The trouble with genre

During my morning feedly scan I stumbled across a couple of interesting comments about genre from two recently published Irish (or at least, Irish-based) writers, Rebecca Reid and Janet Cameron.

Discussing the initial reaction to her recently published Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World (Hachette), Cameron, a Canadian, Dublin-resident English language tutor, struggled with the process of pigeon-holing her own work (writing.ie):

‘Is this really general fiction?’ people would ask me. ‘Isn’t it YA?’

‘No way!’ I’d answer, and my reasons for this were fairly simple.

YA (Young Adult) is an umbrella term for any book written for a teenage audience, and I didn’t write the book for teenagers. I didn’t write it for anybody; I never thought it would be published. So with no audience in mind besides myself and my writing buddy Brendan (both of us post-40 oldsters), I made no adjustments to vocabulary, length or subject matter beyond what I thought would work. The first time someone asked me about genre, I just shrugged. ‘It’s a story,’ I said. ‘Does it really need a genre?’

thickets-woodNorthern Irish writer Rebecca Reid had a similar experience as she grappled with early responses to her debut novel, The Coop, which has been given the sequel treatment in the recentThickets Wood.

Asked what had first attracted to her to writing a psychological thriller, she replied (Liberties Press blog):

I suppose I was never consciously ‘attracted’ to writing any particular genre. It just happened. I sat down and wrote whatever felt right, and for me, those stories are never terribly lighthearted.

So what’s the point of genre, anyway?

It strikes me that it’s often no more than a device to keep publishers and booksellers (and yes, many readers and writers too) in their comfort zone.

The trouble is that when a book is tagged with a specific genre, a reader is burdened with a long list of detailed criteria which (subconsciously or otherwise) they expect the book to meet before they even start on page 1.

As some well-educated editors of Wikipedia put it rather well in relation to crime fiction:

When trying to pigeon-hole fiction, it is extraordinarily difficult to tell where crime fiction starts and where it ends. This is largely attributed to the fact that love, danger and death are central motifs in fiction. A less obvious reason is that the classification of a work may very well be related to the author’s reputation.

For example, William Somerset Maugham’s (1874–1966) novella Up at the Villa (1941) could very well be classified as crime fiction. This short novel revolves around a woman having a one-night stand with a total stranger who suddenly and unexpectedly commits suicide in her bedroom, and the woman’s attempts at disposing of the body so as not to cause a scandal about herself or be suspected of killing the man. As Maugham is not usually rated as a writer of crime novels, Up at the Villa is hardly ever considered to be a crime novel and accordingly can be found in bookshops among his other, “mainstream” novels.

A more recent example is Bret Easton Ellis’s (born 1964) seminal novel American Psycho (1991) about the double life of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street yuppie and serial killer in New York City in the 1980s. Even though in American Psycho the most heinous crimes are depicted in minute detail, the novel has never been labelled a “crime novel”, maybe because it is never explicitly mentioned whether Bateman actually commits the crimes or rather just fantasizes about them.

In many cases that’s fine, but when a book challenges those criteria – is John Green The Fault in Our Stars a book that everyone should read, or a book that should be read primarily by teens? – then is it possible that the idea of genre becomes constraining or even misleading, and is in danger of limiting its audience instead of specifying it?

Books at their best broaden the mind. Whether that book sits under the bookshelf label “Crime fiction”, “YA” or (the worst one of all) “Literary fiction” is irrelevant.

But that’s just me, and perhaps my world view is unrealistic – books, after all, might be no different than anything else, from politics to science, in requiring labels and categorisation so that we can make sense of it all.

What about you? Do you recommend different books to different people depending on (a) the subject matter and (b) the reader?

Or do you recommend your favourite books to everyone, knowing that a good book is for everyone?

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