Killer Year–The Class of 2007

August 30, 2006, 9:02 am
Filed under: Killer Year Members, Sandra Ruttan

I wonder if I should label this RW for Rant Warning?

It might be considered a very human need to put everything in compartments, groupings, stick it with an appropriate label and feel better for having categorized it. What kind of writer are you? Oh, a genre writer. Oh, the mystery genre.

Like now our relative merits can be established. Oh, you write that? How quaint.

Recently, writer Bill Blume commented about The Quill Awards, I’m not without a certain passionate gripe. The Quill Awards offer some specific categories such as Children’s Illustrated Book, Poetry and Romance… but then we’re given ridiculously broad categories such as Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror and Mystery/Suspense/Thriller. For those of us who love genre fiction, we once again feel like we’re getting the shaft. (If you visit Bill’s post, he has the link to go vote for the books nominated in each category, narrowly defined, or so generic and broad as to be meaningless, as they are.)

It was Bill’s post that really got me thinking about something. I’d mentioned to him that I had a hard time placing The Butcher initially, because it was borderline horror (written in the vein of What Every Guy Wants) and publishers kept telling me it needed a sci fi angle to it. A WTF? I just didn’t get that. Why couldn’t my nice little mindfuck stand on its own? Ultimately it did, in the July/August issue of Crimespree Magazine.

This is why I’m happy we’d decided to make Spinetingler non genre. Okay, we make it clear we don’t like mushy gushy romance or erotica. We don’t publish poetry, typically. But beyond that, we’ve published a wide range of stories. Some we call chillers, some thrillers, some sci fi, some fantasy, some stuff of life.

To be honest, I’m proud to be counted amongst crime writers. I think crime is the current social commentary that’s lacking from most so-called literature. There are books I read – Anne Frasier’s Pale Immortal springs to mind – that are more about the effect of crime, guilt, fear, suspicion on the living, than the actual crime itself. That book has a wonderful blend of suspense, tension, drama, woven into a tapestry that touches on issues like abandonment, abuse and manipulation. It’s a book that I know I will read again.

About a year ago, I told someone I would aspire to write a book like Laura Lippman’s To The Power of Three, another book that I still think about, months after reading it.

How can a genre that produces works that linger with me long after the final page has been read, that make me empathize with the victims of crime, with those who must delve into the darkest parts of the human heart and mind to solve the most depraved crimes, be second-class?

The truth of the matter is, it isn’t a second-class genre. It’s first rate. I had to smile the other day, when Brett Battles said that Cornelia Read’s debut novel was a literary novel disguised as a mystery. The truth is, there are lot of books that might be considered ‘literature’ if they didn’t have such a strong plot.

I’ve thought about this a lot lately, in part because the panel I’m on at Bouchercon (The New Wave) will be looking at whether or not there really is anything new under the banner of crime fiction, or if we’re just producing more of the same old, same old.

I’ve also thought about this because of the tendency to further reduce books within crime fiction into subgenre categories. I looked at the list a long time ago and got a headache just thinking about it. I’ve explained here before why Suspicious Circumstances isn’t a procedural. Oh, it’s been called a procedural. And suspense. When it long listed in the Opening Pages competition last year, they called it a thriller. I don’t blame people for using those terms and have actually been quite curious to see what label sticks, though there is a part of me that finds the practice unfortunate.

While I can appreciate that some people like a very specific type of novel, I can’t help feeling that by paring everything down and putting it in very narrowly defined compartments, we may be limiting what the genre can produce, and even keeping ourselves from finding new work that we might really love. As Bill said to me, he was glad for Spinetingler, because the story he’d submitted to us months ago (which will run in the next issue in a few weeks) was very hard to define.

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where the only labels that mattered were ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Where a story could be appreciated for its own merits, or criticized for its own shortcomings, not compared and rendered with or without value for what it was like or for what it was not?

All I really want to do is write a damn good story. And I’ll tell you something else. When my second book comes out, I want people to say it’s different from the first book. I never want to be one that relies on a formula or a pattern and keeps producing more of the same. I just want to write whatever is in my heart to write, the story that’s gnawing at me to be told, and do the best damn job I can, regardless of which subgenre that fits into.

If I had only looked at the labeling of Pale Immortal as paranormal mystery, I might not have been motivated to read the book. It isn’t my usual thing. And I would have missed out on Anne Frasier’s keen insights about isolation, prejudice, judgment, appearances and how we treat those we don’t understand. The underlying root of fear…

A perfect example that the only limits to your work might be the labels other people put on it. And, possibly, the prejudices people have that are based on nothing more than presumption.

