The Genre Wars

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

44 thoughts on “The Genre Wars

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    This seemed to come up quite a bit in the comments yesterday. Sub genres create a level of expectation for the reader, whether that be the prospect of a happy ending, or a lot of violence, or supernatural elements. And when a writer who has previously kept within the lines of their particular sub genre with a series – thus not only creating a level of expectation with their name, but with the series itself – steps outside those rules, people are very upset by it.

    After somebody made the comment about the reaction to one of Karin Slaughter’s Grant County novels, I went to Amazon to look. Most of the negative reactions were nothing to do with the quality of the book or the writing, but because of that perceived failure to abide by what people saw as the ground rules of that series.

    Generally speaking, I like the closure provided by genre fiction. That doesn’t mean to say that I expect everything to be tied up neatly and presented with a bow at the end, but you know that there will be some kind of closure to the story. It will have a recognisable arc. If I’m going to invest the time to read a book, I want to know it’s going somewhere I want to go.

    And yes, we should all pull together, but human nature so often doesn’t work that way. I believe it’s worse in the UK, where writers within a sub genre often see other writers in that very same genre as their direct competition.

    But then, it’s not a perfect world, is it?

  2. Gerald So

    I respect authors equally, whatever they choose to write. I just happen to like plots with mystery and characters involved in or solving that mystery. That said, I tend not to believe characters who stumble upon mystery when nothing else in their lives suggests they would or that they’d be disposed to solve the mystery. So as a reader I find genre labels handy. Along the lines of Zoe’s comment, I like to know what I’m getting because I am, in fact, making at least a time commitment.

    As a writer, I think the many organizations are necessary because each sheds light on a type of writing that deserves as much respect as the others. Yes, these dedicated organizations might keep writers apart. but without them there’d be less respect for the nuances of all fiction.

  3. Catherine

    Philosophically I’m all for a more egalitarian approach to well, most things. Maybe after I get some sleep I can provide a little bit of a more reasoned argument regarding the shifting expectations of genre fiction and the slippery slope of authors that don’t see their own adherence to being seen as literary writers as also wanting to belong to a genre…just a literary writers genre.

  4. Eileen Kavanagh

    The problem isn’t in the genre designations; it’s in the snobbery of those who treat one genre as higher or better than others. Michael Chabon has written about this, especially in his essay collection, Maps and Legends. I’m responding as a reader, not a writer. So I can’t say much about your professional organizations–I hate all meetings and find most organizations in my own field to be pointless. So you might be right about some redundancy there. But as a reader, I hope that at least the major distinctions don’t go away soon, at least not in the bookstores. If I’m in the mood for a mystery, I don’t want to have to figure out which novels are mystery and which aren’t. I don’t care about the subgenres–I can figure that out for myself, and I have my own designations anyway (I can no longer suspend disbelief for repeat amateur sleuths, and I’m tired of serial killers, for example). So I read the jackets to find out whether a particular book might interest me. I also rely on Sarah Weinman and other bloggers, along with a handful of print reviewers, to help guide my choices. there are badly written mysteries and badly written non-mystery novels. It’s all about the writing.

  5. R.J. Mangahas

    Can’t we all just get along?

    I agree JT. This subject comes up a lot. But to point out, there is also some division within the “literary” ranks as well, as far as distinction books stores. Let’s take it a step further than some books being places in mystery in some stores and literature in another. In some stores (and I know there was a post on this not that long ago) there seems to be “fiction” then broken into “African-American Fiction” and gay and lesbian fiction. And yet, in those same stores, there is no “Asian American” fiction or “Irish” fiction or…well you get my point. Even more segregation. And what about writers who have more than one ethnic background?

    I do believe the message behind John Lennon’s IMAGINE would apply quite well to these “literary” vs. “genre” and “genre” vs. “genre” wars.

  6. Becky Lejeune

    Great post, JT! I think that Zoe is right in that sub-genres do create an expectation. I think some readers are afraid to leave their comfort zones and having the genres separated makes it easier for them to stay in their little boxes. I think it’s a little sad, but I go in search of certain sections at the bookstore when I’m in the mood for something specific, so I can understand. It’s essentially an effective marketing tool.

    As for bookstores, yes, they would collapse without genre destinations (chains more than indies). These days big boxes don’t care if their employees even know how to read much less if they like books. I know. For years I fought the battle of getting people to stop shelving Don Quixote in “Q” – sad, but I am not joking. It happened in LA and CO both. So finding a bookseller who can recommend something or has some sort of knowledge about a new release or new author is completely out of the question.

