Last week, I mulled briefly over my love/hate relationship with genre labels, and much to my non-surprise, I find that I have a lot more to say.
It seems like a lot of people dislike the idea of sorting books into genres, like there’s something inherently snobbish about it because it puts some books in a superior category and shunts others into a bookish ghetto that people who are into proper literature can avoid. Because I enjoy books of just about any genre and don’t consider one genre inherently superior to any others, I have some sympathies with this position. Still, when I’m in the mood for crime fiction, I like being able to go to the library or bookstore and find row upon row of books all clustered together than might suit my mood. Categories are helpful.
Here on the blog, Jenny and I use genre labels, and I’m glad that we do, although I sometimes hesitate over whether some books belong in a certain genre. For me, the choice usually comes down to subject matter. If a book has non-realistic elements, then I check speculative fiction (a label I like only because it keeps me from having to distinguish between fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, and so on). If that same book is set several years prior to the author’s lifetime, I might also check historical fiction. If it’s an old book, generally 1950s or earlier, I check classics. The categories are broad, which keeps me from having to worry too much over fine distinctions, and books can fall into many categories—which makes the task of choosing much easier for a blogger than it would be for a librarian or bookstore owner having to decide where to shelve a single copy of a book. I had someone tell me this very week that she was getting ready to look back through all our classics reviews because that’s what she’s interested in. Again, categories are helpful, and to me, that’s what genres are. They’re categories that we can use to help us find what we want. Simple.
Except that it’s not so simple. Categories are also a way to create hierarchies, to set one kind of book (and thus one kind of reader) over another. So we can then lump all fantasy readers into the “pimply teenage boy” box and all romance readers into the “desperate housewife” box and be able to call ourselves superior. Or on the flip side, we can lump all those classics and literary fiction readers in the “pretentious snob” box and say at least we aren’t like them.
But this kind of categorizing is a dangerous thing. What happens if we readers of “proper literature” discover that the science fiction novel Ender’s Game has some smart things to say about war and prejudice and education? If we find that romance novels by Georgette Heyer make us laugh? Well that’s easy! Those works “transcend the genre” and don’t quite count. We can read those without being classed with those awkward teens or bored housewives. Whew!
In case you missed the tone, I’m being sarcastic there. A really well-written piece of science fiction is still science fiction. Being good doesn’t stop it from being so, nor does playing around with the conventions of the genre. In Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, people go into space. That makes it science fiction. It’s also an extraordinarily well-written book with three-dimensional characters that delves into significant truths in creative and interesting ways. Some of those qualities might make it appealing to readers who don’t normally read science fiction. That doesn’t stop it from being science fiction.
Yet even as I get annoyed when people use a phrase like “transcends the genre” to snobbishly set themselves as fans of the book apart from fans of the genre, I do think it can be useful to note when a book departs from the conventions of its genre. That’s something that came to my mind in some of my recent crime fiction reading. I adored In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming. It had everything I want in a crime novel. The characters, setting, pacing, writing, everything were just superb. But would I recommend it to someone who doesn’t like crime novels? Probably not. It is very much a book of its genre, and although it is a very good book, it doesn’t offer a whole lot to people who just aren’t interested in books about people investigating crimes. However, I might recommend Case Histories by Kate Atkinson to someone who doesn’t care for crime fiction because the wit and writing style might win them over, even if the subject matter isn’t their usual cup of tea. I would, however, still call it crime novel.
I think, too, that it’s OK for readers to prefer to avoid certain genres. Some people avoid crime because they dislike violence and darkness. Others just don’t find romance interesting or prefer reading about real life to reading about fantasy worlds. None of us can read everything, and I have no problem with people limiting their choices according to what interests them. I don’t read much high fantasy anymore because I found I generally prefer fantasy that’s still grounded in this world. I also don’t read a lot of genre fiction that adheres to a formula, with the sometime exception of crime fiction. However, I can understand that for fans of particular genres, it can be satisfying to see how an author operates within the usual strictures of the formula or even pushes the boundaries in clever ways. Sometimes heavy readers of a genre can see satisfying patterns and twists that those of us who merely dip into it won’t notice. (This becomes clear if you read any romance blogs. Many of those bloggers find a lot to analyze in a genre that’s often dismissed as having no value at all.)
You’ll notice that I’ve said little about that problematic and controversial category called “literary fiction.” To me, literary is more about style than subject matter. A book in any genre can be literary, if it plays about with the conventions of language, character, plot, point of view, and so on. Literary books also often have things going on under the surface that aren’t immediately apparent. They require digging if you’re to get the full impact. Being literary, however, is not a marker of quality. A book can experiment all over the place and still be a failure. The trouble with the term is that everyone defines the category differently, with some wanting to treat is as a category all of its own, where the “good” books go once they’ve “transcended their genre.” But those folks just won’t get any jetpacks.