Pink I: What's In A Genre?

I’ve always been fascinated by the question of genre. How do we define genres? How– and why– do they change over time? What are the inditia that signal to us that a book is meant to be one genre or another? Why does it matter? Does it matter?

This week, Ashley posted on the Pink Carnation Read Along about genre and The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.

The Pink series is generally described as cross-genre, meaning that it can’t quite be fit easily into one category. Over the years, it’s been labeled successively as one genre and then another. (And often multiple genres at the same time.)

Here’s a post I wrote for the website Smart Bitches Trashy Books a few years back, describing the strange path of Pink I. (You can find the original post here.)

When I wrote my first (publishable) book, the book that became The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, I was pretty sure that I was writing a romance novel.

The working title was A Rogue of One’s Own, because everyone knows that every good Regency romance needs either a rake or a rogue. I went with the latter because I really didn’t want to spend years fielding inquiries about garden implements.

On my first phone call with my brand new agent, I burbled about the book being in the tradition of Julia Quinn and Amanda Quick, and could we please, pretty please, shop the manuscript to Avon? Visions of mass market paperbacks danced in my head.

“I’m not entirely sure you’ve written what you’ve think you’ve written,” came the voice of my new agent across the line. “Let me try something else first. . . ”

“Sure! Absolutely!” I said.

As a first time author, these were the words I used most frequently. Also, I had coffee dripping off the end of my nose, which tends to be a bit distracting.

(To explain: at the time of this phone call, I had just returned to Cambridge, the U.S. one, after a year abroad in England, and was engaged in trying to figure out the workings of the coffee maker that had been bequeathed to me by my German subletter. Since technology and I don’t get along, this had resulted in a rather dramatic caffeine explosion, just as the phone rang. I conducted my first conversation with my new agent with coffee matted in my hair, dripping down my arm, and liberally bespeckling the phone. Note to self: coffee should not be taken topically.)

In any event, one month later my agent called me back to tell me that a prestigious hardcover house was making an offer—but not as a romance. “You’ve invented a new genre!” he said. “Historical chick lit!”

To which I replied, “Huh?”

Once I’d adjusted my jaw, I took the sage advice of Ghostbusters: when a publishing house tells you you’ve invented a genre, you say yes. Even if you have no idea what they’re talking about.

Pink I ARCThis was, after all, 2003, when chick lit reigned and new subgenres of chick lit were being discovered on a more or less daily basis: lad lit, mommy lit, second cousin once removed lit. Just add “lit” and stir.

Plans proceeded apace for the publication of the book, now re-named The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, because A Rogue of One’s Own was too romance-y. (There was a brief, awful phase where it was almost named Eloise Kelly and the Secret History of the Pink Carnation, but, fortunately, that didn’t fit on the cover, so it got nixed.) It was going to be published in hardcover, as Fiction & Literature, with a chick lit cover featuring a modern woman in a Burberry jacket with a very cute bag. I had nightmares about readers opening it, finding themselves in the Regency, and demanding their money back.

“Whatever you do, don’t call it romance!” I was told. “It’s historical chick lit.”

Pink 1 coverThen, overnight, chick lit died. RIP. Within two days, my publisher had come up with a new, historical cover (and I breathed a very deep sigh of relief). Just about to go on my first ever book publicity junket, I was warned, “Whatever you do, don’t call it chick lit! It’s historical fiction. Got that? Historical fiction.”

I’d gone through three different genres without re-writing a word.

Meanwhile, the book hit the shelves, followed by sequels, and the genre confusion continued. I was adopted by the mystery community, who informed me that what I was really writing were historical mysteries, and why wasn’t I being shelved in mystery, where I belonged? Friendly Borders reps told me that my covers were all wrong and I needed something that correctly represented the spirit of the books. What would that be? I asked. They didn’t know either. In the absence of consensus, the books went into that great catch-all category on the shelves: Fiction & Literature.

I just went on playing genre stew, writing what I was writing, going to everyone’s conferences, and hoping that someone would eventually figure out where on earth to shelve me.

