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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

the Problem with Labels

Atlas sculpture, New York City, by sculptor Le...
Atlas sculpture, New York City, by sculptor Lee Lawrie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Identification or Instilling Prejudice?

     Now and then on this blog we've tossed about the idea of assigning labels to things such as music and the effects of assigning those labels.  People will often prejudge that which as been labelled in accordance with their own predilections.   Therefore, using music as our example, if a work has a specific label such as classical, country, be-bop or what have you, a person might decide even before listening what their opinion will be and if they do listen to the musical work they are likely to hear the music based on their expectations of it.   They don't go much deeper than knowing what they like and not much can change that opinion.

Is Labeling a Marketing Plus or a Drawback?

     There might be inherent dangers from the standpoint of marketing when it comes to attaching labels to products.  Labels can have the tendency to limit an audience resulting in less sales.  On the other hand accurate labeling can draw the attention of a certain group attracted by whatever it is being promised by the label.  If consumers feel they've been deceived by the labeling, they may be lost as a customer forever.  And worse they might tell others about the deception which can give a product a very bad name.

      Typically I think a label restricts interest for those who are turned off by the label and attracts those who are looking for products with that label.   Reliable reviews and positive word of mouth can help to overturn preconceived prejudice in some few cases, but this kind of buzz can be difficult to generate.  Labeling can be a blessing for the consumer in simplifying the decision to make a purchase, but a curse for the one who is attempting to break their product free from stereotyping to establish a broader reach into the marketplace.

       So with this in mind, from the standpoint of authors and the publishing industry, is labeling books bad?   The consumers job is made easier if they know whether to look in the romance or science fiction department.  If the reader wants to escape into fiction and have nothing to do with non-fiction then this is more easily accomplished with labeling.   If a writer wants to play to a specialized audience then the labeling does a better job of reaching that desired audience.

       But what about the works that are not so easily categorized?  The hybrid works and mash-ups can be difficult to place and may be rejected by the readers who are looking for one thing or another and not a combination of two or more things.    The science fiction romance will likely be lumped in with the science fiction books which in turn will likely loose the romance fans.  Internet book buying has solved much of this with tags.  Unfortunately this is not as easy to do in a brick and mortar type environment where books are sold.

Does Authorial Intent Call for Labeling?  

       A bigger problem of labeling might come with genres such as Christian fiction.  There is certainly a large enough audience to sustain marketability of products labeled as "Christian", but one might want to ask, "What is the goal of Christian literature?"   Would that intent mostly be preaching to the choir or is there a deeper desire to help fulfill the Great Commission through literature?  Would a non-Christian or a staid anti-Christian feel duped and angry if they were to start reading a book of this nature without being warned up front?

       Same if a book were to be labeled "Atheist Literature" or "Muslim Literature" or any other such category.   Why would these categories exist other than to promote a system of belief or open the minds of others to that belief?   How readily do you find that audience who takes it upon themselves to read what they might disagree with or even heartily oppose?  See the post by Rachelle Gardner on this topic.   It's a few years old, but as relevant as ever.

        Genre labeling can cover so many different topics and styles and is even broken down into more specific subgenres.   However if authorial intent gets taken into greater consideration, should that take precedent over the actual story subject matter?    The books of Ayn Rand or C.S. Lewis have perhaps a more persuasive ideological intent than those of authors such as Tom Clancy or Stephen King, authors who certainly have something to convey about their beliefs while taking care to retain commercial appeal that will sell more books.

Get Ready to Face the Music

           My most recent interest about labeling has been more related to music due to my Battle of the Bands posts.  The comments generally left on my BOTB posts as well as on those of my participating colleagues show some very rigid preferential inclinations toward certain styles of music as well as overtly stated distaste for other musical styles.

           As I have a tendency to do, the next Battle of the Bands might be delving into unpopular realms for some, but done so in the interest of disseminating musical diversity.  While my previous Battle of the Bands post featured heavy metal (or metal influenced) artists performing modern interpretations of classical music, the upcoming Battle will be somewhat reversed.   It's coming this Sunday March 15th and if you show up for the Battle you will see what I'm talking about.

