Friday, September 11, 2009

On book categorisations

First of all, I'm not in North America. I've lived and worked there, but I'm not American myself. And one thing that I've been thinking about lately is categorisation. Specifically, I'm wondering whether novel categorisation in the North American market has gone too far.

First, there's the distinction between genre and literature. Besides the jokey definitions, is there really any need for this? Iain Banks writes literature, for example. You'll find him in the "Literature" aisle. But Iain M Banks writes space opera, so you'll find him in "Science Fiction & Fantasy". It's the same person. Same brain. Same way of looking at the world. Same way of expressing his thoughts. Yet, it doesn't matter what kind of beautiful and evocative language he may use in one of his Culture novels, it ain't never moving out of that SF&F area, baby.

Then I hear about the continuing brouhaha over AA. At first wondering what Alcoholics Anonymous had to do with stocking bookshelves, I was surprised and more than a little disconcerted to find that AA stands for "African American". Really? You have to go to a special part of a North American bookstore to find African American novels? Why? (I have the same beef in my part of the world, to be honest, with the Asian authors sometimes crammed together on some darkened shelves in a cobwebbed part of the store.) Who cares who wrote it? Isn't the story itself, its ability to provoke some response from you, enough?

Apparently not. Everything's so neatly divided, isn't it? You want an m/f romance with a brown-skinned protagonist? That's multicultural romance. Change it to m/m and it's under "GLBT multicultural romance". One of the protagonists has fangs? Try paranormal romance. What's next? A bookstore label that says "Paranormal vampire heterosexual multicultural urban fantasy"? Y'know, just so you know what you're buying?

Okay okay, there are times when I use those labels myself, usually when I'm after a quick fix and don't have much time to tarry. But, mostly, I don't. When I walk into a bookshop, I don't care whether the writer is white, brown or yellow and, quite frankly, I don't really care whether the characters are white, brown or yellow. That's not part of my personal novel rejection process (even though it may be part of my personal novel acceptance process). In fact, I'm more likely to reject a book based on a character spouting the author's obvious political views than the colour of her skin or how many arms she has.

So, now that I've put the cat amongst the pigeons, I'm wondering. Do these narrow categorisations do us, as readers and individuals with thinking brains, any good? Is it really okay to drop, say, $200 on books each month if ALL you read are blue-with-yellow-polkadot tri-gendered mountain-climbing memoirs?

Let's take this from another angle and subtract race from the equation. There's also a perennial battle between science-fiction and fantasy. Which is more "worthy"? The fact of the matter is, the very contemplation of such differences end up both forming and pitting one bunch of discriminators against another. And it's a pit that's so very very easy to fall into. My first love is science-fiction, so you'd think it obvious which camp I'd fall into. But I'd defend with a rusty knife my beloved Fritz Leiber "Swords of Lankhmar" books against any deranged assailant.

To me, the categorisations make it easier and easier to narrow our reading options, to close our minds to other points of view, to foster prejudice and ignore gems among the less-trawled of available stories. Yes, of course there are times when all I'm in the mood for is a damn good space opera, or a Mills & Boon romance, but not all the time, and certainly not in so constrained a fashion that I'm going to only hunt out, say, vampire space opera romances, to the detriment of anything else. I don't see my easy choices as being a good thing. Convenient? Yes. An occasional indulgence? Certainly. But good? I Don't Think So.

I suppose another way of putting this is, do the categorisations work for you? And, if so, how? Or, to take it even one step further, why do you read?


Jewel Amethyst said...

I think the categorizing is good only in a broad context, but to narrow it down to categorization by race and subgenre and sub-subgenre is really taking it too far. For example, I think all romance whether historical, contemporary, African American, multicultural, paranormal or whatever other subgenre they can invent should be placed in one area under the broad topic of Romance.

Makes you thankful for online bookstores and internet shopping doesn't it?

Maria Zannini said...

Jewel brought up a good point about online shopping. I can't tell you how many times I've wandered all over a brick and mortar bookstore looking for a specific book only to find it in some outlandish place. Go to a different bookstore and you'll find the same book in an equally unpredictable spot.

Placement often seems left for the bookseller to decide, even if it's a big chain.

It's a lot easier to browse online and let my keywords do the walking.

As to your question, categorizing books only works if the category is universally understood and accepted--something I doubt will ever happen.

Anonymous said...

I think that you do need some kind of categorisation, otherwise how would you be able to find things in a book shop, real or virtual? Having said that, I think the degree of granularity in categorisation is too high these days.

What about stories that span several genres or sub-genres? How would you shelve those?

Liane Spicer said...

I read for story, and for language. These aren't genre specific.

The whole AA shelving issue makes no sense to me. I've mouthed off to Stefanie about this already, so she'll attest to my bewilderment. That said, general categories can indeed help with finding books or giving some idea of what they're about, but the constant narrowing of categories by marketing departments is indeed going much too far.

Farrah Rochon said...

Excellent post, Kaz. I've been debating writing a blog post along these same lines. You've convinced me to do it.