Thursday, August 30, 2007

Genre Schmenre

Two or three years ago I bought Scott an iPod for Christmas and a year or two later I got my own. What a great concept! I could I buy all the new music I liked, and if I remembered a really cool song or album from high school, from a musical, from anywhere, I could go out to the iTunes Store and find it.

The music section of iTunes has no fewer than 42 – I’ll spell it out – forty-two genres of music listed. But it gets better. The alternative genre lists college rock, goth rock, grunge, indie rock, new wave and punk as sub-genres. Hmm. Rock lists adult alternative, American trad rock (what the heck is trad?), arena rock, blues-rock, British invasion, death metal/black metal, glam rock, hair rock, hard rock, heavy metal, jam bands, prog-rock/art rock, psychedelic, rock & roll, singer/songwriter, southern rock, surf and Tex-Mex. I give up. Is this really necessary?

Did this form of music marketing emerge at the same time that the ridiculous number of literary genres did in the publishing world? The main genres have been well established for some time now: fiction & literature, horror, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, westerns and poetry. Then there are graphic novels, Christian fiction, erotica, gay & lesbian, historical, African American fiction, cultural fiction, nautical & maritime fiction, young adult fiction, paranormal fiction, chick-lit, hen-lit, visionary & metaphysical fiction – the list goes on.

On the Barnes and Noble website under Women’s Fiction alone, the following categories are listed: between friends, chick lit, classics, families, for better, for worse, glitz & glamour, memoirs, letters, biographies, mothers & mothering, romantic relationships, self realization, sense of place, unquiet minds, wonders and horrors of childhood, women around the world, women of a certain age, women vs. society’s expectations and working mothers.

Are they serious?

Who does this benefit?

I’m not even going to think about the anxiety this induces when I consider it from the perspective of a writer. For now, I'm going to focus on how this affects me as a reader. It means that since I think I like primarily non-genre books (which is absolutely untrue as I’ve got dozens of books that contradict this assumption), I ignore 95% of the fiction sections in a bookstore that contain all of these other labels. It means that there are hundreds of books I suspect I’d really like that I won’t see. It means I’m missing out on fiction from other cultures, stories that might have gay or lesbian characters, fiction that may have some romantic or historical context, or that may have some elements of fantasy because I’m assuming it’s not marketed toward me and, what? I’m not supposed to read it? If I miss it when it’s on the new release shelf, I’ll probably never see it again unless it’s recommended to me by someone who knows my taste and I go looking for it.

In my view, this subdivision and over categorization has reinforced snobbery and reverse snobbery about what we think we like and what we think we don’t like and it’s kept us from being exposed to a lot of work we’d like. I’ll admit it. I prejudge work based on where it’s shelved and I know that’s sometimes unfair.


Obviously, reviewers do the same -- but that's an entirely different rant.

A couple of years ago, a friend told me about a book called Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson that sounded like a fantastic historical fiction read. I searched high and low in Borders and I was finally directed to the science fiction section. Huh? I’ve still never figured that out.

I’ve read a few sci-fi books that I loved, but I’ve got a built in assumption that it’s just not my thing because I remember a lot of pulpy stuff I used to find left behind by my fellow shift workers when I was in the Air Force. I may lose some friends here by saying this, but I turn my nose up at romance novels. There, I said it, God help me. When I think of romance fiction, I picture a book cover with Fabio date raping some woman with the front of her dress ripped off. Apparently there’s a huge market for that stuff, but it’s not my thing. I know that all books labeled as romance are not “bodice rippers”, but who has the time to sort through all that? I admit it. I have developed preconceived notions about some genres based on stereotypes that are probably untrue.

I don’t believe the label “literary fiction” has grown the audience for works in that category at all and I question what it even means anymore. I think people who say they don’t like it think that it’s difficult and pretentious, but books considered to be literary fiction don’t seem to have a whole lot in common to me. Are Li of Pi and Everything is Illuminated considered literary fiction? I liked both of them a lot, but I can’t see how they have anything in common with Faulkner or Hemingway. What about Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, or The Yiddish Policemen’s Union? Chabon is at the top of my list of favorite writers, but these books could both easily be categorized in a number of genres.

I think it’s simply the label that induces reverse snobbery in readers who prefer genre fiction. The labels have created an atmosphere where the assumption is that genre is looked down on. The labels have done this to us. And why would that not be true? Does labeling ever do anything but promote divisiveness in people, in popular culture?

Really – beyond making books easier to shelve for the bookseller, is there anything positive for either the readers or the authors that comes from this practice? Have all of these genres and sub-genres in literature made you more or less open to exploring books in "other" sections? Have you passed over books because of the genre that you later found you liked?

15 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I think "trad" means traditional.

And yes, I've avoided books that I thought I would dislike on the basis of genre and have later found I liked them. Given the mass amount of available product, it's hard to wade through a lot of what turns out to be crap to find the gems. A lot of gems probably get passed over for this very reason. This is one reason I probably read a lot more older books, from the 70s and 80s than I do modern books. It was easier in those days to tell the kind of book you might like.