          Do you like the idea of literature, music, and other arts being labeled?   Do you feel that labels might hinder some from reading literature that is quite good, but avoided because of what the label suggests it might be?    Have you ever felt deceived because a book that you read was propagating ideas or belief systems with which you disagreed or intensely disliked? 

46 comments:

  1. Some interesting thoughts.
    With music, since most hear it first, we already know what category it falls under. So I don't think it hurts there.
    Books are different. Some do cross genres. Some appeal beyond their genre. (The amount of people who've never read science fiction but have read my books and enjoyed them testifies to that.) The label both draws in the target audience and repels potential target audiences.
    With Christian fiction, it's just a safe place for Christians to go where they know they'll find nothing that goes against their faith. Considering the fact that most cities have lost their bookstores but even the smallest town has a Christian book store here in the South, I'd say there is a huge market for it.

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    1. There is much crossover music that challenges having a label put on it so I think these thoughts do apply to music maybe more so than written material.
      I wonder why Christians would need to read fiction. Shouldn't they be focusing all their reading on the Bible? And why wouldn't writers who want to promote the Christian faith be writing to reach the lost rather than entertain the "found"?

      I agree that the market for Christian books is large, but if they are written well enough it seems they should cross the lines of faith.

      Lee

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  2. Oh don't I hate when I write a big complicated answer and the computer eats it! fugeddaboudit! Okay - once more with music - I don't like the limitations of labels. I don't read 'chick lit' but I like well written books about women working it out. I love Neal Stephenson but maybe not sci-fi. I don't like scary books but Stephen King - yessur! It's the schwinggg baby not the genre! "Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is.”
    ― Miles Davis

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    1. Sorry about that lost comment. I wonder why that happens and if there is a way to fix it? I've had it happen to me too.
      Your point is well made that it comes down to the quality of the writing and the delivery of the story and not so much the label attached to the work. The problem that I see is that the labeling might be an obstacle to readers reaching a work even if it is well written and worth reading.

      Lee

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  3. I appreciate the labels b/t there are just some genres of fiction that I do not like one bit. I've tried, but I just can't get into them. Like Sci Fi, Horror and Romance. One of my friends gushed about the Crystal Singer book, said I would love it and probably would love all of Anne McCaffery's dragon rider books b/c I love fantasy so much. I absolutely despised Crystal Singer! I'd bought a couple dragon rider books too but I didn't even bother reading them.

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    1. Do you think that your bias might be so strong that no matter how much you try to like something there is a block in your mind preventing that honest appreciation of the work? It would be interesting to have a study that analyzes the depth of bias and how much it affects our ability to accept things that we think we don't like.

      Lee

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  4. I really dislike labels even tho' as you say, it makes things easier for others. The book I am writing I'm not sure how to classify if I have to. Some things just don't fit a mold. Even male/female labels - we are predominantly one gender, but we have traits and characteristics of the other gender. Good, thoughtful post, Lee.

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    1. Classification has been part of my problem regarding the novels I have yet to complete. Maybe my stories need more focus or I need to write more toward one particular audience. Perhaps it helps to have someone from outside our realm of interests to identify the most appropriate genres.

      Lee

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  5. I agree with the need for general genre labels, but there are more than a few books which don't fit neatly into just one genre. For example, a fantasy mystery, sci-fi thriller, or Western horror. The one classification I really dislike is the modern age-based system. So many great novels of yesteryear would have such a hard time finding a publisher these days because they don't neatly pigeonhole into one age-based category. The authors would be told to limit the timespan, or to age the main character up or down so s/he remains in the same general category through the entire book, instead of aging from childhood into early adulthood, or from age eleven to sixteen.

    One subgenre of Christian fiction I'm not alone in scratching my head at is Amish romance. I just don't get how there's apparently such a viable market, not to mention how these characters don't seem very Amish in terms of their theology and daily practices either.

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    1. The Amish genre is a strange one. I haven't read any so I guess I can't say much about it except that I'm not particularly lured by it.

