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Cutting the Genre Cake

August 6, 2008

To me, there are just two valid categories of books – those worth reading, and those not. I think this is how it works for everyone else too, individually. When we want to discuss books with others, as well as the breathless recommendations “oh, you must read…” there’s that grey area of “you’ll like this one if you enjoyed that one”.

This is where genre starts to creep in, at least for me. Other than as an aid to communication, I don’t care for it. So when I wanted to list off some recommended books, I decided to divide things by genre. This I thought would be a way of dividing the books into small, themed bite sized chunks that would fit easily into an article.

More fool me.

My main lesson was more of a reminder – that genre, like taste, is subjective. When I write a top 5 fantasy list and then get taken to task for not including books such as Perdido Street Station and the Baroque Cycle, I do a double take. Those aren’t fantasy as I cut my genre. Those are speculative fiction and historical fiction, respectively. But it’s not helpful to point that out. Here genre obfuscates rather than aids discussion of what really matter – books worth reading. Who cares what genre those books are – what they are above all if great books worth anyone’s time to read.

Genre, as I’ve mentioned before, is a device invented by booksellers to facilitate the selling of books. Genre tends to apply only to subsections of books – fantasy, science fiction, and crime fiction. The terms science fiction and fantasy are often used interchangeably. We know what they mean. Genre is a selling tool, not a discussion aid. I knew this, and should have approached things differently from the start.

So I’ve abandoned the lists. I will create a recommendations page and put as many books on there as I think should be on there. That will be far more helpful, and, as per the list articles, all reader suggestions for further reading are most welcome. Hopefully this time they will be made after a clear article that encourages and doesn’t narrow discussion.

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