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.)
Here’s a post I wrote for the website Smart Bitches Trashy Books a few years back, describing the strange path of Pink I. (You can find the original post here.)
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?