As a former marketer, I understand the need to find a company’s target audience by identifying its niche, its market and by putting it into a category that addresses the needs of that market. So companies in the larger real estate market might be further identified as luxury, or commercial, or residential. You get the idea, right? As a marketer, I learned to embrace this concept.
As a writer, I want to scream when it comes to categorization. When people ask what kind of books I write, I automatically wish it was as simple as saying “I write romance” or “science fiction.” The genre writers have all the luck (at least the ones who are comfortably seated in their genre and happily identify with it). For me, it’s complicated.
My first run-in as a writer with categorization came about six months after finishing my first novel. I entered the manuscript in a contest, if for no other reason than to get it out there and have another set of eyes on it. When the feedback form arrived a few months later, I was annoyed. Not because I didn’t win (winning wasn’t really my intention and the guy who did win was so out-of-this-world talented that I’m glad he beat me), but because the critic called my work “women’s fiction.”
Now, let me first say that I love love love me some women’s fiction. I studied psychology in grad school because I adore delving into people’s emotional journeys. And, I’m a hopeless romantic, so I’m also an avid reader of chick-lit and even some genre romance. Though up until the point when my book was called “women’s fiction,” I can’t say that I ever consciously gave much thought to these distinctions. I love reading characters I can get to know and relate to, whether they’re detectives in police procedurals or heroines in steamy romances. I’m non-discriminating. As long as there’s someone I can root for, I’m happy.
So, why was I so irritated by this categorization, you ask? Mostly, I couldn’t really figure out what “women’s fiction” actually was. At the time, it sounded like books that only women would read and, being a woman who reads all kinds of books, that didn’t resonate with me. Further exploration led me to the definition “layered stories that are driven by the main character’s emotional journey.” OK. Maybe my book did fit this genre. After all, the book is all about my main character’s emotional journey as she navigates romance, takes risks in her professional life and comes to terms with truths about her family. But why is this type of story only for women? That was the thing that continued to bother me. The idea that a tale of emotional journey would be marketed as “women’s” fiction seemed terribly unfair to men who might also enjoy that sort of depth.
The marketer in me knew that I’d have to embrace some of these categories. So I did. I thought about all the types of readers I wanted to reach, and looked for pathways to those readers. When readers described the book as chick-lit, I started participating in chick-lit-oriented events. Same with women's fiction. I marketed my book in general fiction arenas as well, but the field is so broad and the competition so fierce that the idea of categorizing my book to reach a more targeted audience started to make more sense and felt less objectionable.
Until the day when it was suggested that my second book might not meet the criteria for women’s fiction (and that my first book probably didn’t either—too much romance). WTF? I mean, seriously!?! If not women’s fiction, then what? In the past two years, I’ve been told that my book has too much romance for women’s fiction, is too commercial for literary fiction, is too heavy for chick-lit, and is too clean for genre romance. Where in the world do I fit in?
It was at the peak of this crisis that I finally had a long talk with myself and reached this conclusion: I just want readers to read my book and form their own opinions. Really. I love that some people read Wallflower Blooming as a light romance and loved it. I love that some people really identified with Val and could apply some of the lessons she learned to their own lives. I even loved the 1-star review on Amazon that lambasted me for pushing my political agenda in my book. My response: “whoa, really? I thought the book was a little fluffy to elicit such venom.” I love that people felt something when they read it, and, of course, I’m glad that most people liked it. Whether they found comfort in the pages or simply a fun escape from the pace of everyday life, it’s really gratifying to have people read a story that you wrote and to feel something for your characters.
So, what have I learned from this whole categorization debacle? To keep writing and to stay true to myself. Do I believe that chick-lit readers will love my book? Sure. At least some will. And some readers of women’s fiction will love it. And some will think there’s too much romance. Will romance fans dig it? Yep. And some will say there’s not enough sex. And that’s the beauty of books. We bring as much to each book we read as we find in the pages. It’s a truly unique experience for each and every reader.
As a writer, there’s no way to avoid categorization. Just try entering a writing contest or submitting to an agent or shopping for a publisher. Categorization helps narrow down the field and allows our manuscripts to get into the right hands (in theory). It can also be a huge pain in the arse. I imagine that my love-hate relationship with categorization will continue. But what I hope most is that readers will take a chance on my books and form their own opinions. I hope they’ll open the pages and see what speaks to them.
Thanks for reading!
I'm generally pulled in a million different directions and I wouldn't trade it for the world. Here's a glimpse of my life - hope you enjoy it! And if there's a big lapse between posts, well, that's the way life goes in Amy's world.