Scuttlebutt has it that there’s some writerly “advice” afloat, to the effect that authors should stick to writing in only one genre. I’ve heard this little gem from different bloggers, but I don’t know who originated it, nor do I know why it’s been promulgated – although one rumor is that it’s to keep from upsetting and losing readers.
If that’s true, then this counsel smacks of ivory tower contempt of the worst kind: that which is founded on utter ignorance. What reader would be so immature as to resent and retaliate against an author just for writing something different? A book that one reader doesn’t care for, another will probably like. And whereas only the first sale of a copy of a book provides pocket money for authors, their heirs or assigns, the used book market is still thriving (I’ve dropped a chunk or two of change there, myself).
It never bothered me that Zane Grey wrote stuff other than cowboy stories. I didn’t care much for his fishing anecdotes or his sport shorts, or even his south seas island adventure novel, but I still own most of what he wrote – purchases that undoubtedly helped keep his estate in the black. I rather doubt that genre-hopping was (or ever will be), the motive for the Bonfire of the Vanities or any other book burnings.
I bring this up, because some bloggers who’ve mentioned this seemed to be perplexed or even troubled by it. They’ve conceived of tales that are outside of their usual genre, and they want to tell these stories, but some are afraid to do so, and others are wary of publishing output that they’ve been led to believe was irresponsible for them to have produced. You’d almost think that genre-switching is a criminal waste of creative energy.
I have news for closet creativity criminals: creativity is not a zero-sum game. There’s always room for more, and for more variety. Changing genre is not illegal, immoral or unethical, and we don’t need to beat ourselves up about it. Any genre quota police we may encounter are self-appointed, so we can just thumb our noses at them, and go on our happy genre-hopping ways.
Writers have enough monsters under the bed, to worry about – such as labeling their work with a genre, to begin with. There’s all kinds of Sturm und Drang about this, as Tara Sparling recently pointed out in another of her perspicacious posts. Some genres seem to be stereotypical. Others are just inadequate for the job. But writers are forced to brand their books with these stigmata – in the form of Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) codes – for fear of inadequate “discoverability.”
It occurred to me that a generation or so ago, it didn’t seem to be all that hard to find books, even if they did lack UPCs, ISBNs and the infamous BISACs. Then, being the noseypoker that I am, I wondered who was the mastermind behind the BISAC system. It happens to be the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). Apparently, a few publishing, manufacturing and marketing gurus got together over lunch during a trade show in 1975, and decided that they didn’t like having to use the Dewey Decimal System while conducting research. Hey, presto – the BISG was born, trailing clouds of glorious BISAC codes (apologies to William Wordsworth).*
Now, why Dewey should have been deemed inadequate for categorizing books, when it’s as infinitely divisible as a number line, escapes me. But, in general, that’s why we ended up with BISAC codes, which not only have to be emblazoned on the back cover of every book, but which also get revised every year – and that means the “discoverability” you thought you had clinched, is still likely to go the way of the dodo.
After all the hate and discontent of sorting out your work’s genre, isn’t it nice to know that your book may be bound for the Bermuda Triangle, anyway? “Discoverability,” thy name is Area 51. Well, at least Elvis and JFK will have plenty to read.
* The organization says its membership includes “publishers, booksellers, manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, libraries, trade associations, and others.” In addition to the businesses, there are a number of individuals (occupations not stated) on its membership list. They must be the “others,” because leaving aside the “Authors Guild,” membership of identified writers seems to be a bit thin on the ground.