A Rose By Any Other Name: Has Genre Become Irrelevant?

July 30th, 2007 · 34 Comments
by Pam Jenoff

Cover of The Kommandant’s Girl[BS: How a novel is marketed often signifies how it is perceived. And, as we all know, genre designation does not necessarily adequately capture the essence of a book. Today, we bring you Pam Jenoff, author of the gorgeous The Kommandant’s Girl, who has experienced the ping pong nature of genre designation firsthand (and survived to tell the tale!).]

Since the announcement in June that my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl, was up for a Quill Award, I have heard from many readers who are surprised that the book, which depicts a young Jewish woman’s struggle in World War II Poland , was nominated in the romance category. I can only laugh and shrug. From the time my book was accepted for publication in April 2005, I have watched as the industry batted it between genres like a ping-pong ball.

The first indication of this came a few months after acceptance when my publisher told me that they wanted to change the title from The Kommandant’s Girl to something “less historical.” I hurriedly submitted a list of 40-plus alternative titles and the publisher selected half of one of my suggestions, renaming the book A Fine Crack of Light (causing many friends and family members to say “huh?” and teaching me to never include anything on a suggested title list that you aren’t willing to live with). They also gave it a gorgeous, albeit decidedly romantic cover. So perhaps I should not have been surprised when Publishers Weekly, giving the book a starred review, dubbed it “historical romance at its finest.”

Cover of A Fine Crack of LightBut the genre debate was not over. In the summer of 2006, my publisher informed me that feedback from key accounts indicated that they loved the story, but were not enthusiastic about the cover and title. The release date was set back six months, and the book was given its present, more literary cover, becoming The Kommandant’s Girl once more. Barnes and Noble featured it as a book club selection for April 2007 in the genre of historical fiction. Romance was dead, or so it seemed, until the Quill nomination revived the debate.

So after two years, two covers, two title changes and too many genres to count, I have to ask: Is there a difference? The story itself has not changed. The book has been well received by mainstream, romance and historical reviewers and readers alike. Being called romance has its ups — sales have been great and I’ve gained many enthusiastic readers — and downs — I’ve arguably gotten less review coverage and respect from the independent book stores, and some would-be male readers have expressed hesitation (which always disappears when they pick up the book.) Based on my experience and my observations of and conversations with many talented writers, I cannot help but wonder if genre is a distinction without a difference, a line that has blurred to the point where it is no longer meaningful.

And then I look to my British publisher, which decided to go with the best of both worlds: a historical title (Kommandant’s Girl) and a salacious romantic cover (Nazi passionately kissing woman). The result was a bestseller.

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

34 responses so far ↓

  • Lauren Baratz-Logsted // Jul 30, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    Pam, first off, let me congratulate you on the Quill nom – I loved your book! I also think it’s a terrific title as is – and that’s coming from someone who was a bookstore buyer and PW reviewer before becoming a novelist.

    In terms of genre distinctions, the overriding question needs to be: Does how your book gets designated help you or can it hurt you? Because Harlequin owns RDI – as they own MIRA, your pub – my debut novel, when it was reprinted in paperback, was classified as Romance by B&N. They did this with all paperback RDI titles back then. Downside? The Thin Pink Line may have a romance as a subplot, but the main focus of the book is as a dark satire about a woman faking a pregnancy. The B&N (mis)designation meant that readers looking for edgy general fiction would never find it and readers buying it assuming it was a romance would inevitably disappointed.

    The plus side of PW regarding *your* book as Romance, whether right or wrong: You were nominated for a Quill!!!

    Congratulations again, Pam, and best of luck!

  • Darwyn Jones // Jul 30, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    It must be a strange thing to know your book so well, then watch “people in the know” (industry folks) tug it this way and that, as if they were contestants in the county taffy-pulling contests.

    Must be a very odd thing.

