001101’ how about you? I suppose we could just be direct: I write mostly romance/sex/violence/horror/murder mystery/thriller/or whatever and then you cd use acronyms. Actually….that might work.

            Like

            • May 20, 2014 at 5:53 pm

              Just as long as it doesn’t end up in acronym envy. It would be cultural carnage.

              Like

  13. May 20, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Reblogged this on .

    Like

  14. May 21, 2014 at 3:29 am

    Loved this post and all the comments on it.
    I hate having to choose a genre label for my books. There just isn’t a suitable one in the pack.
    Maybe contemporary popular fiction, since the only thing it tells you about the book is that it’s popular 🙂
    I’m liking the idea of kaleidoscope fiction 🙂

    Like

    • May 21, 2014 at 11:30 am

      Ah yes, but as soon as you call it popular fiction, the literary types come out with noses in the air, all disdainful of the likkle writers with their populist trash. You just can’t win!

      Like

  15. May 22, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    I thought I was the only one to have problems with genre. Fusion fiction or contemporary popular fiction would suit me fine. That suggests a bit of everything that makes up life rather than tramlining it into one specific area such as romance. I know how necessary it is to provide some indication of what kind of book it is, but I suspect many people would settle for a genre that spreads its boundaries wider than one aspect of a book.

    Like

    • May 23, 2014 at 9:43 am

      That’s such a great description – “tramlining”. I know a few more authors who have had massive problems in this area, having been classified as Crime or Romance, when their books aren’t even remotely similar to others in that genre. They end up feeling like masses of potential readers have been lost, and their own potential with it. At best they’re disheartened, at worst, it can make them give up entirely.

      I really don’t think it’s as important to place a book on a specific shelf as publishers think it is. But if a writer’s main distributor is going to be Amazon, it requires some extremely creative thinking or gimmicks to get around the problem.

      Like

  16. June 9, 2014 at 11:33 am

    I was reading this article by Randy Susan Meyers on Women’s fiction genre: http://beyondthemargins.com/2014/04/what-does-women-fiction-mean/
    She raises some good questions.
    Personally I don’t think genres are bad in themselves. The problem is when the industry forces authors to shoehorn their books into one just to make it easier to sell it. Women have it the hardest.
    By the way, is it fun living with your imaginative Greek-chorus friends? ‘Cos I’m here laughing since I’m not the one living with them 😛

    Like

    • June 9, 2014 at 12:05 pm

      Great article! And my Greek chorus is currently on holidays, so I’m getting some peace and quiet (if not encouragement). In case you’re wondering where a Greek Chorus goes on holidays – they’re partying in Rio but will be back in Dublin for Bloomsday. I don’t know how they afford it. I don’t even feed them.

      Like

  17. June 26, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    This struck a chord. I was having an email exchange with the head of a well-regarded and relatively local (and therefore affordable) writing program last week and he was all enthusiastic about my joining (but who wouldn’t be enthusiastic about somebody who wants to pay to take your classes…) until I mentioned that the novel I’m eager to workshop is broadly speaking YA fantasy. I inquired if the workshop was generally welcoming towards the genre, and the answer was literally “Good luck with that” .

    Not feeling like that program would be a good investment after that.

    Like

    • June 26, 2014 at 4:33 pm

      Hi Rich. Well, it’s nice of them to be so transparent in their rudeness, isn’t it?? They’re not so quick to judge when YA fiction crosses over into massive adult readership and riproaring success because at the end of the day, most people are looking for a damn good story.

      Perhaps you need to adopt the Groucho Marx approach of not wanting to join any writing class that would have you as a member – nothing will cramp your writing style more than a judgemental, snooty bunch of critics. Find a writing group instead which will try to understand what it is you are trying to do. Don’t mind the rest: you’ll have your own luck, be sure of it.

      Like

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