From Phyllida's Desk

Class Warfare

August 10, 2008

OK, I confess—the title of this post is misleading. It’s the middle of August, everybody’s on vacation, absolutely nothing of interest seems to be happening (for those of us uninterested in the Olympics) so I thought I’d try something attention-grabbing.

No, I’m not writing about social or economic classes, but about classification. You probably know from an earlier post (“Zombie librarian returns to daylight world”) that I’m a librarian by profession, specifically a cataloger. While the daily grind of the job tends to boil down to tedious matters of punctuation and the correct forms of corporate names, theoretically cataloging is about “aboutness:” classifying works based on their subject.

Another confession: this will be, like all my posts, a discussion centering on my one published book. I can’t even genuinely apologize, because the fact is that’s all I have to talk about. My job, as you can see, does not make for fascinating reading; I live alone, not so much as a cat; and what I do with my free time is write (that’s the official version). So if I’m going to blog at all, and publishers strongly encourage their authors to do so, then all I can come up with is another angle to the Phyllida story. This time around, it’s Phyllida’s subject matter or category: as catalogers would say, its “class.”

Libraries and bookstores don’t shelve fiction by subject. Most of us are familiar with having to browse through the “fiction and literature” section arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. Awkward as this can be, can you think of a better system? Imagine trying to figure out the subject of Dave Eggers’s What is the What? if all you know is the title (“What”?) But this doesn’t mean works of fiction aren’t assigned subject headings. It’s just that these categories aren’t useful for arranging books physically on the shelves in what are called, so evocatively, “bricks and mortar” stores and libraries. There are usually the broad genre divisions for romance novels, sci-fi and mysteries, but that’s as deep as it goes, and a good thing too.

Online, of course, it’s a little different. If you find a book you like, and you want to see others like it, Amazon, for example, allows you to “look for similar items by category” and “by subject.” And here’s where things get complicated, at least for Phyllida. The Library of Congress, charged with cataloging every book published in the United States, has a wonderfully inclusive and thorough system. Phyllida’s one LC subject heading is Bisexuals—Fiction. But on Amazon, the system is more, as we say, “binary.” Amazon’s first category for Phyllida is Gay & Lesbian—Literature & Fiction—Fiction—Romance—Gay. As the lyrics to “Accentuate the Positive” warn us, “don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.” Since clearly there’s no Lesbian romance in Phyllida, and since it’s also been given Historical and Romance—Regency categories, no harm done, right?

I’m not so sure. At the height of Phyllida’s popularity, shortly after it went on sale, it was no. 2 in that Romance—Gay category. I joked then along the lines of, “Oh, man, will those readers be mad when they find out the title character is a woman.” As you see, I had fallen into an absurd error: assuming that the people who were buying the book were synonymous with the book’s assigned subject; that they were gay men looking for exclusively gay male romance. I certainly didn’t assume from the fact that Phyllida had a slightly lower but still respectable ranking in the Regency category that the buyers were miraculously preserved two-hundred-year-olds. The rankings say nothing about the readers, but only where a book’s sales rank in relationship to other books given the same subject headings.

Still, is there perhaps some validity to my worry? That is, do these broad subject headings create confusion, even resentment when a book doesn’t quite fit the Procrustean bed into which it’s been forced? If you look at the “tags” that readers have assigned to Phyllida, you’ll see that the most popular ones are things like “romantic comedy,” “bisexual romance” and “regency”--all more or less accurate and expected--then down to “trashy” (Hmm…is this good or bad, given the well-known Smart Bitches blog) and “bad porn” (Is it “bad” if you weren’t trying to write porn in the first place—or is that the definition of “bad porn”?) If you click to see all tags, the next to last is “gayness is fixable” (Who knew it was broken?)

This saddens me. Apart from whether this reader “misinterpreted” the story, it tells me that using “Gay” as part of the subject heading may lead to false expectations. If you buy a book thinking you’re getting a gay romance, and the story turns out instead to be a variation on the marriage-of-convenience plot of a Regency romance in which a primarily same-sex oriented man falls in love with his wife—well, that could strike you as funny, disgusting, amusingly different, or, as here, threatening and offensive.

Yes, a potential reader could check out some of the descriptive text and reviews. But many readers don’t, perhaps because they don’t trust them to be “objective.” An assigned subject heading by a supposedly neutral party, the Library of Congress, say, or Amazon, seems a safer guide. But if the system isn’t fine-tuned, you get reactions like this.

On the other hand, and to close on a happy note, I want to state here, for the record, that I have come to embrace the Romance category wholeheartedly, unashamedly and proudly for Phyllida. I admit to having vacillated many times on whether to use the word “romance.” One reason was that a love story involving three people might not fit everyone’s definition of a romance. Just as the Gay subject heading seemed misleading, so did I worry about Romance. While it seemed to me that any love story with a happy ending could be called a “romance novel” in the modern sense, there were times when I felt that “romantic comedy” was a more accurate description.

Here’s what changed my mind: Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (University of Pennsylvania Press, c2003). This is a brilliant and necessary work of scholarship, and I hope to write more about it in later posts, and why I am reading it at this particular moment. For now, I will merely say that Ms. Regis writes a clear and comprehensive definition of the romance novel, listing its eight “essential elements,” without which a work is not a romance novel, and three “accidental elements” that a romance may include but aren’t necessary.

Although, as I say in my note at the end of Phyllida that the book “began life as a Regency romance,” I had little confidence when I finished writing it that I had actually managed to produce one. But when I went over Ms. Regis’s list, I found that Phyllida contains all eight essential elements and two of the three options, and that they’re easy to identify in the story. Don’t know how I managed it, but I did. I guess all that romance-novel reading paid off, and that we can, in fact, learn from experience.

Selected Works

Fantasy, Women's Fiction (e-books)
Book Six in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Five in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Four in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Three in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book Two in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Book One in the ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs.
Short Story
A queered version of the Cinderella story in the 4th Gay City anthology, "At Second Glance."
Newsletter article
Describes the typical upbringing of middle- and upper-class children in Austen's time.
Romantic Comedy, M/M/F Menage
A breezy tale of love, lust and secrets set against the backdrop of Regency England.