I’ve been thinking a lot about labels recently. I attended FantasyCon, the conference linked to the British Fantasy Society. As an aspiring writer there were innumerable interesting and relevant panels and discussions, as well as the chance to meet with other writers and discuss our work. However, this was where things got a little tricky. I’m the first to admit that I’ve been a little late coming to the genre and rather naively I thought there was only Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror, certainly those are the categories in my local bookshop. However, I was in for a shock when I chatted with other writers.
‘So is it a paranormal romance?’
‘I’ve just finished writing a military sci-fi but my passion is steampunk.’
‘I started in hard-core fantasy, but I’m drifting now towards anthropomorphic fantasy.’
I nodded vaguely, feeling like I should have taken a language course before attending the conference, because I was certain these people were not talking English.
I remember at university, learning all these new terms and phrases. One student mentioned to the lecturer that it was like learning a new language and he likened it to religion, once you know the phrases and labels you become one of the initiated, in a club which outsiders have trouble entering or understanding.
But then I got to thinking, what exactly do these labels tell us? For example, I described my first completed novel, ‘Light in the Darkness’ as a fantasy, until someone suggested that it was more sci-fi and probably leaning towards military sci-fi, with invading aliens, space ships and human testing. However, there’s a strong romantic element, first love, betrayal, as well as mythology and religious theory. How can all of that be summed up in one word?
I spoke with one author who had coined the phrase ‘metaphysical fantasy’ for his own books. When I asked him exactly what that meant, he admitted that it didn’t really mean anything, but was a marketing tool. He’d identified a number of authors who he felt met the criteria of ‘metaphysical fantasy’ and linked them under an umbrella of his own creation, thus ensuring that his own work would be identified with more established writers. So now I was really confused. Was all this categorising and labelling nothing more than cynical marketing? Or a way to make yourself feel superior to the uninitiated?
Evidently modern authors need to create and maintain an ‘online presence’ to allow their fans to interact with them (as well as to keep their publishers happy!) and certainly there are some success stories about authors who initially published their work online, building up a loyal following and almost cult status before being connected to a publishers. It seems as if all aspiring authors need a web-page as any potential agent/publisher/editor/other interested person is likely to google you. Therefore I’ve been thinking about my own brand. There’s a plethora of information about branding and having sat in on the panel at FantasyCon 2011 about ‘How to Maintain Your Online Presence’ as well as reading the recent article on the BBC about ‘Should We Do Away With Privacy?’ it would appear that I should live my life out in the open, log time on the internet, but not express my political or other opinions for fear of alienating potential fans or publishers. I should define myself and my work in one word which sums me up completely, again in an apolitical, non-confrontational manner.
And how do these labels really help us? What do they really tell you about the person or in this case, the book? These labels have been created by society and people external to me. As humans we have an innate need to classify and group things. I’m sure we have all seen, and even been, a child who organises their lego based upon its colour. We segregate people by colour, religion, belief, interests, even sex. Humans have a need to organise, to quantify, but really to what end? I think the need to label and categorise says more about the society than it does about the person. As social beings we have an innate need to fit in and I suppose by labelling ourselves we allow ourselves to become part of a group with which we identify. It seems even in the fantasy genre, where we let our imaginations run free, we feel the need to constrain ourselves and establish sets of rules.
However, labels can blinker our thinking and it is this notion which has be concerned. I asked a friend to read my book. Initially she was very excited but as soon as I mentioned it was a fantasy novel, her eyes glazed over. ‘Oh, I don’t read fantasy books,’ she replied. A bottle of wine later and she was convinced. Later that evening I received a message from my friend, ‘I love your book.’
This obviously boosted my ego somewhat, but then the worry set in. By labelling my book as fantasy, I had isolated a large section of potential readership. It’s more a book about nature with elements of crime, horror, fantasy, alternative history and more thrown in. Like me, does it fit one label? And in doing so, does this mitigate the world of possibility it might become? As an aspiring author looking to one day market my book, what impact could this have on potential sales and readership? As I said above, are we at risk of labelling ourselves to such an extent that we risk limiting or isolating readers?
Words have power. They can build you up, or destroy you and like a snapping dog, they need to be treated with respect. In my life I have had the following labels: schoolgirl, uni student, traveller, office worker, teacher, friend, bitch, daughter, writer, girlfriend, wife, heterosexual, home owner, renter, borrower, lender, clown, adventurer, vegetarian, volunteer, carnivore. Do any of these labels actually tell you more about me? Do they define me? I hope to one day add published author to this list, but what do any of these words actually tell you about me? And more importantly, would any of them make you more or less likely to buy my work?
As soon as you label something, someone, a book, genre, a group, you stop it becoming something more. It can never evolve or grow, it will forever be whatever it has been labeled. Don’t you think that’s sad? For example, think of Woody of ‘Toy Story’ fame. How would he be labelled? Probably as a child’s toy, but he was so much more: loyal friend, cowboy, leader, lover (what happened to Bo Peep anyway?). Now, not one of these labels fully describes Woody and to use any one alone would be a great disservice to him and that is the point I am trying to make.
So I would like to propose a shift in our thinking. I’m not suggesting a total removal of all labelling, but a more careful usage. Many readers say their job from reading comes from the ability to have their minds opened, so why are we so desperate to immediately limit their thinking by labelling books? I’m currently working on a horror novel, but it might (and probably will) grow to encompass other genres, including archaeological, history and fantasy. It’s therefore a novel of about nature with a supernatural, fantastical and historical twist. I’m very open to suggestions for it’s label….
And as for me? What one word label would best describe me? I’m still evolving, I’m learning something new about myself and this amazing world in which we live every day. There’s only one label that I feel fully fits.