Sunday Salon: The Prickly Problem of Genre

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.

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23 Responses to Sunday Salon: The Prickly Problem of Genre

  1. gaskella says:

    I agree – if only it were just a way of providing categories. I’ve always read widely across most genres (not ‘preferring’ romances), and was actually a total SF/Fantasy geek from my mid-teens into my mid-20s when I discovered ‘proper’ books again and then became a literary snob for a bit!

    Nowadays, I try to be as unsnobby as I can – I’m as likely to read a bestseller as a classic, and I try to avoid the term literary at all. I like the fact that with Richard & Judy and the TV Bookclub in the UK, that some books that would previously have been categorised as ‘literary’ are now in the supermarkets so more people are reading them (they’ve not been brave enough to include any genre outside crime yet though, and are putting more and more pressure on indie bookshops which is not good).

    You didn’t mention the reverse snobbery that sometimes occurs – particular when ‘literary’ authors write spec or SF. I recall some SF fans being outraged at Atwood over Oryx and Crake, and Ishiguru over Never Let Me Go for instance.

    • Teresa says:

      I get the impression that Richard and Judy are a lot like the Oprah book club here used to be. People got snobby about “Oprah books” (and still do), but I always thought she did a nice job of choosing books that a lot of readers of popular fiction wouldn’t have chosen without her recommendation. In the last years, she even included Faulkner and Dickens as choices.

      I didn’t know that SF fans had gotten angry w/ Atwood and Ishiguru over their books. (I know some have been upset at Atwood’s rejection of the SF label.) I can see how it would happen, especially if people turn their appreciation of their books into back-handed insults to the genre, and I’ve seen people do that.

      • gaskella says:

        I definitely read that Atwood & Ishiguro etc, were only dabbling in SF and not taking it seriously enough! Can’t remember where though.

      • Oh, I’m afraid so. There was quite a lot of unkindness in the sff blogosphere about both books, stemming from a resentment that ‘literary authors’ had taken run-of-the-mill sf tropes and been congratulated for originality by the unwitting mainstream. The corollary being that sf writers do that kind of thing every day and get very little recognition for it. Ergo Atwood and Ishiguro stole the the priase due to those sf writers and they weren’t even being particularly original about it. I read lots about how tired the premises of both Oryx and Crake and Never Let Me Go were. This led to comment along the lines of ‘How stupid and blind those literary fiction authors are; they think they’re being profound when really they’re just playing in the shallow end of our sand box.’ Reverse snobbishness I guess.

      • Teresa says:

        Oh, that is too bad, although I have to admit I do see their point, at least as regards the premises of both books. I don’t read lots of SFF, but I do watch lots of Star Trek and similar shows, and I remember thinking that the premises of those books weren’t entirely original, one-of-a-kind ideas, and I was surprised to see reviews that treated them as such. But I was interested in what the authors did with those premises, and what they did was plenty interesting, although I’m sure plenty of SFF authors could say the same about their own work. Seems like it would have been a great opportunity to promote books about similar ideas to readers like me who don’t avoid the genre, but also don’t know where to start in finding the really good stuff.

  2. Illanare says:

    De-lurking to say, firstly, how much I love your blog.
    Also, thank you for never classifying anything under the genre of “chick lit” which seems, in the UK at any rate, to be a derogatory term for books written by women.

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you! I’m afraid that I have used the term “chick lit” in the past, but it’s a term I tend to avoid these days because I know a lot of people treat it as a derogatory term. I do see its value as a description of a certain kind of contemporary comedy about women, but it’s so loaded that people read it as an insult even when that isn’t the intent.

  3. Jenny says:

    Exactly, exactly! Exactly what you’ve just said. It’s not the dividing into categories that bothers me, it’s the sniffy way people use those categories to elevate their kind of reading above the kind of reading other people do. I don’t read modern crime novels almost ever because I can’t stand reading all the graphic stuff about the bodies, and the coroners doing things, and that. BUT if you and Jenny reviewed a modern crime novel and said, no, listen, you don’t have to like this kind of mystery book to enjoy this book, I’d be much more likely to give it a try. The same way I’d recommend Donna Tartt’s The Secret History pretty widely but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, like, Jellicoe Road unless someone said, I love at-school books and I want to read one.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, absolutely. Categories can be so helpful for making recommendations or sorting through what we’re likely to want to read, but it’s a problem when they turn into value judgments.

  4. Literary fiction can be classified as any book containing the line:

    “Somewhere, a dog barked.”

    • Teresa says:

      This made me laugh right out loud because even though I’ve never had any aspirations to write fiction, I was not too long ago working on a short story in my head that had a barking dog as a motif.

  5. You’ve given me plenty food for thought. My initial impulse is to say that I hold story above genre, so perhaps those labels are only setting signifiers for me, but I’m still guilty of avoiding most mystery and crime fiction because what I’ve encountered in the past has been formulaic. But I still hold out hope—I just need a guiding hand there. Hmm. They are useful to denote setting and tropes, but when they’re used to privilege, I want to tear out my hair in frustration.

