Label Books, Not Writers

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been giving a lot of time to book proposals – for my own You Will Not Be Forgotten and for a client’s novel.  While some of these documents focus on the books themselves – the synopsis, sample chapters, etc – a HUGE portion of them is dedicated to promotion, competition, and marketing.  I don’t love this because I’d really rather focus on my work, but it is the reality of writing in the 21st century.

Yep, all black people write romance novels about black people, right?

All of this work, though, has got me thinking about how we label ourselves as writers.  For example, I could be a feminist writer, or a southern writer, or a Christian writer, but honestly, I LOATHE those labels because they limit me. When most people read those labels, they then expect the work to be explicitly about one of those things.  But my writing isn’t about those things. While I certainly write from a worldview informed by those perspectives – thus, everything I write is Christian, feminist, and southern in some sense, I rarely talk about Jesus, I’m not studying southern culture, and I’m not arguing for women’s rights.

My book You Will Not Be Forgotten is about people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised and my journey of getting to know them. I don’t think Jesus comes up once, and I don’t directly address the plight of the enslaved women. The book is set in the south, but beyond addressing the institution of slavery, I don’t really discuss it is as southern phenomenon.  Yet, my entire desire to write this book was driven by these aspects of my identity. As a Christian, the idea of justice informs all I see; as a woman who has (in the most minor ways comparatively) been the victim of oppression, I see the need to call out that oppression when I see it; as a southerner, I needed to understand this stain on my cultural past and its lingering legacy today.

Yet, some people will not read my book because it’s not labelled the right way or doesn’t have the most overt references to themes or worldviews they find important.  This is sad.  But people can read what they want, and that’s totally okay.

What isn’t okay is the way we use labels to exclude writers from our own categories.  Someone doesn’t have the “authentic” black experience because a Black Studies professor deems it so (true story, from a dear friend), or someone isn’t honoring God because his book doesn’t talk about Jesus or the Bible or theology or challenges our traditional way of viewing those things, or someone isn’t a feminist because she writes about her choice to stay at home with her children and the way this has overjoyed and exhuasted her.  When we decide that someone is or isn’t something, we’re walking on dangerous ground and invite that kind of judgment about our own personhoods.

Sure, we need labels for books so that readers can find the topics they want to read, and if our books are about Southern life or religion or blackness or gayness or feminism, by all means, they should get that little fine print label on the back. But we’d also be wise to recognize that just because something doesn’t have a particular label doesn’t mean that the writer doesn’t share those elements in her identity. So many amazing novels are written by LGBT people without being overtly about sexuality at all, and hispanic people write books all the time that don’t have anything to do with their culture or immigration or any of the other stereotypical topics we think apply to people with hispanic heritage. All people in a certain population – be it an ethnic group, a gender, a faith, or a culture – do not need to write directly about those things in order to have those aspects of their identity be real or crucial to who they are.  It doesn’t make my friend any less black just because she loves rock and roll, no matter what her Black Studies professor says.

When we start applying the labels we put on books to writers, we make the grave mistake of claiming that the way we categorize objects is transferable to the way we look at people, and in the process, we limit and exclude in ways that not only hurt writing but that wound people.

I am a feminist, white, southern, Christian, straight writer. I hope no one but me ever labels me that way, and I hope no one thinks I am any less of one of those things simply because I don’t take on those subjects in every word I write.

How do you feel about labels for writers? Does a writer’s work have to include certain traits for it to be labelled a certain way – i.e. do Christians always have to mention Jesus or gay people always talk about gayness?

  • Amy

    I love this! I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because outside of my blog, I rarely write anything explicitly Christian (and some would debate whether even my blog is!). When I first started writing, waaaaay back in high school, I was a fairly new Christian and thought I needed to be defined by that even as a writer. It wasn’t until I could let go of the idea of God as Cosmic Idea Police that I felt free to write without the layer of Christianese. I only just realized that what I write (when I write fiction) is actually pretty well informed by my faith. I write quirky stories about unexpected love (not just romantic–friendship too) that are filled with hope, justice, and kindness. Even when I use occasional rough language, my writing tends toward gentle, subtle humor and has a sensual (again, not necessarily romantic–I mean overall) quality. But there is very little mention of Jesus or anything religious, other than possibly in passing. Figuring that out has made me feel free from the ropes of labels. Interestingly, my two favorite women authors–Elizabeth Berg and Madeleine L’Engle–also have/had similar qualities, including faith that informs the writing rather than defines it. I guess I was picking up on that and emulating it without realizing it!

    • Andi

      You’re so right, Amy. L’Engle, Tolkien, even C.S. Lewis in his science fiction didn’t mention Jesus or talk about “salvation” or use any of our churchy speak. They just wrote truth as they knew it . . . and their truth was informed by their faith. Good reminder there. Thanks.

  • loafingcactus Mary

    Last night a friend was telling me how isolated he feels because he doesn’t hear many people speaking from his particular minority intellectual space. I pointed out that he hears from them every day, but they aren’t speaking “as X.” So acknowledging that there can be one drawback from the perspective of strengthening communities, I do appreciate writers who address reality on its own terms without having to stuff it into a particular box.

