Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Brand Names and Cheap Knockoffs
October 12, 2006, 8:47 am
Filed under: Killer Year Founders, Sandra Ruttan

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.

Sandra Ruttan
Author of Suspicious Circumstances
January 2007
On Life and Other Inconveniences


12 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Really good post once again! I think it is very difficult because isn’t it a fine line between creating a character that is realistic and cliche or a stereotype? I mean, don’t most cliches and stereotypes have some basis to them? So in trying to create a realistic and true character, somehow you have to avoid the stereotypes and cliches and make the character original, but still believable. I think it definitely can be done, but it is challenging because there are so much out there that your characters will inevitably be compared to someone else’s characters and found to be cliche or stereotypical for one reason or another.

Comment by mai wen

I completely agree with you Mai Wen – most cliches and stereotypes do have some basis of truth to them, which makes it hard to distinguish characters from others and yet make them believable. I think when someone says your characters are one of a kind and authentic, it has to be the greatest compliment.

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

An excellent post, Sandra, where you provide both question and answer (as far as there is an answer to this stuff). I’m very interested in the subject of categorization. I write and read all over the place, which is probably what’s kept me mowing lawns and building chook houses for a living.

Comment by John Gooley

You can’t avoid stereotypes or cliches in your characters. What you mustn’t do is rely on them. The trick is to use the stereotype to do the basic groundwork, then move your character slightly beyond that to make him (or her) individual enough for their part in the story. This is how we get to know people in real life, after all. First impressions are often prejudiced by stereotype, but as we learn more, so the individual moves out of the crowd.

Ummm. I’ll stop now. Need medication.

Comment by JamesO

James Gooley – I think it’s very challenging for cross-genre authors to break out. Still, I don’t like the idea of being stifled, of not being able to do what I love.

JamesO, you’re right, you have to develop them properly and make them more than the cardboard cut-out by giving them an individual identity.

Of course, I don’t know what you really know about it. You write fantasy. White Knights, Maidens in distress and evil people that do mean things… right? 😉

Comment by killeryear

Makes me think of the discussion going around a little bit ago about “branding”, and how the idea is that an author needs to brand themselves so that they can find a market.

Comment by Tracy

I wonder about the applicability of labels to a crime writer such as Bill James. Yes, his Harpur & Iles novels are police procedurals, but treating them as such would be something like shelving Romeo and Juliet in the romance-novel section. The line I’d like to see crossed is that between “serious” literature and crime. That’s a harder leap to make than from procedural to thriller — a leap than Henning Mankell, for one, has long since made.

You’re dead on about keeping the labels but allowing for books that cross the lines. The only people I’ve ever seen calling for abolition of labels are folks whose only writing consists of calling for the abolition of labels.

That old, honorable and misleading label “mystery” confuses matters. Let’s file everything from procedurals to cozies to capers to noir to Golden Age under “crime.”
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home”

Comment by Peter

Oh, and it’s not just Scottish writers who get compared to Rankin. Correspondents in the UK tell me Peter Temple’s Jack Irish books are promoted as having a protagonist similar to Rankins’.

That’s pretty odd, considering that reviewers inevitable since out the Jack Irish books for their humor.
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home”

Comment by Peter

Interestingly, Peter Temple was this year long-listed for the Miles Franklin Award, one of Australia’s major literary awards. He also won the 2005 Federation for Australian Literary Studies’ $10,000 Colin Roderick award for the “best book about Australia”. All this for a “crime” novel.

I agree with Peter about everything being filed under “crime”.

Comment by John Gooley

I personally much prefer the label CRIME. I call myself a crime fiction author, because mystery is actually more confining. Mystery, by definition, excludes thrillers actually, because you know who the bad guy is. Or hard-boiled even. I suppose that’s why I find MJ Rose and Tess Gerritsen in ‘fiction’ here.

I think any comparison to Rankin is a mistake. People are automatcially inclined to say, “he’s no Rankin!” and dismiss the good qualities of the books. I certainly feel people do that to Stuart unfairly.

And I completely agree about ‘literature’ and ‘crime’ needing the lines blurred. Particularly in Canada. It seems the only way you get respect here is if you write some obtuse, introspective nonsense about coming to grips with being thirteen, or something. The fiction isn’t telling stories, it’s recycling the author’s opinion and experience, so why’s it called fiction anyway?

Comment by Sandra Ruttan

Good on Australia for honoring Peter Temple. I’m a couple of chapters into his first novel about Jack Irish, and it’s damn good so far.

Publishers, reviewers and readers always leap and strain to find comparisons. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Latin American crime novel that does not come with a cover blurb invoking Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Borges.

Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home”

Comment by Peter

A blurb on the Souvenir Press reissue of Modesty Blaise calls the series “seminal British crime novels.” Yep, “crime” is a more comprehensive label than “mystery.”


Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home”

Comment by Peter

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