The National Endowment for the Arts gave the Oceanside, California library a stack of money to promote the literary genre called noir. A gracious librarian asked if I would give a talk and also participate on a panel on the subject of noir.
Sure, I said, especially since they offered money. Then the preparation and the events themselves proved even more profitable than the stipend. They moved me to think closely about the genres into which my books fall, and about the whole subject of genre and brand.
A genre is above all a publishers’ and marketers’ tool. It allows them to target a broad but defined group of readers. A brand is similar but often more specific, what readers of the broad genre can use to facilitate the discovery of their favorites.
My panel was composed of five authors who all more or less fit into the mystery genre. During the course of the discussion, it struck me that all of us had written and published in a variety of sub-sets of that genre. Since these folks are good writers yet none of us are household names, I wondered if we all might get more fame and fortune if we and/or our publishers and marketers recognized a brand with which all our books could be pitched.
I’ve known more than a few “mystery” writers who’ve become household names. In my mind, at least, each has a recognizable and definable brand. Michael Connelly writes character-rich police procedurals. Robert Crais and Jeffrey Deaver write chilling suspense. Tony Hillerman writes police procedurals about Indians. John Lescroart writes legal thrillers featuring family men. Even if they aren’t actively promoted with these brands, readers perceive and talk about them that way.
One of the panelists, my friend Alan Russell, has not yet gotten sufficiently branded. So on our way to Monterrey for a mystery conference, I asked if he consistently intended to lighten the grim reality of crime with humor. He said, “Yeah, I do.” So his brand could reflect that he lightens the edge of darkness with humor, like real life cops are wont to do.
My books have most often been labeled literary, mystery, hardboiled, and noir. Of those labels, I prefer noir, because literary sounds snooty, mystery suggests that the main plot involves solving a puzzle, and hardboiled implies lots of graphic violence, while noir primarily describes attitude and setting.
The attitude: life’s a bitch. Which anyone with eyes to see must agree. If it’s not a bitch to me or you, it is to the vast majority of humanity. The setting: dark, in one way or other. Most readers of noir are drawn to stark or otherwise ominous locations, to the mid-years of the twentieth century. Those are the kinds of places in which, and the era during which, my Tom Hickey books happen.
So I’m comfortable within the genre called noir. But to honestly describe what I write, the attitudes and intentions that drive my work, I need to define a brand.
One afternoon while crossing the desert, a voice in my overheated brain said, “Beat noir.”
“Hey,” I replied, “I like that.” Having come of age influenced by writers of the Beat era, especially by their quest for spiritual transcendence as an approach to living in a world gone woefully wrong (think WWII and the atom bomb), I followed in that quest.
The word beat has an astonishing number of meanings, but the ones that apply to the Beat writers, claimed for that group by Jack Kerouac, are: weary (perhaps of mainstream convention or injustice) or beaten down (for following a less-travelled path); and blessed, as in beatific (blissful, ecstatic) and beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount).
As I write crime stories during which such weary or beaten down characters may get blessed, “beat noir” suits me. Whether or not the brand helps me prosper, discovering who I am (at least as a writer) has given me a lift and a renewed sense of purpose.
So, whether you’re a writer, a plumber, a teacher, a parent, or a cowboy, I recommend you spend some time and energy branding yourself. If it doesn’t pay off, at least you’ve had an adventure.
Time travel with Tom Hickey: www.kenkuhlken.net