Genre Snobbery

GenreI just recently finished reading The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler and it made me think about genre and the way genre categories color our opinions about books even before we know anything about them. I work in a book store and it amazes me how much genre matters to people and yet how random it is which books are shelved where.

People will ask for books that were recommended to them or that their book clubs are reading or that Oprah recommended or whatever with no idea where in the store it is but fully intending to buy it when I hand it to them. Then I’ll walk them over to, say, Mystery or Biography or Science Fiction and hand them the book. Usually the book looks perfectly benign, like anything they might have found in the regular fiction section. If they weren’t standing under a sign that said “Mystery” they never would have known. But they do. So they say “Oh, it’s a mystery? I don’t like mysteries. I don’t want it.” and walk away. Or they wrinkle up their nose like something just died and say “Ew! Why would she suggest a fantasy book to me? She knows I hate all that elf crap!” and huff off, offended.

This happens all the time.

At the same time, there are all kinds of strange things you wouldn’t expect shelved in “Fiction”. Stephen King is entirely shelved there. This includes the “Dark Tower” series which really should be in “Fantasy/Science Fiction” if you get right down to it. The “Dune” series by Frank Herbert is in “Fiction” too. Don’t ask me why. Wicked by Gregory Maguire could certainly be in “Fantasy/Sci-Fi” too, but it’s not because they don’t think it will sell there. You would think that Danielle Steele would be in “Romance”, right? I mean, that’s what she writes. But she’s in “Fiction” with Nora Roberts (except for her mysteries). There are mysteries everywhere and romance is all over the place. Vampire romances are split evenly between “Romance” and “Fantasy/Sci-Fi”, but Anne Rice gets special dispensation and gets to be in “Fiction” for no particular reason. None of it makes any bloody sense. Clearly genre isn’t that cut and dry.

Why are there people who are so afraid of genre? What is so scary about it? The most common rational excuse I hear is “I like books about real people”, but I have trouble understanding how half of the fiction books I see are any more real than anything else. And if you give a really good fantasy book a chance you might find that it’s more realistic in terms of characterization than many mediocre fiction books you’ve read. There’s bad apples everywhere. Most of the “Fiction” section is mediocre at best, but so are most of the other genre sections. The key is listening to recommendations and finding out what you like and taking risks once in a while. Don’t be afraid to try something new or you’ll find that all you read is books about quirky 30-something women who are trying to get married to 30-something men but can’t find the right guy. One in a great while is great, but most of them are pretty forgettable. So change it up! Try something new! Or, if you really like that story, try it with 300-something elves or 30-something detectives or something. At least it’s variety. I guess I’m just tired of books being judged by the sign above their shelf.

I guess I just wonder when genre became so important in our lives and in our book reading choices. Is genre so important that it really trumps the recommendation of a good friend?

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