Niches, Typecasting, and Stereotypes

The other day, I was chatting with some of my co-workers at my day job, and the subject of Dragon*Con came up—of which I’m a director—and particularly last Dragon*Con, where we had Leonard Nimoy as a guest.  The discussion got around to how he has embraced his Star Trek lineage now where in the past he tried to distance himself from it, not wanting to be typecast forever as Spock.

It started me musing upon the nature of fame and creative pigeonholes.  From where I’m sitting, as a writer whose last name isn’t “King” or “Rowling,” it’s still an occasion for shock and thrilled confetti throwing when I encounter someone who’s actually heard of me or read my work.  This industry doesn’t exactly bequeath household-name celebrity status on a regular basis, plus I’m primarily a short story writer. So yeah, I’m a far cry from and don’t consider myself to be “famous.”  But even with the (very) minuscule amount of recognition I get, I and my work still get typecast.

I was perusing a forum recently where one of my stories was being discussed, and one of the posters commented that they found this particular story of mine surprising because it wasn’t what they normally expect from me—that being Asian fantasy.  And I started wondering if I was writing too much Asian fantasy.  Should I write more science fiction?  Or maybe some horror?  I haven’t written any horror since I quit my corporate cubicle-monkey day job.  But hang on, I like Asian fantasy.  That’s why I write it.  And hey, I’ve written far more stories that aren’t Asian fantasy than are.  So what gives? Am I being stereotyped? Do folks think of me as an Asian fantasy writer because my collection, Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice, is Asian fantasy?

Wait a minute, does that mean people are reading my book?  Woohoo!

And that’s the crux of it.  The world is filled with artists seeking an audience for their work: unpublished writers, aspiring actors, ambitious painters, starry-eyed musicians.  Most of them will never find an audience; it’s the nature of being an artist.  In any creative field, to be known, to have any audience whatsoever is an accomplishment, since the norm is utter obscurity and complete indifference.

Being stuck into someone’s genre niche means that person has encountered enough of my work to have shaped their expectations about it and about me as a writer. Yippee! I made an impression!

So typecast me.  Go on.  You know you wanna.

Guest blogger Eugie Foster calls home a mildly haunted, fey-infested house in metro Atlanta that she shares with her husband, Matthew, and her pet skunk, Hobkin.  Her publication credits number over 100 and include stories in Realms of Fantasy, Interzone, Cricket, OSC’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Fantasy Magazine, and anthologies Best New Fantasy (Prime Books), Heroes in Training (DAW Books), and Best New Romantic Fantasy 2 (Juno Books).  Her short story collection, Returning My Sister’s Face: And Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice, is now out from Norilana Books.  Visit her at EugieFoster.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Hell yeah! I would love the opportunity to worry about being typecast. I guess if you get pigeonholed and it keeps you from writing different stuff, that could be a drag. But that’s what pen names are for. Congrats on your typecasting.

  2. says

    Great piece, Eugie. While I consider Asian fantasy your bailiwick, I’ve always been impressed with how you write in other sub-genres–cyberpunk, New Weird–as well. Thanks for the positive spin on being known for what one is best at and enjoys doing.

  3. says

    Being stuck into someone’s genre niche means that person has encountered enough of my work to have shaped their expectations about it and about me as a writer.

    Weeeelllll… I dunno. I don’t have anywhere near the publication credits that you do, but early in my career I sometimes ran into people who wanted to know whether I wrote “African fantasy” — because I write fantasy (among other things) and I’m African-American. In fact, for a long time I avoided writing “African fantasy” because I hated the way people made this assumption. Because that assumption had nothing to do with my work. (Irony: recently I have written some African fantasy, but nobody asks anymore, because it’s been so long.)

    That said, this really rang true for me:

    In any creative field, to be known, to have any audience whatsoever is an accomplishment, since the norm is utter obscurity and complete indifference.

    Yes, this, very much. It took me awhile to realize this, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with embracing and/or catering to audience expectations via one’s art. Every artist who writes for money does this to some degree. And your Asian fantasy is beautiful, so it’s a well-deserved renown you’re getting from it! But I do hope those readers you mentioned stop expecting that of you, because as you’ve said, you write a lot of stuff. It’s one thing to acknowledge that Nimoy has done great work via the Star Trek franchise, and to honor him for that work. It’s another thing altogether to be surprised/discomfited if he does anything else.

  4. says

    Well said as always, Eugie. It seems to me that the primary danger faced by a writer who is known for work in a particular area is the risk of believing that she must continue to do exactly what she is known for, lest some part of her audience grow disappointed and stop paying attention. Midlist writers in particular tend to worry about holding on to their hard-won fan bases, and fear what might happen if they did something new. But that is the path to creative rot.

    Almost as dangerous is the feeling that we must rebel against the labels and expectations others lay on us; I’ve seen that circus waylay more than one writer. Ironically, when we do that, we’re still letting others define our art.

    I’m glad to see you taking such a healthy approach.

  5. says

    Aww, thanks so much for the kind words, Nora!