    And, like Eileen said, another problem is with the authors who treat certain genres like they are the red-headed stepchildren of the literary world – and the “readers” who do the same. I’m not interested in what someone else thinks about the books on my shelves, I just want something I can read and enjoy regardless of genre.

  7. pari

    JT,I feel your pain.

    You know I’m a member of many different orgs too. Some of them fulfill specific needs:1. Novelists, Inc give me access to incredibly experienced novelists who’ll share their knowledge with me (the average member has published at least 16 books through traditional means.)2. MWA is my trade organization; I’m also a member of American crime writers league for mystery-specific multi-published authors.3. SinC — this is a more broad group. Its mission doesn’t coincide with MWA because of the publishing issue. And please, don’t get me started on that.

    Like you say, I think we crime fiction folks are a big part of the problem; we’ve got our biases and preferences (as writers and readers) but I think the ever increasing segmentation also has a lot to do with insecurity.

    When you have people to look down upon, you can feel superior. Simple as that. So many of us take that road. I know I do it with certain kinds of lit/writers and suspect you do too. I think it’s natural though not admirable.

    But of all the fiction communities out there, I think crime fiction remains the most welcoming overall.

    Bouchercon this year reaffirmed that for me.

  8. Bill Cameron

    As I’ve been wont to say of late, “This generation’s potboiler is the next generation’s nostalgic pleasure and the subsequent generation’s classic.”

    There’s a reason no one can remember your average National Book Award winner more than a year or two, but we’re teaching Chandler and Hammett and Cain and Parker in college.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love it when you go on a rant, JT!

    I’ve said it before – my cross-genreness can be a problem when it comes to shelving and finding my books. I didn’t realize you were shelved in so many different sections, too.

    And yet – genre is a really, really useful shortcut. Anything that makes it easier for people to find and buy books is a godsend.

    The different organizations have different focuses (foci?) and I’m afraid those strengths would be diluted if we tried to combine the orgs. For example, nobody does better library outreach than Sisters in Crime. SinC hits a nerve with a lot of readers and librarians; there is just an energy there that no other organization matches, although other organizations do just as well and better in other areas.

    I definitely think the orgs would benefit from more joint promotional activities, though.

  10. Naomi

    I don’t think in the near future any of these organizations will be prepared to merge together. Organizations only begin to remake themselves when membership has significantly dropped, and usually very few decide to join forces with another–a political hot potato.

    I think what Alex mentioned–groups working together on joint promotion and projects, especially large events, really makes sense. A lot of MWA and SinC chapters put on conferences together and on June 13-14, the Southern California chapter of MWA and SinC L.A. will be doing an inaugural joint event, California Crime Writers Conference, at the Pasadena Hilton. We are also seeking ways to optimize opportunities with the Horror Writers Association, which will be meeting in nearby Burbank that same weekend. So save the date!

  11. B.G. Ritts

    Bookstore sections save their shoppers time in finding books they want. If a customer doesn’t have ‘all day’, and thinks s/he is spending too much time looking, that person will get frustrated and leave without a purchase. If not otherwise recommended, I use the dust jacket synopsis to decide what books to read, but I don’t want to look at dozens more d/js or back covers than necessary.

    A lot of today’s fiction, literary or otherwise, doesn’t seem to tell a satisfying story. What kind of entertainment is that? So I’m happy to find a mystery/suspense/thriller section to do my browsing in.

    As for the Forbes list, I’ve watched the Potter movies but not read the books; I read Patterson until he jumped-the-shark; Sparks is too weep inducing; I read about a dozen of Steel’s until they all became the same story and I stopped by the mid 90s; Grisham I still enjoy occasionally, particularly books like PAINTED HOUSE; Evanovich I don’t ‘get’ and the others I don’t read. Those are the books you can find in any bookstore. It takes the genre sections to find my kind of good reading.

  12. Jake Nantz

    JT,I have to agree with Zoe and with Gerald So’s comment that “I like to know what I’m getting because I am, in fact, making at least a time commitment.” I feel very much the same way, especially when I’m desperately trying to catch up on all of the authors you guys have spent years reading while I had my head stuck exclusively in King and Crichton.

    Also, I think you have to be careful when advocating (even if half-jokingly) that it should just be all alphabetical…because that could destroy the mid-list right there. I found you guys because I wanted to read a mystery or a thriller where the protagonist wasn’t in Nam. So I found Mr. Rhoades and Jack Keller. I emailed him when I found out he was from NC and asked a few Noob questions, and he graciously answered them, then directed me here. Been here ever since, and I have now read many (not all, still working on it) of all ya’ll’s works and many others. I’ve also gotten my own career going and gotten confidence to send out a lot of my own shorts and finished my first novel.

