Peeling Off That Label

It took seven years before Publishers Weekly finally stopped referring to me as a former romance writer.  During that time, I wrote six thrillers.  One of them was a high-tech nail-biter set aboard the International Space Station (Gravity).  Another was a medical thriller about organ transplantation (Harvest).  Two  were serial killer novels.   Yet I’ve never quite been able to shake off that label of romance author. 

I’ve always been proud of my romance roots.  But I’ve been trying to expand my audience and let’s face it, there’s a whole swath of readers out there who despise romance novels, and if your name retains just a lingering whiff of “former romance author”, these readers will turn up their noses at all your books.  Soon after I was nominated for the Edgar Award, one mystery reader expressed surprise that it was my first nomination.  “You mean you’ve never won any awards before?” she asked.

 “I won a Rita Award for The Surgeon,” I told her. “From Romance Writers of America.

“Oh, that,” she said, and gave a dismissive wave.  That’s how little she thought of the Rita Award — and of romance novels in general.

I treasure my Rita.  The gorgeous statuette is displayed in a place of honor in my writing studio.  But with one wave of her hand, that woman told me exactly where she thought lowly romance novels resided in the literary universe.   

Unfortunately, the media seems to share her disdain.  That’s why so few romances get reviewed in large newspapers.  And when they do get reviewed, it’s with that snooty attitude of “this is a fun but mind-candy read”. 

So you can see why an author trying to establish herself in the mystery genre would find her romance-writing past an impediment to being taken seriously.  A few months ago, when I was hearing negative chatter about my Edgar nomination, it was no surprise that several critics were quick to dredge up my earlier career.  “Tess Gerritsen started off in romance, for god’s sakes!  How did she get nominated for an Edgar?” 

As if writing romance rots your brain and makes you unable to write anything else. 

Writers aren’t one-trick ponies.  Some of us need to be continually challenged.  I love getting out of my comfort zone and tackling a subject I know almost nothing about.  That’s why I wrote Gravity.  I love trying out new voices.  That’s why I created the character Mila in Vanish. 

Nowadays, I’m trying to peel off yet another label: “Medical thriller writer.”  My last six books have not been medical thrillers, but crime novels, starring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli.  Yes, there’s a medical examiner in the series, Dr. Maura Isles, but aside from the autopsy scenes, there’s nothing particularly medical about these books.  Yet when Vanish got the Edgar nomination, Library Journal called it “a medical thriller”.  And this was a novel about sex trafficking and defense contractors.

I guess I should just be grateful they didn’t add “and it was written by a former romance author!”

The lesson here is this: if you try to evolve as a writer, if you try to do something new or startling or different, the media’s going to hold you back.  Once they’ve slapped a label on you, that label’s going to stick, unless you work hard to shed it.  You may have to write five or ten or even twenty books before you’re accepted in your new genre. 

If ever.


blogsite being re-vamped!

If you’ve noticed problems accessing my blog over the past few days, it’s because we’re in the midst of a re-design.  We’ve added a comments button, but it’s not quite active yet.  Be patient!  More to come.

 In the meantime, I’m off to Birmingham, MI to address the Baldwin Public Library tomorrow night.  I’ll try to blog when I get back!

I’m Just A Hack

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking at the first-ever Newburyport (MA) Literary Festival, a smashingly successful event that brought writers and readers together for a lovely weekend in one of New England’s prettiest towns. Between speaking events, I chatted with one of the festival volunteers, and asked him if he was a writer. He answered: “Yes.” Then he added, with a wry note of self-deprecation: “But I’m just a hack.”

When I asked what he meant by that, I learned that he was a journalist for a local newspaper. “So you write, and you get paid for it,” I said. “If that makes you a hack, then I guess I’m a hack too.”

He seemed surprised by that. And pleased by it as well.

Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot about that word, “hack.” I know that it’s a word British journalists sometimes use about themselves, and they say it with a sly sense of pride, because members of the brotherhood of ink-stained wretches know just how demanding a job they have.

But in the world of fiction-writing, “hack” is not normally what we like to call ourselves. defines a hack as: “A writer hired to produce routine or commercial writing.” says a hack is “A mediocre and disdained writer.”

No doubt about it, the word is considered an insult. During an online discussion about commercial fiction last year, a pretty heated war of words ensued when one published writer admitted that he’d changed an element in his novel to please his editor and make the story more commercial. A second writer responded: “If you altered your art just to please your editor, that makes you nothing more than a hack.”


I’ve noticed, though, that when that accusation of “hack” is hurled, it’s almost always aimed at writers who are well-known and successful. I googled “hack writer” and found a website where you can post the names of authors you consider hacks. It’s no coincidence that the writers most often accused of hackdom are also the same writers you’ll find atop the bestseller charts, prolific writers who produce a book (or more) every year.

And who are the people accusing them of hackdom? It’s a pretty good bet they themselves are not best-selling authors.

Here we get back to that age-old tension between literary authors and commercial authors. Literary authors both disdain and envy commercial authors, and call them hacks. Commercial authors, on the other hand, don’t bother to think about literary authors at all, because they’re too busy writing books — and making a living at it.

Still, when a commercial author gets called a “hack”, it does sting.

So I think it’s time to take away that sting. It’s time to reexamine the definition of that word “hack”. Yes, hacks are indeed contracted to produce commercial writing. Commercial is a good thing. It simply means you get paid for writing a novel that readers want to read.

What about that definition of a hack being “a mediocre and disdained writer”? I would like to point out that Charles Dickens was considered a 24-year-old hack writer and journalist when he produced the Pickwick Papers. He sold big.

And today, he’s no longer considered a hack.

We never know how history will judge our books. Two generations from now, the writer disdained by his contemporaries may outsell the critics’ darlings by a factor of a million.

So to all my fellow commercial authors out there, don’t flinch from that insult, “you’re a hack.” Embrace the word. We hacks don’t spend hour after tiresome hour arguing with artistic blowhards about the poetic use of semi-colons. No, we just try to tell a damn good story. And we get paid for it.

And that’s okay.