Pigeon Holes: How Labels Hurt Writers and Writing

This Christmas my mother gave me a fantastic, hilarious collection of poems called God Got a Dog.  In one, God goes to beauty school, falls in love with nails, and opens a manicure parlor.  The poems are deceptively simple.  Theologically, they’re out in left field, playing with our notions of holiness and embodiment and images of divinity.  They are smart, adult explorations of how God works in the world.  I adore them.

The publishers list God Got a Dog as a children’s book.  Why?  There’s no way even a precocious five-year-old would enjoy these poems.  But they were written by Cynthia Rylant, a Newbery Award winning author, and illustrated by Marla Frazee, a beloved children’s book illustrator.  Rylant and Frazee have loyal followings among those who read kids’ books, so I imagine their publicist wanting to reach that loyal following.  And so my mother had to go to the picture book section of the book store to find this slender book of theology.

I’m thinking about how books get pigeon-holed because my first novel is flying down the chute toward publication, and I’m increasingly uncomfortable with assumptions the industry makes about it.  I’m having bad flashbacks of high school, how my good grades led the boys to assume I was undateable, the gym teachers to assume I couldn’t catch a ball, the academic teachers to assume I’d be well-behaved, and the girls to assume I was a snob.  Years afterward I ran into a boy from my class and had a nice conversation.  Later, his mother told me how surprised he was.  “Elizabeth’s really nice,” he’d told her.  “She’s pretty.”  The mother said she was glad he finally saw this.  Me, too, but couldn’t he have noticed when it mattered?!

I’ve always had ambitions to be a literary writer.  So when over thirty of my favorite publishers of literary fiction rejected my novel, I felt grave disappointment.  I’d failed.  The literary establishment did not endorse my book.  Then a commercial publisher took it and gave me an identity crisis.  Maybe I’m not meant for the upper echelons of literature.  Maybe I’m a writer of popular fiction.  Maybe ordinary people might enjoy reading my book.

The jury’s still out on that one.  In the meantime, I’m beginning to wonder whether the whole stratification of literature is an adult version of teenage cliques.  Publishers and book sellers sort books into categories and then their authors form a sense of identity in response.  Personally I’m grateful when someone like Cynthia Rylant breaks out of the box the publishing industry has placed her in.  She’s a multifaceted person of varying interests unafraid to reveal her many selves on the page.  I like imagining her sitting back, following her interests wherever they lead, and honoring them despite the expectations of her frustrated agent (a book of theological poems will not sell like a children’s story) and her baffled editor.

It turns out I am dateable, I can’t catch a ball but am a decent swimmer, there are times when I behave miserably, and I’m only snobby about cheeses.  And I’m not as smart as everyone thought; I just got good grades.  In this strange in-between place before my book comes out, I’m working on accepting the writer I am, regardless of how others categorize me—regardless of how I’d like to categorize myself.  I have a feeling I’ll be a better writer for it.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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