There is an issue that has come up a number of places – discussion groups, convention panels, blogs, and it’s one that’s been really bugging me lately, and it’s about a very specific label.

The gay label.

One of the things that enrages me about that label is the inference that sex must be pivotal to the story. I mean, if there are ‘gay’ mysteries, shouldn’t it stand to reason that there are ‘hetero’ mysteries and ‘bi’ mysteries as well, and maybe even a whole ‘celibate’ series out there? I wonder if I should come out and admit to being straight? Does it really matter?

Look, I’m not saying that people don’t have the right to decide they don’t want to read certain sex scenes. I don’t even like reading heterosexual sex scenes.

But I am saying that this is a label that is abused to, in my opinion, reduce authors to being lumped into a category where they are evaluated on the sexual orientation of the characters before the quality of the writing or the strength of the story.

I’m a huge fan of Val McDermid’s work. You give me anything by her and I don’t care – I know I’m in for a good book. Sure, her Lindsay Gordon series has a different feel to it than that Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, but not because of Lindsay’s orientation. Because one is amateur sleuth, one is gritty thrillers. The sexual orientation of the characters doesn’t impinge on great storytelling, which is as it should be.

I mean, would we really think someone was any less of a doctor or a teacher or a reporter or cop if they were a virgin? So why does the sexual orientation matter so much?

For some reason, this seems to be one of the prejudices it’s still okay for people to harbor. And the point of saying all this isn’t to say that people who don’t want to read ‘gay’ mysteries should be forced to read them, any more than people who love psychological thrillers should be forced to read cozies if they don’t want to.

But I can’t help wondering if, by accepting the use of this particular label, we’re fueling a prejudice that might otherwise die sooner. I worry about the potential push to rate books based on sexual content, graphic violence, disturbing themes. I wonder if tolerating this label will lead to other labels, allowing books to be more narrowly constrained by the limits people put on them in their minds, when the only difference between one book and another may be whether or not the main character is attracted to men or to women, and it has no further bearing on the story, than perhaps that the seductress can’t work her charms on the gay cop, for example.

When this was being discussed on DorothyL a few months ago, someone raised the labeling question then. They asked what you’d call a book written by a straight author who just happened to have some gay characters in their book, even if they weren’t the protagonists. And that’s the problem. By allowing books to be narrowly defined and, in this case, categorized by sexual orientation, we are potentially limited the scope of the stories we can tell.

I’ve got to be honest here. Two years ago, I couldn’t name three mystery subgenres to save my life. When I wrote Suspicious Circumstances and my second book I only thought about one thing: whether or not the story should center exclusively on cops.

The writer side of me says that’s as it should be. I wrote the stories the way they were meant to be told, not with the fear that they might be lumped into a controversial subgenre and relegated to obscurity as a result.

In saying all this, I might be coming off as a hopeless hypocrite. In the main bookstores here authors like MJ Rose, PJ Parrish, Tess Gerritsen, John Rickards – you’ll find them all in ‘fiction and literature’. Not the mystery section. And it baffles me to no end, because if you’re going to group books according to genre, I would think their books should be over with all the other mysteries and thrillers. People like me seldom leave that section – why would we? I don’t have much time for pleasure reading and I tend to use the time I have to catch up on backlists of authors I’ve somehow missed over the years, to know the work of my peers and to discover more about the genre.

But I think the more narrowly constrained labels can possibly be stifling, can make it potentially difficult for fresh new work to emerge.

Perhaps it’s a sad truth that it might be easier to sell your work if you know exactly how to brand it. Or perhaps I’m just sensitive on the topic, because I never could figure out where Suspicious Circumstances belonged.

* And since this does tie in to my panel topic at Bouchercon, thoughts are most welcome.
* PS: I’ve got a labeling joke up on my own blog, On Life and Other Inconveniences, today. It’s a naughty joke, so if you like those, you might want to read it. But I wouldn’t want to offend anyone…

Sandra Ruttan

Author of Suspicious Circumstances which for today, we’ll call a suspense novel

January 2007

On Life and Other Inconveniences

9 Comments so far
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I found today’s post particularly interesting as I just finished writing a mystery that tweaks the ‘buddy cop’ formula by forcing a young, homophobic LAPD patrol officer to work with an ex-marine gay-rights activist.

My intention from the get-go was to create something that wouldn’t be labeled a ‘gay’ book, and could be picked up at a Barnes & Noble by an Ohio soccer mom who didn’t know anything about the story, suck her in, then slowly introduce uncomfortable themes.

To that end, my first 100 pages read like a ‘straight’ detective novel before taking a left turn. I also intentially avoided graphic sex scenes — both herero and homosexual — but do have a ‘furry’ going to town with his werewolf sex doll, which effectively normalized everything else in comparison.