    You know my feelings on the phrase “literary fiction”.

    • Teresa says:

      I do think they’re useful but only up to a point. The problem is that with any kind of label, people like to create hierarchies or to treat their personal preferences as objective standards.

      If you’re asking for a guiding hand in mysteries, I do suggest Kate Atkinson, although I’d be more interested in hearing your thoughts on her non-crime novel, Emotionally Weird, than on her crime novels. But she steps out of the crime formula enough in her books that I think people who don’t like crime will enjoy them. And have you tried Laurie King’s Mary Russell books? There’s a good chance you’d like those, since I know you like Sherlock Holmes and fanfic.

  6. I don’t like genre identification because it ghetto-izes books in bookstores, especially books that “transcend” or “cross” genres, according to whoever defines that. And Kate Atkinson, as you say, is a terrific case in point. But I see the problem in a bookstore – how the heck are you going to arrange the books? If the world would only run in the way I would like, bookstores and libraries would have multiple copies and be cross-filing all over the place.

    • Teresa says:

      I read an article a few months ago about a bookstore that does crossfile, and I thought it was a great idea, but I know it’s impractical when they have limited space or a small inventory. My library has some tags on the shelves pointing readers to a different section if an author could go in both places, and that’s helpful, especially if they put a handful of books in each section. (Looking for more Octavia Butler? Visit the science fiction section.)

  7. Jenny says:

    I’m definitely guilty of thinking of “literary” fiction as well-written fiction of whatever genre. I think that’s how I define it in my head. Maybe I mean “literate”? I certainly don’t think of it as experimental. Hmmm. Like, there’s average SF, and then there’s literary SF. Maybe I should just say well-written, if that’s what I mean.

    Another thing I’ve noticed about genre is that it goes SF, fantasy, crime, African-American, Native American… hey wait. How come all of a sudden the ethnicity of the author is a genre, when actually they can write about any topic? That drives me up a wall. Talk about ghetto-izing.

    • Teresa says:

      In my mind, lit fic is not necessary experimental, but it almost always has something going on below the surface. I’ve read some crackingly well-written mysteries that are so straightforward that I’d hesitate to call them literary. And I think there’s something of a formula to a lot of what people consider literary fiction that can be used well or badly. I’m thinking of things like multiple narrators, linguistic play, shifting timelines, all the things that keep a book from just being a straightforward story. To me, that’s literary, but it may not be good.

      And I am totally with you on author ethnicity as genre. What is up with that? Author sex, too. We have “women’s fiction” and “chick lit” while books by men are just books. Ugh.

  8. Eva says:

    I’m like you: I have v broad categories for both fiction & nonfiction books that I talk about on the blog, just to aid myself & possible readers. But I’ll happily ‘cross-file’ when it seems necessary! :) Lately, I’ve found myself often talk about books as more plot-oriented, prose-oriented, character-oriented, etc., which I find helpful. I’m not sure if others do though!

  9. Rob says:

    First and foremost, I apologize in advance for any grammar mistakes I may make. I find this topic rather enticing and thought-provoking, but I’m not a native English speaker. It’s the first time I’m visiting your blog, and I’ve been amazed by the number of debates going on here. I wish all blogs were like this one.
    Just like you said, categories are useful. They allow us to classify the books we’ve read and wish to read, as well as to find specific novels more easily. As organizational tools, they can be pretty satisfactory – especially when you have nothing but 5 minutes to find a book you need in the never-ending extension of a big bookstore. However, in spite of their usefulness, they can still be pretty powerful as prejudice generators – I must confess that I usually picture YA readers as immature 14-year-old girls who seek nothing but entertainment. It’s an entirely negative behavior, but I just can’t control myself, even though I’ve heard of the transcending purposes of a handful of YA books. In other words: I find it difficult to simply reject a few novels; I end up rejecting the whole genre.
    In the end, I guess I have no choice but to try to act with a little more moderation, slowly eliminating my extreme attitude towards a few literary categories. It’s surely not impossible… Right?

    • Teresa says:

      I know just what you mean about having prejudices toward certain genres. I’ve felt the same way about romance, for example. They just all look the same to me. I’ve learned, though, that if enough people whose judgment and taste I usually trust like a book, it’s worth at least trying, even if it’s in a genre I wouldn’t normally read.

      And please, don’t worry about your English. I wouldn’t have known you aren’t a native speaker if you hadn’t said!

  10. Pingback: Commonplace Post (23) » Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

  11. amymckie says:

    Loved reading your thoughts here. To me, genres, classifications, labels, all of that – helpful and has a place. What is NOT helpful and has NO place is the snobbery of people and generalizations people make using those classifications and labels. But they don’t HAVE to go together, right? Can’t we keep the labels as useful reference points and tell those who want to stereotype or generalize to bugger off? tee hee

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