Sunday, April 29, 2007

Switching Teams

I love books. I love reading them and writing them. When people ask me what kind of stuff I read, I reply by saying, "Everything." Sure there are certain types of books or certain story lines that aren't my cup of tea, but in the end, good writing is good writing, no matter what the genre.

My girlfriend is not like this. She likes Literature with a capital L. I don't think she's ever set her eyes on the popular fiction section in Borders. The opposite is true of others. I've met plenty of people who only read mysteries, or romance, or sci-fi. This is not a criticism by any means; people like what they like. Who am I to argue?

This morning, I finished one of the best books I've read this year: The Price of Silence by Camilla Trinchieri. It's a beautifully written novel with intriguing characters and I couldn't put it down. I told my girlfriend that she would love it and she asked if I was reviewing it for Crimespree. Immediately, I knew what she would say when I told her I was: I just don't like mysteries. So I found myself trying to convince her that she would like it, telling her it was character driven, that crime wasn't the focus, etc. It's all true. In fact, if I was a bookseller, I wouldn't really know where to shelve it.
Later this afternoon I was reading the books section of the Sun-Times and saw that Michael Chabon's latest book was reviewed. My girlfriend is, I think, THE biggest Chabon fan. She pre-ordered The Yiddish Policemen's Union weeks ago and has cleared her schedule so she can read Tuesday, the moment it comes out. But when I read her snippets of the review, one in particular stuck out:

"Chabon unleashes a noir murder mystery that is part Raymond Chandler, Part Isaac Bashevis Singer..."

In my mind, being compared to Chandler is an incredible compliment, but to Nicole, it was cause for worry. Here is one of her favorite authors, the creator of Kavalier and Clay, she's been looking forward to his latest book for nearly a month and what does she get? A "noir murder mystery."

I am open minded when it comes to genres, but my girlfriend demonstrates that most aren't. Most readers have great genre loyalties and when beloved authors cross over to the dark side (or just to the other side of the bookstore) they run the risk of losing fans. Tess Gerritsen blogged about her experience when Harlequin began re-releasing her old romance novels. She says:
"The problem is, my readers get upset with me when they buy a Tess Gerritsen book, expecting a gritty thriller, and find they’ve bought an old romance novel. My first reaction is to say to them: ”Hey, try it, maybe you’ll like it.” But a lot of them think they’ll get cooties or something from reading a romance, and then they write me angry letters. Or even worse, they stop buying my books altogether."
Because I am as open minded with my writing as I am with my reading, this scares the hell out of me. Sure, I love writing mysteries/thrillers, but what about later? Will I always want to stay in this genre or will I get an idea for a story that's totally different? Should I be more careful about the genre I write in now because it's what I'm going to be writing for a really long time? Or do I go back to my artist attitude of "write what's pulling you" and not worry about my future in publishing?
Once your published, developing a fan base is extremely important. But those fans aren't necessarily loyal to you, they may be loyal to your genre, to your brand. They may be loyal to your serial killers, your government conspiracies, your social commentary. Change your product, they may go looking for a new brand. Trust me, if my girlfriend can doubt the brilliance of Michael Chabon based on genre, your fans can and will do the same.
In my mind, the story is what's important. Good writing is important. Interesting characters are important. In the end, I could care less what shelf I found the book on. But am I the minority? I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts.

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