As a straight man, I had two initial worries: that agents/publishers would see my novel’s potential audience as limited to gay/lesbian bookstores and I’d piss off vocal activists for daring cross the sexual-orientation divide.

Those fears were dispelled by going out and interviewing gay-rights activists early in the process. I talked to some of the most vocal former members of ACT UP, Queer Nation, and GLAAD and found them universally supportive of the story I was trying to tell.

In the course of my research, I came across a few other authors that incorporated strong, gay protagonists — instead of the limp-wristed stereotype — into their mainstream mysteries: Tami Hoag, Jonathan Kellerman, Joe Lansdale, and Susanne Brockmann.

As to agent/publisher reaction, I just sent initial queries last week and already have a 20% success rate in agents requesting a full manuscript… so I feel I’m on the right track!

In 25 years, there probably won’t be a ‘gay’ subgenre at all, and we’ll marginalize novels by what planet they were written on.

[Yes, I’ll end on a preposition… I’m just that daring.]

Comment by Gregory Huffstutter

Gregory, that’s a fantastic response rate! Really, it’s very hard getting agents to take interest with anything because the competition is fierce, so requests for full manuscripts shows you truly are on the right track! Congrats and well done!

And good for you, to be willing to stretch and move into new terrain. I’m also impressed by your efforts to make sure that your book wasn’t offensive.

I would be thrilled to see the elimination of the ‘gay’ subgenre. My brother-in-law is gay. I couldn’t care less. Who you are as a person and how you treat others is all that matters to me.

I hope you’ll update us on your journey to publication.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

Good post and an interesting topic, to me not least because I figure I’m going to be on the wrong side side of the genre question.

I don’t think the ‘problem’ of genre is going to go away, because it’s a necessary evil. We naturally classify things to make dealing with a complex world simpler. Books are one of those complex things. Trouble is, simplifying the essence of a book down to a bunch of common words – genres – means a lot of information gets lost in the process. Worse still, there isn’t a clear consensus on what fits into which genre nor on what each genre actually means – a thriller to me might not be a thriller to you.

It’s like when I download audio tracks and Gracenote tells me what the musical genre is. Where exactly does rock end and metal begin? What’s the difference between industrial techno and industrial bigbeat? I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t care. I just know I like this piece of music and I don’t like that one.

Trouble is, a typical music track runs for 3 or 4 minutes whereas a reasonable novel takes at least that many hours to read. And, whether I understand them all or not, when I’m browsing music there are genres I gravitate to, just like with books, because I know the odds of finding a book I’ll like a greater in those.

The gay and lesbian genre is a funny one. My guess is that it came about because it gave a community a clear sign that here were stories with characters they might more easily identify with. Whether that idea was misconceived or not, I don’t know. I like to be able to identify with a protagonist, but in my case that’s more likely to be based on their attitude than their gender or sexual preference.

Comment by Vincent

When I went to write my first novel, I looked in the bookstores at the titles I read most and saw that they were labelled SF/Fantasy. So I wrote a science fiction fantasy. There’s no other way to describe it, really. It blends the two genres in a way only a naive amateur could ever manage. Hyperspace travel and magic – brilliant (or at least I think so, more’s the pity no-one else ever did.)

As Vincent says, we need titles, boxes to make the world easier to deal with. The problem is that people forget that what they are doing is a quick shorthand, and assume that the label is everything.

The gay ticket is one that constantly bemuses me in this respect; to be defined solely by how and with whom you like to have sex (and that, sadly, is what most people understand when you use the term ‘gay’ – it’s not about companionship, it’s about getting dirty.) Thus to be labelled gay implies (wrongly, of course) that sex is the most important thing in your life, and that you’re doing it whenever you can. So you stop being a merchant banker who likes to play football at the weekends, listens to country music, enjoys reading mystery fiction, etc., etc., and are insultingly just ‘gay’. Everything else that goes to make up the person is lost.

We can never stop labelling things; I think that would lead to chaos fairly quickly. What we need to do is remind ourselves constantly that labels are only convenient pointers, and that they are only as useful as our continuous reappraisal of what they actually mean.

Comment by JamesO

“Books are one of those complex things. Trouble is, simplifying the essence of a book down to a bunch of common words – genres – means a lot of information gets lost in the process. ”

That’s a key point. It reduces the book and books limits on it in the minds of people, and that’s frustrating. On the one hand, isn’t it nice to feel you know where your work belongs. But on the other hand, what if someone disagrees, or worse, you aren’t happy with the label you get?