      I agree with you about the relatively recent trend of age based genres. In my younger days there was no particular broad based categorizing of literature geared toward teens, middle school students, or young adults. There were books recommended for those ages but they were not like genres. Once I hit middle school most of my reading was what would probably be considered adult reading.

      Lee

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  6. I have felt deceived when a book was other than its label. I think labels are needed though sometimes it's difficult to get it exactly right.

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    1. In general, labels are a helpful guideline when trying to decide whether a book is worth knowing more about. After that it's mostly a matter of the marketing that gets word out about the book.

      Lee

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  7. I love all genre's of music, as for literature there are only certain books I read, I suppose the day will come when we humans will be lablled.

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    1. Actually the day has already come when we are labeled. We are labeled with tags of race, national origin, sex, class, education, job, age, and so on. And I think that labeling is getting worse.

      Lee

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  8. In some cases, I like labels. Like fantasy. That's a label I'm happy with. Sub-labels I don't care as much about. Urban fantasy. Epic fantasy. I'll probably like it if the characters entertain me.

    I don't like it when people don't understand labels, mix them up, and apply the wrong ones to me. I am a geek. I am not a nerd. This is meaningful to me, but people use the two interchangeably. I get slightly offended when people call me a nerd, but I proudly claim being a geek.

    Ah, the oddities of people and their labels.

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    1. I guess I am more of a nerd. But your point is a good illustration how labels can be used differently by different people. It's bad if the intent is to deceive people with inaccurate labeling merely to sell more books.

      Lee

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  9. There are too many things to comment on here, so I'm just going to say two things:

    1. I hate labels.

    2. Christians don't read the Bible.
    When I was in college, majoring in English but taking lots of religion classes, I was just about the only person who had read the Bible. By that, I mean I had read the whole thing straight through. Twice. In the entire religion department among all of the ministerial students, there was like only one other person who had done that. So, yeah, guys in school to be pastors none of whom had ever bothered to read the thing they were supposed to be teaching. My best friend, a ministerial student, felt very convicted over the issue and began -trying- to read the Bible, but he gave up after a few months.

    And that is why Christians are in the market to be entertained.

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    1. I agree that few "Christians" read the Bible, but I would also say that many people label themselves as "Christian" without truly knowing what that means. There are many in the pulpit who probably shouldn't be there.

      Lee

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  10. In particular, the label "Christian" is often one I find suspect.

    A lot of music labeled as "Christian" is not, in my opinion, very good, and I wonder if the label is purely for marketing purposes.

    Or said differently, would these artists have gotten a record deal based on their talent rather than their faith?

    I actually steer away from businesses who advertise their Christian status (why is my plumber's faith relevant, especially since I have been cheated by a Christian business in the past)?

    Certainly, a book about Christianity would be properly labeled as Christian. But any work of fiction should stand on its own merits regardless of the creed followed by the author (or musician, or filmmaker).

    And don't even get me going on those "Parental Advisory" labels...

    For the record, I dislike generalizations as much as labels.

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    1. Yeah, just because someone says they are affiliated with something doesn't mean they are or that they believe anything about that with which they are affiliated.

      As far as the "not very good" assessment concerning "Christian" music, I'm glad that you added "in my opinion" since there are probably those artists that you don't care for who do have a decent fan base. If they are bad all around then I don't think they could make it and certainly not get a record deal without some executive seeing some kind of potential.

      There is a lot of music that I don't think is particularly good, but it's very popular so my opinion is not universal.

      I agree that any work should stand on its own merits. In literature we can cite C.S. Lewis and Flannery O'Connor, both writers with strong Christian themes, but the nature of their subject matter and their writing transcends any attempt to label them and make that label stick with a stigma attached.

      Lee

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  11. I find its important never to tell the reader what to think or feel. Instead I try to focus on what characters are seeing, hearing, smelling and thinking etc. Its not easy to do. Labels matter. Its important to choose the right words with a message because they become eternal and entrenched in time like LLAP. Choose badly and books gather dust. Of course the flipside is not to take oneself too seriously which sometimes in an effort to be all meaningful can be overlooked, LOL.