    Had I gone into a bookstore and they said, “What’s the last name of the person you’re looking for?” my answer would have been, “Something new in a thriller or mystery.” I’m not totally convinced they could have gotten me past Connelly, Deaver, and Crais to find you guys, the people I’ve now discovered are some damn good writers.

    As to the “literati” looking down their noses at you…why let it bother you? I would tell any self-published person who gets upset by published authors doing it the same thing I’ll say to you: “Fuck ’em. Who needs ’em?” Do you write for recognition from them, or from your readers? Because I’ve read something by almost everyone on this site, and you guys ALL rock.

    If Cormac McCarthy (or whoever else, cause I have no idea who’s snobbish and who isn’t) says you’re somehow diluting fiction, or that by cranking out a book or two a year you aren’t as good, I’d tell them to take a laxative or fifty, make a decision about the semicolon, and fucking move on with the story. Half of them are just trying to do something non-conformist so they can point out (pretentiously) how “artistic” it is. Good for them. Give ’em an award, just don’t give me their book, because I’d rather read someone who can TELL A KICKASS STORY over someone who wants us all to know how verbose they can be.

    But that’s just me. 😀

  13. Jake Nantz

    By the way, I’m not advocating that all of the many POD/self-pubbed out there are equal in terms of their writing…just that they shouldn’t get their panties in a bunch because a traditionally published author tells them they aren’t. I say whoever you are, make yourself happy, and if someone else thumbs their nose at you, point out that they picked up a boogie on the end of their thumb by doing so. 😀

  14. JT Ellison

    Let me start by saying thank you. Only at Murderati could we have such a civilized discussion about these issues. And thanks for not just walking out on me and my crazy ideas.

    Zoe, that’s a good point. I want closure of some kind too, and I want a real story arc. At the same time, I think it’s terribly limiting to put so many labels on our books. Perfect example: I’m reading Gregg Hurwitz’s THE CRIME WRITER. I guarantee that someone in a store would pass this up because they thought it was too genre, too crime oriented, too whatever. And it’s not. It’s a lyrically written story with a fascinating perspective, funny and sad, and definitely NOT what it first appears. The idea that this would only get into a certain section of readers is a crime unto itself.

    This also lends itself to the idea that women won’t buy books with guns on the cover. Are we as readers doing ourselves a favor by limiting our possibilities? I know some of the best books I’ve read are far outside the construct of what I KNOW I like…

  15. Dana King

    Great, thought provoking post. I was all set to say we should advocate booksellers calling everything fiction and shelving them alphabetically, but Zoe and Gerald talked me out of it. We do need to come up with those authors like JT, whose books cross or meld genres. I’m sure a lot of impulse pruchases get lost throuhg the cracks because the store didn’t shelve them where the potential reader was looking.

    As for combining all the genre groups, i think you’d probably see the mystery writers hanging with mystery writes, romance with romance, etc. There are certain common interests many of us share as writers that just leads to a logical breaking out of categories.

    Connolly’s rant was excellent. I read it when he posted it last week, and he seems to have sparked anew the genre discussions, whether he’s cited or not. Regarding the excerpt JT used, I think literary authors work to make sure the reader knows how hard they worked on this passage, which is often marked by dense, virtually impenetrable prose, and “the sentence beautiful.” Genre writers are homing their work down to make it as easily readable and comprehensible as possible. The old saw is true: easy reading is hard writing.

  16. JT Ellison

    Gerald, thanks for stopping by. I like the way you phrase that: “all the nuances of fiction.” It sounds perfectly logical when you put it that way.

    Catherine, good point. I don’t see a real delineated organization solely aimed at Literary writers. And crime fiction writers, regardless of the subgenre, are the most open, loving, forgiving people on the planet. There’s not a lot of looking down the noses in our groups, and that’s what makes us so powerful.

    Eileen, if we could replicate you a thousand times, I’d be happy. I love a reader that wants a good read, period. But my first novel is a good example of how the preconceived notions can be misleading. It’s been called a mystery, a thriller, suspense, a serial killer story, a police procedural and romantic suspense. Readers who hate serial killer books like it, readers who thought it was a mystery were mad at me because they figured out who did it, readers who wanted it to be a thriller, a roller coaster ride, were upset that it was too literary, and those who thought it was romantic suspense were upset because it didn’t have enough romance.

    I can’t win.

