Peeling Off That Label

It took seven years before Publishers Weekly finally stopped referring to me as a former romance writer.  During that time, I wrote six thrillers.  One of them was a high-tech nail-biter set aboard the International Space Station (Gravity).  Another was a medical thriller about organ transplantation (Harvest).  Two  were serial killer novels.   Yet I’ve never quite been able to shake off that label of romance author. 

I’ve always been proud of my romance roots.  But I’ve been trying to expand my audience and let’s face it, there’s a whole swath of readers out there who despise romance novels, and if your name retains just a lingering whiff of “former romance author”, these readers will turn up their noses at all your books.  Soon after I was nominated for the Edgar Award, one mystery reader expressed surprise that it was my first nomination.  “You mean you’ve never won any awards before?” she asked.

 “I won a Rita Award for The Surgeon,” I told her. “From Romance Writers of America.

“Oh, that,” she said, and gave a dismissive wave.  That’s how little she thought of the Rita Award — and of romance novels in general.

I treasure my Rita.  The gorgeous statuette is displayed in a place of honor in my writing studio.  But with one wave of her hand, that woman told me exactly where she thought lowly romance novels resided in the literary universe.   

Unfortunately, the media seems to share her disdain.  That’s why so few romances get reviewed in large newspapers.  And when they do get reviewed, it’s with that snooty attitude of “this is a fun but mind-candy read”. 

So you can see why an author trying to establish herself in the mystery genre would find her romance-writing past an impediment to being taken seriously.  A few months ago, when I was hearing negative chatter about my Edgar nomination, it was no surprise that several critics were quick to dredge up my earlier career.  “Tess Gerritsen started off in romance, for god’s sakes!  How did she get nominated for an Edgar?” 

As if writing romance rots your brain and makes you unable to write anything else. 

Writers aren’t one-trick ponies.  Some of us need to be continually challenged.  I love getting out of my comfort zone and tackling a subject I know almost nothing about.  That’s why I wrote Gravity.  I love trying out new voices.  That’s why I created the character Mila in Vanish. 

Nowadays, I’m trying to peel off yet another label: “Medical thriller writer.”  My last six books have not been medical thrillers, but crime novels, starring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli.  Yes, there’s a medical examiner in the series, Dr. Maura Isles, but aside from the autopsy scenes, there’s nothing particularly medical about these books.  Yet when Vanish got the Edgar nomination, Library Journal called it “a medical thriller”.  And this was a novel about sex trafficking and defense contractors.

I guess I should just be grateful they didn’t add “and it was written by a former romance author!”

The lesson here is this: if you try to evolve as a writer, if you try to do something new or startling or different, the media’s going to hold you back.  Once they’ve slapped a label on you, that label’s going to stick, unless you work hard to shed it.  You may have to write five or ten or even twenty books before you’re accepted in your new genre. 

If ever.

 

50 replies
  1. J. Carson Black
    J. Carson Black says:

    The chain I have to drag around behind me is “Original Paperback”. Orginal paperback works well for romance and romantic suspense writers, but it’s hard to get any respect (or even acknowledgment) as a paperback writer in the mystery genre. Maybe the movers and shakers out there naturally assume original paperback writers all come tinged with the romance brush? Or, more likely, that we’re just subpar.

  2. Loreth Anne White
    Loreth Anne White says:

    Sobering words for this writer of romance. As always, Tess, food for thought. On one hand, it seems you need to brand yourself, then on the other, it can clearly turn against you when you wish to stretch.

    * This comment written by a ‘former journalist’ 🙂 :)*

    Loreth

  3. Daniel Hatadi
    Daniel Hatadi says:

    I think the only way around labelling is to write a completely different novel every time. One such author that comes to mind is Jonathan Lethem, who bends and combines genres with every book.

    But that’s probably his label: “genre bender”.

  4. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Hi Tess. I think you’ve proved yourself across the genres. I wouldn’t worry much about a few bonehead critics. How many best selling novels have they produced?

  5. writeforlove
    writeforlove says:

    No matter the genre, you’re a bestseller and that’s the ONLY category I would ever see.

    Labels are attached to every part of life–from gradeschool recess to the work force to what types of cocktails you drink. You might collect a bunch of nicknames, but the people who matter always call you by your real name.

