One thing seven years as a publisher taught me was that people love to categorize. People in that context means marketing gurus and booksellers, of course, but if you look around you, I’m sure you’ll find, as I did, that it applies in many other circumstances too.
As a rookie publisher I was warned off crossing too many genre lines. I was publishing crime fiction, and staying firmly inside the lines that made a crime novel recognizable seemed to matter a lot; booksellers and librarians, I was told, need to know which shelf to place a book on, and if they’re not sure, they won’t put it on any shelf. So, since shelf appeal sells a lot of books, strong elements of, say, science fiction or erotica are not a good idea. And taking sales figures, as opposed to plain old-fashioned quality, as the main criterion, it looked rather if as if the advice was good. Pity about that in a way; the book I’m thinking about deserved better sales figures.
Extrapolating on the labels theme – someone raised an issue the other day regarding labels within the crime fiction genre. For instance, when is a police procedural not a police procedural? In this case, when it’s a psychological thriller. Yes, really. My fellow reader was reading a novel which had a police detective as its protagonist, a body in the opening chapter and an ongoing investigation as the main narrative thread – and it was labelled psychological thriller on the front cover! Which led him to pose the question, what is a psychological thriller?
My answer went something like this: it’s a crime novel in which the police don’t (normally) play a large part – in fact, there’s no professional sleuthing at all – and the protagonist, who may or may not have a past about to catch up with him/her, is spooked or scared by person, persons or incidents unknown, which, of course, are eventually explained and dealt with.
Not a straightforward police investigation of a murder, then.
That was when I started looking at a few book descriptions, and posing a question or five of my own. For instance, romantic suspense. An interesting crossing of genres if ever there was one. OK; where does romantic suspense end and fully-fledged mystery begin?
There’s an author whose books I would describe as pretty hard-nosed, with plenty of violence, ‘bad’ language and extremely nasty villains – so not at all cosy. In fact, in one of hers which I read recently, I found myself skimming over some pretty horrible torture scenes, being a tad squeamish about such things. Imagine my surprise, then, when a few days ago I discovered that she’s described as a writer of romantic suspense! OK, so a couple of lead characters usually take a romantic fancy to each other, and the books invariably include a steamy sex scene or two, but that’s a couple of thousand words out of a couple of hundred thousand! Hardly a whole different sub-genre’s-worth!
On the same subject, take Nora Roberts/J D Robb. (She is not the author mentioned above; that’s someone almost as well known, but quite different.) As Nora, she writes romantic suspense, which involves a love story with a mystery woven into it. But as J D she has a personality change. Yes, OK, Eve Dallas and her to-die-for billionaire husband get it on (phew!) at least twice in every book, but each one of the forty-three in the In Death series is unequivocally a hard-boiled police drama, with plenty of mean streets, bloody murder and fierce crime-busting. So do those glorious sex scenes make J D a romantic suspense author too? Somehow I think not.
So what am I saying here? Something like this: labels are fine in their place; people need to know what they’re buying, and people who run shops need to know which shelf to place things on. But misleading labels do no one any favours. So maybe the people who dream up those labels for books need to do a little more than dream; maybe they need to read more.
And that’s never a bad thing.