    So where do I put myself in the subgenres??? I usually say I’m a psychological thriller, and that explains it just fine. To me : )

  17. Tammy Cravit

    Maybe what we need is something like the Internet’s concept of “tags” – keywords that help describe what’s inside the books. A small box on the back cover listing six or eight descriptive tags that help classify the book, and then bookstores and libraries and the like could do what they will. For example, my novel in progress could be tagged, “mystery”, “suspense”, “female protagonist”, “social worker”, “moderate violence”, “California”, “crime fiction”. A little more fluid than the existing genre system, and at the same time (I think) a little more descriptive both for readers and for bookstore employees who have to answer questions like “I enjoy Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller and Faye Kellerman – can you recommend other authors I’d like?”

    I don’t think that abolishing all organizational structure is sensible, for the reasons pointed out by others. But I also think that the excessively rigid taxonomy we have these days makes for its own set of problems. I know J.A. Konrath has talked about two early books of his that publishers wouldn’t buy because they couldn’t figure out which genre to put them in for marketing purposes, and that’s its own set of problems.

  18. JT Ellison

    RJ, imagine that. I know this post s pretty pointless, no one will ever agree to drop the labels, merge the organizations, and start fresh. But hey, a girl can dream, eh?

    Becky, excellent points, all. I knew last night I was being shortsighted with this post, and nearly pulled it because of that. I KNOW we can’t just go alphabetically, because no matter how hard we try, readers DO have expectations, and tastes, and likes and dislikes. It does make life easier for our hardworking booksellers who don’t have the time or energy to memorize the 100,000 titles in their stores. In a Utopian world, that could happen, but not real life.

    Pari, hmmm… Insecurity running our conscious decisions to keep ourselves apart? I think you may have just nailed it. I was talking to Randy last night, trying to put into words what I saw as the differences between the organizations. Sisters in Crime does seem to be the refuge for some of the authors who are on a less traditional route, and that delineation is going to separate them from ITW and MWA. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it seems to be going that way.

  19. JT Ellison

    Bill, you’ve said it perfectly. I’m a product of an English program that was very, very anti-crime fiction. My professors used to scold me about my B-grade detective fiction. I didn’t know Chandler, or Hammett. I was just writing with my voice. I hope that the unis have changed their course structure more to allow for all types of voice.

    Alex, you’re right about the genre shortcuts. I just hope were not limiting ourselves completely. You and I are both writing across the genres, purposefully, I think. I bet if I was simply a PI writer I might feel differently about all of this.

    We can all learn from SinC’s library outreach. Thanks for bringing that up!

    Naomi, that’s really what I’m looking for, this acknowledgment that together we can promote each other’s work, promote each other’s genres, bring the readers from romance to suspense, from suspense to cozy, from cozy to horror and back again. A pipe dream, perhaps, but I love the idea of cross-pollination.

  20. JT Ellison

    B.G., I think you’ve just opened another can of worms… the coop tables. New Fiction, New Paperbacks, all are tossed together regardless of genre. They only break out is by Fiction and Non-Fiction, and sometimes Trade 2 for 1 specials. I’ve bought vampire novels along with chick-lit and crime fiction, all off a single table.

    I would love to hear from one of the booksellers – do your coop tables make up the bulk of your sales? We’ve discussed distribution here, and the simple economics of more equals more. Is this a place where the genres don’t matter?

  21. JT Ellison

    Okay, Jake, you make another excellent point. It is hard to get to the new voices unless they’ve been segregated. I concede the point ; )

    Now, about the literary folks looking down at me? I care, and I don’t care. I care on behalf of our genres, our incredible storytellers, who honestly can write circles around some on these folks. I care that the elite media doesn’t have a modicum of respect for the people whoa re keeping the masses reading. Call me a populist, but I don’t think you can ignore what millions of people are saying. What’s the old joke – literary writers get great reviews and don’t sell any books, genre writers get terrible books and sell millions? I’d take selling, and having loyal readers, any day.

    Um, Louise? If you’re doing adoptions, I would like to spend some time on your fabulous deck. Pretty please???

  22. JT Ellison

    Dana, Dana, Dana – you nailed it. “The old saw is true: easy reading is hard writing.”

    I dare anyone to say Lee Child isn’t a brilliant writer. I’ve decribled him as deceptively simple before, because it looks so straightforward and easy, but when you try to write like that, or deconstruct how he puts his sentences together in a cohesive story, you see just how beautiful his writing is.

    Connolly is another beautiful writer, in a different way. He is lush and evocative with a literary quality, and his sentences are perfectly formed too. Both NY Times bestselling authors who I’d bet have a crossover readership. Interesting, non?