Patti said...

honestly, it is annoying, but hasn't made me less/more open to exploring. as a reader i am willing to give almost anything a shot at entertaining/educating/ohmystars shocking me.

i think the "innovation" is happening over the decline in the printed/bound word. fear is an interesting motivator.

Ello said...

Hi Lisa!
Trad rock is traditional rock - usually it's classic rock, my favorite kind.

I think the explosion of all these genre titles has come out in part of the internet where search terms dominate and people plug in random words for whatever it is they are looking for. So it seems publishers and booksellers are responding by labeling these books in as many clever ways as possible to catch these internet surfers.

I don't tend to see books by genre, I like it when I go into Barnes and Nobles and there are large tables pile high with books that are a mix of all different genres. For me, that is heaven because I am such a browser. I'm also a cover art snob. This is usually why I don't like most genre novels, the cover art tends to really turn me off. But I've read romances without naked chests on the cover (ever notice all naked men on romance novels are hairless?) solely because the story sounded interesting. And since I consider nearly all of Jane Austen's novels romances and I am a huge Jane fan, I'm not one to turn my nose up on romance as a genre, but I admit that these pulpy novels with their cartoon colors and naked chests and flowing hair, is just not for me. The last romance novel I read was Mia King's Good Things and I didn't realize it was a romance novel at all. I just thought the concept was cute. I also love to read sci fi and fantasy and mystery whenever I stumble across one that sounds great. It's funny but the term literary fiction tends to be more of a turn off for me sometimes. I'd rather just see a general fiction table. I did not like Life of Pi, Empire Falls, the KNown world, Middlesex or a bunch of other recent literary fiction novels that the critics raved about. Some were boring, some were pretentious. But I loved Everything is Illuminated which I consider more general fiction, Finn and the Road. Like you said, I don't quite know why there is such diversity within Literary fiction. At least with the genres you know what you are getting.

So I'm rambling to agree that all these genres are annoying, but helpful when you are doing a specific search on the web. But browser's like me tend to go up and down all the shelves anyway so no real harm done for me. And now I'll shut up.

Shauna Roberts said...

I've been pleased with the growing fractionation of the music world. I have many, many CDs, but sometimes I want to listen to something new or be surprised. I signed up for Radio 365 Internet radio service. Out of thousands of channels, there were only three that were in my favorite genre of music. Three! In a service that was less fractionated, there would have been no stations catering to my apparently esoteric tastes. I also listen to about 20 other Radio 365 channels for variety and am delighted this service is available.

I don't mind fractionation in the book area, either: It lets me find the books I'm most interested in, while still being exposed to other kinds. Although I consider myself a genre reader, before I go to the genre shelves of the bookstore I always browse the new book sections and will buy something "literary" if the plot or characters intrigue me.

I also find out about nongenre books by reading book reviews in magazines and newspapers, by picking up those flyers they give out at independent bookstores, by belonging to mail-order book clubs, and through recommendations of friends. Other heavy-duty readers I know do similar things.

At Amazon and B&N, I really rely on their categorization of books. It would take days to browse all the science fiction books and weeks to go through all the mysteries. By browsing in finer and finer categories I can in a short time find a variety of books that I might enjoy.

So for me, fractionation works. With so many new CDs and books being released every year, and without having unlimited time, it's nice to have a way to zero in on what I probably will find fulfilling.

Lisa said...

Charles, I think I do the same thing you do -- I end up reading a lot of books that have been out for a while because I know what to expect. I did like it a lot better when fiction was just fiction :)

Patti, That's cool that you're open to reading just about anything. I'll read just about anything as long as it's recommended to me by someone whose likes and dislikes I have a feel for. This year I'm trying to mix more books in translation and books from other cultures in with my usual fare and I've found some great surprises.

Hello Ello! I kind of figured trad was traditional, but I was letting my old lady annoyance get the best of me :)

I really like browsing whatever is on the front table/new release section too -- which is great during the 3 month period that those books get their shot, but once they get remaindered/shelved -- I may never run into them. Guess that's the problem with not making that front table...

I think I also need to check into the cover art thing. Apparently a lot of people are influenced by covers and with the exception of really cheesy ones, I'm not. It's kind of weird. I've heard people agreeing that certain covers are bad, but apparently I just don't pay much attention. You have a good point about the web searches though. I suppose that would be one rationale and plus (maybe). I haven't read the Known World, and Finn and Middlesex are in my TBR stack. I did read the others and liked them though. But most of those books really have nothing in common with each other, yet are sort of in the same general category.

And don't shut up -- oh, and you do need to check out Lamb, if you thought that New Yorker piece was funny :)

Shauna, You have a good point about the music and especially satellite radio -- I have to agree with you from that standpoint. I see where you're coming from on the book genres, but I still have the nagging feeling that: "something there is that doesn't love a wall". I suppose it all comes down to how willing each reader is to look around -- or not. Maybe I just need to spend more time browsing.

Shauna Roberts said...

Lisa, you've probably noticed this, but in case you haven't, if you go to a book you like at Amazon, there is almost always a box somewhere on the page that says, "people who bought this book also bought . . . ," which seems a good source for finding out what people with similar tastes are reading. I often follow the trail over several referrals (if that makes any sense), which sometimes gets me into the area of "similar, but not too similar," which is a nice way of finding books I might enjoy but would never have noticed otherwise.