Pink I Mass MarketThis went on until 2009, when the market tanked, e-books took off, and suddenly romance was outselling other genres. After years of being told, “Stop calling your books romance!”, the world had come full circle. I got another one of those phone calls: the first Pink book was going to be reprinted in mass market—huzzah!—with a romance cover. And, by the way, did I realize I’d been writing romance?

There was just one slight hitch. None of the major retailers would shelve it in the romance section.

Ironic, isn’t it? Apparently, once a book has been shelved in a certain section, it’s against store policy to move it to another. Ditto any books in the same series. The book that I had initially written as a romance was finally being printed as a romance—but it couldn’t go in the romance section. The mass market copy found itself incongruously wedged on the Fiction & Literature shelf next to its hardcover and trade paperback siblings.

That’s publishing for you.

As to what my books really are. . . I have no idea. I’ll leave it to you to decide. (Although I’m fairly certain that they’re not Sci Fi. At least, not yet.)

I keep telling myself that one of these days I’m going to write a book that’s incontrovertibly in one genre or another: a contemporary romance or a whodunit. One of these days.

I have many theories about genre and genre boundaries and the way genres and sub-genres interact with each other– all of them highly subjective and anecdotal.

When I was young, books came in two forms: mass market or hardcover. Many of the books that we would now classify as “historical fiction” were marketed and sold as “historical romance”. Look at the classic cover of Gone With the Wind. It positively screams romance, as did the covers of my M.M. Kaye and Victoria Holt novels.

One of my many theories is that the advent of trade paperback led to a stronger divide between historical romance and historical fiction. Suddenly, we had historical fiction in trade paper and historical romance in mass market, which meant that romance became romancier and historical fiction took itself more seriously. The covers diverged. My M.M. Kayes and Jean Plaidys had new, more dignified covers, marking them as Not Romance. The trade paperbacks cost more, adding an interesting value element to the divergence between historical romance and historical fiction.

daughter of the gameThe border lines are murky in other genres as well. Think of mystery. What makes a book a historical mystery versus a historical novel with mystery elements? secrets of a lady. Tracy Grant’s Charles and Melanie series is a great example of that dilemma. The books were originally marketed, in mass market, as mysteries, under the title Daughter of the Game before being repackaged as historical fiction under the title Secrets of a Lady.

(Which do you think suits her books better? And which would jump out at you more in a bookstore?)

Often, genre classification is dictated by which part of the market is currently deemed in the ascendant. If historical fiction is outselling mystery, then there’s an incentive to package a book as historical fiction, even if it has a strong mystery element. Conversely, if historical fiction is dead (it dies every decade or so, and then bounces back), then there’s a push to highlight the mystery aspect.

Some books are written directly to their respective markets. Some mysteries and just mysteries, some romances are just romances, and some historical fiction is just historical fiction. But for those books on the margins, the boundaries become very permeable.

Does genre matter to you? Are there elements that mark a book to you as belonging to one genre or another?


  1. Dara on September 18, 2014 at 11:04 am

    My solution to the genre debate has been largely to ignore genre totally and read whatever sounds interesting. I firmly believe that if a book can be easily cataloged in only one genre, it is probably a boring book. So I read whatever strikes my fancy, regardless of where it’s shelved.

  2. E on September 18, 2014 at 11:36 am

    I actually quite like books that can’t be categorized as one genre. I think it makes them *more* interesting. I mean, life generally isn’t clear-cut, why should fiction be?

    I can see publishers not being a fan, b/c you can go too far with a grab-bag approach, although I think the general solution is somewhat longer books. They probably don’t like that either (or maybe authors wouldn’t be thrilled with that, b/c you’d have to write a bit more). But it seems publishing is in a widget mode…perhaps that’s why I see so many books that are very similar – covers, plots. Very cookie-cutter. You’ve got to dig as a reader to find something special sometimes.

