Friday, August 13, 2010

Labelling: Are We Doing a Disservice To Our Cross-Genre Authors?

Last week, I published a review on Anne Carter's (Pam Ripling's) second lighthouse novel "Cape Seduction". In the review, I casually referred to the novel as a "paranormal romance". I explained that I usually do not read novels in this genre, but this one was different and listed all the reasons WHY. The romance was sweet, not a tawdry bodice-ripper, and the paranormal aspects are subtle. And the lighthouses! The mystery! The intrigue!

When the comments started coming in, my blood turned icy. Almost unilaterally, readers said "I'm tired of paranormal" or "I don't like romances". Honestly, as bloggers who are literally drowning in books, we DO look for any possible reason to minimize the TBR - we have to weed them out somehow, right? I understood where you all were coming from...I'm so sick of vampires I could gag, and I am too jaded to buy into a typical romance novel. But this novel does not fall into those categories. I felt like I had completely failed in communicating the merits of this book.

I believe most people stopped reading when they saw the labels "paranormal" and "romance".

And I was filled with regret. By using those two words, I guaranteed 99% of my readers would never give this book another thought.

I thought about it at length (almost obsessively). There are no ghouls in this book, just an occasional appearance of a gentle spirit of a woman who was greatly wronged. No sparkly vampires. No wolf-boys. No lurid sex scenes. What category do we place this book? Mystery? Romance? Historical fiction? Paranormal? The answer is...all of them and none of them.

Pam sent me an e-mail a few days ago, explaining her quandary and asking for my input. To promote her books, she attends romance festivals, mystery festivals, etc. but never feels like she completely belongs in any of them. She is alone in a sea of crime scenes, gumshoes, police procedurals, bare chests, groped body parts and torn undergarments.

This summer, I also reviewed two books written by Irene Ziegler, who called her latest book (Ashes to Water) a "platypus" and a "mysterary". I believe she may be having the same problems as Pam.

I think you could apply this same issue to the Young Adult genre. How many amazing books have I read this year in which their marketers have positioned them within the confines of this genre, but are ignored by the adult book-buying public because they don't want to read a "kids' book"? Molly @ The Bumbles Blog actually proved this with an experience this summer at the doctor's office, when one woman was embarrassed and hesitant to share that she enjoyed Percy Jackson's The Lightning Thief.

Are we doing harm to the books we love by labelling them in our reviews, placing them into a particular genre? How does an author, who crosses genres, effectively promote her work? Or in an effort to maximize appeal, should the author attempt to force their books into the genre categories?

Pam published a post earlier this week on her blog entitled "The Perils of Cross-Genre Writing", if you want to get her side of the equation.

I'd love to hear your opinion on this. It may have been discussed before, but this is the first time I feel it has directly affected my reviews.


bermudaonion said...

Wow, your post has given me a lot of food for thought. I guess labels are just as harmful for books as they are for people. I think part of the problem is we all have our own definition of each genre, and as you pointed out, most of us don't want to spend time reading a book that we don't think we'll like.

Unknown said...

You make some very good points and I am one of the people who stopped reading the moment I saw the word paranormal. I don't know why, but I assume I wouldn't enjoy a paranormal romance book. I haven't tried one so I could be totally wrong. You're making me feel guilty now. Do you honestly think I'll enjoy this one?

Julie P. said...

I love this post because it does make me think. I definitely have preferences for genres, but occasionally I'll move away from my traditional type of reading and really enjoy it.

The Bumbles said...

Nice reflections here Sandy. Yes, labels can keep people out. But they can also bring people in. Someone who only reads Paranormal might pick up Pam's work because of the paranormal label and be introduced to the world of mystery. Or someone reading it for the Mystery label might discover they actually enjoyed the haunting side of things and may dip their toes into the paranormal genre in the future.

Falling under multiple labels is actually kind of nice. It's better than not having any label at all. But the fact of the matter is, as Bermudaonion said, we all define labels/genres in our own way. Your reviews keep labels from being a negative because you take the time to explore and explain. You've motivated me many times to add a book to the to read list that I normally would overlook because of a label alone.

Darlene said...