  • Karen Dionne // Jul 30, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    Fascinating, Pam! I read (and LOVED) the Kommandant’s Girl, but to be honest, if it had been classified as romance, I probably wouldn’t have. Interesting, how genre distinctions can define our reading choices. And just to muddy the waters further, I always figured The Kommandant’s Girl as mainstream!

  • Tamara Paton // Jul 30, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    Congratulations on a fabulous novel – my favourite book of 2007. My friends and family are tired of hearing about the book, but they all agree with me once they read it.

    Regardless of which genre has the privilege of calling The Kommandant’s Girl one of its own, it is an incredibly story, beautifully told. Fingers crossed for a Quill win!

  • Pam Jenoff // Jul 30, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    Thanks all, for your hugely supportive comments. I will say that no matter which direction the book has been tugged in, I’ve felt that everyone shared the same interest in seeing the book succeed. And everybody “got” my vision in their own way – for example I felt as though the artist had stepped inside my head with both the more “romantic” cover as well as the more “literary” one.

  • BPM Smith // Jul 30, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    Hey there Pam. I remember when you were up for that Quill award, congrats. Genre nowadays is just packaging anyhow, like Tanguaray 10 gin is marketed to upscale bars and the regular Tanqueray is in the hood. Both are good it’s just another way to reach the right demographic. Keep doing your thing girl!

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 30, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    I am absolutely fascinated by the ways that labels influence our thoughts (Karen’s comment speaking directly to this point). I probably wouldn’t have been as interested in this book if it hadn’t had the romance connection. My logic being that there is an implicit promise between the author and reader — and, to be very frank, if I’m reading about wars (current and past) these days, I do need a sense of hope in my choice.

    This might seem very frivolous to some, but sometimes I prefer it when my fiction gives me a dose of reality with a level of escapism. As a news junkie, I get enough reality-reality (though, sure, some would argue there’s an escapist sentiment there as well).

    This was a great post — I’m so glad you wrote this for BS!

  • Laura Vivanco // Jul 31, 2007 at 4:55 am

    For me it’s only a romance if it’s got what the Romance Writers of America describe as “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending”. That’s a very clear definition, not an arbitrary one based on the whims of publishers, booksellers or marketing departments.

    If the lovers end up dead or separated, that’s romantic, but not a romance. And if a book’s marketed as “romance” but doesn’t have that optimistic ending, I’ll feel very betrayed.

    So is it a romance according to the RWA definition or not?

  • Pam Jenoff // Jul 31, 2007 at 5:21 am

    Laura- Good question, I think that reasonable minds could disagree about whether my book meets the criteria you describe, so I will leave it to those who have read it here to chime in.

    Kasia – I wrestled a lot with the reality versus escapism – I remember watching Band of Brothers (one of my favorite programs ever) where they liberate the concentration camp and thinking, how can I be writing dinner parties while this was going on just miles away? It was hard to reconcile that these things actually happened.

    At the risk of sound narcisisstic (sp?) this discussion has made me realize that it is my life, not just my writing, that defies genre, but that is probably a whole separate posting…

  • Jenny Gardiner // Jul 31, 2007 at 6:45 am

    Pam–I love your whole success story with this book and the stick-tuitiveness of your agent who found a home and what fantastic results! You must be over the moon about it.
    I fall into the same situation as Lauren–my book, Sleeping with Ward Cleaver, will be shelved as a romance, but someone looking for romance will be quite surprised, as it starts out quite darkly and it is tinged with pretty sarcastic humor. Though it does center around a relationship–a couple who have been married for a long time and whose relationship is on the skids.
    I do worry that someone looking for something inherently romance-driven will be bummed, and also that I might lose readers who will be turned off by that somewhat misleading categorization. But I guess in this business that is bent on categorization, it is what it is, and we will have to make up for any confusion when working on the publicity end of things.

  • Clive Warner // Jul 31, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Good job “A Fine Crack of Light” didn’t go ahead. That cover is horrible. Chopped-off face of what looks to be an unattractive woman. Title can’t be read as a postage stamp image. Sometimes I wonder where they get the ideas. Second grade art student collage perhaps?
    Original and final cover much much better.

