Saturday, September 10, 2011

Genre-Bending: when categories just don't fit

For this month's Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour, we're talking about genre and what happens when writers ignore the boundaries of bookstore categories.  Actually, I also want to talk about my experience as a reader and how genre can both inform and limit me in my search for something new and shiny to read.

I remember the days of my neighborhood library--the library card the color of manila folders--creamy tan with rounded corners.  My signature scribbled across the back. I actually remember when I got my own adult library card.  I couldn't have been more than 9 or 10 and had read through every book in the children's section.

We weren't allowed to take out books from the adult section without a parent present, and my mother was probably tired of schlepping with me to the library several times a week.  So she petitioned the librarian to grant me an adult card.  It was like getting a passport and a visa to any county in the world.  But once out of the cozy confines of the children's section, I didn't know what to read.

The children's section was genre-independent.  Nancy Drew sat happily in the same area as Judy Blume's books and Heinlein's juvenile SF titles.  And I read them all.  The adult library was separated into sections.  New books.  Mystery.  Science Fiction.  Romance.  Adventure.  Non-fiction.  And the sheer volume of books was overwhelming to a young kid.  So I asked the librarians for help and they steered me to the Science Fiction section.

What I found out as a young kid was that while I had the technical ability to read adult work, much of the emotional subtext was either beyond me, confusing, inappropriate, or some combination of all of the above.  In SF, I found a body of work that challenged me intellectually while not presenting me (for the most part) with inappropriately sexualized  or graphically violent content.  (Remember--I was reading without adult supervision from the time I was about 10.  I'm not proposing censorship or ratings on books here.  Just relaying my experience growing up in the late 60's and early 70's).

Back in the day, there wasn't as well a developed YA literature as there is today, so the strong child reader really didn't have a lot of choices.  SF was a safe haven for me and to this day, I have a soft spot for many of the books I loved as a child.

But I also worry that keeping books in the ghettos of genre artificially limits both the book and the reader.  There are excellent books that won't be widely read because they are perceived as being inferior somehow to more 'important' literary works.

And perhaps the genre categories end up in some way dictating the kind of books that are being written and published.  Paranormal romance, for example, is the 'hot' thing now, so that section is enormous in the bookstore and so many of the books look and read like clones of one another.  Perhaps if genre wasn't used as a marketing tool, more rich and complex stories would be written.

I know that I am basically a reading omnivore.  I read widely in many genres, or perhaps despite genres.  What I choose to write may also not neatly fit in a genre category.  I like to write YA fiction with typical, modern day teen protagonists facing obstacles that force them to find reserves and skills they didn't know they had.  It's not realistic fiction--some of my obstacles are haunted houses, or the unwanted ability to see glimpses of the future, or unwelcome Fae visitors.  It's not urban fantasy.  Nary a vampire, zombie, or were-creature to be found.  It's not high fantasy.  No elves, dwarves, or wizards.

The next time someone asks me what kind of novels I write, I think I will just tell them I write stories.

(You can find a list of all the blog tour participants here and see the next installment by D. Anthony Brown here.)


  1. Good points here. In the UK it's more books by age and listed alphabetically. Children's books and YAs are the genre, so there's more room to mix things up (at least that's my take).

  2. Here in the states, practically the only place in the bookstore that isn't segregated by genre is the YA/Children's books. I know you can search for anything you might want to read now with algorythms, et al, but I do wonder about the loss of serendipity--of finding a book you weren't looking for simply browsing through the shelves.

    Thanks for commenting, Michele.