    Tammy, I do think that it helps the marketing department to know what to label a book for the sales department to sell in. I just wish the labels didn’t have to be so stringent. If there was a label for what Alex does, what I do, what other cross-over writers are writing, it would be better. I know at Killer Year we had this problem. We have several different kinds of writers, many genres, from caper to PI to horror. So we used the umbrella term Crime Fiction and that worked for us. But we were only 13 writers. The bookstores have thousands.

  23. PK the Bookeemonster

    For me, I am biased toward genre books. Genre books, IMHO, are about the quest: get the girl, save the kingdom, solve the crime. I NEED the quest; it’s the purpose of the story. I don’t like “regular fiction” because it seems to me to just ramble on about some angst and then stops. Who cares?As for writing organizations, as a reader it doesn’t help me find a book. These are for the professional side of writing; they are career builders. If it helps the authors I like to write better or able to publish more books, go for it.

    I work in nonprofits. I could join the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Montana Nonprofit Association, etc., but the constituents of the nonprofit I work for don’t care and it doesn’t help them other than perhaps if I attend some seminars I could pick up tips to write a better grant which brings money to the nonprofit and allows us to continue to bring the programs that help.

  24. JT Ellison

    PJ, I’m biased toward genre books as well.

    Can I just add, for the record, that I do love my organizations. Sisters in Crime taught me boatloads and got me started down the path. MWA welcomed me with open arms, and was as excited when I got my deal as my parents. ITW, it goes without saying, has been a MAJOR force in my career. So please don’t think I’m advocating doing away with the organizations. I was just wondering if bringing all writers together was even possible, much less welcome. : )

  25. J.D. Rhoades

    JT, glad to know you’re another victim of “anti-genre” creative writing programs. I took several creative writing courses as an undergrad and didn’t write again for 13 years.

    B.G. mentioned something I’d like to expand on, namely that a lot of the genre-fication is driven by the consumer. I knew a bookstore manager once who told me that the store had started off not dividing fiction by genre, just shelving the books alphabetically. Customers complained, sometimes bitterly. They didn’t WANT to be exposed to anything new and were apparently resentful that anyone would try. The store divided the books up again and everyone was happy.

  26. toni mcgee causey

    I don’t think literary writers feel the need for a specific program–they have the universities in a lock with the MFA programs. (I say this having come up through one, so that is not snark.)

    There are other genre biases–within this genre, the bias against romance, or science fiction or fantasy. There are crime writers who disparage cozies and cozy writers who disparage romances, and so on. (Which was just ironic, then, when the ITW had sessions on how to add romance and sex scenes into a thriller and the RWA had sessions on how to have realistic fight scenes or keep the crime scene detail accurate.)

    When a new reader steps into a bookstore, there are thousands of books to choose from (big box stores) and at least hundreds to choose from in an indie. Visually, that’s just flat overwhelming and the brain wants to start breaking that down into accessible categories. Visually we need those demarcations, like islands in a very big ocean, or else it all starts blending into sameness and becomes much more difficult to process. So before we even get to story issues — genre issues, what we like, don’t like — we need to be able to navigate through it psychologically or it’s too much of a monolithic project.

    I think the only way to get the respect any genre wants is to give it, and I applaud cross-genre efforts like Naomni mentioned. My books straddle genres and there’s been more than one time I’ve sat back and wondered how on earth I even fit in here on Murderati–and I don’t mean that in an insecure sort of way. Just that the majority of readers who come here are going to be looking at those covers and are not going to realize that they are action/caper, with crime as the driving force. Because they’re comedy, they don’t exactly fit. (And they are not cozy, which would have at least been a clearer cut category.) They are balls-to-the-wall crime, though, with a very tough heroine, and there’s some romantic interests… so how to communicate that when there’s no comedy section in the bookstore? That’s the battle, but it was one I knew going in when I decided to write what I wanted to write.

    Eventually, I think there will be a shelving system with book jackets and a computer screen at the endcap or liberally sprinkled throughout each section which will have the images of the covers on that shelf and mouseover / drill-down information for the reader. Instead of having every book sitting there, printing on demand technology will improve, and the bookstores will be able to have plenty of “if you like this, you’ll love that” tags, as well as keywords and categories.

    And until then, I think the more we keep bringing up genre distinctions the better–because I think we will start seeing the blurring of the lines more frequently and the desire by writers to just tell a good story–and the need of a reader to find those stories.

  27. Bill Cameron

    I was deeply browbeat in my own creative writing program. Comments included such gems as, “This piece of shit is nothing but running and jumping.”