  • Don Linn // Jul 31, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    You can never go wrong with salacious kissing Nazis on a cover.


  • Eoin Purcell // Jul 31, 2007 at 2:30 pm


    Your story amuses me because I have been on the editorial side of “key accounts” advice like that. It can be heart breaking but sometimes you just have to suck it up and do as they say simply to make a book work.

    Interestingly, your UK publishers cleverly played on the Suite Francaise look with their cover and I imagine the book would only have benefited from it! I even spotted a cross promotion offer for them!


  • Ami // Jul 31, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    It’s really interesting to me that accounts will suggest changes in the cover and title, rather than embrace the book as an exceptional title in the genre. I feel confident saying that this must come from the bottom up–bookstores know their patrons, and more importantly, know what their customers will buy.

    And I have to confess to having previously been one of those patrons. Before I began at Folio, where there’s a wealth of amazing books in all genres, I’m relatively certain I would have had the same knee-jerk reaction as Karen (I was previously a publicist at Viking and FSG, and full disclosure, now work at Folio with Pam) and not picked up a book shelved in the romance section of a book store.

    But Pam’s book is simply a great read. I’d love for readers to enjoy it as suits them–romance, historical fiction, or a mainstream novel. Certainly, mystery novelists like James Crumley (and many, many more) are allowed to retain their literary cred while still being packaged as mystery writers, so why can’t that the same consideration be extended to romance writers?

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 31, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    Ami — I know I’m opening a can of worms here (not the first, not the last), but women’s fiction, historically and currently, has been considered “lesser”. Romance fiction is often viewed as less meritorious than other fiction; while some of this is due to inherent discomfort with love and/or sex, I think the romance industry bears some blame for the perception of these novels as well.

    Mystery novelists have worked long and hard to build literary cred (and, you’ll note that not every author is invited to the table). Science fiction/fantasy authors, like romance authors, are still seeking a certain level of respectability as well. This is a shame because there are great works in all genres (and there are many clunkers in those same genres, and I’m including literary here).

    As Pam noted, men won’t necessarily pick up a book labeled as “romance”; that section of the bookstore might as well have “Do Not Enter, Those With Y Chromosomes” signs. I know many women who felt uncomfortable browsing the SF/F sections of bookstores. Labels can really be limiting, especially when a novel doesn’t fit comfortably into one niche or another (or, better yet, when a novel transcends the genre).

  • booklover // Jul 31, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    As one who works in the retail end, can someone explain to me who determines in what genre section a book will be placed? No one above me can (or will) give me a straight answer. For example, several years ago when the parents of Jon Benet Ramsey wrote their book, Barnes and Noble placed it in (drum roll, please) “Christian Inspiration”. Does a publisher have some say where it goes or is that entirely a retail decision? Thanks.

  • Jesse // Jul 31, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    Genre IS irrelevant. We have stuff to deal with like this now:


    Meta has taken hold.

  • Pam Jenoff // Aug 1, 2007 at 6:27 am

    I am really enjoying this lively debate. I have no industry insight but as a rookie author, my observation is that publishing is: Someone supposedly in the know declares a book “ABC” and everyone nods approvingly. Then someone else declares is “XYZ” (a 180 degrees from the first pronouncement) and everyone acts as though they knew it all along. But nothing has changed. I don’t think this is quite the right analogy, but it somehow reminds me of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

  • David Thayer // Aug 1, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    Pam, congratulations on the Quill nomination and surviving the labeling game. Kassia used the M word ( mystery) and I can add that crime fiction is sliced and diced into tiny bite sized market segments that arrive on my doorstep. The real mystery to me is why some of these novels are sent my way ( I like hardboiled. Miss Marple frightens me.) Although Biker Miss Marple is okay.

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 1, 2007 at 9:51 pm

    Booklover, I do not wholly understand how books end up where they do, but the whole labeling thing helps in shelving books where they are apparently to go in a bookstore. Genre (for what it’s worth) is largely determined by the publisher, based on serious strategy with marketing.

