Slotting Books into Categories: The Genre Issue

“I’m Lea Wait, and I write mysteries for adults and historicals for young people.”

I’d love a dime — or even a nickel – for every time I’ve written or spoken that line in the past twelve years since my first book (for middle grades – children aged 8-12) was published.

I’ve also heard comments back. “When are you going to write a serious book?” “I don’t waste my time reading genre stuff. I read good books.” “Children’s books? They must be easy to write.” “Mysteries? They’re all the same formula.” I could go on, but that wouldn’t be fun for either of us.

All writers who write fiction other than “literary fiction” are basically writing GENRE. That dread word that encompasses mysteries, yes. And fantasy. Children’s. Young Adult. Romance. Women’s fiction. Science fiction. Christian. And I’m sure smaller categories I can’t think of right now.

Statistically, most readers ask for and read books in one or more of those categories. Book store owners want to know “what” a book is so they can shelve it in the appropriate section. Reviewers review certain types of books. Publishers meet that demand: traditionally, they publish by genres. (Cross-genre books are becoming more common, but most publishers prefer books that can be easily categorized.)

If a book is fiction and does not fall into one of the genre categories, it is either “literary fiction” or “commercial fiction.” And then, to further complicate life for readers (and writers who want readers to find their books,) some books in each of the genre categories are considered “also literary,” and shelved (and reviewed) with “literary fiction”.

Writers whose books have been moved to those “fiction” shelves often consider that move a sort of publication promotion. But they may lose readers who are looking for their books in the category sections.

None of this is new. But in the past couple of weeks many in the mystery community have been angry because of an interview Isabel Allende (yes, that Isabel Allende, the one who writes magic realism/literary fiction) did on NPR’s All Things Considered. Ms. Allende has recently published … wait for it now … a  mystery: Ripper. Her reviews were not great. OK. Not everyone gets great reviews, even magic realism/literary novelists. That’s not news.

But, that aside, in the NPR interview Ms. Allende basically dissed mysteries. Among other things, she said she wasn’t a fan of the genre. She didn’t read much of it. (Maybe if she had read more …. but that’s another issue.)

Since I’ve been an author, I’ve found the community of authors to be a welcoming one. And the more people I know who write in different genres, and the more of their books I read, the more I’m convinced that, as in all fields of endeavor, there are brilliant practitioners, middle-of-the road folks, and those who are still learning, publishing in every genre. (Yes, that’s simplistic: we’re all still learning. But I think you understand what I mean.) And I’ve met authors who write in all genres, who are at all stages of their careers, who were welcoming and helpful.

Writers do most of their work alone, but there are ways they can support each other by working together. We “Maine Crime Writers”  write this blog together. Writers sometimes review others’ books. Give pre-publication “blurbs”. Praise others’ books on social media. Speak together on panels at libraries and conferences. Compare notes in writers’ organizations meetings and on listservs.

All writers know it isn’t easy to write a book. Any book. It takes months; sometimes years. And then it isn’t easy to find readers, whether you’re traditionally published or self-published. Being a writer is not easy. .

Which is why we respect the work that has gone into any book. Even if that book is not one we love, or on a topic or in a field we enjoy.

Which is why the mystery community was upset about Isabel Allende. She disrespected an entire field of writers. And she didn’t do it privately: she did it very publicly.

Since (she said) she doesn’t read mysteries, I think she’s missing a lot. I don’t think she’d like every mystery published. Fine. We all like different types of mysteries. But there are mysteries being published today which are, yes, being shelved with her books, in the “Fiction” section. They don’t cross genres. They transcend them. They take the format of mystery or suspense and they make it a morality tale. Or just a darned good story, well written.

If she’d asked me, I could have suggested a few authors for her to read. What about you? What mystery authors writing today would you suggest Isabel Allende read? Preferably before she gives another interview.


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9 Responses to Slotting Books into Categories: The Genre Issue

  1. Lea, I agree emphatically with everything you say (almost) Here’s my one objection.
    Literary fiction is also just another genre. No exception.
    Meanwhile, soldier on.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Understood, Carl!

  3. I echo your praise of the mystery/crime writing community — they (we?) are great! (Your help just yesterday for example!)

    As far as Ms. Allende — sounds like sour grapes to me.

  4. Kate Flora says:

    We mustn’t forget J K Rowling, who wrote a mystery using a pseudonym…and it didn’t sell or get well-reviewed until it was known that she’d written it.

    And I like Carl’s comment…that it’s all genre fiction. I’m definitely going to adopt that stance, especially the next time someone asks when I’m going to write a real book.

    Great post Lea

  5. Jen Blood says:

    Well said, Lea. The thing that typically binds writers is a love of words and a passion for the craft, so the idea of putting up fences between us in the name of genre to determine who among us are legitimate artists versus commercial hacks is always a little irksome to me. With respect to your question, though, there are so many beautifully written mysteries out there that it’s hard to know where to start: The Name of the Rose, The Alienist, The Secret History, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time… And those are just the books that openly bill themselves as “literary” mysteries. For evocative prose in the form of marketed genre mysteries, anything by Nevada Barr, Dennis Lehane, Paul Doiron, John Connolly… Clearly, there’s no shortage. Ms. Allende really is missing out on some phenomenal works!

    • Karla Whitney says:

      Right on Lea. And a fine list Jen Blood. Off the top, I think of authors Robertson Davies, PG Wodehouse (in particular Psmith) and PD James (who draws London so accurately one could use her descriptions as a map). Also, John LeCarre, John Grisham, Kate Atkinson, Ellis Peters. Many more. Life’s a mystery, right? Great writing is great writing, period.
      Question…I’m new-ish to blogging. Does this blog have time limits set for commenting on older posts? I’ve a comment for Lea’s post (Jan 8) about helping authors sell their books. Thanks.

  6. Lea Wait says:

    Absolutely agree, Jen!

  7. Since I’ve jumped from Western Historical to Young Adult Fantasy, where do I fit in? I read in nearly every genre and find good stuff everywhere. Too bad Allende has limited herself so much.

  8. RedwoodSinger says:

    I would recommend Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a little known work, by a little known author, but has considerable reputation among academics.

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