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