    In Pam’s case, the fact that she’s published by MIRA (almost) automatically dictates how her book will be shelved. And how a book is shelved often indicates the type of customer who will find it. The husband, who has no patience for labels, believes books should be shelved in multiple locations. Though experienced shoppers know how the game is played, most readers don’t know the rules of how books are segregated in bookstores.

    And, I think, once they’ve determined that Point A in a store is where they’ll find what they like, they’ll rarely venture to Point C.

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 1, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    David, Miss Marple is way cool. I mean, they always knew that Poirot was up to something. Marple flew under the radar.

  • Pam Jenoff // Aug 2, 2007 at 5:04 am

    Kassia- I should say that my book has been almost entirely shelved in mainstream fiction – the romance designation has come more by way of reviews and the Quill nom. The idea of shelving the books is multiple places is an interesting one – the problem, I think, is that most stores stock so few copies of a book if you aren’t a NYT bestseller, especially after the initial co-op period. If B&N is going to have four copies of my book on the shelf, I’d like them in once place, optimally facing out in order to catch the eye, not scattered in the stacks. Thoughts?

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 2, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    I guess it’s a matter of customer, not desire. I am one who wanders the aisles of a bookstore, but, yeah, all those spines are confusing. A nice cover makes me pause and glance. And maybe it’s because my bent is toward multiple points of entry — when you work in the online world, you tend to realize that people get to information in ways that you never expect.

    For example, most people who come to BS enter through the home page. That’s great. They see what’s new and current on the site; of course, I have years of archived material. When I look at my stats, I see that traffic (readers) arrive through many doors. Some are seeking very specific information, some are following links that seem promising. It never ceases to amaze me how deep content is discovered and read.

    Bookstores have home pages — front of store displays — and archives (the shelves of books). They have highlighted content, books placed face out; they have specialized content, that one title desperately sought. The thing that bookstores don’t do well, and I’m not sure how to solve this because you’re right in that there is only so much space and there are only so many copies, is offer multiple points of entry for readers.

    In many ways, shopping for a book is entirely different than shopping for pasta. However, if you look at how grocery stores work, pasta is located in different sections: you have dried pasta on one aisle, fresh pasta on another, and prepared pasta (Chef Boyardee) on another. Different customers (or the same customers with different needs) , but arguably the same product…viewed/used/packaged/whatever differently. At the end, most of this stuff is tossed with a tomato-based sauce, though a few weirdos (me!) mix it up a bit. If books could be shelved in a way that reached multiple audiences, dynamics would change.

    Yeah, working out the theory in real time. Defining genre limits, I think, how readers find a book because it assumes that all readers of X genre are the same.

    Yes, face out, multiple copies. That’s good. But I’d say multiple places as well. Of course, I live in a fantasy world (it’s a good one, so no worries!).

  • Deborah Smith // Aug 7, 2007 at 11:08 am

    I’m a romance writer (35 books.) I’m also a “women’s fiction author.” And “a mainstream romance writer.” And “a Southern novelist who writes big romances.” It’s a maddening game that often leaves niche books in the cold and solidifies very narrow definitions of genre sub-types in order to locate specific audiences, with more and more of the focus being put on teen and 20-something readers, despite demographics showing that a huge, older readership is going unserved– particularly in the romance genre, which too often embraces sex and gimmicks to sell books. Mucho congrats to Pam for not only surviving but prospering. Your agent should have warned you up front that “MIRA” and “romance novel” are synonymous in the publishing industry. If Jane Austen were published by MIRA, her books would probably be labeled romance and shelved with the heaving-bosom covers.

  • KathyF // Aug 7, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    I saw this book the other day (was it at Tesco?) and have to admit I gave it a pass. It looked like a depressing war novel, and my life is depressing enough for now. (Mom died, daughter leaving for college, empty nest, etc.) But now I’m going to look for it again, all because of the romantic fiction label you’ve just attached to it.

