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?

Related Articles:

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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 Space Marked “Other”

One of the highlights for October was the annual Ozark Creative Writers conference, held in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  It was an informative weekend filled with writers from as far away as Arizona and Oregon, and featured 39-year published author and creator of “Rambo”, David Morrell.

Commenting on his unusual longevity in the publishing world, Mr. Morrell stated, “The average author’s career lasts 15-20 years – largely because a writer often finds a format that works for them, and then does it over and over until both they and their readers tire of it.  He then went on to recap the last hundred years or so of book printing history (more about that later).

My favorite sentiment from Mr. Morrell was, “There are no inferior genres, only inferior authors.”  That was a refreshing point of view in an industry that often seeks to pigeonhole writers into an imagined hierarchy of what constitutes “good” writing.

Perhaps it struck a nerve with me because a typical question asked of a writer – especially at writers’ conferences – is “what do you write?”  My initial response, which I generally am able to keep to myself, is ‘whatever I can get away with’.  That’s because I enjoy writing a variety of things, and am generally so tickled that people actually pay for it.

So the next choice in responses is to consider who I’m speaking with and answer accordingly.  I’m an education writer.  I write non-fiction.  I love mysteries.  Sometimes the snobbier types are referring to what you’ve published, which may be entirely different from what you write, especially for those who have to pay the bills.  Of course, I understand that most people are just looking for a hook to hang your name on, a method of identifying this new face in a confusing sea of strangers.  Still…

Books - bookcase top shelf

I find the question similar to that insulting section of a form that asks if I am caucasian, african-american, asian, native american, or a purple-people-eater.  I’m human.  Isn’t that enough?  I’m a writer.  No further categorization required.

I’m also a fan of good books.  Period.  My favorites are filed under sci-fi, romance, western, contemporary, classic, biography, childrens, and memoir.  A story told well – in any genre – is a story that translates to everyone.  And that is something that transcends genre.

So I might be writing a children’s book…and a thriller…and a historical saga.  And I hope they will just be good stories – however Dewey decides to classify them.  So I’m not going to ask what you write.  I’d just like to know what are your writing NOW?

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