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    1. A good writer makes the reader not realize they are being manipulated so that they get lost in the story. I think all writing is some kind of mind indoctrination, but the skill lies in allowing the reader accept the message even though they might not agree with the principle behind the message.

      Lee

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  12. This can bring much debate and a great deal of thought. I believe we, as humans (well most of us are:)) like to have things labelled since many like direction. Once can't place a Biography in the fiction section (unless your book is about Brian Williams) but it can prevent people from reading excellent books because we don't give it a chance. This can be with music, film and people. If a person comes in for an interview with a long beard and long hair and is dressed in jeans but carries an excellent resume and has all the qualifications, he would probably not be picked because the person hiring has already labeled that person in a negative way. They may have missed out on a great employee in favour of someone who "looks" the part but hates to work. I always will give music, film and art and books a look over regardless but I always have my likings (ok grammar and spelling..not my strong suit). I can give one instance where I labeled something and was pleasantly surprised that it was not all what I thought. the film, "The Notebook" was labeled as a big romance and the trailers showed the 2 young people kissing in the rain blah blah blah and all the girls were swooning. It made me ill. I had no desire to see this at all. Finally, one day, i was sick on the couch and to this movie came on. I decided to give it a try. I was very happily surprised at how much film time James Garner and Gena Rowlands had. It was a romance flick and i could have done less with the young leads but the film had more meat than just the typical romance la-la. It was a moving study on the sadness of alzheimer's and memory loss. So I labeled this film wrongly because the studios labeled the film as a romance showcasing only the 2 young leads.

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    1. First impressions mean a great deal. The label is often the first impression that we receive about something and frequently much opinion is strongly influenced by that. So if I say I don't like country music and someone invites me to a country concert while at the same time I get an invitation to go see some movie and I take the movie offer, I might be missing a darn good concert to see a movie I could probably see any other time.

      I had something similar happen to me like your Notebook experience. I'd made up my mind that The KIng's Speech was a movie that would not interest me and I didn't care to see and then it was on TCM the other night so I figured I'd watch it. I loved it and it was far different than what I expected.

      However, by the same token, there have been movies that I thought would be fantastic because they were in a genre I liked with stars that I liked and with an interesting sounding story line and the movies have turned out to be complete duds that I've disliked intensely.

      Works should be judged on their own merits and not the genres they fall into.

      Lee

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  13. I remember being on a Norwegian supply boat once working the night shift. For food we had to fend for ourselves out of tins all written in Norwegian. This has always made me appreciate accurate labelling because we had some very strange meals for a couple of weeks as no one understood Norwegian and the picture were rather vague or non extant.

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    1. Now that sounds like an interesting food adventure. I might be up for that since I like to experiment with foods that are unfamiliar to me.

      Lee

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  14. I'm so far be hind today, that I think I can see my own behind. does that mean I'm catching up? Ha!

    Anyway...I'm gonna try to be brief. I don't like labels of any sort. Do I use em? Heck yes. Do I reference them when looking for some 'light reading" You betcha. but all in all, I really do try to not let them influence me too much.

    I enjoy a broad ranch of music. Have I shied away from some, because of a label and a previous bad experience? Unfortunately, yes, but that doesn't mean I can't admit that I like some of it once exposed,

    As far as books go, I don't think I'm as influenced by a label as I might be with music or, say movies. I have read many books in a genre that was 'not my thing' to find that I really enjoyed the 'character development', plot twists, and even world building more than the categorization of it's particular genre.

    So - labels? I don't really like them, but in this world where, for whatever reason, all of us have serious time restraints, they are a necessary evil. I do like to personally use them more as guidelines than rules.

    One last thing. I scanned the comments and notice a lot of folks have picked up on the 'Christian' thing. That's one label that I find almost totally misleading no matter how it's applied. Personally, I rather decide by a persons, or whatever inanimate source we might be considering, whether or not they are following the teachings of Christ by their actions, teachings, and general demeanor, than by any label that may be attached to them.