Well I have to go back and find your review of this one because I somehow missed it. Paranormal and romance wouldn't have turned me off. lol. I enjoy stories like that once in a while anyway.

Back to the question though I do think that labelling sometimes causes people to not read further and that's a shame. For myself, I don't do that. I don't actually label mine for the most part other than if it's a YA book and then usually go further to say that as an adult I enjoyed it. I think it helps to be a reader who reads blogs for exactly the reason of broadening my reading - maybe finding something I wouldn't normally read.

Great post Sandy. Lots to think about. For now I'm going to zip over to that review and check it out.

Zibilee said...

Most of the time, I try to stay away from labelling in my posts for this exact reason. There are too many readers out there who will stop reading once they come across a description of a book that falls into their unpalatable genre group. I think lately I have been reading a lot more women's fiction and have been labelling it as such, just because I am tired of shying away from this issue. There are some good books out there that just aren't getting read due to the labelling problem. Though paranormal romance is a genre I usually wouldn't pick up, your review was really very enthusiastic and made me want to grab the book and give it a try. So, I don't think you failed with your post at all, I just think that some readers are stuck in their habits and can't see beyond a label sometimes. I hope that by revisiting this book and your reactions to the comments on it, more people will take the time to give it a chance.

Amy said...

Oh man oh man. Every time I say something is Christian fiction I feel that same regret, because even if it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever read I know at least 50% of my audience will automatically discount it. I just don't know how to get around it.

So yes, I think that the genre labels definitely keep people out that might enjoy the book.

And how can you be so sick of vampires? :(

caite said...

Hey, at least I said I trusted your judgment!

It is very true though. I read Paranormal...or Romance...and a switch goes off in my head. But, when I look at books I read, it is not so cut and dry. For example, I love the books of Dean Kootz. His books, many if not all of them, have a sort of paranormal spin..but somehow I never think of them as being in a paranormal genre. Or even horror for that matter, another category he is often dumped in.

Bottom line, isn't that why we read reviews, to get beyond these easy labels and quick judgments? I know that personally I have read several books that I would never have read otherwise but for the fact that I trusted the opinion of the reviewer to step out of my little comfort zone of books.

Iliana said...

Good topic for discussion Sandy. I know one time I was looking for a Sarah Waters book and couldn't find any... I'm thinking how odd. Well turns out they had only shelved her books in the gay & lesbian section! Then in our book group when we chose to read The Book Thief several members didn't want to read the book because it came from the YA section. So yes, labels can have a definite effect on readers.

I guess it's just easier for booksellers to shelve the books according to what best describes the book? I don't know really. I just know that for me personally, I really try to be open to genres because I know I could be missing out on some great stuff. I remember there was a time I would never have read Fantasy, YA or graphic novels and now I really enjoy them.

Alyce said...

I've been thinking about this lately because I reviewed a book that fell between the lines of women's fiction/literary fiction and chick lit. It was far more intellectual than regular chick lit, yet in some ways it was a lighter read than literary fiction. I tried to explain that in my review. Then I saw an article by the author saying that she was frustrated because her book was getting lumped in with chick lit.

I have to admit that I didn't read through the review of Cape Seduction, but it was more because of the title and cover than anything you had to say. To me the cover looks like a cross between a mystery and romance, and since I don't read much of either of those I skipped it. Which makes me completely guilty of judging a book by its cover.

Unknown said...

This is the problem we publishers run into on a daily basis. I am Pam's publisher and I feel her pain in promoting.

But we are REQUIRED to give them labels because if we don't then the bookstores don't know where to put them on the shelves. And libraries don't know how to catalog them (though ths one escapes me). There are these lovely tings called BISAC codes that each book put into the store level system has to have. It's crazy!!

One of the things I do when we have this problem, which is pretty much with every book, is I adjust my "elevator pitch" to suit where I am and who I am talking to. I am not a fan of the question, "Do you read mysteries?" but I can see where it has its place.

I'm not sure what the answer is, and don't even get me started on the cover issues. OY!

Karen Syed

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I do respond to labels even though I know it's tyrannical and often unfair. But with all the books to read out there, we need *some* quick way of winnowing. However, I will ignore labels if: (1) the book lands somehow or other in my house; and/or (2) someone whose tastes are compatible with mine, such as you, recommends the book.

