Pink I: What’s In A Genre?
I’ve always been fascinated by the question of genre. How do we define genres? How– and why– do they change over time? What are the inditia that signal to us that a book is meant to be one genre or another? Why does it matter? Does it matter?
This week, Ashley posted on the Pink Carnation Read Along about genre and The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.
The Pink series is generally described as cross-genre, meaning that it can’t quite be fit easily into one category. Over the years, it’s been labeled successively as one genre and then another. (And often multiple genres at the same time.)
When I wrote my first (publishable) book, the book that became The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, I was pretty sure that I was writing a romance novel.
The working title was A Rogue of One’s Own, because everyone knows that every good Regency romance needs either a rake or a rogue. I went with the latter because I really didn’t want to spend years fielding inquiries about garden implements.
On my first phone call with my brand new agent, I burbled about the book being in the tradition of Julia Quinn and Amanda Quick, and could we please, pretty please, shop the manuscript to Avon? Visions of mass market paperbacks danced in my head.
“I’m not entirely sure you’ve written what you’ve think you’ve written,” came the voice of my new agent across the line. “Let me try something else first. . . ”
“Sure! Absolutely!” I said.
As a first time author, these were the words I used most frequently. Also, I had coffee dripping off the end of my nose, which tends to be a bit distracting.
(To explain: at the time of this phone call, I had just returned to Cambridge, the U.S. one, after a year abroad in England, and was engaged in trying to figure out the workings of the coffee maker that had been bequeathed to me by my German subletter. Since technology and I don’t get along, this had resulted in a rather dramatic caffeine explosion, just as the phone rang. I conducted my first conversation with my new agent with coffee matted in my hair, dripping down my arm, and liberally bespeckling the phone. Note to self: coffee should not be taken topically.)
In any event, one month later my agent called me back to tell me that a prestigious hardcover house was making an offer—but not as a romance. “You’ve invented a new genre!” he said. “Historical chick lit!”
To which I replied, “Huh?”
Once I’d adjusted my jaw, I took the sage advice of Ghostbusters: when a publishing house tells you you’ve invented a genre, you say yes. Even if you have no idea what they’re talking about.
This was, after all, 2003, when chick lit reigned and new subgenres of chick lit were being discovered on a more or less daily basis: lad lit, mommy lit, second cousin once removed lit. Just add “lit” and stir.
Plans proceeded apace for the publication of the book, now re-named The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, because A Rogue of One’s Own was too romance-y. (There was a brief, awful phase where it was almost named Eloise Kelly and the Secret History of the Pink Carnation, but, fortunately, that didn’t fit on the cover, so it got nixed.) It was going to be published in hardcover, as Fiction & Literature, with a chick lit cover featuring a modern woman in a Burberry jacket with a very cute bag. I had nightmares about readers opening it, finding themselves in the Regency, and demanding their money back.
“Whatever you do, don’t call it romance!” I was told. “It’s historical chick lit.”
Then, overnight, chick lit died. RIP. Within two days, my publisher had come up with a new, historical cover (and I breathed a very deep sigh of relief). Just about to go on my first ever book publicity junket, I was warned, “Whatever you do, don’t call it chick lit! It’s historical fiction. Got that? Historical fiction.”
I’d gone through three different genres without re-writing a word.
Meanwhile, the book hit the shelves, followed by sequels, and the genre confusion continued. I was adopted by the mystery community, who informed me that what I was really writing were historical mysteries, and why wasn’t I being shelved in mystery, where I belonged? Friendly Borders reps told me that my covers were all wrong and I needed something that correctly represented the spirit of the books. What would that be? I asked. They didn’t know either. In the absence of consensus, the books went into that great catch-all category on the shelves: Fiction & Literature.
I just went on playing genre stew, writing what I was writing, going to everyone’s conferences, and hoping that someone would eventually figure out where on earth to shelve me.
This went on until 2009, when the market tanked, e-books took off, and suddenly romance was outselling other genres. After years of being told, “Stop calling your books romance!”, the world had come full circle. I got another one of those phone calls: the first Pink book was going to be reprinted in mass market—huzzah!—with a romance cover. And, by the way, did I realize I’d been writing romance?
