Earlier in the week, I saw a literary agent proclaiming on Twitter the importance of knowing one’s genre. After all, she insisted, if all of the characters in your manuscript were of a certain age, could you really label your submission as Young Adult?
I understand her point in a way. After all, agents specialize in certain types of books. They have their niches, so to speak. If an agent represents literary authors and I send him or her a high fantasy novel claiming that it’s literary fiction, then I’ve wasted both of our time. Except, the line between those ideas…and, by that, I mean, what exactly do we call literary?…becomes blurred.
In my perspective, genre labels are used for two basic reasons. The first is to give the (potential) reader some idea of what to expect when they open the book. I’m immediately open to certain conventions when reading science fiction, for example, that might give me pause when reading a mystery. I know that an espionage thriller will contain certain plot formulae that would be resisted in other settings. In that way, I think that they’re useful.
The second is to allow booksellers to categorize them. When you’re in the mood for a certain type of book, you can find that shelf in your local bookstore, or browse to that category on your Nook or Kindle. In that way, brick-and-mortar bookstores aren’t all that different from digital storefronts…they have large amounts of products that require a hierarchical structure in order to organize them that they may better get them before potential readers.
And, I’m all for getting books in front of potential readers, because I want people to read my words, just as I want any writers’ hard work to be read and appreciated. And, earning money from that hard work, while it’s not really why we do it, is always an amazing feeling.
I foresee this near-future scenario, however, in which our still somewhat basic genre categories become overbearing in their volume and weight. Those of us with a taste for these things can become a bit obsessive over the categories of what we read. To draw a musical parallel, you may be one of those people that disagrees with the genre labels for your iTunes purchases. When I buy music, I almost always go about editing the meta-data to reflect what I feel the true genre of the piece is, not what Apple’s marketing department felt that it is. We may enjoy listening to the same artist, but call the music different things. Alternative to me could very well differ from what you would consider alternative music, because there’s a perceptual lens that comes into play there. Think I’m wrong? Let’s have a discussion about where the line between country and southern rock lies. You see my point.
Along those same lines, knowing that different readers will often gravitate to a writing style or a story moreso than a type of story, I think that genre descriptions are not foremost in many writers’ minds when we are crafting a story. Because of this, our stories can often cross the lines between those genres. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that, as new ideas for stories and characters are woven in an author’s mind, the equivalent to a new type of music can be created. How would iTunes have categorized hip-hop in a world where only jazz and R&B existed? How would we have classified science fiction in a world before Shelley gave us her Frankenstein monster? I don’t think that most readers are quite as fixated on genres as we might believe.
It’s in our nature to categorize things so that we may understand them. That’s what genres do. I don’t think that they’re a bad thing. I do think that making them laser-specific and rigid is a bad thing, because bending categories and creating things that prove elusive to labels is a beautiful experience in any art. It’s how an art form grows. And, when an art form grows, so do those who engage with it.