For the past week, the notion of genre and images has consumed me. Okay, also wondering what’s for lunch, but the genre question has been more than a little all-encompassing. In addition to the fantastic article written by Pam Jenoff for BS last week, back channel discussion about Nicola Griffith’s Always has been happening (Gwenda Bond, the one and only, has posted the first installment of said discussion here).
The craziness might lead to another problem: readers who make their own books
The question roiling in the scary place that is my mind is whether or not strict genre categorization serves a book well. As we all are familiar with how bookstores and libraries work, I started approaching the question from a couple of different vantages: grocery stores (see above re: lunch) and websites. This remains a thought in progress.
First with the latter. I have no idea how you, the person reading this post, found it. By looking at my stats logs, I can see that a good number of people visit the home page daily — whether I have a new rant posted or not — and I know that if the email newsletters goes out, a good number of people will hit the site rapidly. As a general rule, those people will click through to the articles that interest them the most. I also know that the average person who visits this site cruises around the archives here and there.
I also know that far more readers arrive via search engine. BS content matches their search criteria, the description seems to meet their needs, and voila!, new friends. Then there are strict constructionists: they hit the category tree and work their way through. While their may be some mixing and matching between these groups, I like to think of them as distinct readers with distinct needs.
When I think of book shopping as I think of website shopping, sure, it’s a lousy analogy. You can argue that readers are free to wander the aisles of bookstores with wild abandon. The serendipity factor is alive and well when it comes to human behavior. Of course, it only works if the customer wanders to the specific aisle, specific shelf that houses a book of interest (it also only works if the book is in stock and whatnot).
For many reasons, books are shelved in one place per bookstore. Sure, there are exceptions: promotions scattered around a bookstore (often paid for by publishers rather than the heartfelt selections of book-loving staff). But, if you’re looking for mystery, you head for the mystery section. Years of experience have taught you, the feckless reader, that you will find stuff you like when you cruise down this aisle. Likewise, the romance reader, the literary reader, and the child reader.
There comes a time when many readers simply do not venture too far beyond their bookstore neighborhoods. So dangerous over there by the cookbooks. You know what they’re like in the self-help section. And the delinquents hanging out in the YA oughtta be in school.
Some books, naturally, fit neatly into their genres. They pass the duck test without even getting to the quack phase. Others, however, fit okay in their genres. They contain a little too much romance to be straight mystery. The speculation is too different to sit comfortably with the other science fiction/fantasy books. That reader over there in literary ‘hood might be happier with said book than the usual inhabits of SF/F land.
But it’s hard to get that reader to cross the tracks. It would make more sense to bring the book to the reader, right? This leads to the grocery store part of the lengthy thought process. Particularly, pasta.
Once upon a time, pasta — or as it was known specifically and generally in the U.S., spaghetti — was housed in one section of a single aisle in every grocery in the world. You could choose from long and skinny or short and curly, both in a rather unappetizing off-yellow. Eventually, new shapes and colors were introduced. Also, a wide range of sauces. It was natural to assume that people who purchased pasta would be interested in something to coat them with. Eating plain, raw pasta never did catch on, you know.
At some point, prepared pasta found its way to other aisles. Chef-Boy-Ardee was found nestling against the soups. Adult food made fun for kids. Or, if you will, a specific adult food that would appeal to the younger palate (think Harry Potter in reverse). Then came the craziest thing of all: pasta returned to its roots. Fresh pasta was over there with the cheeses and milks and lunch meats. Same stuff as the other pasta, but appealing to a different shopper.
Suddenly, the person who said about dry pasta, “I never touch that stuff!” was tossing fresh tortellini into the shopping cart. By appealing to a different emotional response, grocery stores (and their suppliers) found ways to get pasta products to different types of customers. And not just pasta, sauces. If you like your tomato sauce with garlic, you might just go for pesto. And if you try the traditional pesto, you’ll love the artichoke pesto.
And so on.
The publishing business would do well by itself if it spent more time trying to get readers to cross genres, to cross aisles, to try things that they wouldn’t suspect are tasty. Because if that first bite is all the reader could ask — familiar yet intriguingly different — then there might be additional experimentation.
Granted, this whole crazy mess could lead to another pasta-esque problem: readers who decide they’re going to make their own books. That’s another problem for another day.
Pam Jenoff’s The Kommandants GirlAlways>: noir, gay fiction, women’s fiction, straight ahead fiction, none of the above, parts of the above and more? As books blend and blur the lines, how can readers be blended and blurred as well.