    And I certainly agree that all people, writers or otherwise, get to define themselves rather than be defined by other people. Your friend has good company in the crowd of people who someone else tried to say wasn’t black enough, wasn’t Christian enough, wasn’t American enough, etc.

    • Andi

      I’m with you, Mary . . . I do like to hear from people who share similar space to me, so I don’t mind at all – as you say – when people self-identify as from one group or another. But I just want other people to exclude me or you or others because they aren’t “enough” of something. Thanks for reading and for comment.

  • Jim

    Great thoughts Andi–I think that most labels are a misrepresentation. It’s impossible to fit everyone into a nice, neat box. It simply doesn’t work. Sure there are similarities or values that unite some groups together–but it’s just a fallacy to think that everyone in a group is the same. I’ve struggled with this as a “Christian writer.” I think the better way to state it is I am a writer who happens to be a Christian.

  • jennifer

    This is a fascinating post. Of course, who we are informs how we write, about what we write, and to whom we (think) we’re writing. However, my first book was pretty fun, and funny, but I don’t label myself a humorist or even hilarious (except in my own mind). And I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book like that, though I do hope that my future books have some touch of the goofy in them.)

    So, yeah. I don’t want to be a Christian writer, or a feminist writer, or a funny writer. It’s too much pressure, and too much potential to disappoint. I’d rather write as I feel led, as I feel inspired and leave the labels to the PR specialists.

  • Larry The Deuce

    I was in a book store the other day and was floored by seeing something similar to your picture. What if something like that was done for white folks? It would be sad and cause a stir. I honestly don’t really think about that when I choose books. I read The Time Travelers Wife a few years ago. I had no idea it was going to be romance. I like time travel, but I don’t think I was who the publisher thought would read it. I doubt many men would have read it at all. But I got to share it with my wife and then we went to see the movie. Good times.

  • Steve Thomas

    One of his essays – I think it was in “The Glass Teat” or “The Other Glass Teat”, which were compilations of his commentary/criticism of television for an underground newspaper – had Harlan Ellison responding to a reader’s complaint that it was difficult to find hid books because he wrote in so many categories. He agreed with the reader, and couldn’t think of any other place where they logically could be collected, so he advised readers to demand “Harlan Ellison” sections, where they all could be found.

    I thought about it, and decided that it was futile, because if he wasn’t pleased with the final edit, his work was labeled as being written by “Cordwainer Bird”. Either putting the Bird books in the Ellison section, or leaving it out would find some readers unhappy.

    Ellison wrote some really great fantasy/science fiction, and much of it ended up on the silver screen. A couple of days ago, I saw “A Boy and His Dog” for the first time since the 1970s. It was one of the first movies done by Don Johnson.

  • Christy McFerren

    “When we decide that someone is or isn’t something, we’re walking on dangerous ground and invite that kind of judgment about our own personhoods.”

    That is both healing and challenging at the same time. Thank you for this piece, Andi!

  • Marie at the Lazy W

    Whew! It took me a few days to circle around to this article, but I am SOOOO glad to have read it! Very well said. Labels are dangerous all through life, so why would they be any less dangerous in literature? Now I feel ridiculous having offered up my view on what it means to be a “Christian” writer, but truly I guess that was just my impression. LOL That’s how I am informed, so far. I suppose I DO let book genre labels guide my choices, and I bet that means I miss out on a lot of good stuff. Wow.

    Our book club has been effective in knocking down some of that, because we have such a varied group of women & personalities, and we take turns selecting titles. Every single one of us has said more than once that we have read books we would NOT have chosen alone!! LOL And loved them, for the most part. So three cheers for growing past old barriers and see through imaginary labels.

    Thank you for sharing these ideas. xoxo Can’t wait to hear that your Southern-white woman-feminist-Christian novel is being released! LOL

  • Shannon M. Howell

    Wow! Nice post.

    My thoughts. A Christian, for instance, who writes is a Christian writer (after all, a pen that leaves blue ink is a blue pen, right?). But a Christian writer doesn’t have to write Christian things.

    That said, unless one is writing purposefully about a particular topic (religion, gender identity, etc) even if it is in metaphor, the book shouldn’t be labeled that way just because the author is whichever way. Similarly, if a book is about begonias, the author shouldn’t be assumed to be a begoniaist (doesn’t it sound silly when we use other things??). :)

    There has already been a comment that people don’t fit into nice little boxes. Certainly who we are is reflecting in what and how we write, but this includes everything about us like being right handed, or tall, or freckly, or having a high-pitched voice, coming from poverty, coming from wealth, EVERYTHING.

    I have noticed that many many writers identify themselves as Christian. Nothing wrong with that, but it makes me wonder if some of them are looking for an audience more than describing themselves (I certainly hope not!). But to me, that kind of label seems very limiting outside of very specific kinds of works.

    I am a ME writer. My life and personality inform my work, but ALL of me informs it. I couldn’t begin to guess which parts are most important. When I describe myself as a writer, I describe what I write (blog, flash fiction, attempting a fantasy novel, etc.).