In Which I Ruminate on Labels

Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I've recently discovered SF Signal and can easily get lost in the Mind Meld column archives. I did some of that yesterday afternoon. In "The Directions Speculative Fiction Hasn't Taken Yet", one panelist's contribution really stood out.

The panelist is Diana M. Pho. She asked this question:

Are readers the ones who tend to categorize, or is it us, the producers and creators, who rely on labels more? Is it possible to go “labelless” and have readers find their own words to describe it?

I think the tendency to categorize with labels is human. It doesn't depend on whether one is a reader or an author. Humans have a need to create order out of chaos, for the most part. Labels, and genre labels, help us achieve this. They're the "keys" to finding what we want.

Case in point: The only real bookstore in my town is Books-A-Million. Several years ago they decided to do away with ALL genre sections and file everything alphabetical by author under fiction or non-fiction. I have no idea if it was a local decision or a national decision, but I can tell you it was a disaster. I think it lasted all of two weeks, a month tops.

As a reader, I can tell you it was a nightmare. Unless I knew exactly who and what I was looking for, no way was I leaving there with a book. Browsing around in the genre I wanted to read and finding something new was impossible. That's how readers discover new authors, for the most part, and that ability was taken away. Even if you buy most of your books on Amazon I'm betting you look through the "what other people bought" carousel. I do. I've found some cool stuff doing that.

Is is possible to go "labelless"? Yes. Is it desirable? Based on the fact that Books-A-Million is once again sorted by genre in fiction, and subject in non-fiction, I'm going to say no.

I think as writers and authors we can get too hung up on specificity in our labeling, because we have to do that in proposals and queries. Does it really matter that, to an agent, I label what I'm writing planetary-based science fiction romance with a space opera vibe? I don't think so. What does matter is that it's science fiction romance. There is such a thing as being too specific I think. But the inverse, not specific enough, is just as dangerous.

The better way for me to label my SFR is like this: Do you like Farscape and Firefly? Do you think Crichton and Aeryn, and Mal and Inara, are the most overlooked couples in science fiction TV history? If so you'll probably enjoy my flavor of SFR.

Now if I can only get it published... Plans are in motion to make it happen this year.


  1. Why yes, I do think they're unjustly overlooked. (I cast Nathan Fillion as my hero in "Forge," and it was because I loved him in "Firefly." I wish you all the best on getting published!

    1. If I didn't already have Forge on my must read list, it'd be there now! I've got a character based on Captain Jack Harkness, because I'm in love with him.