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 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?

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The Art of Reading

Today, my mailbox presented me with a gift.  I bought it for myself – a DVD series from Great Courses (specializing in learning for the sheer joy of it).  It is amazing in its quality and depth of knowledge, and I can’t say enough good things about it.

Those who know me well can tell you that I adore education.  If I haven’t learned something new in a day, then it was a wasted day!  Had my bank account allowed it, I would never have left the university.  (As it is, I hardly leave the library.)  These college-level courses, sans credit or tests, are fantastic for feeding the brain…which is just what’s required during the winter months!

English: The main reading romm of Graz Univers...

The Art of Reading is shaping up to be an interesting survey of literature, both for readers and writers.  Presented by Timothy Spurgin, of Lawrence University, here are a few nuggets gleaned from the first lecture:

  1. When you think about reading as an art, you begin to take it a little more seriously.
  2. The idea of artful reading suggests that there is a difference between reading and reading well.
  3. Artful reading suggests that you are doing something for its own sake, and is its own reward.

As I fling myself into writing for the education market, writing for pleasure, reading with book discussion groups, and generally thinking about books for a good portion of my day, I appreciate Dr. Spurgin’s point that perhaps learning to read is not just a skill you acquire in 1st or 2nd grade.  Just maybe, it is a skill that develops over time, and deepens and changes with age.

Our society is obsessed with everyday reading – the kind I think of as “disposable literature”.  We read all day long, but it is only to glean pertinent information, then throw away the rest like garbage.  Even the daily paper is “disposable”, in that we seldom look at an article with a critical and appreciative eye for the author’s work.

Artful reading, according to the professor, is “what you do with a work of fiction – when you stop to take note of an elegant phrase or a striking image.”  Although, I would argue that artful reading can also be found in nonfiction.

  C.S. Lewis noted that devoted readers are willing to read some things more than once.  For devoted readers, books are not a last resort, when you have nothing better to do.  And for us, encounters with certain books can be momentous and life-changing experiences.

I especially like Dr. Spurgin’s belief that reading is fun – but we should expand our definition of fun to include thinking and talking.

Reader Tip:  Give every book the 50-Page Test.  Read the first fifty pages of a new book without making judgments, or giving up.  If you haven’t connected with the characters or language by then, feel free to set it aside.  But don’t write it off altogether – many readers return to a book they rejected earlier (even years before), only to find that now, they enjoy it immensely.

What do you think about artful reading?  If reading can be artful, then what about listening to music, or looking at a painting?

Visit Off The Shelf – the Goodreads Book Discussion group dedicated to expanding reader’s choices and exploring multiple genres.

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