by J.T. Ellison
I’ve done several book events in the past week wrapping up the tour for 14. Two book clubs, which is always fun, a panel for the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Nashville chapter, and a talk to my local Sisters in Crime chapter. Before my SinC talk, I attended a meeting of my local Southeastern Mystery Writer’s of America (SEMWA) chapter. Next weekend, my local chapter of RWA, the Music City Romance Writers, meets. Both in the book clubs and the organization meetings, I heard the same questions.
"Why do you belong to so many groups?" and "What do you want out of an organization?"
Let me preface my answer by throwing this into the mix – I am also an active member of MWA, serving on a committee for ITW, am lost in the annals of RWA and belong to one or five of their subgroups. I’ve also joined Novelist Inc, Author’s Guild and used to belong to the International Crime Fiction Writers.
So why do I belong to so many groups? Good question. I’ve been letting a few lapse here and there because I don’t feel like I’m getting anything from them. But it’s also the thing to do. When you get published in crime fiction, you immediately join ITW and MWA and RWA and every organization that will have you. It lends you a bit of legitimacy and puts you in immediate contact with real live authors. Okay, fair enough. But the second question, coming from within the groups themselves, is harder to answer.
What do I want from an organization??? I’ll take a stab at this. What I really want?
I want them all to meld together and get rid of the genre designations.
John Connolly had a painful and fascinating post last week reporting on his reception at a literary festival in Canada. He was bombarded with the kind of – well, forgive me – ignorance and stupidity that seems to be prevalent in the genre wars. You must read his post to get the full effect of the several "literary" authors whose arrogant attitudes were particularly astounding, but one of the conversations struck a chord with me. Here’s an excerpt:
"[He] posits that mystery fiction is inferior to literary fiction because
literary writers “hone” their work. They fret about it, reworking it
time and time again, whereas genre writers simply churn out novels.
With each book, literary writers are forced to reinvent the wheel,
discarding all that went before in favor of an entirely new construct.
They are original, while genre writers are essentially imitative."
John points out that he does several versions of a novel. I also do several versions. By the time my editor reads one of my books, we’re on manuscript.V6, or version 6. That’s six revisions that I’ve done, six drafts of the novel. Then it goes through her revision, I adjust according to her notes, we do another read through, then copy edits, then page proofs. What’s that, 9, 10 drafts before the book goes into production? Yeah. I’m not doing any honing at all. I’m just churning out two books a year and don’t give a crap about the actual literary merit. Just because I actually write everyday, does that make me less of a writer than someone who stares at their screen and can’t come up with the right word for three years? I don’t think so.
Then there was this wonderful essay (and a fascinating backblog discussion) by Kyle Minor over at Sarah Weinman’s blog. I wasn’t familiar with him until this, but I’m certainly adding him to my list. His essay started me thinking, yet again, about how crime is really the basis for many literary novels, and there are purely literary writers who write about crime. Michael Chabon, Dennis Lehane, Alice Sebold, Curtis Sittenfeld, Paul Auster, Donna Tartt. Are they being accused of being "genre?" No. So why are "we" relying so heavily on the term?
If we’re being honest with ourselves, the genre writers are partially at fault for this impression. You know why? Because we INSIST on segmenting ourselves. We are romance writers, thriller writers, suspense writers, romantic suspense writers, traditional mystery writers, mystery writers, cozy writers, comedic writers, police procedural writers, private investigator writers, psychological thriller writers, craft mystery writers, horror writers, science fiction writers, fantasy writers, vampire and werewolf and shapeshifter writers, GLBT writers, black and white and pink and blue and space alien writers. There are hundreds of sub-genre designations, and when we’re starting out, we spend so much time trying to identify "what" we are, to fit ourselves within that little box, to submit to agents who represent our "kind" of work and to interact only with other writers of that ilk that we lose site of the fact that we all have the same job. Why?
Look at the list of organizations, of subgroups and online groups, and you’ll see a ton of overlap. Heck, every conference I go to, regardless of the sponsor, is populated with my friends. We all write in different genres, and we’re all attending each other’s cons. And how many times a day do you see a message on a listserve that apologizes for cross-posting?
Take it one step further. All the people in my SEMWA group are members of Sisters in Crime. What would happen if we married the two together into one meeting? Is there any reason why we can’t invite the Music City Romance Writers to our meeting, or go as a group to theirs? Do we really need all these minor segments? Aren’t we all, first and foremost, writers? Does it really matter what we write?
