Thursday, March 18, 2010

Defying Categorization

I recently read a Facebook mini-rant from an accomplished novelist expressing frustration that people insist on categorizing her book as “women’s lit.” She noted that there’s no such category as “man’s lit,” and suggested just plain “lit” would be a more appropriate description for what she’s doing, and a whole lot less condescending.

Fool that I am, although I don’t really know her (we have a professional connection that makes us “friends”) I waded into the infested water with a comment of my own. (By the way, I have deleted my link to the thread on my Facebook page to protect her privacy.) My thought was that if being put in a category like “women’s lit” is tantamount to being condescended to, then men are condescended to plenty. Maybe, I suggested, there’s more to this issue than sexism.

Well, naturally, that made me the skunk at the garden party, with several other women asserting the presence of a great sexist conspiracy. In fairness, no one used the word “conspiracy,” but the implication was there.

Now, I’m well aware that any attempt to defend oneself from sexism (or any other kind of ism) is like trying to answer the question, “Do you still beat your wife?” So, let me evade discussion of my underlying moral weakness and simply point out that (A) at least since the ascendency of the great Phyllis Grann from secretary to publisher of Putnam and beyond, women in book publishing have been well represented at the highest levels; (B) if I recall correctly, the very imprint that is publishing said author’s work was founded exclusively by women; (C) at least half the most powerful book agents are women; and (D) the majority of book readers are women. So, in the inclination to label certain books as “women’s lit” or whatever, something else might be going on.

Books are consumer goods, albeit special ones — cultural products. Like any product, they must compete in a crowded marketplace which, lately, to complicate matters, has more competition for people’s attention than ever before. And things that get sold must be categorized.

Is that fair? I don’t know. Is it fair that a man in the prime of life, jogging down the beach on Hilton Head Island earlier this week, died when a small plane crashed into him during an emergency landing? If it isn’t fair, it’s no less real.

Ask an editor or agent to think back to the last time she tried to sell a book that strained against categorization. Personally, although it’s been years, I still recall that sinking feeling when it dawns on you that the book you were so excited about last month — because it’s beautifully written or the writer is brilliant or what have you — ends up defying categorization. You know, when that feeling hits, that you’re in for a whole lot of uphill sledding.

Categories are a blunt instrument. But they’re also a necessary shortcut in the marketplace, a way to communicate quickly to potential readers: Hey, this might interest you. To call something merely “literature” tells them nothing but your aspirations, and very few people in the marketplace care, dear writer, that you’d one day like to be mentioned in the same sentence with Jane Austen or Marcel Proust, even if you’re right and you will be.

There’s a reason publishing professionals speak in breathless tones of books that “cross over.” For authors, this is apotheosis, that moment when you rise above the categorical fray. It’s what every writer hopes for, of course. But the cross-over success almost always grows from a foundation of core readers. Those readers are fans of mysteries or historical fiction or, yes, women’s lit. They’re the ones, when you succeed in breaking from the category, who will tell their friends, “If you read one historical novel in your life, let it be this one.”

Nelson Mandela said resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. He knew how to resist the system with positive energy, rather than tilting at windmills. And I’m guessing he didn’t once ask what category his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, got slotted into. He had bigger battles to fight.

Rise above.