The Giant Mechanical Man (and why genre categorization matters)

Last Friday night, I went to see The Giant Mechanical Man, an indie movie with limited release. It happened to have been filmed in Detroit, and I happened to be in the Detroit-area for the weekend, so not only did I get to see it in theaters, but also did I get to meet the writer/director, Lee Kirk.

That’s not the only reason why I loved this movie. It’s a story that shows how hard and scary it can be to take risks in personal relationships, even when those risks are as simple as saying what you really mean. It is thoughtful but accessible, and I highly recommend it.

 

The only problem with the movie is the discrepancy between its advertised genre (romantic comedy) what the movie actually is (the best word I can come up with is dramedy). On the way home from the theater, my mom and I discussed our different takes on the film, and where I loved it, she found it a little predictable. She never doubted that they would get together. Of course, any American romantic comedy will end with the couple together (except, perhaps, My Best Friend’s Wedding), but the point my mom was making is that a good romantic comedy will, at least for a moment, convince you to doubt the inevitability of the relationship.

To be honest, I did doubt for a moment that Janice and Tim would end up together, but even if I hadn’t, by the end of the movie, it didn’t matter to me. The plot was driven by romance, but the story was about a lot more than that. It’s about how people have conversations and how much risk is involved in conversations. That’s why the obnoxious, comedic relief character is a conversation coach. That’s why we see Janice getting fired and getting evicted. And that’s why the turns of the plot surround characters finding the courage to have real conversations. It is not about whether they will get together in the end but whether they can say what they need to say, and whether the other characters will hear what is being said.

Because this is an indie film (or was not produced by one of the big studios), it did not have to follow the strict guidelines of what a “romantic comedy” is. It could still call itself a romantic comedy because the plot is largely romantic and there is comedy; yet as my mother’s reaction shows, it didn’t quite accomplish what a romantic comedy does. It had big ideas that took over, and the romance was kind of pushed to the side. This made for an exquisite movie, but it was not completely satisfying to viewers because their expectations of a romantic comedy story were not met.

The reason I’m blogging about this is that I think it applies to the world of books as well. In traditional publishing, an author identifies their genre when querying agents, and, assuming they do it correctly, that label of “upmarket women’s fiction” or “dystopian young adult” is the genre that sticks. This has, in the past, meant simply which bookshelf the title is put on in the bookstore. Online bookselling has complicated things because websites can put a book on more than one shelf at the same time. So people publishing on Amazon can go crazy categorizing their books: now they can be upmarket women’s fiction AND dystopian young adult, right?

Just because you can label your book as more than one thing–and just because that second genre label might be a more popular genre–doesn’t mean you should. My book might have elements of dystopian young adult, but if a reader buys it thinking it is completely a dystopian young adult novel and discovers it really only has a dystopia and some teenage characters, that reader is going to be disappointed. And they are going to think my book is bad because I haven’t delivered on the service I promised. False advertising may get more initial looks, but it will disappoint a lot of people.

What the Giant Mechanical Man shows is that what really matters is good art. If it had been poorly written AND not a “real” romantic comedy, I would have been very upset. But I was able to put aside my expectations of the romantic comedy because the story and characters were so well-executed that I didn’t care what it was supposed to be anymore; I just cared about what it was actually doing. A book in the wrong category will, hopefully, do the same. But there will always be that caveat: “It was great but it wasn’t really a YA novel,” and there will always be a little bit of disappointment. Rather than trying to grab readers who might like the book, market to readers who will. 

This is not to say the Giant Mechanical Man was disappointing. It’s a great movie, and anyone with cable can watch it On Demand, so go do that. But just remember: it’s not quite a romantic comedy. Adjust your expectations and enjoy its genius.

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