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
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?