The problem of genre: “Grit Romance”?

Labels are terribly useful to the majority of human beings. I find them useful insofar as I understand the definition of the label used, although this is usually a 50/50 proposition for me. As a method of efficient inventory control and meeting customer expectations, genre labels simply can’t be beat. The publisher knows which buyer to go to and the bookseller knows where to shelve it.

question-mark-715902But lately, there’s been a lot of cross- and mis-labeling going on inside genre fiction, leading readers to scratch their heads and wonder, “This isn’t X. Why did they put it on X shelf?”

Science fiction with romantic elements or a science fiction romance or a romance with a science fiction backdrop?

Fantasy, ditto above permutations.

Paranormal, ditto above permutations.

Speculative fiction/steampunk/cyberpunk, ditto above permutations.

Suspense, ditto above permutations.

Erotic! and ditto above permutations.

Mystery, ditto above permutations.

Spy, ditto above permutations.

Whatever other genres I missed, ditto above permutations.

A reader may or may not be willing to go along with the story regardless what it is and where it takes them (that’s the kind of reader I am), but some buy books specifically on spine label, cover cues, and back blurb so that they can get exactly (or pretty close to it) what they want.

Today, some independent publishing friends and I have been discussing our books, about how disparate our stories are, how we view ourselves in completely different genres, and how our books all have one thing in common: They are not classifiable, except by “drama.” (Well, why can’t “drama” be its own genre? Or is it? I don’t see it used anywhere.) They’re all a mix, all dark and gritty, with romance and a happily-ever-after (the one and only real requirement to be considered romance).

I don’t know how to classify The Proviso. I never did. Drama? Yeah, plenty of that. Family saga? Check. Epic? Uh, most definitely, as it takes place over the course of 5 years. But epic what? I can’t think of a book I could compare it to. Healthy doses of religion and spirituality mixed in with money and explicit sex? What? What’s anybody supposed to do with that? It’s not LDS romance/literature/fiction (defined as anything that could be sold at Deseret Book/Seagull), although I could call it Mormon fiction if a criteria of “Mormon” is that a Mormon wrote it. I call it a romance because I see myself as a romance writer.

The editors at one publishing house liked The Proviso, passed it around to get a roundtable opinion, but ultimately rejected it. “We don’t know where to put it. The religion isn’t going to go over with our erotic romance readers and the explicit sex isn’t going to go over with our inspirational readers.” That was good to know.

I know that RJ Keller, whose Waiting for Spring, got the attention of several agents, was told that she would have to extensively revise her book to be commercially viable. Most egregiously, she’d have to cut out the drug references, except…the drugs is the keystone of her plot. Hello? She finds her book marketed on all the free sites as a romance, but she does not consider herself a romance author.

Kel pointed me in the direction of Lauri Shaw, whose book, Servicing the Pole (that title’s as ballsy as using The Bewbies for my cover), had a lot of interest, but would have required extensive changes in order for it to be considered commercial. This is from Ms. Shaw’s website:

However, when professionals who were interested in selling my work insisted I’d need to make drastic changes to Servicing the Pole to make it a commercial prospect, I had to ask myself if the end justified the means. After all, these people were able to guarantee me little to nothing on the front end.

I was told that the book was too dark. That I’d have better luck catching the reader’s fancy if I made the story into something upbeat. The suggestion I took the most issue with, though, was that I ought to transform Emily into a more ‘likeable’ character. To do so would have been to change virtually every theme in this story.

I’m proud of the story I’ve written. It’s a story I can stand behind.

Servicing the Pole also has a happily-ever-after (or at least a happily-for-now), but I don’t know how Ms. Shaw labels herself as a writer, as I have not spoken with her.

Note: Our books are all dark, gritty, nasty, twisted, with a happily-ever-after. That is what’s genre-busting about them.

You can call ’em drama or epics or family sagas, or whatever you want.

Kel calls ’em “gritty romance.”

Gritty romance.

I like it.

17 thoughts on “The problem of genre: “Grit Romance”?

  • February 1, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    I was thinking about this just the other day as I was wandering through B&N picking up a book for my daughter. I got to wondering where B&N would shelve The Proviso if it was stocked. After looking at the titles, covers, etc. in the different sections I thought about (romance, general fiction, and religious interests) I decided general fiction would be it. I guess I just don’t understand what’s so difficult about putting it in that category from a publisher’s perspective.