There was just one slight hitch. None of the major retailers would shelve it in the romance section.
Ironic, isn’t it? Apparently, once a book has been shelved in a certain section, it’s against store policy to move it to another. Ditto any books in the same series. The book that I had initially written as a romance was finally being printed as a romance—but it couldn’t go in the romance section. The mass market copy found itself incongruously wedged on the Fiction & Literature shelf next to its hardcover and trade paperback siblings.
That’s publishing for you.
As to what my books really are. . . I have no idea. I’ll leave it to you to decide. (Although I’m fairly certain that they’re not Sci Fi. At least, not yet.)
I keep telling myself that one of these days I’m going to write a book that’s incontrovertibly in one genre or another: a contemporary romance or a whodunit. One of these days.
I have many theories about genre and genre boundaries and the way genres and sub-genres interact with each other– all of them highly subjective and anecdotal.
When I was young, books came in two forms: mass market or hardcover. Many of the books that we would now classify as “historical fiction” were marketed and sold as “historical romance”. Look at the classic cover of Gone With the Wind. It positively screams romance, as did the covers of my M.M. Kaye and Victoria Holt novels.
One of my many theories is that the advent of trade paperback led to a stronger divide between historical romance and historical fiction. Suddenly, we had historical fiction in trade paper and historical romance in mass market, which meant that romance became romancier and historical fiction took itself more seriously. The covers diverged. My M.M. Kayes and Jean Plaidys had new, more dignified covers, marking them as Not Romance. The trade paperbacks cost more, adding an interesting value element to the divergence between historical romance and historical fiction.
The border lines are murky in other genres as well. Think of mystery. What makes a book a historical mystery versus a historical novel with mystery elements? . Tracy Grant’s Charles and Melanie series is a great example of that dilemma. The books were originally marketed, in mass market, as mysteries, under the title Daughter of the Game before being repackaged as historical fiction under the title Secrets of a Lady.
(Which do you think suits her books better? And which would jump out at you more in a bookstore?)
Often, genre classification is dictated by which part of the market is currently deemed in the ascendant. If historical fiction is outselling mystery, then there’s an incentive to package a book as historical fiction, even if it has a strong mystery element. Conversely, if historical fiction is dead (it dies every decade or so, and then bounces back), then there’s a push to highlight the mystery aspect.
Some books are written directly to their respective markets. Some mysteries and just mysteries, some romances are just romances, and some historical fiction is just historical fiction. But for those books on the margins, the boundaries become very permeable.
Does genre matter to you? Are there elements that mark a book to you as belonging to one genre or another?
Weekly Reading Round-Up
I had a big treat this week: an early copy of Simone St. James’s upcoming book, The Other Side of Midnight!
In this one, a reluctant medium finds herself drawn into a former friend’s murder inquiry, pulling her back into a world that she’s been avoiding since their big falling out years before. As always, St. James’s depiction of life in the 1920s is pitch-perfect, and her heroine the sort of person you’d like to visit with over a large pot of tea.
For those An Inquiry Into Love and Death fans out there, happy news: it’s Inspector Merriken who’s on the case.
The bad news? The Other Side of Midnight isn’t out until April. But I can promise that it is worth the wait.
Other than that, it’s been Portugal, Portugal and more Portugal. And a side of Clifford, the Big Red Dog.
What have you been reading this week?
Pink I: Inspirations
This week on the Pink Carnation Read Along, Ashley blogged about inspirations for the Pink series, specifically The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Since I’m blogging along with the Read Along, I’d considered writing about some of the antecedents of the Pimpernel. There have been plenty of people over the year who have debated just where Baroness Orczy came up with the idea for the Pimpernel. Some point to Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, who certainly had plenty of swash and buckle, and was in and out of France (including a stint incarcerated in the Temple Prison)– but who, otherwise, wasn’t a terribly laudable sort of person. If you go to the historical record, you find records of actual flower named spies, including a Le Mouron (the Pimpernel). The drawback? They were French royalists, not English aristocrats. Baroness Orczy always said that Sir Percy came to her, as was, and refused to be drawn further on the question.
So, instead of discussing the origins of Sir Percy, I wanted to talk about my own peculiar wrinkle on the topic: female spies.
