Categories, Schlegatories: Do Labels Matter?


Apparently on the DorothyL discussion list, there’s a debate that occurs seasonally about book categories, specifically mystery vs. literary. I presume this is a regular ritual as mystery writer and January Magazine editor Linda Richards contributed the following entry: "Is it that time of year again already?"

As a person currently writing an upmarket women’s book, I wonder, do these labels really matter? (Don’t worry, I’ll attempt to at least give some examples of authors who write upmarket.) I love books in the Literature section. I love books in the Mystery section. I don’t understand why mystery authors say that they stay away from anything labeled "literary" and why I’ve encountered some readers who adamantly proclaim that they don’t read mysteries.

Adding to the confusion is the way my mysteries are handled at the Borders chain. My first, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, is shelved in the Literature section, while the two others are in the Mystery section. Of course, I would prefer them altogether, but it does amuse me that somehow the books in the same mystery series would be categorized differently like this.

Reading various opinions about the literary vs. genre debate has prompted me to address and reevaluate some common myths. Some of these myths, by the way, were held by me as recently as last week.

MYTH #1 Literary books are not plot-driven.

The bestselling literary books seem to always involve a great yarn. Arthur Golden’s MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, Alice Seibold’s THE LOVELY BONES, Audrey Niffenegger’s THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, to name a few, have very strong storylines. Or take the recent book I just read over the summer–Sara Gruen’s WATER FOR ELEPHANTS–yes, unforgettable characters, beginning with Rosie the elephant, but also masterfully constructed. The novel opens with a murder and has intrigue, erotica, and secrets along the way. It ends with answers to the beginning murder scene.

It could be that more literary books experiment with language and structure, but the most popular ones are replete with plot devices.

MYTH #2 It’s easier to write a mystery than a literary book.

As I tackle this current non-mystery book, I was finding that the structure, the words and the general flow were coming a lot easier than when I attempted my mystery book. I chalk that up to the experience of writing three mysteries. But the key operative word is "was." I’ve hit a few rough patches, which just confirms that writing for me in any genre is a messy, organic process.

MYTH #3 Categories are just for the reader and publisher, and should not influence how the writer shapes his or her book.

I, up to a week ago, would publicly contend that the above statement is patently true and was going to post something to DorothyL stating as much. But when I waited and thought about it, I realized that my own actions contradicted this statement.

As I was developing my current book, I was trying to figure out what category it would fall in. It has a female teenager’s voice. So young adult? No. Chick lit? No. Literary? Well, kind of. And then I learned of this category used by agents–Upmarket Women’s Fiction. It’s not a new term, but I had not heard of it before. So I googled upmarket women’s fiction and came up with names like Mary Sharratt. I then read Mary Sharratt, and then nodded my head. Yup, this is what I was aiming for.

(I haven’t come across a good concise definition for "upmarket," but Miss Snark, the blogging literary agent, has come up with some snazzy descriptors. I’m also taking a look at Aurelie Sheehan’s work, namely HISTORY LESSON FOR GIRLS. Upmarket, of course, is not a bookstore section; these books would be under the Literature section.)

This investigation has helped me to understand the expectation of a genre. It doesn’t mean to necessarily have to go along with the formula or follow each convention. But be mindful of them.

In an earlier draft of BIG BACHI (when the label was literary and the title was BROKEN BRANCHES), my aging protagonist, Mas Arai, goes catatonic as he is faced with what happened to him and his friends during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It was then up to a young Japanese doctor from Hiroshima to save the day. But the book didn’t work. I couldn’t get representation. I couldn’t find a small press publisher.

So I kept chiseling at it. Someone in a writing group mentioned that she didn’t think much was at stake. "What?" I thought to myself. "She doesn’t know what she’s talking about." But her words stayed with me. Weeks later, I finally admitted to myself that she was right. Thus began the seeds of a murder. The elimination of one major character, the doctor. It became solely Mas Arai’s story. And it became a mystery.

For my mystery, I had a very reluctant, reluctant sleuth, but I couldn’t make him catatonic, according to the conventions of the genre (Chester Himes and Walter Mosley taught me well). He would have to get off his butt and do some sleuthing. From this process, something beautiful happened: I found the perfect container for my story–the mystery genre.

MYTH #4 It doesn’t matter where your books are shelved.

Although I did make light on how my books were categorized at the Borders chain, it does make a difference. But the most hotly debated issue revolves around the African American section. A Japanese American writer friend bemoaned that booksellers don’t fully embrace the growing number of books written by Asian Americans to warrant our own section. But I say–beware of what you wish for.

Certainly some readers read exclusively or predominantly African American novels and will seek out that section for good reads. That’s how my husband found an exquisite collection of short stories, I GOT SOMEBODY IN STAUNTON, by William Henry Lewis. But he might have discovered it in the Short Story section as well.

African American publishing is a big and thriving business, so I understand publishers and booksellers wanted it extremely targeted for the easy sale. But I also understand the frustration of some black writers who feel ghettoized, the impact of their writing word not being fully felt in other parts of the store.