    On another note, I may have missed it elsewhere in the blog, but has the owner of The Bewbies been outed? I must say, they are a nice pair. I was trying to visualize them on the B&N shelf and thought the cover would look mighty enticing for one to pick up and read the blurb. 🙂

  • February 1, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    I’m not a genre-specific reader, so I’ve found this whole marketing thing to be a bit daunting. I’ll pick up a book that appeals to me, whether because of cover or blurb – whatever the genre – and if that writer has grabbed me, I’ll keep reading. But I find myself drawn to gritty books that don’t fit into a particular category. Yours, for example, and Ms Shaw’s books grabbed me right away. In the bookstore, I gravitate towards authors like Luke Davies and Alicia Erian…neither of whom fit into a genre. If pressed, I’d call their books “dramas.”

    I’ve discovered, though, that most readers aren’t like that, and I have to figure out a way to adjust. It’s been my biggest challenge as an indie writer. I’ll take the “Grit Lit” label, though. It would awesome if it caught on.

  • February 1, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    On another note, I may have missed it elsewhere in the blog, but has the owner of The Bewbies been outed? I must say, they are a nice pair.

    No, it was a stock photo, and I did notify the photographer. They like to know where their work is used and he liked my cover.

    Yeah, I’m a little green about that rack myself.

    I’ll take the “Grit Lit” label, though. It would awesome if it caught on.

    “Grit lit” is taken, but I’m not sure by whom. I thought I’d heard of it before so after we e-mailed, I went a-googling.

    In one incarnation, it’s alias is “dirty realism” and its overriding feature is minimalism. I’m verbosely descriptive (Th.’s nodding his head furiously at that, I’m sure), so that wouldn’t pertain to me.

    Also, apparently, “dirty realism” doesn’t have an HEA (happily ever after) or even a HFN (happily for now).

    Must. Have. Happy. Ending.

    Most of the time.

    The other incarnation of “grit lit” is apparently being spearheaded by Michelle Buckman, who may be more along the lines of what we write, although I don’t know if she has happy endings.

    Her novels are contemporary stories plotted around issues facing women and teens today, including infertility, abstinence, rape, molestation, and teen pregnancy. Her books are Christian in that they offer a Christian world-view of morals and depict characters applying their faith as they work through the story’s conflict, but her writing is defined as being “grit-lit” in that it faces issues straight on, often with scenes meant to stimulate emotional responses in readers.

    If that’s the newest definition, yeah, I could go with that, most definitely.

  • February 1, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    The good news: as the top-heavy leaking hulk of a ship which is the old publishing model–along with all the imprints which don’t even know that they are no longer a brand–sinks into the sunset, hopefully it will take all the genre obsession with them and good books will once again float to the surface on their own merit.

  • February 1, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Yeah, but as long as people want specific things from their pleasure reading, “genre” isn’t going to go away. The trick is to find a way to label them correctly.

    Oh, there’s that L-word again.

  • February 1, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Must. Have. Happy. Ending.

    Most of the time.

    I can do without it if the story is done right.

    …her writing is defined as being “grit-lit” in that it faces issues straight on, often with scenes meant to stimulate emotional responses in readers.

    Yeah, I can dig that.

  • February 1, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Do you get the sense, like I do, that “grit lit” might be getting a re-definition?

  • February 2, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    I did a bit more research this afternoon and discovered that ‘grit lit’ is apparently a Southern writer term. Being a Damn Yankee, I didn’t make the grit/grits connection.

    But in all seriousness, I do think it’s being redefined, or at least that it’s ready for a new definition. The more I think about it, the more I like dirty realism. The biggest criticism about my book (so far!) is that the thing is ‘too realistic.’ I took it as a compliment.

  • February 2, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    I can see yours being dirty realism. Mine? No. Not minimalist enough and while yours is dramatic, mine is melodramatic, so I could go with “grit lit” as it seem to be in the process of being redefined.

    And I never did get into Southern Angst nee Gothic.

  • February 2, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    And, see, it’s the oddest thing, I LOVE books that bend genres, that take the old, tired tropes and present them in a new and never-before-seen light. But the trend these days is “niche” publishing, puking out the same old same old with a new cover and interchangeable blurbs. Cookie cutter fiction. I wish you all the best with THE PROVISO and commend your courage for defying categorization and attempting to bring something new to the table.