In the ultimate irony, I have added a sixth blurb to my website today. This one calls Suspicious Circumstances a psychological thriller. I really don’t mind – I’m finding it fascinating, because right now, people are going with what their gut and their interpretations tell them it is. If you agree that what’s more important is not what the writer intends but what the reader takes from the work, then nobody’s wrong.

It just makes me a bit sad that, sooner or later, a consensus will form – this book is ‘this’ and to some people, that’s all it will be from there on.

“The problem is that people forget that what they are doing is a quick shorthand, and assume that the label is everything.”

So well said James. I was talking to Kevin about it and he agreed it did put the emphasis on the sexuality of the character. And while I’m fine with the standard genre classifications, it is the potential that rating systems will eventually be put on books that really worries me. Some classification is understandable and acceptable – going too far is disconcerting.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan


A good friend of mine who is gay tends to prefer gay fiction. Why? He’s sick of having hetero-stereotypes rammed into his skull. Movies, books, ads on television–especially ads that only have thirty seconds to get a point across to the target majority.

He will happily read anything if it appeals to him, but when he wants to read something that makes him feel like less of a minority in the world, the labelling of gay fiction sure makes it easier.

But you’ve hit upon a difficult point: where do we draw the line?

We just try our best and remind ourselves constantly that the label of something is not the thing itself.

Personally, I think we’ll never live in a world free of labels in fiction or elsewhere, because the act of labelling is the very mechanism that allows us to read. The mechanism that helps us avoid an oncoming bus in a split second without thinking.

It’s absolutely necessary for this to happen without conscious thought, so the trade-off of mindless labelling at times will always be there.

We just have to keep teaching ourselves to be mindful.

Rants tend to inspire rants. 🙂

Comment by Daniel Hatadi

sandra, thanks so very much for the kind words about pale immortal! i understand your frustation over labeling, but i also understand that books have to have labels of some sort. my publishers have always had a hard time trying to figure out what to do with me because i do cross several genres. i wonder if writers sell better when they can write a book that is solidly locked in one genre. i suspect they do, but i would be bored writing it and reading it.

Comment by anne frasier

I suspect I might find myself in the same boat as Anne if I ever get published. Genres are fine when you fit nicely into one (and Sandra, it sounds like Suspicious Circumstances manages that, it’s just that every reader seems to fit it nicely into a slightly different genre). Crossing two genres can be different and original. Throwing in three genres or more is where the problems come about. Concise labels are great until you hit something that grabs so many labels, the whole labelling thing becomes anything but concise.

Crime, fine. Horror-comedy, no problem. Romantic-satirical-political-action-comic-mystery-thriller… err, doesn’t work so well. Let’s just call it a comic-thriller. But what about the romantic elements – we’re closing ourselves off to a whole potential market if we leave that out. Okay, romantic-thriller. But it’s funny too, we might mislead people looking for something serious… Comedy-romance? Does that suggest mutilated bodies and political intrigue to you?

Spanning multiple genres is no problem for a story and can often make a book stronger as a result, but from a marketing point of view it’s a nightmare. I don’t have any figures to hand, but I fear Anne’s right and when the author’s name is taken out of the picture, simple genres are an easier sell.

Unless, I suppose, you have smart marketing. Selling based on genre is the easy, obvious pitch, but if you can’t sell the story, perhaps you can sell the character – a sharp line of dialogue from a feisty lead might be a more appealing hook than trying to sum up the story in five words or less. Or you sell the setting – the story might be insipid, but it takes place in the South of France and who couldn’t be charmed by a story with such a pleasant mediterranean aspect?

Comment by Vincent

Daniel, that is the other side of the dilemma. I don’t blame your friend for how they feel, either. I wonder if that label is contributing to lingering discrimination that might otherwise disappear sooner. Imagine the gasps of horror if we started labeling stuff Caucasian, Asian, Latino… Would that be tolerated? I doubt it, so it does seem like a double standard. If your friend likes crime fiction, I recommend John Morgan Wilson.

Anne, I can see why publishers find you tricky to label! To me, it adds to the richness of a book, because there were so many other aspects to it. No need to thank me for the kind words – thank you for writing a kick-ass book that was a compelling read!

Vincent, many good points. It is hard to market, and by trying to narrow it down, you can limit your audience appeal. I think this is why this book was a pain in the butt for me to try to sell myself. To me, it’s a non-procedural… but I can see why someone would call it a procedural. From a certain point of view, the Rebus books could be called non-procedurals as well. 🙂 And I can see where the suspense and psychological thriller labels come from as well. I used to call it mainstream, vague and ambiguous at best. We should all be glad they don’t sub-categorize the books in the stores.

Oh, and Vincent, south of France? I’d prefer Italy or Portugal…

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

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