  6. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    I love the new site! People look for labels because they lack the creativity to see beyond them. They need to call you something to make it easier for them to understand. “ah romance writer” I admire you more for embracing your roots- and having the courage to push the boundaries

  7. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    I’ve read every one of your single title books and they’ve gotten better and better, but I’ve enjoyed them all. You’ve never disappointed me, and Mila is the best secondary character you’ve ever created. I was sucked so deeply into VANISH that everything in my life disappeared until I finally got to “the end.” (Geez, I sound like such a kiss ass, but it’s true 🙂

    Since I write romantic suspense, I know I’ll be “stuck” (for lack of a better word) by some people who think this is a bad thing. I already get email from people who are shocked they had to go to the romance shelf to find my first book (since it was take off the new release table.) Two people emailed me and said I needed to call the bookstore and tell them they got it wrong.

    I tell them, well, my hero and heroine both lived at the end of the book and were together, so it’s considered a romance. (Yes, I know, a little tongue-in-cheek.)

    Anyway, thank you for the comments! I love your blog and you never fail to say exactly what I was thinking, or give me an insight I’d never considered.

  8. Samantha Ling
    Samantha Ling says:

    I’ve always heard that there’s an hierarchy of writing coolness. Literary writers are better than popular fiction authors, who are better than mystery writers, who are better than science fiction/fantasy/horror writers, who are better than romance writers. And romance writers are only better than slash fic writers.

    There will always be writers that poopoo other genres. I think the reason for this hierarchy is associated with the people who supposedly read these genres. Literary fiction is read by the brainiacs and therefore better than everyone else. Popular fiction is read by the mass audience and therefore OK. Science fiction/fantasy/horror audiences are freaks of nature that can cite every line of every episode of Star Trek in all its incarnations. But they’re better than romance readers because science fiction actually requires science and it makes you *think*, whereas romance is read by lonely housewives who want to be saved by a hunky knight in shining armor. This isn’t always the case. But people tend to lump everyone into a particular group if they can.

    I think that fiction is fiction regardless of genre. There’s always going to be bad fiction, but that has nothing to do with genre. The populace seems to associate only the bad one’s with the particular genres.

    Even though the media has slapped labels on you, the fact that you have millions of readers all over the world means that nobody’s really paying too much attention to them.

  9. PJ Parrish
    PJ Parrish says:

    Hi Tess.
    Nice remodeling job.

    As an ex-romance writer, I feel your pain. Luckily, I worked under a pen name in my old days (Kristy Daniels) so I shed that skin easily. Now, as Jake says, I drag around the PBO label. But I’m not whining; I’m making a living.

    I gotta smile when I hear crime writers bashing romance writers. Especially since hardboiled books aren’t selling as well as they used to and romantic suspense is hotter than ever. I smell sour grapes in a lot of this…ie jealousy over sales.

    Just for the record, my old romance books are still available in the used book market. You can pick them up for 1 cent each! Except for one British HC version which is going for $75. Must be the hot cover!

  10. J. Carson Black
    J. Carson Black says:

    I guess we all have something that’s not perfect. It’s hard to quantify the good and bad of starting in orginal paperback versus hardcover, especially when you’re talking small hardcover, which may get reviews but also small printings. Plenty of writers have gone from original paperback to stardom; Laura Lippman and Harlan Coben come to mind. Still, I’ve read some unpleasant things reviewers say about OP, just as they do about romance writers. Kind of like we’re claimers in a stakes race.

    On the bright side, we sell a lot more books. 🙂

  11. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Didn’t Stephen King also start out as PBO? I seem to recall that was how CARRIE first got published. My memory is shot though.

    Critics and the vast majority of readers (you know who you are) like labels. Labels are comfortable. It allows them to pigeonhole you into their comfort zone. I see a benefit to labelling, but the disadvantages are legion. It’s more exciting for the writers (and the reader!) when an author can bend rules and blur lines.

    And as far as secondary characters go – hey I liked Mila but the pregnant woman from BODY DOUBLE (OK, brain fart – can’t remember her name) just rocked my world.

  12. J. Carson Black
    J. Carson Black says:

    From what I gather from his book ON WRITING, Stephen King sold CARRIE in hardcover for very little money. Then someone bought the paperback rights for $400,000. I guess he nearly fainted dead away.

    I loved BODY DOUBLE. I’m starting VANISH next.

  13. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    Wendy, I’m having a brain fart too. But I read the book over a year ago, so . . . but I agree, I remember that character. But I think Mila resonated with me because she was in first person present and I really felt like I was in her shoes. I loved the tension between the third past and first present scenes.

    Interesting PJ and Jake about the PBO issue. I hadn’t really thought about it. I know hardcovers get reviewed far more than PBOs (I mean, there are far more PBOs released every month but when you look at PW you get 50 or more hardcover reviews across all fiction genres and 4 under mass market) . . . but for a new author, how can we expect someone to fork over $20-25 when we haven’t proven ourselves? It’s a lot of money on an unknown quantity.