    And I totally agree that being stereotyped as a person of color would and does piss me off. But my name is ambiguous enough that folks who don’t know me personally or who don’t check out my website/see my bio picture typically don’t assume that I’m Asian (or female for that matter). So I’m hoping that readers are encountering my work and forming opinions about it–and about me as a writer–based upon my work, rather than based upon my ethnicity. Hoping.

  6. says

    Thanks, Barbara! I imagine concern about being typecast rises exponentially with fame, and I don’t expect I’ll ever achieve that level of renown. Alas.

    Y’know, that sort of brings to mind a tangential subject. I’ve been asked before whether I’ve ever considered using a pen name since I write both children’s lit. and and erotic horror. I never have ’cause 1. I figure I simply didn’t have the sort of name recognition that it mattered and 2. one of my favorite authors, Tanith Lee, also writes erotic works and children’s fiction. And if she doesn’t feel the need to publish under different names to cater to her different audiences, then it’d be sort of silly for me to.

  7. says

    Hi Eugie :)

    This is something I’ve been struggling with myself since my novella came out. It is pretty straight and narrow horror, but all my novel-length works are dark urban fantasy. I’ve been pretty active in the horror community this year and what have I learned? There is a very vocal group of horror readers who vehemently want paranormal romance and urban fantasy to lay off their horror critters! There are so stuck in their genre perceptions that they refuse to try anything new, even though I know that there is some really hard core, horror-forged urban fantasy out there. In fact some of it is exactly like some of the horror books out there, only from a 1st person female point of view.

    I guess I need to adopt your attitude of embracing it because it means someone has read more than one piece of your work.

    Personally I love variety and really enjoy seeing my favorite authors experiment with their style and subject matter.

  8. Rachel Swirsky says

    The writing of yours that I find most striking tends to be folktale-inspired and have talking animals in it. I think I like those stories so much more than your other stories, in general, that I tend to remember those and forget the others. That’s not to knock your other stories — they’re perfectly good stories — but the folktales seem like a strong center to your work, in my opinion, at any rate.

    I feel like there’s a difference between actors and writers in this respect. Discerning preferences and trends among a writers works is responding to stories they generate. Actors, on the other hand, are hired. Leonard Nimoy did’t write Spock. It may be his most striking performance, but I think it’s hard to call it central to his canon, because he doesn’t generate a canon in the same way.

    I hope I’m making some sense without being offensive.

  9. says

    Hi Michele :). I’ve had a chance to talk to numerous writers, editors, publishers, and librarians about genre classifications, and the inevitable conclusion is that what gets classified as “horror” versus “dark fantasy” or “mystery” versus “detective fiction” or “science fiction” versus “fantasy,” any genre label really, is solely due to marketing: what they-who-make-such-decisions figure will sell best.

    It’s a feedback loop, of course. Folks want to read a certain type of fiction so they look for works classified as that type, and if a certain genre sells better, they-who-market try to label whatever they can as that genre in order to increase sales.

    But I figure that means that even if a writer tries to please a certain audience by only writing a specific type of fiction, there’s no guarantee that some creative marketing person won’t plunk them out of that pigeonhole anyway. So why stress it at all? Writers should write what they’re driven to write. They-who-market can fret over how to categorize it.

  10. says

    Hi Rachel. I’m delighted that you’ve liked my talking critter stories and have found them memorable!

    Totally agree that actors and writers are different, but I’m not sure I get what you’re saying about how those differences ought to affect attitudes about being typecast.

    Like, if I were an actor playing a distinctive role in a successful series, I think my reaction would be “Ohmygod, ohmygod, I’m FAMOUS! Woot!” not “Ohmygod, ohmygod, what if I become typecast as my character?” And if I should happen to write a bestselling paranormal romance, I fully expect to be bouncing off the rooftops ecstatic to have written a bestseller, not stressing about being labeled a paranormal romance writer.

    And as far as landing the next acting gig/story acceptance/paycheck goes, whether a specific work by a writer is bought by a particular editor is frequently influenced by more than just the quality of that work. Name recognition, whether that writer and editor have an established publication history together, and such other factors can play a role. Likewise, whether an actor is cast for a certain part can be influenced by more than how well she does at the audition, like her star power, if she’s worked with the director/producer before, and suchlike. So one’s prior body of work is relevant in both fields.

  11. Rachel Swirsky says

    Hey Eugie — I think, for actors, it can be frustrating because they don’t have the same option that we as writers have of just writing the darn cyberpunk novel anyway, even if audiences go, “Huh? Cyberpunk? You write paranormal fantasy.” If they can’t get a casting director to look at them as a candidate for Shakespeare’s Hamlet because they were once in science fiction… then that’s kind of it for them. And sometimes you take the science fiction job because you need money, not because you even liked it in the first place. Whereas, as a writer, one presumably wrote the original paranormal fantasy because one liked it, even if one doesn’t want to only ever write paranormal fantasy.

    All that said, I really do appreciate your thoughts on this. And I agree — people focus way too much on the idea of typecasting as negative. You’re right; it can be positive! And I’m glad people know enough about your work to typecast you. I hope they continue to react with surprise and delight when you show your range is even bigger than they thought.

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