We’ve all heard the insults, the things you never want to read in a review of your book. Cardboard characters. I’ve seen it all before, nothing original here.
I got thinking about this yesterday when I stumbled across a column on stereotypes. Now, bear in mind this is written by a columnist, upon what seems to be a startling discovery:
It has come to my attention that a majority of the population believes that we, the truth-telling, straight-shooting, product-placing media, are partially responsible for the perpetuation of stereotypes. (Cue Sabrina gasping dramatically. A single tear runs down her cheek. “Desperado” plays softly in the background for the duration of this paragraph.) Upon hearing this bit of news, I made a vow to dedicate my life to delivering honesty.
Wow. Talk about nailing my stereotype of the oblivious journalist who actually needs to be reminded that they’re supposed to report the truth.
I rarely read columns. I find blogs more interesting, but the writer in me wanted to take a look at this one. I felt it was pretty thin. Talk to a few people the columnist has judged and labeled – thug, goth, geek – and then after talking to 1-3 people in a category, determine how accurately she assessed them.
In other words, an exercise in proving she doesn’t know how to read people. This isn’t really about stereotypes. It’s about snap judgments and whether or not you can look past your shallow assessment of a person based on how they carry themselves.
It got me thinking, though, because I remember an author talking about a review of their book a few years ago. The review said the book was filled with clichéd characters, like the prostitute with the heart of gold.
Taking what the columnist said about stereotypes, if you wrote about the hardened thug you’d be writing a stereotype. But if you write about the hooker who actually cares about people, you’ve got a cliché. How exactly do you avoid simply moving from one bad label to another?
Now, labels are something that have been on my mind lately. I never could figure out how to classify Suspicious Circumstances and even to this day every comment that comes back on it ranges from calling it a straight up thriller to psychological thriller, suspense novel, or procedural. I couldn’t pitch the book successfully because I couldn’t figure out what compartment it belonged in. I maintained that if anyone actually read it, it would get published, and that’s what happened, but in this cutthroat era of agents and publishers pressed for time authors need the thirty-second sound bites. Aspiring authors aren’t taking courses in grammar, they’re learning how to hone their elevator sales pitch. This is actually something I touched on in my panel at Bouchercon.
On the weekend, Sarah Weinman made a post about changing the way crime fiction is categorized, asking aloud if we would see the day when ‘A mystery novel is either category or single title’ instead of cozy, hardboiled, noir, etc. It’s a fascinating perspective that, if you haven’t already read, you should.
Part of me is instinctively for dropping the labels. But in thinking about doing away with the subgenre classifications, I can see why it likely won’t happen. What would happen is that everything coming in under the label of ‘mystery’ would get sorted. “Mushy-gushy” would go in one pile. “Down and dirty” in another. Eventually, terms like “romantic suspense” and “hardboiled” would take hold and become accepted as the industry standards, and we’d be right back to where we are.
Let’s face it. It’s a human tendency to categorize things. I rely on those labels to guide me to the fiction that I will enjoy. And as an author, submitting material to publishers, how will I know whether they want my ‘brand’ of fiction unless there is some specific classification system, such as hardboiled, cozy, noir, etc? And don’t tell me that it’s always possible to identify the type based on the book cover. Since it’s written by a guy, I could probably safely assume The Blonde isn’t chick lit, but you never know. As a rule, I don’t tend to thumb pages and read a bit before I buy a book either. I rely on word of mouth and back cover descriptions.
You read blurbs that start off saying, ‘A completely original voice’ and end with a comparison to Michael Connelly. No matter how much we try to avoid it, almost all of us fall victim to it sooner or later. Through word of mouth you hear a lot of comparisons. They may be lazy but we rely on them to summarize in a few words the style and substance of a book, sometimes to the author’s detriment. Just ask any Scottish author who’s been compared to Ian Rankin and found wanting instead of rated on their own merits.
I like Ian and I like Stuart too, thank you very much. To be honest, they have very different styles. They’re Scottish, they’re guys and they’re both older than me. But they write differently and thank God for that. Nothing duller than everyone trying to imitate someone else instead of being themselves.
Maybe what there needs to be is not a disbanding of the labels, but a mechanism that allows books to transcend the labels. Why can’t a book be a procedural thriller? I just read Rick Mofina’s Every Fear and I would say that definitely could be labeled as a procedural thriller. Rick’s cop and reporter are very different from my cop and reporter, and the case is completely different and unfolds hundreds of miles away, but we could both share that dual label. Would we have less appeal to thriller readers or would we entice both thriller readers and procedural junkies to give us a try? I would hope for the latter.
I’ll be honest. One of the things I’ve been worried about the most with Suspicious Circumstances is whether or not I can pass off the idea of an honest reporter. Face it. So many books and tv shows these days portray everyone in the media as corrupt, political, completely self-absorbed and willing to jeopardize an investigation in order to get a scoop. The prevalence of such stereotypical characters jeopardizes the believability of a protagonist that is considerably different.
It occurs to me that the problem is not necessarily if your character is a prostitute with a good heart, but if you rely on that cliché to establish the character instead of developing them in the story.
Similarly, maybe the problem with the labeling of books is not the subgenre categories, but relying on them to narrowly define and even limit what a book is. To be honest, every time my book has gone out, I’ve looked forward to hearing how the person will categorize it. Instead of having me tell them what it is, they read it and decide for themselves.
They’re interpreting the book on its own merits, instead of grading it against pre-established expectations, and I think that’s very cool.
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