Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What would Atticus do?

One of my favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember reading it in my 8th grade English class, where it made me feel terribly adult. It was the first real piece of literature that I embraced.

Indulge me for a moment here, as I dip into the story. It feels a bit like I'm preaching to the choir as I do assume that most everyone is familiar with it. It is told from the perspective of young Scout, sister of Jem and daughter of Atticus. The perspective alone would likely place that book firmly in the "YA" section of your local bookstore these days. But back in the days when Harper Lee penned her Pulitzer-Prize winning coming-of-age tale, well ... it was just a good book.

Why do we insist on putting these labels on our literature? Can't good storytelling just be good storytelling?

When working on a project for a YA book, I was advised of the necessities that must be included to make a book acceptable for the genre. No parents, minimal exposition, lots of dialogue, the child protagonist solving their own problems. If these elements didn't exist, then it's not a YA novel. But it's not just YA, it's all the genres.

But I don't want to follow the genres. Why can't a good story just be a good story?

I raised this question when I met with my critique group (this is a new addition to my repertoire; I've recently joined a critique group of amazing, witty, intelligent women from all walks of life and I highly recommend finding a group if you don't have one already) and voiced a similar query: why do we have to label it?

The answer I received was "how else will you know how to market it?"

That sounds so simple, but consider this: in 1960, when To Kill a Mockingbird was published, there were roughly 15,000 books published in the United States (that's according to the Library of Congress, as printed in The Historical Statistics of the United States), and of these, only about a fifth of the titles were new releases. However, a quick Google query on how many books were published in 2012? One thousand times that many--15 MILLION titles. In 2010 alone, Wikipedia reports that there were over 325,000 new titles published.

My Google searches are quite unscientific as compared to the very specific Library of Congress search, but you get the picture. It's much easier to stand out in a crowed of several thousand than it is to stand out in a crowd of several hundred thousand or several million.

So, this is why the genre matters. Whether it's a picture book, mystery, thriller, romance, young adult, new adult, women's fiction, cozy mystery, western, adventure, science fiction, true crime, literary or what have you, (I'm sure there's something I missed in here!) there are specific tropes and formats that readers are seeking. And if you're writing to a specific genre, you need to consider what will make your title stand out, make readers select your book out of the millions of other titles available to them.

Because, ultimately, what would Atticus do? He would select the best story.


  1. Sobering statistics for someone hoping to be noticed within that vast sea of choices. Oh, well. Off to plug away! Within my chosen genre, of course. ;)

  2. The variances in the YA genre specifically make me grateful for the emergence of New Adult. There's much more to what categorizes a book than the age of the protagonist.

    ~Joyce Scarbrough