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    1. Labels do make things quick and easy in general. It like how a restaurant menu is divided into the appetizers, salads, sandwiches, beef, chicken, and so on. Having categorizations to guide us helps us to make quick decisions about what we're looking for. It would be chaotic to go into a bookstore or library where the books were not organized by some sort of genres.

      The "Christian" label is often misused and frequently unfairly maligned.

      Lee

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  15. There has to be some sort of label just to give one the idea. When you start going crazy though and labeling things 50 things, even if it is, can get out of control. I don't care what genre something is, if I like it I like it and if I don't I don't.

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    1. Labels are a practical solution, but it is an imperfect method.

      Lee

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  16. Labels are a necessity for most consumers. In our fast-paced society, something that professes to be truly without a genre will get lost as people stampede over to the sections promising things they like. People don't have time to DISCOVER, they only have time to enjoy. And our preconceived notions often tickle our enjoyment buttons.

    Hybrid forms tend to find audiences on the fringe. Generally not because these buyers are more open-minded but simply because they believe they're undermining the status quo. Which is sad, really.

    Labels are harder for artists, not just because we miss out on certain sales if our work is categorized one way but because labelling ourselves also comes with drawbacks. How many horror fans are going to be lining up for a new (albeit frightening) release by Miranda Sweat-Lace, the erotica queen?

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    1. Humans are creatures of habit with little time to take to explore new things. We like what we like and often just stick with that.

      Lee

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  17. Great post Lee. Labels are like a double-edged sword: they're helpful in grouping for those seeking specific and similar products but they sure can leave out a target audience -- and even a significant target audience -- and really miss a mark. Re: labeling books: I enjoy mystery and crime novels so when my book club chose to read a Romance novel, I rolled my eyes and cringed...thinking the typical Harlequin Romance kind of book. But the book happened to be Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" and I was absolutely blown away! It's an incredible historical fiction romance, one that I NEVER would've picked off the shelf in the Romance department because I would never shop in the Romance department, yet this is where all her books live. Tagging in online descriptions definitely helps broaden a consumer market but brick and mortar stores have shelf-space limitations and therein lies a real dilemma. I guess one might be able to call labeling a necessary evil, so to speak...

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    1. Yep, necessary evil is what it amounts to. We have to simplify, but we as individual consumers need to do some further research as well. This is where the word of mouth and reviews become so much more helpful. Just a simple label doesn't tell the whole story.

      Lee

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  18. Thought provoking!
    Lee, before your previous battle of the bands, I might have answered this differently. I've chosen to ignore labels. With music, I plan to use those cd players in the store that allow one to listen to short sound bytes. I was so impressed with Orion's Reign, and the composition of their music. Before if I saw the label, "metal," I would have passed them up.

    I think I'd rather read reviews on books. I still like the Dewey Decimal system, though... oh well.

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    1. All the genre mashing and the many subgenres makes reducing anything to a generalization difficult. The "metal" label includes many styles--power, speed, grunge, symphonic, etc. A sci-fi novel will often include elements of romance, thriller, mystery, or even historical fiction that will appeal to other audiences.

      But organizational tools such as the Dewey system can't be dispensed with either since they are a starting point for making searches simpler for us.

      Lee

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  19. I have been thinking about this post since yesterday so bravo for such a thought provoking post! Labels are both problematic and convenient. In this age of information overload they help us sort out what we want and do not want to entertain quickly. Still, I find them limiting and difficult to assign to my cross-genre work. I wonder what I've missed through paying too much attention to labels, particularly on books.

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    1. As a creator of literature, music, or anything that gets labeled, trying to classify ones own work becomes a challenge. Which audience do we want to shape our works more to appeal to them? Where should our marketing focus be? Large segments of potential audience are lost unless you happen to be among the fortunate few to generate a big crossover buzz. Then for those who follow they can take the "sounds like" approach, but at the possible appearance of loss of originality and being a "copy cat".

      Lee

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  20. Hi Lee - I tend to ignore labels ... I wait til I hear something I like, or someone introduces me to a new artist etc .. or I have something lingering from my years of youth. Re books - I tend to read perhaps by author or genre in the old days, but now I read by subject - be it historical or documentary style ...