When I sat down to write Pink Carnation, I didn’t realize that this would be a controversial choice. I had no idea that I would, a few years later, be bombarded with emails starting with “a young lady would never….”
What I did know? Was that women were and had been spies, as long as there had been anyone on whom to spy.
My dissertation, on which I was working while writing Pink I, involved royalist conspiracies during the latter half of the English Civil Wars. One of the chapters was on women and espionage. It will come as no surprise to know that women were instrumental in smuggling messages, monies, and, occasionally, members of the royal family. One of my favorite characters is Lady Anne Halkett (I will write her story one of these days), who smuggled the Duke of York out of Parliamentarian captivity dressed up in one of her gowns.
So you could say that I had female spies on the brain.
Female spies seemed particularly appropriate during the Napoleonic era, partly because Napoleon himself took such a low view of women. They had the ability to fly under the radar (to borrow a modern analogy) in the way men did not.
During my pre-Pink researches, I came upon references to female spies in operation during the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, including one called La Prime-Rose (a pun on primrose). My favorite? The forty year old woman who went undercover on a French frigate, disguised as a cabin boy.
Put all that together… and you get the Pink Carnation and her league.
Weekly Reading Round-Up
I’ve been living in the 1920s for so long now, that I desperately needed to read something that wasn’t a) anywhere near the Twenties, or b) set in England. So this week’s haul was:
– Jo Goodman’s In Want of a Wife. We all have those ridiculous plot tropes we secretly love. One of mine is mail order brides. In this case, a rancher in the 1890s Wild West in want of a wife, and the poor cousin of a well to do New York family who answers his ad. Goodman always does a lovely job crafting sensible and believable characters who you’re rooting for all the way.
– Jennifer Crusie’s Agnes and the Hitman. Joyous absurdity as the wedding of the granddaughter of a mobster on a Southern plantation gets very, very complicated.
Next up? A big pile of research books about Portugal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries!
What have you been reading this week?
Pink I: How Eloise Came To Be
“The Tube had broken down. Again…”
I have a secret to share with you: there was no Eloise in the original draft of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.
No Eloise, no Colin, no Tube.
The first draft of the book which became The Secret History of the Pink Carnation was purely historical, and largely as you read it now (minus about fifty pages of additional sheep jokes). A friend gave the book to an agent, the agent sent the book out to a few editors, and, in a surprisingly short space of time, I got a call saying that an editor wanted the book, but she had a question for me.
That question was: “Have you ever considered a modern framing story?”
The short answer to that was no, I hadn’t.
“It doesn’t need to be much,” said my agent. “Just one chapter– like someone finding papers in the attic.”
I might have made a mmm-hmm noise. I don’t remember. What I do remember is standing there on the phone in my old studio apartment in Cambridge, struck by the image of a woman clinging to a Tube rail. She had red hair and tall boots and a skirt turned partly wrong way round and a beige sweater with a coffee splotch on it.
I knew her. I had no idea how I knew her, but I did. I knew who she was and where she was going and why she was there.
“Hello?” said my agent. “Are you still there?”
“Does it have to be only one chapter?” I asked.
I could already see what was going to happen. She was going to get off that Tube to visit an elegant elderly lady. That lady had a nephew, a nephew who didn’t want the family papers in someone else’s hands.
“I don’t think so,” said my agent.
“Good,” I said. “Because I think I want it to be a little bit more….”
And that, in a roundabout, accidental way, was how Eloise was born.
There’s a side note to this story. Several months later, I was doing some reading up on Baroness Orczy. (As the publicity for the book release got under way, people had started asking me questions about The Scarlet Pimpernel, and, like a good little grad student, I thought I had better do my research.) What I hadn’t known? Was that Baroness Orczy always claimed that she had first met Sir Percy Blakeney in the Tube. She had been standing on a Tube platform, and there he was, knee breeches, quizzing glass and all.
I wish I could say that I placed Eloise on the Tube deliberately, as a homage to Baroness Orczy. But I didn’t. Like Sir Percy on that Tube platform, she just popped up there, all by herself, with a complete history and story to her.
One might even think it was meant.