    The tension was definitely between “something happens” and “nothing happens,” as John mentioned. The literary types who despised folks like me wrote these pointless little tales in which relationships didn’t quite happen in French cafes. Boring. But oh so lovely as well, if you wanted artful descriptions of the light glinting off the Seine.

    I’m not sure jealousy is really much of a factor in the equation. (Heaven knows no literati can be jealous of my sales!) It’s more a general disdain for popular culture. Sales = popular = tripe seems to be the construction. Blathering about “honing” or whatever is simply a justification for reflexive snootiness.

    In the end, I’m fine with categorization from the standpoint of sales, even if the slices often don’t make sense to me. As authors, we want it to be as easy as possible for readers to find our books. But beyond that, categories as a means to ghettoize certain authors serves only those with their nose in the air.

  28. JT Ellison

    Toni, re: the “If you like X, you’ll love Y” – I was going through boxes and boxes of books at my parents this summer, and one of the things I noticed was how unbelievably different the packaging is now versus books printed in the 60s and 70s. There was an entire box that had the “If you like X” at the very top, in huge print, and the author’s name and the actual book title were smushed down at the bottom. There wasn’t any kind of real “art” the way we see it now, it was all words, endorsements, and these suggestive titles on white backgrounds. Very interesting. I’d love to know when the book covers started morphing into pieces of art, and if that in turn helped delineate the genres.

    Dusty, therin lies the problem. The didn’t want to be exposed to anything different, they wanted what they wanted. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does limit the choices booksellers have as far as shelving. My local used bookstore only separates hardcovers by New Releases and Oprah’s bookclub. The rest are shelved alphabetically, and it’s kind of interesting to see all the authors jumbled together. The paperbacks are all split out by genre, but the hardcovers are all together in fiction.

    Yes, I am a product of a university creative writing program, professors who flat out told me to quit because I’d never get published. I did quit. For 15 years. I’m so glad I finally shook off their pretensions and found my way back.

  29. Jake Nantz

    Toni,I kind of get what you mean, and I don’t have a real answer for you. When I first got here, as much as i loved your posts, I wasn’t too sure about reading your stuff even as I was getting into “knowing” (in an online way, at least) everyone here.

    Then I read Killer Year, and your story therein.

    Now Bobbie Faye is nearing the top of my mountainous TBR pile. I don’t know if that helps, but it’s the roundabout way I’ve gotten to your work, so that’s one more reader, at least. Hell, Ms. Brennan suckered me into the third by giving away #s 1 & 2!

  30. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Cameron,I was never in a “creative writing” program, per se, but had a CW teacher my junior year of HS that screwed me up for years. When I mentioned that my writing style (which, to be fair, was horrific even for bad genre mimicry) was supposed to be like Stephen King, because that’s what I loved to read, she replied, “Well, when you get published as many times as he has, fine, come let me know. Until then, you’re not writing that worthless crap in here.” And yet for those who did a decent job, she was okay with their genre writing. I lost years of writing AND READING because I was so disheartened that what I loved wasn’t deemed okay. I will have a signed copy of the first novel I get published for that [expletive deleted] if she has the stones to show up and claim it.

    I never, EVER make one of my CW students feel bad about their writing, regardless how poorly written, cliche, or immature it may be. Because they can ALWAYS learn and improve, no matter where they are at that point of their writing journey. When I hear that writers like you and JT and Mr. Rhoades could have been writing long before if some dried up, burned out scag hadn’t thumbed their nose at your writing, it just all comes back.

    Nah, give me the stories you guys tell. I say pile up all their books and great reviews and awards and the rest, and bury the snobs under it. They can either take their ponderously sweet time (like usual) getting out from under those mounds and end up suffocating, or learn what a little PACE can fricken’ do for ya.

  31. Gerald So

    Having majored in creative writing and earned a Master’s in the same, I had some teachers who were open to genre fiction and others who weren’t. A general university program, even at the more-focused graduate level, isn’t well equipped to nurture all types of fiction or poetry.

    That said, those classes sharpened my sense of realism and gave me an objectivity I’ve applied to the types of writing I enjoy most.

  32. Tom

    My formal education is in classical music, and you get the same sort of genre discrimination there. Hoooo boy, do you ever.

    Same thing in painting. Same thing in sculpture, architecture, medicine, viticulture . . . because we’re wired to discriminate. Way back when, out on the veldt, our species’ survival depended on advanced abilities to tell friend from not.

    Yes, it would make much more sense, JT, for us to join together and stop wasting so much emotion and energy on how different we are.

