As human beings, we do seem rather keen to categorise everyone and everything. I guess it helps us to understand the world more easily, although it can also restrict us. I wonder if it is the same with books?
For example, something I’ve come into contact with a few times is literary snobbery. People who read literary fiction sometimes believe that fantasy and science fiction as genres are complete rubbish, and the kind of silliness that should be reserved for kids. I once wrote in an essay at university that I found it odd how the art of writing is an exercise in imagination, yet fantasy and science fiction writers (for example) are often penalised for utilising more imagination.
The lecturer said I was confused.
Of course, I’m not suggesting for a second that because you’ve taken ten years to write one book and made up a hundred new races, twenty new languages and seven religions, that your book is going to be better than someone who has spent several years writing a book about a doctor having a midlife crisis, or whatever the hell literary books are usually about.
But it does seem odd that entire genres are often dismissed (especially by the literary community), simply because they include a lot of things that don’t exist. It seems sort of like criticising a photographer’s portfolio for having lots of images in it.
I’ll give you the perfect example. The great author Iain Banks/Iain M Banks sadly passed away recently from cancer. For those of you who don’t know, Iain Banks was the name he wrote under when he wrote literary fiction, whilst his science fiction works were published under the name Iain M. Banks. A lot of people (including a professor at university who told us this) assumed that Banks’ true vocation was literary writing, but in order to support himself, he had to ‘lower’ himself to writing science fiction in order to pay the bills. Not only has Banks stated in at least one interview that he marginally prefers writing science fiction, he has also pointed out that his science fiction was outsold by his literary works by a ratio of about 4 to 1, so it was the literary works he wrote to support his science fiction writing.
But of course, most people assumed it must have been the other way around, because supposedly literary fiction is intellectual writing for adults, whilst science fiction is crap about robots for people who haven’t grown up.
So genres can sometimes lend an unwelcome perception to a novel. ‘My book is a fantasy,’ you might tell someone, to which they may reply, ‘Ah, so it’s worthless, in other words.’
Of course, genres are also useful. Generally speaking, I don’t like much literary fiction. I too have a perception of what the genre is like (not much happening, for no reason) based upon the books I had to read whilst at university. Having a book labelled as literary fiction tells me that I’m probably not going to enjoy it, in the same way fantasy labelling does readers of literary fiction who don’t like that sort of thing.
But the problem is I know that there are good books in the literary fiction genre. And I don’t like being confined to certain genres. I just want to read good books, no matter what genre they fall into. While I would still read the blurbs and evaluate literary fiction books in the same way as I would a book in a genre that I liked, I don’t actively hunt down literary fiction. On Amazon, or even in a bookshop, I’m probably not going to go near the literary fiction section, unless a look through everything else my favourite genres have to offer amounts to nothing worth reading.
Of course, for writers it can pose another problem. Having to place our work can be restricting. What if your fantasy isn’t a clear cut fantasy, and mixes with other genres? How many genres is too many?
So are genres a good thing or not? Is our true aim as readers simply to read good books, or do we want to continue with what we know? Familiarity is very important for humans: it’s why categories exist in the first place. We need to be able to understand.
But it can steer people away from great books that they could thoroughly enjoy and open themselves up to new experiences. There are amazing books in the literary genre, as there are in fantasy, science fiction, or anything other genre.
What do you think? Do you find genres restricting or helpful? Do they make it easier for you to find things you love, or keep you away from new experiences?
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