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No Such Things as Genre

May 5, 2008

I sat down to write a different post to this one. A genre guide to fantasy in fact. But this is what came through instead.

The concept of genre never used to exist in writing. The divide between fiction and on-fiction was about as close as things got, if that were even noted at all. Even that notation is a detail.

The current division of written work into genres is done solely to facilitate booksellers and publishers in their quest to sell more books. That is all. To paraphrase a certain British politician, there is no such thing as genre, only people and their stories.

Just because you have read one story set on Mars in the future, it does not follow that you will like this other story, written by someone else, also set on Mars in the future. Yet this is how books are presented to us in bookstores.

The notion of genres is becoming increasingly irrelevant with the internet, and sites like Amazon with their systems of recommendations and ‘people who bought this book also bought…” As with the genre division, those recommendations are there to help Amazon sell more books, but since they avoid the frankly needless labelling they are progress to my eyes.

Bookstores aren’t above breaking their own labelling system when it suits their purposes. So a book like Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade will be found in literary fiction, whereas Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver will sit in the science fiction shelf next to Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Through ‘anomalies’ like these you can see the system for the illusion it is. The books bear more similarity to one another than to the books they sit next to on the shelf, but it has been determined that Diana’s books will sell better placed with literary fiction, while Neal’s should stay in science fiction.

Importantly, this system does nothing to help the reader.

Genre labelling also leads to pointless, circular discussions. The aforementioned Quicksilver receives furrowed brows from people expecting another Snow Crash, likewise William Gibson’s Spook Country is received less rapturously than Neuromancer. Is it really science fiction?, some people ask, not realising that the question is irrelevant. Is it a book worth reading? is the only question that matters.

The answer to that question is made easier through systems like Amazon’s recommendations, or less commercially, a site such as LibraryThing which shows connections based on what people read or own.

The next time you are in a bookshop take a detour from the section you normally head straight for. Take a look around and pick something up. You’ll thank me.

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