Friday, November 26, 2010

Genres - Helpful or Hurtful?

Genres tend to mystify me, and I'm not sure they're really doing much of a service to readers, labeling books in the simplest possible terms.

I write novels. I admit I didn't think much about genres when I started publishing - I thought about the target age of my readers, but not the genre of the book I was writing for them. Then, after Counterfeit Son was published, I got a phone call from my editor telling me it had been nominated for an Edgar Award.

Wonderful! But I had to ask her, what was an Edgar Award? She told me it was for Best Young Adult Mystery.

Wonderful! Except I hadn't thought of Counterfeit Son as being a mystery. It was a novel about coming to terms with exactly how much responsibility one person owed another person. I was honored to be nominated, but the nomination was something of a mystery to me.

Then I began thinking about my other books, and I realized that most of them were mysteries - I'd used techniques of mystery to tell the story I'd wanted to write. I was even more honored when Counterfeit Son won the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery. And the following year Ghost Soldier was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery, another tremendous honor, even though I thought the book was more a novel about knowing when to hold onto family and when to let go, than a mystery.

So genres can benefit writers unexpectedly. But I think genres can also do writers a disservice sometimes. I've recently finished a novel about the need to protect words and books from being twisted and misrepresented. It takes place in our world, perhaps a few years in the future, and I thought of it as sort of a foray into science fiction, or speculative fiction (a term I prefer). But with the current interest in dystopian literature, it's being called dystopian. And editors have rather specific ideas about what they want to see as dystopian. So when they read my manuscript, thinking dystopian, they have problems with it not fitting neatly into the dystopian template they have in their mind.

Not so wonderful. I know genres can help readers find the sort of books they want, but I think that pigeon-holing can also cut readers off from books they might well enjoy if they came to those books without pre-formed expectations. What do you think? Do genres hinder more often than help, or vice versa?


  1. I think that's like asking if the concept of gender helps or hinders our personal relationships. It's not an either/or question and in any case, even if gender were only a hindrance, how would we get rid of it? In order to think like a human, as a human, you have to be able to generalize from specifics, sort individuals into categories, and arrange data into patterns. Otherwise we can't think at all.

    The thing we need to require of ourselves and constantly remind others is that the map is not the territory. All generalizations are false, all categories depend on the sorting criteria, and all patterns can be rearranged. The fact that a book, or a song, or a movie can be placed in the mystery genre does not mean it cannot also be placed in literary fiction, chicklit, horror, or whatever. But you've got to arrange the books in the store in such a way as to maximize the number of buyers who will want it who will see it.

    All categories blur around the edges, even ones with specific objective physical criteria. Animal species are composed of groups of individuals who form a potential breeding population; but horses and donkeys can make mules, and once in a great while a mule will produce offspring. The occasional fertile mule does not invalidate the category of horse or donkey. It's just not useful in that instance.

  2. I like this, Peni: "All generalizations are false, all categories depend on the sorting criteria, and all patterns can be rearranged." I'm less concerned with how books are arranged in stores as I am with how books are arranged by publishers - especially marketing. I'm not sure that their rigid genre categorizing serves the books they are going to publish (or going to reject). I just fnished reading Jennifer Donnelly's Revolution (a book which I think you would really like, by the way) and I'm wondering whether it falls into historical, time slip, or contemporary with a strong shot of history and music. I think it's a brilliant novel, but I'd hate to see its readership limited by a more limited genre identification.