And by the way, I agree with (publisher) Karen - I have seen unlabeled books put in VERY weird and inappropriate places by librarians and/or booksellers. If it were a perfect world, there would be enough copies of each books to cross-reference them and stock them in every matchable category!

Jenners said...

I hear you!! A label like "paranormal romance" or "YA" or "chick lit" can be killers for books and I know I always try to justify such a "category" in some way if I think it is going to be a problem for a book I really like.

Literary Feline said...

I have a copy of Anne Carter's first lighthouse novel somewhere around here, but I haven't gotten to it yet.

Labels can be misleading--and detrimental to a book unfortunately. I do label the books I read, but it's more for my benefit because I like categorizing things and searching for patterns in my reading.

Even though there are certain types of books I am less likely to be drawn to, I don't usually let the label stop me from reading more about a book, especially if a friend like you really liked it. After all, if you liked it, maybe I will too!

Maybe we should switch to the way it's done on and list all the categories it could fall under if we have to label at all. :-) Seriously though, I wish I had an answer. It's so easy to judge a book by its cover--or by its label--unfortunately. It really does a disservice to the books in question.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I feel like I am definitely mor aware of labels as a book blogger than I have been in the past, and I have wondered whether that is a good thing. Before there were books that I thought I was likely to enjoy or did enjoy and books I didn't. I didn't think of them in terms of anything. I love cross genre books, especially when you mix a literary style with just about anything else.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I spent a lot of time in graduate school studying young adult literature, a genre that I think has most definitely "suffered" from its label...I'm thinking very specifically of such incredible pieces of writing such as The Things They Carried by Tim Obrien and Night by Elie Wiesel and so many others that can be read from a young adult perspective but also from an adult perspective...and most should be read from both perspectives.
I understand the publishers and marketing teams' need to help booksellers find a place for all the books, but the more I thought about your comments, I thought how similar our labelling concerns resemble censorship concerns.
I'm from the deep South, and I've had to search out Anita Blake books in the adult adult sections of some bookstores...and Rita Mae Brown selections (even Sneaky Pie Brown mysteries) in the "alternate lifestyle" sections? Ridiculous! Seems to me one of the criteria for working in a bookstore and in the book publishing world should be some knowledge of books??

Serena said...

I must have missed that review earlier, but I want to say that cross-genre writing is my favorite...I like to see more than just straight romance, paranormal, etc. in a book. I want it all.

I love that there are writers out there doing it. However, the question do they market themselves appropriately to reach people like me who love them?

I'm not sure what the answer is to that question, but I missed this review somehow and its a book I would like to read. Thanks for the recommendation!

Anna said...

What a thought-provoking post! I sometimes hate that we have a need to label and categorize everything, but doing so has a purpose sometimes. I just try to read reviews in their entirety and not get caught up in the categories. I guess it helps that I'm willing to read in any genre. ;)

Heidenkind said...

Good, thoughtful post, Sandy. I don't feel this problem is a labeling issue, though--it's a reader problem. If people aren't willing to look beyond a superficial label of what a book is, there's really nothing you can do about it. I know we all are selective in what we read--we have to be, because no one can read everything--but usually I try to do it with deeper signifiers or themes I know appeal to me.

Just because a book is in a genre you like to read doesn't mean you'll like it, so why would a book NOT in a genre you like to read necessarily be bad?

Alice said...

Kathy articulated my thoughts by her comments. I love all genres including kiddy books. I love romance too and paranormal and whatever you can throw my way. I blatantly flash my Harry Potter books when I read them and of course, got stared at by adults. I read Twilight and in fact that book got me started on fiction again. I think whatever genre it is, we all can learn something from it. Kathy says it well too. We define each genre differently according to our own definition.

Melissa said...

While a 'romance' label will turn me off even more than a 'paranormal' does, label neither one means I won't read a book, but it won't be at the top of my list either. While this may not be fair to books or authors I need something more (like a recommendation from you) to make me pick up the book. I have to be able to choose what I want to read and have to thin by some method. I know labeling was a HUGE issue for Diana Gabaldon when Outlander first came out too.