The Actual Death of the American Author: On the Granularity of Genre

A few months back I responded to Scott Turow’s arguments about how copyright infringement and digital distribution would be the death of the American author. But it got me thinking about what other pernicious threats the American author might be facing.

First, to be clear, I think an integral part of Turow’s “American Author” is that the author subsists on income from his or her writing. Hence Turow’s concern over his perceived elision of the value of copyright. An author willing to work two other jobs while writing just for the chance to tell his or her stories doesn’t really count, because this author shouldn’t give one damn about copyright — payment is a bonus, being read is the reward. So let’s take this as rote: when we talk about the death of the American author, we’re talking about the death of the American author who earns his or her income through writing.

To my mind the biggest threat to this incarnation of the American author (after our our failing education system) is the fact that marketing departments have the final say in whether or not a title will be pushed by the publisher. Most publishers will only seriously market one or two of their titles every year, the rest are orphaned almost immediately by marketing departments. If an author wants attention for his or her book, the author must take up that responsibility. This is especially true if the marketing department doesn’t have a very clear idea of how, where, and to who to market the book.

Now, this offloading of duties has all sorts of unpleasant side effects. From the simple fact that it leaves the author less time to actually write to all the various complications of having a public image and being the face of your book. What I want to talk about today is what this change has done to the granularity of genre, and why it’s a bad thing.

Granularity, if you don’t know (which, just a few months ago, I didn’t, so let me save you the trouble of reading the Wikipedia entry) is a term for how extensively the parts of a system are broken down into smaller subdivisions. Imagine a box of rocks, if it’s a box with just one big rock it has very low granularity, if it’s a box of gravel it has much higher granularity, just like how one mile (a big rock in the box of Measurements) can also be measured in feet or inches. High granularity may be great for scientists as it lets them measure more accurately, but it sucks for writers.

Go back in time far enough and there was no genre, there were just stories. One big rock. By the time Aristotle is done with storytelling he’s got it broken down into a handful of genres: poetry, plays, rhetoric (yes, I know that’s a bastardized approximation of his taxonomy, go with me), and a handful of subgenres for each larger genre, like tragedy and comedy in plays. More importantly for our purposes, Aristotle has very specific rules about what each genre can and cannot do.

Obviously a system with rules can lead to fantastic results when some brave soul wittingly violates those rules. When Cervantes wrote Don Quixote the popular genre of fiction was chivalric romance. Cervantes followed the rules, broke the rules, redefined fiction, and revolutionized the novel. Literature still operates in his shadow — whether or not everyone realizes it.

Of course, Cervantes didn’t have to market his book.

Fast forward to today and a marketing-driven mainstream literature scene obsessed with high granularity genre. I mean, look at this list from Writer’s Digest. It’s got more than a hundred subgenres for the five main genres that make up “genre” fiction, and if you’ve been paying careful attention you know that this isn’t even fully comprehensive.

This makes sense for marketing. If the marketing department knows exactly what a book is they know exactly how to market it, and they know exactly who to target based on the rather thorough data-mining systems we live with every day. The problem is that publishers become less likely to take risks on books that they’re not sure how to market. They’re running a business, they want returns on their investments, and a book that’s easy to define is easier to market and thus easier to sell. This means that if an author wants to sell a book in this world, they need to be able to specifically describe the genre and subgenre of their work. And they have to follow the rules.

At this level of granularity there isn’t room left to play. Even thirty years ago genre was just romance, mystery, sf&f (yes, I know, I hate that grouping too), and horror (maybe western, too, depending on when we’re talking). So long as your book was 51% any genre, that genre would take you. But as granularity increases, the scope for crossing boundaries decreases. When storytelling was four or five big rocks in a box, crossing boundaries gave an author a ton of room to maneuver and create. Today we’ve got a box of gravel, and crossing boundaries means the author only has a few surrounding grains to play with before the transgression becomes too broad and the marketing department doesn’t know what to do so the publisher won’t take the chance.

The problem’s getting worse, too. Remember that hackathon that was supposed to save publishing? Well, it may save publishing, but it’s going to kill Turow’s author. The winning idea from the hackathon is a piece of software that will recommend books based on what sort of characteristics readers want in their protagonists. That’s a whole other layer of granularity: not only do you have to worry about which of the hundred subgenres your book will fit into, but you need to worry about, essentially, the genre of your main character.

At this point there’s not room left for free expression in writing. The author’s work must fill a very specific product niche, and failure to conform to all of the strictures of that niche means that the resultant work will be left out in the cold, impossible to market. That means mainstream publishing will never see another Don Quixote, another Moby DickTristram ShandyGravity’s Rainbow, The Yellow WallpaperAlice in WonderlandHouse of Leaves. And what if the Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, or the Brontë sisters had to worry about how they were going to market their books?

Of course, any author you ask will tell you that trying to write something because you think it will sell is a huge mistake. You write the stories you love, the stories you want to tell, and that only you can tell. But writers’ work is shaped by their influences, and this system also gives the author problems on the side of influence. An integral part of being an author is reading widely, but as granularity increases, being widely read narrows from “Yes, I read fiction, poetry, and history books,” to, “Yes, I read steampunk, urban fantasy, and alternate history books.” An author can feel widely read without ever having read outside of a single genre that’s already a subgenre of prose fiction, so that author is already hobbled when it comes to the possibility of producing  sweeping, transgressive work like Slaughterhouse Five or Geek Love. And, good god, forget about Ulysses.

“Sweeping” is a key term there. As the granularity of genre increases, the size of the audience decreases. The whole point of the exercise for the marketing department is to narrow down the target demographic as much as possible. The more specific a group of people, the easier they are to market to, and the lest overall cost goes into trying to reach them. But as this granularity increases, the opportunities for a book to break out of its target audience and reach the wider public decreases. Readers identify more strongly with specific genres or subgenres, and resist more strongly when asked to step outside of that zone that is tied in to their self-identification. We see this broadly in adults that refuse to read YA, or literary readers who refuse to engage with Science Fiction (there are a lot of reasons Atwood was so pissed about the possibility of being labeled as a SF writer, and I don’t doubt that the damage it would have done to the size of her audience was one of them).

So I guess what I’m getting at is that one of the major threats to Turow’s American author is coming from inside the industry. The Visigoths, Vandals, and Saracens aren’t all lined up outside the gates, they’re at work in the marketing department. It doesn’t matter how fortified an author’s copyright is if the author is producing a limited product for a limited audience. The art-form will stagnate, and the author’s income will shrink, and this will happen in the service of profits for the big publishing houses. Make no mistake, if they know who to market to, and how big an audience is, they will control their costs and maximize their profits. They will print exactly the number of copies they know they can sell, and not one more. Once they’ve sold those copies, the book will disappear from shelves, because there’s no more money to be made from it, and no one will mourn the disappearance of a product tailored for a specific audience at a specific time.

Maybe there’s a living to be made by writers in this environment, but if there is, it’s a sad and workaday sort of thing. Me? I’ll keep writing stories, giving most of them away for free or for pittances, and working in the bookstore — where I will do my damnedest to get readers to push their boundaries.


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One Response to “The Actual Death of the American Author: On the Granularity of Genre”

  1. Because We Can Never Talk About Genre Enough | The Willarium Says:

    […] it helped clarify for me. Our current conceptions of “genre” are highly problematic; I’ve previously talked about how their increasing granularity is bad for writers.What Rothman does so nicely in his article is briefly explain Northrop Frye’s genre […]

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