    Yes, we can dream. And hope.

  33. Chuck

    Hi JT:

    Fighting a stomach virus today, but enjoyed the diversion of your entry. Interesting stuff, and also all the comments.

    In the end, it’s all art, and judging art all boils down to opinion. But to use a broad brush and state that literary is superior would be short-sighted, in my opinion.

  34. Catherine

    I really should have waited till I had slept to post.

    What I was trying to say about literary writers was that by a large number claiming their apartness from genre fiction, they were in fact creating their own genre…it’s just the literary writers genre. I’m not sure if they need an official organisation as such…I just see it as ironic that they decry genre from within a group.

    This reminds me of growing up with punks. Those of the Sex pistols wanna be variety. They all wanted to be so different, and proclaimed loudly their uniqueness, all dressed in black stovepipe jeans, with flamboyant hair. However at the core of it I think is the same message (see me, love me for my own good self) because of /in spite of my different packaging.

    For myself I just like to read. As we have a new library system in place I know I’ve read 160 library books since July 1st.I’ve requested specifically 73. I obviously don’t watch all that much TV. I’ve also bought probably about 20 books in that time ( a little unsure as I’ve shared some). So I’d imagine I would be considered a fairly high consumer of books…most of them would be considered genre. For me, genre delivers a reasonably (yet not flawless) delivery system of stories I want to read. I think Zoë’s comment about a clear story arc is at the heart of what I like about genre fiction. Each bookstore displays books differently. Libraries at least in Australia are trying to incorporate some retail display methods to assist patrons. Sometimes the genre subsections help me find a book quickly…other times when I have more time, I’ll still take some cues from cover art/ font, the blurb, the speed read of the first chapter or two.

    As I’ve tried to expand who I’m reading lately, I realised for time efficiency I’m still looking at groups. I’ve recently been working my way through the Ned Kelly award winners (crime), and the Miles Franklin award winners (literary).

    I tend to not exclude people or books based on looks, or other people’s perceptions… I’m a bit shallow, I’m in it for the entertainment value.

  35. JT Ellison

    Gerald, I think you’re a little younger than I am, so you may have been in a more forgiving environment too ; )

    Yeah, Tom, there is definitely chaos theory in classical. No doubt. Even the structure of the orchestra on stage, the chair caste system, is terribly structured and can be cutthroat.

    Chuck, I just got back from Quantum of Solace, in which the term painted with a broad brush applies. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it isn’t. Feel better!

    Catherine, tell it, sister!

  36. John S

    I listened to a discussion on the web between some library patrons and an author of a reliably best-selling mystery series. The librarian was saying she had never held any of her book group discussions about a mystery book because “what is there to discuss?” Presumably, she felt all there was to them was whodunit. This author suggested that the mysteries by this particular author (I’m trying to avoid any pronouns that will identify the author) COULD be discussed in a book group because those mysteries “dealt with issues”. Between the lines was the suggestion that the same could not be said for mysteries by OTHER authors.

    I was indignant! As far as I’m concerned, anyone who writes ANY book has something to say about the human condition. And this librarian showed a profound ignorance of the many, many mystery authors who have as much to say or more than any “literary” author out there.

    As to the fellow who told Connolly mystery authors don’t “hone” their work and simply churn them out, he is too ignorant for comment!

  37. Allison Brennan

    Wow, I take a day to focus on writing and I come in late to a fabulous discussion.

    First, thanks Jake, I’m glad my ploy worked! LOL. 🙂 I firmly believe that the single best way to grow a readership and generate word-of-mouth is to give away books to avid readers. Some people will hate my books, but some will love them, and those people will tell friends, and so on, and so on . . . I love getting emails from someone who tells me she gave my book to her sister or mom or daughter and they’re both addicted. I have a large male readership (Alex’s Michael is a fan I’ve been told!) and many are the boyfriends and husbands of my core readership.

    Anyway, getting back to genre–I could do an entire rant on “You think YOU got it bad???” Romance writers are pond scum. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten where someone has bought my book off the new release table and went back to buy my backlist (God, I love those people!) and emailed me that they were SHOCKED I was shelved in romance. There was a mistake, they were certain, and I had to fix it because no one would be able to find me. Many of these people never stepped foot in romance.

    The thing is, books need to be classified by at least a broad genre designation so readers know where to start. I’m lucky in that many booksellers, particularly Borders, will put my books on the mystery/suspense endcaps while shelving me in romance as well. I wish more stores would do that. Being in general fiction is practically the kiss of death for many authors as most genre-type readers don’t go there. You’re not going to find your readership. You look at the primary focus on the novel and you should be shelved there. But I’m all for cross-shelving since I really do straddle genres. (And when the supernatural thriller series comes out I have no idea where I’ll be–probably romance because that’s where I am now–but they aren’t traditional romances because there’s a multi-book romantic arc, not a one-book arc.)

