The Problem with Literary Genres & Categories

Books sign

Humans seem to like categories. We sort and label all over the place, including bookstores. Walking around any bookstore, you would think each story could be neatly classified: science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, history, humor…the list goes on and on. But in reading books, it is easy to see how many stories defy conventional genres and categories.

Several years ago I went to a talk and book signing by Jasper Fforde. Fforde is best known for his Thursday Next series where his main character can jump from book to book, easily transgressing genres. To make things more interesting, this is a skill Thursday Next hones under the guidance of Miss Havisham, a character who originated in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Throughout the series, Thursday interacts with characters from books that span multiple centuries and genres, which, as Fforde pointed out in his talk, complicates things when trying to classify his books. Are his books fantasy because they contain minotaurs and fantastical worlds? Are they science fiction because of the time travel? Or maybe they belong in mystery because many of the plots center around Thursday solving some sort of literary crime. For this reason, Fforde pointed out that he was partial to doing away with genre classifications because many books do not in fact fit neatly in the categories we have set up.

Labeling books by genre is often limiting. For example, I stayed away from Stephen King for a long time because I always thought of him as just a horror writer. It was not a genre that interested me, but after picking up King’s On Writing, I was inspired to delve into his fiction. I started with Carrie and soon after found myself devouring whatever King fiction I could get my hands on. Even though many of his books do have a strong horror element, they could also be classified in other ways. Take IT, for example. Of course this book fits neatly in the horror genre, but it is also a coming-of-age story, and I think it is that element more than the evil Pennywise the Clown that drew me into the book. It makes me wonder what other gems are hiding in sections like horror and mystery—areas of the bookstore I do not often visit.

Branding a book as Young Adult (YA) fiction is another way we may limit readership. YA is a huge category in bookstores right now. It seems that the Harry Potter series ushered in a new wave of YA writers. It is not that writers for the YA market did not exist before JK Rowling’s boy wizard arrived on the scene, but it was a moment where those in publishing seemed to finally take YA fiction seriously. But, YA readers are not just teens; adults are also diving into YA fiction. This raises a question: what makes a book YA? One thing that YA books tend to have in common is a main character who is a child or a teen. With the cross-generational appeal of books like Rowling’s and Pullman’s, it seems to me that having a young main character does not necessarily mean that a book is just for a young adult audience even though this seems to be the way the publishing industry markets such books.

The YA label once again points to just how limiting genres and categories can be when it comes to books. I still have friends who refuse to read the Harry Potter series because, “Those are kids’ books.” I find this to be similar to my initial aversion to Stephen King. If I still held that attitude, I would have missed out on many good books.

Reading should be about connecting with a variety of characters—not just people that are like us. For example, when we label a book as women’s fiction because it features women characters and experiences that are seen as common to women, it’s as though we are sending a message that such stories do not warrant an audience beyond women readers. The reality is that many readers enjoy books with all kinds of main characters. There have even been pushes to stop labeling kids’ books as being for boys or girls—just call them books. Compartmentalizing kids’ books by gender bothers me because it seems to imply that we should only read stories suited to our gender. Does this mean a girl cannot enjoy Tom Sawyer and a boy cannot enjoy The Hunger Games because the main character’s gender is not in alignment with their own?

When we limit what we read to narrowly defined categories, we are missing out on a lot of stories that overlap multiple genres. Often a kids’ book is not just a kids’ book, and a horror story is not just about things jumping out and saying, “Boo!”


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