    I’m with Kassia, I need to know there’s a promise of a payoff at the end. Books shelved under “literature” don’t have any promise at all attached to them, whether it’s good or bad or most often, somewhere in between.

    Plus I need some more pasta.

  • Judith F // Aug 7, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    I have seen your book on the stands, but don’t remember which category. When I go to a big bookstore I cruise all over the store. It’s better than a candy store 🙂
    Congratulations on your success!!
    I’m excited for you.
    MIRA publishing your book is wonderful. When I have time I do read MIRA’s books always finding I enjoy them. I thought HQN was more straight romance. I prefer MIRA for the variety. To me your book was in a good place.
    This genre crossing business is so confusing.
    You are where I want to be, so I guess I’d better get busy. 🙂

  • Pam Jenoff // Aug 7, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    Have been very much enjoying the discussion these past few days. KathyF – was laughing at your pasta comment. I practically subsisted on pasta and jarred pesto when I was at Cambridge. Was amazed at the Tescos phenomenon with respect to books, it was a huge contributor to our UK success. Deborah S- Mira has been a wonderful publisher and they have a wide variety of books, but I know a lot of authors struggle with the Mira/romance issue. Judith – are you a writer? Feel free to email me if you ever want to discuss. All best, Pam

  • Rosemary Tiwari // Aug 8, 2007 at 8:45 am


    Regardless of which designation the booksellers prefer, in my opinion The Kommandant’s Girl was the best read of my summer in both historical fiction as well as romance. Your knowledge of the time period makes this an excellent novel and so believeable. I want to know what happens next in the lives of the characters . . . will there be more?

    thanks so much!

  • Pam Jenoff // Aug 8, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Hi Rosemary-

    Thanks so much for you kind message about my book – I am so honored that you read and enjoyed it. The next book, The Diplomat’s Wife, continues the story of Emma’s best friend Marta into the post-war period and we will find out what happens to Emma and everyone else. It will be out in early 2008 and if you sign up for the mailing list at http://www.pamjenoff.com I can let you know when it is released. Thanks again!

  • Kathy Golitko White // Aug 9, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    I have also written a book that is historical fiction but is also romantic. It is about a Slovak Immigrant in 1910 – 15. Agents have said that it does not fit the Romance Genre but it may be too “Feminine” for Historical Fiction. An editor says it’s most likely Women’s Fiction. I hope to get it published in the next year.

    I want to say that I read your book last spring and still cannot get your characters and the story out of my mind. The “humane” picture of the Kommandant made it so much more believable. No matter how many times we are shown the brutality that the Nazis were responsible for, they (at least some of them) were still humans. To make the Kommandant vulnerable opened the story so much. I have recommended your book to everyone! Are you writing another? I hope so!

  • Pam Jenoff // Aug 10, 2007 at 1:12 pm


    I’m glad you liked the book. See my post above regarding the next book, a continuation. Best of luck with your writing!

  • Sherry Smyth // Sep 16, 2007 at 7:20 am

    Having read and loved “The Kommandant’s Girl”, I would say this book should be classified in “no” genre. Romance? Hardly. It was a story about life, choices, decisions, challenge, strength. Hard decisions and the realization that at a young age we think we know ourselves and the world ~ where we “fit”, who we really are. It isn’t until we are put to the test in some of the worst crises we could imagine that we discover we change all the time, our philosophy can’ t be written in stone and sacrifice, putting others first is often the best way to live a life. Romance? Not a chance.

  • Dianne // Sep 28, 2007 at 3:26 am

    A gripping story, I loved it and look forward to the next. Only one point confused me – on page 317 of my copy it reads “With Alek dead and a number of other fighters, including Marek, arrested and imprisioned, the resistance is in tatters and it is nearly impossible to get information.” Later though Krysia is saying she will go to Marek for help. Did he escape? Will we find out what happened in the next book? or is it just a mistake as a result of all those rewrites?

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