Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Genre Assumptions and Expectations

I remember telling someone once that my ideal bookstore would have no labels on the shelves. Everything would just be lined up in alphabetical order by author's last name, with no divisions made between romance or horror or science fiction. Heck, I'd even put fiction and nonfiction on the shelves together, because I liked to read a little bit of everything and I didn't mind having it all jumbled up. In fact, jumbled up would make it easier for me to graze.

You don't have to tell me that, shy of actually opening it up myself, my ideal bookstore is never going to happen. Even if I did open such a bookstore, most of my customers would likely recoil in horror upon seeing the mixed up shelves. Most readers aren't like me; they don't want to read a little bit of everything.

Genre classification is a sales thing and I do understand its purpose. It's there to make it easier for the reader to walk into the library or bookstore and find just the type of book they want to read without having to look through every book out there or even talk to a human being if they don't want to. You can argue all you want about whether this is good or bad, but I don't think that really matters as the idea of classifying novels by type is pretty much well established and here to stay.

In some ways, it's good. I mean, as a reader, I get pretty ticked if a book turns out to be vastly different from what I was expecting. If I'm in the mood for a light happy romance about a sexy pirate, it is kind of nice to know I can go to the romance section and pick up one of about a bazillion books with a sexy pirate on the cover, and a sexy pirate will be ready and willing to take me on a wild adventure. My interest and my expectations match the experience and all is well.

If I opened that book and found a gruesome adventure novel about murder and pillaging on the high seas and chalk full of the disturbing and brutal conditions actually involved in most piracy instead, I'd be pretty unhappy. Even if it was a great story, it wouldn't have been what I wanted. So in that way, all the focus on genres can be great.

At the same time, I think genre classification can be dangerous too, because it shortcuts our thinking sometimes. It can become a crutch. I know I'm guilty in recent years of reading in only one or two categories because I'm comfortable there and it's easier than seeking out other types of books. In fact, I had to make it a project of mine this year, really trying to focus on reading outside my regular genres, and even still I find myself going back to the same spaces more often than not.

Plus, sometimes with genre there comes a kind of laziness in the writing. This plot point doesn't have to make sense because it's scifi, so technobabble! Or you might find a main character has lived a ridiculously sheltered normal life, having never expressed any interest violence, darkness, or blood, but of course she just happens to like getting bitten and having her blood sucked out, because the hero turns out to be a vampire and that's sexy. Um. . . what?

And whether we mean to or not, genre can also be used to send a message. How many romance novels are there out there that depict the alpha hero essentially stalking, controlling, and otherwise abusing the heroine? But it's okay because that's sexy in a romance novel. Never mind the fact that if you put the same behavior in a thriller, you've got an instant bad guy. I worry about how something like that, the fact that we accept stalking and abuse as "romantic" contributes to things like rape culture. Would the concern be the same if the book didn't have that genre label slapped on top of it?

Don't mistake me. I'm not suggesting these stories are all bad or that we should be censoring or anything. I believe that all stories are good in the general sense that they have the right to be told and heard and responded to. But I do sometimes wonder if we've gone a little overboard in the name of labeling and classifying everything. Maybe my mixed up bookstore idea wasn't such a crazy idea after all.

What about you? Do you like having every split up into genres? Or do you think they do more harm than good?

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