  3. Pat D on September 18, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    When I’m at a book store I routinely check for favorite authors in several places they could be shelved. Their books, not the people! The employees don’t always know what classification to use. Even our local library branch quit shelving mystery books apart and rolled everything into fiction. That used to bug me until I realized that not everything I considered a mystery made it into that section.

  4. Susanna Kearsley on September 18, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Great post, Lauren. Like you, I have absolutely no idea what my genre is, or if I have one. But I have to admit that I covet that first cover for Pink Carnation–the one with the Burberry coat 🙂

    • Lauren on September 19, 2014 at 10:24 am

      As my book celebration, I went out and bought that bag. The cover may have changed, but the bag served me faithfully for many years….

    • Betty S. on September 19, 2014 at 11:19 am

      Your genre is absolutely fascinating, Susanna! I am reading Mariana now and have totally enjoyed Shadowy Horses, The Winter Sea, and Firebird!

  5. Christine on September 18, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    I don’t like labels. It reinforces stereotypes and could very easily keep someone from finding a book/series that they would really enjoy because they didn’t want to say they read a book from x section. If all the fiction was just shelved together, it would open up minds and a whole new world of books.

  6. Karen on September 18, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    I used to be really wed to genre when going to an actual bookstore. I would head straight to the mystery or science fiction section. But with bookstores going online and having less ability to flip through a book, I find I can be less attached to any particular genre. Instead I look at the books/authors I know I like and follow recommendations from them or other people who like their books (BTW Thanks for the Weekly Reading Round-up!). Now I prefer to try new books/series of any genre with recommendations of well developed characters, evocative writing and compelling plot. The most interesting work, I think, takes elements from multiple genres like Gail Carriger’s books, steampunk(itself a mix of genres) and paranormal romance, with a dash of mystery.

    One genre that I feel is often under served is that of Young Adult. I think there is some really excellent work there that gets lost in all the Teen Vampire or Dystopian Future clones, or brushed off as kid’s books. I recently read the Thief books by Megan Turner Whalen, which were compelling, beautifully written books with adventure, fantastical elements, political intrigue, and even romance. They are great books for teens and adults. I also really enjoyed Maggie Steifvater’s The Scorpio Races, which was YA/fantasy/romance/horse genres, what more could you ask for?

  7. Simone St. James on September 18, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    This post speaks to me, as you know 🙂 When asked the polite question “what do you write?” I have to reply with “Historical gothic mystery romance ghost stories.” This gets the expected silent response.

    But because my editor is a longtime romance editor, she has always wanted my books to appeal to a romance audience, even though my books are not shelved in romance. Romance readers have taken to my books (hello, RITAs.) Mystery readers haven’t. Shrug. Readers are readers, no matter how they find me!

    • Lynne on September 19, 2014 at 12:28 am

      Gosh, Simone – I love your response! A real conversation killer but why ever do people ask? Do they want to seem more intellectual?? You should just answer “Really great fiction” and leave them guessing.

  8. Alice on September 18, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    I find that genre matters little to me. Apologies if this makes me sound like a shallow reader, but I primarily pick books based on the cover. I don’t purchase them based on the cover, but the cover is what fosters my initial interest. I browse multiple genres and look for covers that intrigue me. That is how I first came across “secrets of a lady” and “the secret history of the pink carnation.” I guess there really is something to the marketing department! I am one of those marketing suckers!

  9. […] Pink I: What’s In A Genre? – Lauren Willig has an amusing story about the arbitrariness of determining a book’s genre in the publishing industry. […]

  10. Deanna Raybourn on September 18, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    This…is familiar. 😉

  11. Donna Thorland on September 18, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    I love this post. It mirrors my own experience. My first book won the Toronto RWA’s Catherine award, so I was sure it was a romance, but editors weren’t as certain. Readers are similarly divided. When I think about my own reading habits, this makes a lot of sense, because my favorite authors (Lauren, Susanna and Simone included along with Elizabeth Peters and George McDonald Fraser and others who defy categorization) are tough to pigeon hole, and impossible to put down–which is more important to me than where they’re shelved in the book store!