  14. Mark Terry
    Mark Terry says:

    Just so you know, I review mysteries and thrillers for The Oakland Press, in Michigan. My editor, Dolly Moiseeff, reviews romances. She gets pretty much a full-page for her own reviews (Romance Week) once a month. As she commented to me, romance and mystery are pretty much the biggest genre markets.

    There are books that don’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work for other readers, and romance definitely qualifies. Who’s to say what’s good or bad?

    Best,
    Mark Terry
    http://www.mark-terry.com

  15. DeLys
    DeLys says:

    Hi Tess! I just want to say as a new reader of your novels, I am astounded at your talent. I have read just about every genre and you are right up there with my favorite authors. About six months ago I was in Half Price Books in Dallas trying to find some old copies of books by another writer I was reading at the time and I “accidentally” stumbled across your book, The Surgeon. The title caught my eye on the shelf above the shelf I was looking on at the time. I read the synopsis and thought it sounded good, so (and it turns out luckily) I went through all of your books there to decide which was the first in the series. I saw that The Surgeon looked like it was first in the series and I bought it.

    A couple of weeks later my sister was in town from Michigan and we went there and I bought all the rest of the books in that series. Then, after reading the second one, I went on eBay and bought all your books. I have read everything now, except one or two of the really early romance novels and I am totally hooked. In fact, you could say I am now a bonafide Tess Gerritsen junky.

    My favorite by far, so far, was Gravity. That you could write a book that GREAT that is so far off from any of the other GREAT books you’ve written shows that you are not bound by genres. The romance aspect of Gravity was very well done and such a wonderful addition to the novel, too. I used to read a lot of romance when I was younger, but now I don’t read it at all because most of the time it bores me. I think that is because I am old and jaded now, with no romantic stars in my eyes. (haha) But, the romance in Gravity was outstanding and a total asset to the storyline. When Jack decided to die for Emma, if need be, even my jaded heart went pitterpat! 😉

    All I can say is get back to work, girl, before my hands start shaking!! 🙂

    DeLys

  16. MysteryGuild.com
    MysteryGuild.com says:

    We loved your latest in “Vanish”, and we look forward to selling “The Mephisto Club” – the latest “thriller” involving Maura Isles and detective Jane Rizzoli. Kudos on finally having the label “former romance writer” removed!

  17. stormbell
    stormbell says:

    I am not a writer but am a reader. I wouldn’t worry about some people who have closed minds. Most of the books I have read do not fit in the label where I find them. I love your books. If it hadn’t been for your romance book would never have checked out your other books. Many authors change their name when they move from romance but for those of us who read many different types of books that is how we branch out. By reading many types of books I have found many authors. Those same authors get better and better most of the time. So you follow them and see how they grow as well as wonderful books. Thank you for wonderful hours lost in reading.

  18. Ancient Reader
    Ancient Reader says:

    Hello Tess:
    I can only imagine the pains of being stuck with the romance author label when you were no longer writing romances.

    This is reminding me of the similar issue author Millenia Black is bogging about. Have you heard about it? Its outrageous! Her publisher made a most inappropriate request in an effort to label her racially.

    What do you think about that situation, I would love to hear your opinion on that.

  19. Tess
    Tess says:

    I’m very much aware of Millenia Black’s situation, and am in awe of her courage in standing her ground. I actually blogged on the topic of race and publishing sometime back, but it didn’t seem to draw much attention, because I think it only feels relevant to those who have to struggle with the issue — i.e., minority writers who get slotted into certain categories and can’t get out. My strategy, as a writer, is to play to the biggest audience possible. Not a niche. Not an ethnic sub-group. But to everyone. Publishers who try to limit the size of their author’s audience don’t do that author any service.

  20. Ancient Reader
    Ancient Reader says:

    Thanks:

    Ms. Tess Gerritsen, the fact that many authors have come from various forms of oppressed circumstances just trying to established a live of freedom for themselves, isn’t it a severe punishment to endure such imposition of limitations by publishers?

    I think about the struggles that you have mentioned concerning yourself, and what you had to do overcoming it. I observed that it required much and have taken many years to brake through that kind of branding. It seems that if you had Millenia Black’s “racial niche branding” you would never made it out in one million years? At least that’s how seriously unfair those kind of branding results. WOW!

    I’m really glad that you have eventually survive yours,
    you just keep on writing Tess.

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