    Cheers Hilary

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    1. By subject is still a label, but it's a very practical thing to have these labels in order to have a general idea of what we're getting into. I have a problem when people refuse to even consider something because of how it's been labeled. But I think I'm just as guilty at times.

      Lee

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  21. Whoa. I tried to read all the comments on this post and I've got all kinds of responses bouncing around my head. Yes, labels are necessary to some degree. As you pointed out, it would be difficult to organize a bookstore or library, or a music store without some way of differentiating one type of music from another. But I think we take it too far. From genres to sub-genres to sub-sub-genres. We used to have children's books and adult books. Now there's MG and YA and NA. Will we start grouping adult books into age by decade? As for music, I gave up watching the Grammys when I no longer had any idea what the categories meant - there were so many of them. Maybe it comes back to the old saying: all things in moderation...including labeling.

    Regarding Christian labels, my teenage grandson listens to mostly Christian rock channels. I can't say the music is any better or worse than any other rock Channels but at least when he's tending to our yard and he's got his music cranked up so loud the neighbors can hear it, I don't have to cringe over the lyrics.

    And in response to Mr. Leon's statement, "Christians don't read the Bible." I can only say, I am a Christian, I have read my Bible cover to cover, I read the Scriptures daily, and I know many Christians who do the same. I guess you just don't know the right Christians.

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    1. I think Mr. Leon was over-generalizing to make a certain point about labels and in doing so was in a sense applying his own label. I also know many Christians who read the Bible regularly, but my guess is that there is a huge percentage of people who call themselves "Christian" who not only do not read the Bible, but many don't even believe much of it. l

      Labels are convenient in many ways, but they can also be equally confusing. Unfortunately many people just go by the label and don't consider the actual contents.

      Lee

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  22. This is an interesting post, and I've puzzled over some of the challenges of labeling. I tend to call what I write contemporary women's fiction, but some of my most enthusiastic readers have been men, so I don't want to alienate them. Also, the work I'm doing now has an element of (recent) historical fiction.

    I've met some wonderful women writers online who write character-driven sci-fi, and so I've read a lot more of the genre because that interests me. Had I not been exposed to them as people, I might not have read their work.

    As to Christian fiction, I am bothered when I start reading a book and find out it's Christian fiction but hasn't been labeled as such, I feel deceived. As a non-Christian, I just don't relate to some of the scenes in these books.

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    1. You make a good point about gender labeling and this could extend to other things such as Black Lit or Chicano Lit. I don't think as an author I would want to start limiting my market to such an extent.

      As for the Christian fiction, if written with the proper intent it is universal Flannery O'Connor is a great example. If we can step out of our own experience to live in the shoes and minds of others it helps us to see the bigger world. A non-Jewish person can appreciate the works of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth because of the writing and not because of our initial ability to relate. A white person can appreciate Ellison's Invisible Man even if they can't necessarily relate to the scenes depicted in the books because the book is well written enough to put us into the skin of the protagonist.

      A book that is well written shouldn't have a prerequisite of the readers being able to relate to the cultural side of the characters but present characters in a more universal way in which all can see a part of themselves.

      Lee

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  23. While I understand the necessary evil of labels for marketing, your last reply says it all; write for a few or write for the world, it's the writer's choice. I love the crossover and cross-genre labels as they validate the artist/writers who achieve such status. Great post!

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    1. But at the same time we should always write with the knowledge that we won't please everyone all of the time so we should be ready and willing to accept the negative reviews. We should write what we enjoy writing and say what we want to say, but realize that there will be those who might not like us as well as we like us.
      Thanks for visiting.

      Lee

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Go ahead and say something. Don't be afraid to speak your mind.
I normally try to respond to all comments in the comment section so please remember to check the "Email follow-up comments" box if you want to participate in the comment conversation.

For Battle of the Bands voting the "Anonymous" commenting option has been made available though this version is the least preferred. If voting using "anonymous" please include in your comment your name (first only is okay) and city you are voting from and the reason you chose the artist you did.

If you know me and want to comment but don't want to do it here, then you can send me an email @ jacksonlee51 at aol dot com.

Lee