Of course, if you do that on the day a new Harry Potter book or other book with wide appeal comes out, that's what you'll catch.

Lisa said...

Shauna, Actually I do look at those and I also look at the recommendations (they have new ones every day with books, music and DVDs based on previous purchases). OK, I'm starting to see some benefit because I have actually bought some of their recommendations. Thanks for pointing that out!

Larramie said...

As an eclectic reader and frequent book shopper, I enjoy browsing through everything labeled as "New." Like a buffet, it's great to pick up a sample of a bit of this and that.

cs harris said...

Careful, or you'll get me on my sales and marketing high horse. If a manuscript won't fit neatly into one of those categories, S&M tell the editors not to buy it. And what S&M says goes.

My favorite label in a bookstore was "Quality Fiction." Since I had a book out at the time and of course it was elsewhere in the store, that really stung!

Lisa said...

Larramie, I do like to do the same. I just wonder what I've missed when I don't get to the bookstore for a while and the inventory gets shuffled off those front tables...

Candice, I only wish I was in a position to even think about how sales and marketing would categorize my work! One of these days, maybe...

Quality fiction -- and the implication being that all other categories are -- not? That would be a little irksome!

Steve Malley said...

Genres are really there for the reader. The casual reader, that average Joe or Jane who picks up what we're told is less than five books a year.

They don't want surprise. They want to know they're going to like the commitment they're about to make. When you read five books a year, each one is a bigger commitment than when you read, say, 50-100.

What would make life easier for the booksellers is to keep the books in one big pile. What would make it *easiest* would be to hand each customer a random book at the door and tell them to read it and begone. All those shelving subcategories make it easier for the shopper to find what they want.

I confess, I use genre-tags too in my own shopping. I read a lot of mystery, but I'm not too keen on the cozy. Cozy folk tend not to like noir, but they bump elbows on the shelves. I prefer urban fantasy over LoTR knockoffs. I like single-girl-makes-good chick lit, but not the kind of stuff where cancer must be overcome, etc.

For surprises, I wander outside my 'favorite' sections and pick stuff off the shelves at random. That's how I found Marian Keyes, Wilkie Collins, Donna Tartt and many of my other favorites. But mostly, I do return to similar books that will give me a reliable, and enjoyable, reading experience. I think we all do.

It's wrong when what should be a simple guide becomes a straightjacket, but those guides did come around for a reason.

Steve Malley said...

Oh, and 'Quicksilver' was in Science Fiction because that's Neal Stephenson's usual genre.

His early work (Snow Crash, Diamond Age) was very solidly and safely 'in genre', using all the familiar tropes, etc. But lately he's been pushing hard at the boundaries of what makes science fiction: stories underpinned and defined by science.

Cryptonomicon was the first. It used math, cybernetics and cryptology to tell an adventure story, same as Asimov used robots.

Quicksilver might be considered historical fiction, but it's also an adventure story grounded in the early days of physics and economics and the latter days of alchemy. You can no more take those sciences out of that trilogy than you can spacewarps from CJ Cherryh...

Ok, I'll go home now.

steve said...

cs harris's comment:

"If a manuscript won't fit neatly into one of those categories, S&M tell the editors not to buy it. And what S&M says goes."

made me wonder what S&M was--Sadism and Masochism? That's one genre I avoid. But from the context I realized it was Sales and Marketing.

And that seems to be a big problem. If a manuscript doesn't fit into one of these categories, it's not published. I suspect that's why Madeleine L'Engle had such a hard time getting "A Wrinkle in Time" published--it had elements of children's literature, science fiction, and inspirational fiction
(besides beginning with, "It was a dark and stormy night.").

I'm sure I've missed many good books because of genre. But I doubt whether we'll get rid of them. I just hope publishers will realize that there's some literature that won't fit perfectly into any of the niches.

Lisa said...

Steve, I am so glad you stopped by. I have been enjoying your blog and your comments on Razored Zen over the last couple of weeks. Thanks for the great comments. Your mention of Donna Tartt is the final straw -- I think you were the third person to mention her this month, which means I'm going to have to check her out. Ditto your other favorites.

I did learn quite a bit about Neal Stephenson's work after picking up Quicksilver (which I really loved, but I didn't have the ambition to pick up the next 1,000 pages of the Baroque Cycle!). I have been tempted to go back and read Cryptonomicon though and one day I will.

I'm sold now and I understand the myriad of genres is necessary. I do think I've probably missed out on books because of how they've been shelved, but that's the breaks and it ties in to the great comment you made on Razored Zen this weekend about the vast number of books out there and the limited time we have. You hit home for a lot of people with that comment.

Love your blog!

Lisa said...

Steve, I just figured out that you're Steve in the Midwest, not Steve in New Zealand! So glad you stopped by. I've just been reading through your posts and they're fascinating -- I'll have to link you. Oh and as a lapsed Episcopalian, I appreciate the post on church politics -- I was up to speed about 4 years ago and then lost track.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.


Virginia Woolf