  12. Sharlene Martin Moore on September 19, 2014 at 12:19 am

    As to what they are, they are fabulous.

  13. Lynne on September 19, 2014 at 12:23 am

    Oh, Lauren, who cares about genre? The story about the coffee maker was so hysterical I started coughing and laughing at the same time!! Okay…seriously…Deanna said it all – it’s all familiar. The publishing industry has been creating and renaming genre since my first job in a bookstore years ago. Yours will always be a mix of romance, mystery and history. And to be honest, I’ve found it in different places in different stores. We who love them do not care. But your article was great – I laughed all the way through. And regarding Tracy’s books: Not only a change of genre but a new publisher makes her change the character names…Good grief! The cover art is a whole other discussion, and a ridiculous one, at that. We beat that horse to death on Candy Harris’ blog a couple of months ago. Publishers are pretty clueless sometimes as to what attracts the eye of the reader. And some of the artists they employ are…hmmm…never mind.

  14. Ros on September 19, 2014 at 5:54 am

    I would categorize the Pink Carnation books as ‘historical romps’. Which I think is another new genre you just invented. Well done!

    • Rachel Beecroft on September 20, 2014 at 2:42 pm

      I absolutely second ‘historical romp’ as a genre – more of them please!

  15. SuzanneH on September 19, 2014 at 7:34 am

    It seems to me that people have a deep need to put other people in boxes with labels on. Perhaps the need to fit fiction into a genre is an extension of that. Personally, I think it is great that you, Lauren, and so many other authors don’t write to fit one of the pre-prepared boxes. That is what makes great, innovative fiction.

  16. Betty S. on September 19, 2014 at 11:16 am

    I agree with what everyone has said here – does it really matter? A reader knows a good book when read and will go back to those authors they enjoy. Can’t believe you’ve been through all of theses changes from publishers, bookstores, etc., Lauren. What an entertaining and I imagine frustrating experience you have related!

    Lynne is right that your books are a good mix of historical, romance, and mystery (which is what I believe I chimed in on Bubblebath Reader), along with humor.

    Keep on doing what you are doing. I really enjoyed hearing responses from the other authors on this1

  17. Alexa J on September 19, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    Fascinating stuff! I love these behind the scenes peeks into the making and writing of your books. The original covers drew me in, but I understand what the booksellers meant that they didn’t entirely match the tone of the books. The portraits are lovely but quite formal, and don’t capture the sense of the fun and humor (and youthfulness) in the early books.

  18. Kristi Burch on September 20, 2014 at 1:12 am

    Genre doesn’t matter to me. What matters is my opportunity to discover what I want to read. I have a hard time finding books I like due to this labeling books so wishy washy. Personally if a book fits into only one genre it’s uninteresting.

    I guess to keep it interesting you end up being confusing.

    Keep up the good work.

  19. jeffrey on September 20, 2014 at 6:35 am

    I’ve been accused by my family, friends, and associates as being ‘wierd’ because I read largely “chik-lit,” or historical romances, or adventures with strong female leads, or mysteries with imbedded romances, or, or, get my point? Having read so many of them I no longer even attempt to define genres. Instead I read AUTHORS. I find a book that I think will be a good entertaining read. If I really like it, I’ll read more from that author. If it is fantastic, I read ALL from that author and not so patiently wait for the next book to be published. Now not so patiently waiting for The Lure of the Moonflower! Get my point? Genres be D****D, full speed ahead.

  20. Tracy Grant on September 20, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Wonderful post, and a treat to see the covers for Daughter of the Game and Secrets of a Lady. The funny thing is both covers to me really fit the book and my series in general – which I think goes to how my books cross genre lines, as do many of the books I love to read, including Lauren’s.

    • Lynne on September 21, 2014 at 12:15 am

      Exactly, Tracy. And your covers and Lauren’s really speak to what’s inside, which many books do not. Maybe because I’m more visual, but I always check out the cover and if it doesn’t appeal I put the book dowm.

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