If you are a person of color who writes mysteries set in ethnic communities, your books should be shelved under the Mystery section. This will be better for your career in the long run. Your faithful readers will find you, while exposing you to a new, larger readership.

Alphabetically speaking, I love being close to Tony Hillerman (and not that far from Denise Hamilton) because our books probably have more in common than my Mas Arai mysteries do with chick-lit books with Asian American heroines.

So are categories and labels are important? Most definitely, but books in different sections may have more in common than we think.

BIG BACHI’S ON FOURTH AND GASA-GASA’S ON THIRD: Yay for multiple printings! SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI’s is now in its fourth printing and GASA-GASA GIRL is in its third. I do think Jason Pinter’s observation is correct–trade paperback originals do tend to have longer shelf lives.


To complain or a complaint. Once upon a time in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, there was a shoe store that sold T-shirts that read, "Monku, Monku, Monku." In this record-breaking heat in Southern California, monku is plentiful. But considering the unstable situation our world is in, a little heat is easy to bear.

BABY, BABY: First it’s baby Justin, born to some local friends on Monday, and now we have word that David Montgomery’s daughter is on her way. Congrats, Papa and Mama Montgomery!

10 thoughts on “Categories, Schlegatories: Do Labels Matter?

  1. Pari

    Ah, Naomi,What an insightful post today. Thank you.Myth #1 — I’m glad you addressed this. Some of the writers that have given me the most joy would fall under this category. I’m thinking of both Ann Tyler and Alice Hofmann. Of course, one of my favorite books is Pride and Prejudice (Sorry, Deni) — but I didn’t read it for years because it was “literary.” Boy, was I missing out.

    Myth #2 — Writing a good story, at least for me, is difficult, period.

    Myth #3 — Yeah, well, I was spouting that myth at Con Misterio last week. Your point is well taken. I do think there are certain conventions within each genre and we, as writers, must honor at least some of them. But, what gets my goat is the implication — either overt or covert — that one genre (or subgenre) is superior to another. A lot of the categorizing seems to be trying to assert that IMHO.

    Myth #4 — It absolutely DOES matter where books are shelved. In NM, several stores have mine both in the mystery and the local sections. I suspect I sell as well in each area.

    Though your thought-provoking entry brings many more comments to mind, I’ll stop here.

    Again, thank you.

  2. Elaine

    Absolutely terrific post, Naomi! And I agree with Pari’s observations and comments. So much so – I’ll just offer my congrats and fade away.

  3. Naomi

    Elaine–as if you could ever fade away!

    Pari–yes, I think that’s what perturbs genre writers so much; that what they write doesn’t have staying power, is not worthy, etc. I think that there’s a critical way to analyze mysteries (and I don’t mean critical in a negative way). I have a bunch of theories, but it would bore 95% of the Murderati readers out there.

  4. B.G. Ritts

    “theories … would bore 95% of the Murderati readers”

    Any hope for the 5% of us who are intrigued at the prospect?

  5. Naomi

    Let me think about it more, B.G., and maybe I’ll feature the topic in a future post. Thanks for stopping by and being the five percent.

  6. Beatrice Brooks

    What a great post, Naomi – thank you. I’m always somewhat uncomfortable about tooting (okay, blowing :::grin:::) my own horn too loudly, but the most interesting part of your blog(s) is when you use your own books as examples. I love that and can relate to it. As for myths # 3 and 4, during the last 13 years (ever since the publication of my first mystery, Throw Darts at a Cheesecake – which, by the way, was often shelved in the cookbook section!) I’ve told myself that “the cream will rise to the top” and a good book will be found/read,no matter where it’s shelved. But I’m *finally* beginning to understand that my glass-half-full optimism could be yet another myth.Hugs, Deni

  7. Chris Well

    The double-edged sword of labels is that they are used for both INCLUDING a work in some grouping, but also for EXCLUDING it from the rest of the world. (Not unlike being quarantined.) It’s a tough problem – because if we got rid of the labels, we’d never find anything.

  8. Carstairs38

    I like the ideas of catagories to a certain extent. I love browsing through the mystery section of a bookstore and seeing what catches my eye.

    Over catagorizing can be a problem, too. I never imagined I’d have to look through the African American section to find good mysteries written by them. I don’t pick authors based on race or sex, so why would I need to go to a section devoted to one or the other to find someone I’m looking for?

    Add me to that 5%, BTW.


  9. Naomi

    Deni–Cookbook section? Oh my. But makes sense, I guess. And thanks for the feedback about integrating stories about my books in the blog.

    Chris–Yup. Very well said.

    Mark–Hey, I’ll be in your neck of the woods, the Valencia Public Library, this Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. It was arranged through the Sisters in Crime L.A. Speakers Bureau. Thanks, Diana James!

  10. Rob Gregory Browne

    Great post, Naomi. And I think you’re right about adjusting the way you approach the book based on the category or genre you’ve chosen.

    Once we realize WHAT we’re writing, it certainly makes it much easier to write it.


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