    Literary writers look down on genre, they get the reviews, the get the interviews on radio and NPR and have a shot at Oprah and get tours and whatnot.

    Where do they make their money? Speaking and teaching. Okay, I’m being judgmental here, because some literary writers do very well because, I would argue, they are writing commercial fiction with a literary tone (i.e. Jodi Picoult, Alice Sebold, etc)

    I write commercial fiction. I don’t expect anyone to take my books as something timeless or brilliant or poignant. My books are meant to entertain readers. I want people to lose themselves in a fast-paced, emotional, thrill-ride so when they’re reading they can put their own problems aside for a few hours and live in a completely new world I created for them. I don’t have any big issues I want to pound into people’s heads (well, I do, but I try to be subtle!) and I don’t labor of each word. When people tell me my books were a “quick read” or an “easy read” I’m not insulted–I did my job. The story flowed seamlessly for them.

    As far as organizations go, I belong to many. I joined RWA as an unpublished author and I’m truly glad that ITW has followed that path and allowed unpublished authors an associate membership. I learned so much about the business of publishing from the generous published authors in RWA, and while I always believe I would have been published eventually, I think it happened faster because of what I learned in RWA.

    NINC attempted to be the all-encompassing published author organization, but it didn’t really catch on like it was intended. I almost dropped my membership, but I like the incoming president alot (Kasey Michaels) so I decided to hang out for another year. I belong to MWA but don’t do anything with it (though I’m going to see if I can get to the 11/22 meeting, Louise!) I get the most professionally and personally from RWA and ITW and, unfortunately, because I love both organizations I committed to do things and am banging my head against my computer saying, “This, too, will pass.”

    Whew! I think my comment went on as long as JT’s rant, LOL. And I didn’t even get into format!!! (And yes, there is an industry AND a reader perception, except in romance, that hardcover books are superior to mass market originals. I think that is slowly changing, but we PBO authors are dinged across the board–in lack of reviews, lack of industry recognition, few library sales, less prestige and no shot at Oprah . . . ha ha.)

    Okay, sub-rant over.

  38. toni mcgee causey

    Jake, thank you. I’m happy that the short story piqued your interest and I completely understand coming here (to Murderati) and not really being sure my book would be the kind of thing you’d read. At the first ITW conference, both Rob and Brett nearly beaned me in the head when I said (uh, probably too many times) that I wasn’t quite sure why I was there because I wasn’t sure Bobbie Faye was a thriller… and Rob pointed out that it was. Structurally, issue-wise, stakes-wise, it was. It just also happens to be funny. My publisher is currently changing the covers for the mass market re-release. I have no idea yet what it’ll be–or what the focus will be, since I’m straddling genres.

    And hey, I’m just glad to be here. And on a TBR pile. 😉

  39. Fran

    And here I am, late to the party as usual.

    Of course we’re a specialty shop, and I can’t tell you how often we get the “All these are mysteries? Really? I didn’t know there WERE so many!” comment more often than you might realize.

    Along with the “I don’t read mysteries” snootiness.

    And then they see we have Michael Chabon, and they stare and gape, “But he’s “litrachure”.. .” and we smile and point out that we frequently call him “Mr. Waldman”, and he’s cool with that.

    They don’t often get it. That’s okay.

    Mystery readers (and by “mystery” I mean all of it — traditional, thriller, suspense, romantic, comic, culinary, animal, the whole shebang — are devoted and loyal and are looking for the next new voice. Frequently that’s you guys.

    As many of you know, our biggest division is between Northwest and Everyone Else, but we get scolded for not having sub-genres too. We integrated, if you will, the African-American and GLBT sections, and I still get complaints.

    Can you even imagine the size of the building it would take to house every mystery novel in its own niche? Complete with cross-referencing? Heh. We could take over all of Powells with that idea!

    You’re not going to make every customer or reader happy. You’re certainly not going to impress the angst-ridden literati-wannabe who needs someone to look down on. In my opinion, you shouldn’t even try. Keep doing what you’re doing. That’s what we really need: good writing, and lots of it.

    My 2 cents, right there.

  40. Logan Lamech

    There is a lot of pressue from publishers on authors to get there books to fit in a particular genre. In my opinion it’s just one more way to corral an authors thoughts.



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