I've recently been re-reading some of Suzanne Brockmann, Jennifer Crusie and Linda Lael Miller's category romances--the highlight reel if you will. (And yes, I know, you're probably sick of my book analyzing posts, but both Tavy and I are sick--talking about what I'm reading is the best I can do!). I've read pretty much the entire backlist for all three, so I feel comfortable saying that each had some of her best moments in the category books.
But, I also notice that category books are but a footnote in many authors' careers, something to be overcome, escaped from, and quickly forgotten. Until of course, they hit the NYT bestseller list, and their publisher sees dollar signs from reissuing category books with snazzy new covers and calling them "novellas." And the readers snatch them up, many for the first time. The same readers who wouldn't be caught dead with a category book in hand.
Why is category such a dirty word? Among writers there seems to be a hierarchy of e-publishing, category, and the golden ring, single-title. But, among readers, who don't know from publishers, category seems to rank only slightly higher than comic books. When asked what I write, I often notice a slight wince, a furrowing of the brow when I say, "Romance." If I add the disclaimer, but not, you know, category books, there's almost an audible sigh of relief. Good, good, they can keep acknowledging me on the streets.
I'm lying of course. I'd happily give up a non-vital organ to sell to category, and I most assuredly DO write category, especially if the category romances I've been re-reading are any judge. But, I can't stand the look of disappointment, especially in the eyes of those who don't read romance. Which brings me back to, what is the great stigma over the little red, white, and blue books? Is that you can purchase them along with laundry detergent and milk at the grocery? That they fit neatly in a handbag? That there are simply so many of them? That they have little resale value?
I've noticed that many writers (not naming names :)) of category--best-selling, award-winning--don't read category. In fact, it's rare to meet a fellow RWA member who fesses up to reading category. You'll have much better luck finding members who read hard erotica. THEY write in to proudly stand up for that sub-genre. But, who's standing up for category? If even many of those who write it have their eyes firmly fixed on the "real" goal of single title, it's no wonder that many good stories get lost until it's backlist time, and they become hot commodities.
But for every bestseller with reissues, there's twenty authors who make their entire career in category, many very happily. With this in mind, I went back to my TBR pile and looked at the unread category books (that I was re-reading books rather than tackling these says something in and of itself). I read each first chapter AS IF IT WERE A SINGLE TITLE. Lo, and behold, my mind shifted. I held the book to a different standard. And, I found several winners.
Long before I read single title, I spent years reading category. I followed the reading habits of my grandmother, much to my mother's chagrin. But, somewhere along the line, I too became judgmental, choosing category only as a "last resort." I'm realizing that my preconceptions have cost me many a good story.
And, I'm going to make a concerted effort to change that. And now, I have an exercise for you, if you dare. I KNOW you have unread category books hanging around. Pull back the cover. Look at the title page as if you were handed a bestselling single title. Read the first chapter. Does it make a difference in your opinion of the book?
Are there category writers whom you DO read (beyond our own amazing Alice, whom I assume you're all reading)? Whose work transcends category and is simply a great story?