May 11th, 2004


labels and labeling

Everytime there's a label put to a division of fiction, there are those who embrace it and those who rebel against it. Interesting, that....

I once did a workshop which focused entirely on this subject. At the start of the presentation, I read selected copy from cover flaps out of my own library. I'd gone deliberately out of my way to find books with descriptions that didn't match their publication. For example, "Set in the wilds near Cornwall's sea-tossed coastline, [this novel] concerns a young man's experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and his travels back and forth in time to the mysteries of 14th century England. Gradually growing more involved in the lives and emotions of early Cornish manor lords and their ladies, he finds his own life pale in comparison and the presence of his American wife and stepsons a hindrance to his new-found existence." There were a few more along these lines and I then asked brave souls to volunteer their guesses as to which genres these fell into and gave extra points if they actually could name the books. (Go on -- this one was an easy one. It's a fun game - feel free to post your own. *g*)

The point was that of story vs. sales packaging. The thesis of this was that, naturally, every author is an original, and their story is unique, similar to others only in the most superficial of ways. (Okay, not always true, but it's what everyone wants to think, right?) But the other side of that coin was to state the obvious truth that publishing is a business (which escapes people more often than is reaonsable, imo). And we can't do away with categorization -- it's how our retail system works and how our sales reps pitch, and in nearly every case how the readers hunt down new material written by authors they are not yet acquainted with -- because of similarities in packaging and placement. Because of labels. How else would they find it among the myriad of "general fiction" published evey year? If a person wishes to be commercially successful, they unfortunately have to subscribe to this view. (Of course, commercial success is not always the goal of every author -- but in the case of people attending such writers' conferences, I think it's safe to generally assume they want to be published and make a lot of money doing it.) I don't always like it myself. I hate finding a manuscript that I think is really good but won't fit in a publishing niche because then it has to be extra-super-good for me to take on that marketing challenge and sustain my passion throughout. (I've got one now. Set in one of those difficult periods that isn't history and isn't contemporary and has a story that doesn't squarely fit any genre. I feel stubborn. It *is* a book of the heart - for the writer, and now for me.)

To sum up: Art vs. Commerce is hard. Argh.

Where is this coming from today? An article that popped up in my Publisher's Lunch. Speaking of which - stomach growly, so just a couple of quotes from that before I go.... It's about chick-lit (or chic lit, or metro chic, or whatever....) - for those as aren't acquainted, a subgenre of romantic fiction popularized by such things as "Bridget Jones Diary." It's another label, which is unsurprisingly, both embraced and resisted.

"To feel that every piece of literature has to empower women to come out on top, well - what I write is just real life, about those days when you aren't empowered and winning corporate wars or whatever. You're losing your pantyhose and you're lusting after a bag you can't afford. I mean, there's room for both," -- Sophie Kinsella, 34, best- known for her amusing trio of novels known as the "Shopaholic" series.

"I think that the term is meant to be pejorative, to put women down: Oh, you silly little women with your silly little concerns in your silly little books. But chick lit authors for the first time are helping post- feminist women navigate this world, trying to be the best friend, have a job, have a thin body, have the shiniest hair. For the first time, those conflicting concerns are being addressed, and with humor. The term has made it easier to denigrate these books, not address their substance." -- Marian Keyes, author of "The Other Side of the Story"

On the other hand, Elaine Showalter (Princeton professor emeritus) - who contributed an essay on lad lit for a 2002 Oxford University Press book, "On Modern British Fiction" - says she thinks chick lit is developing in two directions, one thoughtful and the other commercial, such as Miramax's commissioning of a chick lit novel by Kristen Gore, Al Gore's 26-year-old daughter, to be published in September. "They were looking for a D.C. Bridget. It's just like marketing Barbie dolls - surgeon Barbie, beach Barbie."

Full article, including scathing quotes from Erica Jong and info about new marketing possibilities here.

Of course, it's quotes like this one: "But she does think it "unfair" that books that appeal to women often are shown less respect than those that appeal largely to men, such as science fiction." that make me laugh and laugh. Working in both genres gives me a view quite a bit different. It'd be grand to make a chick-lit author switch writing brains with someone from the SF/F ghetto for a week.
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