Friday, February 18, 2005

It's All About Marketing

So I'm reading Scott Phillips's Cottonwood, and I'm thinking, "This is a western novel." Not exactly an earth-shaking conclusion to reach, I suppose, except that the publisher doesn't want you to know it's a western novel, at least not until you've paid for it. For example, there's one blurb on the front cover, from bestselling crime writer Michael Connelly: "Scott Phillips is dark, dangerous, and important. Cottonwood is crime fiction at its best." There are several blurbs on the back cover, but only one of them is about Cottonwood. It's from another crime biggie, George Pelecanos, and it says, "Cottonwood is an adventurous, bawdy, and genre-bending epic. Scott Phillips cements his reputation as a fearless, ambitious writer who never makes a false move." I guess the western novel is really dead when a highly regarded new writer does one and it's marketed as a crime novel. Or as a "genre-bending epic."

But, see, I don't get that last part. What's so original about Cottonwood? In an interview on The World's Worst Blog, Victor Gischler calls the book a "horror-crime-western." (At least he's not afraid to use the W word.) So what? It's not like there's never been another one. Where was all the hue and cry when Matthew S. Hart (great name, huh?) published The Prisoners, a horror-crime-cannibal-lesbian-vampire western? (OK, I could be wrong about the vampire part. But not the rest.) Here's a book that I contend is as much a genre-bending epic as Cottonwood, but nobody has ever heard of it. Well, almost nobody. So let's take another example: Trevanian's Incident at Twenty-Mile. What about that one?

I know, I know. Marketing. Matthew S. Hart writes a novel that's part of a series about the Texas Rangers, and nobody who buys it knows that he's reading a genre-bending epic. He just thinks it's a really weird book for a series western. And Trevanian? Hey, he hasn't had a bestseller in a long time. Who knows him?

Anyway, doesn't nearly every western ever written have a crime element? Never mind. I'm putting my soap box away for the evening.


Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, Westerns and Hard-boiled/Noir fiction go hand in hand.

I'm curious as to how the success of DEADWOOD on HBO will or won't change the minds of those in publishing. I mean, if it's an Annie Proulx or a Cormac McCarthy (both with new books this year) or James Carlos Blake (who has moved into crime fiction after writing Westerns), then the literary world embraces them, but again by not playing up the Western angle as much as the Literary tag.

Neil S.

Anonymous said...

I just recently finally found all of the Matthew Hart books and I am in the middle of reading the series. I am on book five, but you have me looking forward to reading the Prisoners, even if it doesn't have vampires in it.


Lee Goldberg said...

So Bill, genre-branding aside, how do you like COTTONWOOD? Personally, I thought it was terrific... well deserving of all the praise it got (even if nobody seems to notice its a western).

Steve Hockensmith said...

As it just so happens, I'm reading COTTONWOOD right now -- and loving it. I think Phillips captures both the cadence of late 19th century American writing and the creepy WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP vibe of frontier towns. Plus, it's funny. What's not to love?

I'd definitely noticed how Ballantine seemed to go to great pains not to let phrases like "Western" or "Old West" pop up on the cover. I guess if being a crime fiction writer can get you pigeonholed by reviewers and (some) readers, being a crime fiction writer who puts out a pseudo-Western would be considered doubly dangerous (from a marketing perspective). Since I'll be doing just that next year, it's particularly interesting to me to see how Ballantine handled COTTONWOOD.

And thanks for mentioning INCIDENT AT TWENTY-MILE, Bill. I looked it up on Amazon and have added it to my Must Read list.