f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Bridging the Gap—Solution Five: Reversing Field on Genres

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Bridging the Gap—Solution Five: Reversing Field on Genres

Spurred by a question asked by one of you, I want to take a look at our most difficult job in bridging the gap—convincing the gatekeepers that books do not have to be pigeonholed in genres to be worthwhile on their shelves.

This is an agonizing situation. For the past years publishers have been trying to educate bookstores about the dire need to think of books in terms of genre. The problem is that, unlike general bookstore, CBA stores had fiction as only a tiny portion of their stores’ stock. There were Bibles and music and nonfiction and gifts and cards and toys and all sorts of nonsense that gives me the heebie-jeebies. Readers had to come in, look at the spines of a couple hundred books and decide what to buy.

Publishers sensed, rightly, that this isn’t the best way to organize things. A campaign began (at about the same time as the Christy Awards were inaugurated) to create standard categories for CBA fiction. The categories are: Contemporary, North American Historical, International Historical, Mystery/Suspense, Western, Futuristic/Science-Fiction, Romance, and Allegory.

The thought is that if a person likes mysteries, if you group mysteries together readers will be more likely to pick one blindly off the shelf to look at, if not buy. The genres work for the most part though I’m less inclined to believe we need Allegory as its own category—especially since most of the time the books touted as “allegories” aren’t truly allegories at all but merely overly symbolic. The breakdown occurs, I believe, in the category of Contemporary Fiction. What in the world does that mean anyway?

The books in this category come in nearly every shape and flavor. You have “chick lit”—which is actually closer to romance. You have humorous books. You have books with hints of mystery, books with family drama, books with people dying of cancer. And what do you do with a book that spans both history and contemporary?

It’s a problem and one as an artist that I cringe at. My favorite books and movies and even music tends to cross genres. I certainly like the occasional mystery or fantasy book, but I never want a steady diet. I don’t even want a steady diet of plain, old screwed-up family Corrections contemporary fiction. So where do these fall? What’s our solution?

Unfortunately, we have to practice patience at the moment. We’re in a weird spot right now where readers’ affinity for historical fiction has created two “genres” where none exist in the general market. A Barnes & Noble mixes historical and contemporary fiction without hesitation. Our readership loves the peace, tranquility, and quiet faith of the olden-days. Per capita, we have more historical fiction novels than any other slice of the publishing industry. But that number is slowly changing. More and more “modern” stories are being published. At some point the balance will tip and either historical fiction will become integrated into a broader fiction genre or it’ll become it’s own little subgenre with its own little shelves.

When that switch occurs, contemporary fiction will gain the lion’s share of shelfspace and most retailers will acknowledge that a certain “critical mass” of titles will drive readership more than even promotion or marketing. Till then, we have to keep writing our books, watch the teeter-totter slowly shift, and accept our “contemporary fiction” categorization with a smile.

(A note: this is not supposed to be a death-knell for historical fiction. What I worry about though is that if standard CBA historical fiction becomes a slowly dwindling genre with its own shelf then powerful historical novels with broader appeal aren’t going to be put in the proper place. This is a conundrum for which I haven’t an answer at the moment. Don’t stop writing you historical fiction, however. We’ll figure it out.)