    More power to you…

  • February 3, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Grit lit – what a great label. Hope you don’t mind if I pinch – uh, borrow – it from you. 🙂

    If you think your cover’s risque, you should check out a memoir by this male stripper I know. I have a link to him on my page…

  • February 3, 2009 at 10:30 am

    it’s the oddest thing, I LOVE books that bend genres, that take the old, tired tropes and present them in a new and never-before-seen light

    I do, too, and either I’m not looking in the right places for them or they’re not high-profile enough or they’re not being published. Fortunately, I’ve been able to find some of those in the indie-pub world lately. Kel’s book was awesome.

    Lauri, you’ll have to ask Kel. She’s the one who thunk it up, but lady, you better believe I’m going to read your book! Servicing the Pole. That’s AWESOME.

    Cliff and Lauri, please hang out more!

  • February 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Sure, you can pinch it, Lauri.

    Thanks MoJo! Must be Mutual Admiration Society Day or something, because I think your book is awesome, too.

    I found Lauri’s book at Web Fiction Guide. They list and review free online books. There’s some cool stuff listed there, with lots of out-of-the-ordinary fare (my book included [/shameless plug])

  • February 4, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    The book publishing world has a HUGE label problem. Music has a similar problem, except that there’s a viable indie scene (actually, dozens of scenes). I don’t consider myself an indie music fan as it’s normally conceived, but a good half the music I listen to is indie in every way that counts — you generally won’t see it shelved in chain stores or hear it on commercial radio, and some of it can’t even be found on iTunes, either. But there is a dedicated community of listeners who go out of their way to find it and buy it, and there are a few independent publishers who make it possible. (And there are also a lot of bands doing what you all are doing with your books, too.) I dunno what kind of living these musicians make, but they do get heard.

    Seems to me that publishing has been handcuffed (or has handcuffed itself?) by its own perception of its audience. I mean, do they ever think that a book that doesn’t quite fit the erotic romance mold or the inspirational romance mold, but has riveting drama and interesting characters might just appeal to parts of BOTH those audiences instead of neither?

    This looks to me like an industry that’s too frightened of dying to survive.

    I dunno, though; maybe I’m overestimating the independent part of the music biz and underestimating the indie part of book publishing.

  • February 4, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    I think that indie music has two major advantages over indie publishing:

    1. The ability of its artists to make money via touring and merchandise.

    2. The shortness of the dominant form (pop song vs. novel) and what that means for the social nature of the two art forms/industries. Music is much more easily shared, discussed, listed, reviewed, consumed, etc. Yes, there are book clubs and GoodReads and all that. But it’s a lot easier to develop a lifestyle around a band than an author. Not that that doesn’t happen (JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Neil Gaiman, etc.). But much more difficult.

    Okay, I’m going to cheat and add a three:

    3. It’s much easier (although not easy) to build and promote a scene with music. More opportunities for collaboration, cross-promotion, shared aesthetics, shared knowledge, shared touring, etc. And for all those to spill into ways for fans to benefit and participate.

    This is why I think that authors should focus on creating a property (and some speculative fiction authors and I would guess romance authors are quite good at doing this) that can lead to more indie music-like activities (including fan fiction, products, conventions, collaborations, etc.). And the biggest barrier there, imo, is that the marketplace and culture is still so tied in to novels, which take a long time to write and read.

  • February 4, 2009 at 4:12 pm


    riveting drama and interesting characters might just appeal to parts of BOTH those audiences instead of neither?

    Yeah, I’m not sure how to get that across in a couple of sentences, though, which is my biggest problem. “Riff off Hamlet” has become my go-to Q&D answer.

    This is why I think that authors should focus on creating a property (and some speculative fiction authors and I would guess romance authors are quite good at doing this)

    This is the conclusion I’m slowly coming to, Wm. Have you been following David Nygren’s side of our conversation on monetizing fiction?

  • August 16, 2010 at 4:46 am

    I came across this thread quite by accident in a google search, and saw my name mentioned. “Grit Lit” is definitely going strong. In most cases, the story needs a happy ending to counter the darkness that the character and reader have traveled throughout the story. My newest book, RACHEL’S CONTRITION, which releases in a few weeks is definitely Grit-Lit. Given the subject of a mother suffering from the death of her child, I wouldn’t say it has a happy ending, but it does have an uplifting ending.

    Michelle Buckman


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