It does to some of the literary writers. They seem to float about, bitching about our market share and treating our writing as nonsense. They look down their noses at our petty squabbles, our insistence on labeling ourselves. So long as we continue to do so, we’ll continue our Rodney Dangerfield existence in the literary world – getting no respect.
There are two organizations I’m part of where genre doesn’t matter – Author’s Guild and Novelists Inc. But the problem of genre designation is systemic. There’s no good answer outside of self-awareness that it doesn’t matter. I know I’m going to catch hell over this, but really – IT DOESN’T MATTER! If we would spend half the time working TOGETHER instead of labeling ourselves and segregating into our sub-genres, I honestly think we could start making a dent in the literary snobbishness.
For example, do we need a separate Sisters in Crime and MWA? It seems to me that there is a huge amount of overlap between the two groups. I know the whole concept behind Sisters in Crime is to make sure women writers get equal standing in the literary world. Guess what? We do and we don’t. There are some major female mystery writers, and there are some major male mystery writers. I don’t think anyone would argue with the point that we need to be paid equally, period.
The reading public seems to understand that. The bestseller list is populated with both sexes. The review space is still male-centric, but on the Forbes list of the top grossing authors this year, three were women – Danielle Steele, Janet Evanovich and J.K. Rowling, and Rowling was #1. I’d like to see that list be split 50/50, but there’s a definite presence, and a woman is the top-grossing author. So maybe, just maybe, SinC has served its purpose. Women aren’t exactly equal in the field, but we’re a hell of a lot better off than we were, and SinC is definitely a reason why. But if we were to meld SinC with MWA, and have the legitimacy of both organizations in one umbrella group, wouldn’t that be even better? Do we need to continue separating ourselves out by female and male? Is the opinion still there than women can’t write anything but romance and men can’t do anything but blood and guts? I don’t think so.
I adopted initials because I wanted to grab male readers in addition to
female. It seems to have worked – I have plenty of fan mail from men. At the same time, some of my
biggest fans are men who know I’m a woman. Granted, my picture is on
the book, so it’s not a mystery for long. But is it really true
that men don’t read women? I don’t think so. I think it’s more of a
function of men just not reading as much as women, hence a smaller pool
for them to choose from.
But what about the awards? Each sub-genre has its own awards, though MWA’s Edgar Award has the loosest definition – any book meeting the appropriate publishing criteria that has an element of crime is eligible for submission. And since I met Michael Chabon at the Edgars last year, they seem to have lived up to their word.
It is difficult to imagine a cozy being nominated for the Thriller awards, and a thriller being up for an Agatha. So maybe we do need to breakdowns, if only to allow more writers to be recognized for excellence in their respective field.
Don’t even get me started on the format issues. Hardcover gets WAY more respect than paperback originals. It is what it is.
So on Tuesday night, while I was tucking into my three-cheese quiche, I was on this rant. Do away with the genre designators and let us all coexist in one big happy stew of fiction. One of the writers at the table said, "But how would the bookstores know where to place our books?"
Okay, that’s a legitimate question. But when you look at how bookstores work, you have to wonder. In Barnes and Noble, I’m shelved in Literature and Fiction (which I particularly like.) Borders shelves me in Mystery. Books a Million puts me in Romance half the time, Suspense and Mystery the other half, and many of the independent stores have me lumped in with all the "genre" genres alphabetically. My library is all alphabetical too. Those crazy Dewey Decimal kids…Does it really matter what the genres are and where they’re shelved, or is this idea simply the biggest OCD nightmare ever conceived?
B&N came out with a dismal Christmas forecast. Borders can’t pay their bills. Rumblings about the collapse of the book industry seem to come every couple of months. Shouldn’t we be looking at ways to work in concert with all the organizations to promote BOOKS so we don’t lose everything?
So what say you? Am I just being naive? Is genre, and subgenre, and a plethora of organizations vitally important to our daily lives? Is there a way to have a bit tent and get everyone under it, or do we like to segregate? Is it too hard to believe that in 2008, we could be treated as equals to the literary writers – just men and women who write damn good books; writers first and foremost? Would the bookstores collapse if they didn’t have the genre designations? Could we create a group that didn’t define itself through genre alone, but as a whole, like the Screenwriters Guild? Should I just shut up and get back to work?????
And readers, do the designations make any difference to you? I understand that not every readers wants to do serial killers, and not every reader can do knitting. Is that the sole goal of the sub-genres, to keep out unwanted stories?
Wine of the Week: Apparently I need a large glass of this – 2003 Saint-Emilion Jean Pierre Moueix