Category Archives: The Art of Reading

Genre or Pigeonhole?

An interesting discussion recently transpired in the Off the Shelf book discussion group over on Goodreads.  The goal of the group is to read books in a different genre, or category, each month – hopefully expanding our reader horizons and enabling us to find new directions to take our literary journeys.

What was surprising about the discussion was how passionately people feel about their favorite types of books, and the hidden prejudices we hold for those genres we deem unworthy of our time.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of genre, consider the scientific community’s practice of classifying every living thing.  You have your vertebrates and invertebrates (fiction and nonfiction).  And within those two broad categories are multiple sub-categories – mammals, birds, fish, insects, etc. (romance, mystery, western, sci-fi).  Then, within each

sub-category, are sub-sub-categories – cows, dogs, giraffes, and so on (detective mystery, cozy mystery, crime thriller).

When you start looking at a list of your most frequently read kind of books, a distinctive genre appears.; this one migrates to historical romances, that one can’t resist a dystopian science fiction, and who doesn’t love a little steampunk?

One Off the Shelf member remarked, “I agree that genres are in place for the very reason of grouping them within a certain number of constraints making them what they are. And therefore we find ourselves attracted to reading certain genres for the needs and expectations we have. “

  What needs or expectations – perhaps previously unknown to you – do you have that seeks its fulfillment in your choice of reading material?

  But what about crossover books – the ones that could just as easily be classified in two distinct genres?  Or those that shatter the whole idea of what a genre is supposed to be?  Yes, it’s a marketing department’s nightmare, and every librarian’s headache.  However, genres do help us locate potential “friends” (like matchmaker.com for bibliophiles).

  Shelf member, Paula, says, “I tend to read a book with the genre in mind, for instance, if it’s YA, then I don’t expect the level of complexity that I would find in an adult novel. Again, however, that preconception is being challenged with the new crop of authors writing such awesome works like Harry Potter and others. My one criteria for a new book/author is: was I entertained and/or informed? “

Dr. Timothy Spurgin notes that “as writers have become more and more interested in crossing boundaries and mixing genres, publishers and booksellers seem to have grown more and more determined to use genres as marketing devices.”

What?  Our beloved books have fallen victim to the insatiable machinery of advertising?  Yup, ‘fraid so. Think about the hidden messages your local bookseller is sending you.  Sections are clearly marked in the store (segregation is alive and well), and posters blare their message of the New Bestseller/Mystery/Thriller/Horror.

The cover of the book (sometimes multiple versions) are designed with you in mind.  (Ever notice how a book gets re-issued after its movie version comes out, with a new cover featuring the stars?)  Like a bit of beefcake?  That pose was meant for you.  Want to project a refined and educated image?  Reading this book with the fake leather look and script font will do the trick.

So in the end, does genre even matter?  If we’re going to be manipulated by media and misled by tricky crossover authors, does genre even have a place in modern reading – or is it destined to be a relic, as champions of digital publishing predict paper books to be?

As another Shelf member stated, “…if you enjoy it, what does it matter if it ends up not being the genre you expected.”

Reader Tip: Try reading only  the first sentence of a book, and identify the clues to genre that are provided.  Is a real or fantastical place name given?  Is the language explanatory, snide, full of action?  What isn’t being said?  How does the first sentence set your expectations for what is to come?

(See one reader’s opinion on the Top Thirteen Best First Sentences…)

  What are your favorite genres – and why?  Does genre influence your choice of a book?  For instance, if a book looks interesting, but is clearly in the fantasy (or romance or western) section, would you pass it by?

Related Articles:

The Art of Reading

A Word About Authors

Narrators & Characters, or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

The World is Round – People Are Flat

Description, or Contemplating Your Navel

The Plot Thickens…Or Does It?

The Plot Thickens…or Does It?

Teachers, writers, critics – everyone is obsessed with plot.  Or story.  Or is it the same thing?

  Most people use the two words interchangeably, but it’s an interesting exercise to look at their actual definitions (and I’m paraphrasing here):

Plot: a list of events as they are presented to the reader

Story: the same events listed in chronological order, as they happened within the timeline of the characters

What does that mean for the artful reader?  It means that if you are aware of how the author chose to present events and particular scenes, then you can appreciate how the story would be changed if the order of those events were rearranged.

A sure-fire way to tell if a plot is really GOOD, is to map out the events, then remove just one of them.  If the entire sequence collapses with the deletion of one element, then that is the sign of a carefully-crafted plot.  And it’s no accident.  Great authors work hard to keep their plots moving and essential to the reader.

Authors can withhold information to give us a surprise at the end, or smack us right between the eyes with it in the first sentence, influencing the rest of our reading.  A recent example that comes to mind is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.  Her incredible use of chopping up the characters’ chronological timeline (the story) keep the reader guessing at every turn, revealing bits of information at a time, and leaving us breathless for the final scene – both the end of the plot, and the end of their story.

Of course, a number of writers and critics have asserted the idea that there are really only two master plots in the whole history of the world - The Hero Goes On A Journey and A Stranger Comes To Town.  Almost every book that comes to my mind features a journey by the hero – either mentally or physically.  From Bilbo Baggins to Hamlet, I love my characters to wind up at a completely different place than they started from.  Although, I have to admit that some of the most moving plots have been those where the changes happen within a small sphere, all because a stranger (or detective, or long-lost relative) shows up out of the blue.

Think about some of your favorite novels.  Which plot pattern do they follow?  Do you have a favorite?

Related Articles:

The Art of Reading

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Narrators & Characters, or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

The World is Round – People Are Flat

Description, or Contemplating Your Navel

Description, or Contemplating Your Navel

Description is a two-edged sword.  Either you are plucked from your comfortable chair and set smack into the heart of a story, or you realize you should have saved those chopsticks from last night’s dinner so you could gouge out your own eyes.  It all depends on the writer.

Particularly with the Classics, battle-scarred high school graduates remember their Survey of Literature classes with a full-body shudder.  (Two words: Moby Dick.  There, I just shivered again.)  As a result of the unforgettable slog through fifty pages on the whiteness of a whale, many of us skip description altogether.  (It’s amazing how quickly you can get through books this way.)

  But, is there an alternative to skipping the description?

  It helps to look at passages of description with a critical eye.  Why did the author include it at all?  In good writing, the description doesn’t just lend itself to setting a scene, it reflects key issues in the story.  It may actually be a projection of a character’s thoughts and world view.  Often, by the end of the book we have realized that a particularly detailed passage foreshadowed the close of the conflict.

  So, it’s okay to skip the description if it is formulaic and drags the story down.  BUT, pay attention if details are presented from a character’s point of view, as they may lead to larger insights to the story.

  I’m willing to give description a little slack, but I still think Herman should have stuck a sock in it.  Call me Exasperated.

  What do you think?  Do you enjoy reading description?  Writing description?  How are details a propelling force in your favorite pieces of fiction?

  For a closer look at meaningful description, take a look at the works of John Updike and Flannery O’Connor.

Related Articles:

The Art of Reading

A Word About Authors

Narrators & Characters, or Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

The World is Round – People Are Flat