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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Books as Art

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When a friend tells you about a bookstore she wants to go to that includes such features as a tunnel of books, you drop everything and free up a few hours on your calendar as soon as possible. Such was the case when a couple friends from my book group mentioned that they wanted to go to the Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles. None of us had been there before, so the three of us made plans to meet up there last weekend.

As you will see, this post is going to be more about the pictures than the words because the Last Bookstore is a visual feast for readers. Those of us who love reading often find ourselves staring down at the pages in front of us, but this is the kind of place that begs you to tear your eyes away from the book in your hands and look at the way books can be art. One of my friends even commented that it was hard to browse for books because she was so distracted by all the things to look at throughout the store.

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Much of the inventory is made up of used books and records. Even though there are clear sections by genre in the downstairs area, I think it would be a challenge to show up at the Last Bookstore with a specific book in mind. It’s the kind of place where a book finds you rather than being the kind of store where you go to find a book on your list. This is precisely what makes this place feel magical.

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I must admit that I sometimes see art made from books and feel a bit of sadness that those books can’t be read like a book normally would be. Those books had to be taken apart to make that art, but there is also a certain kind of beauty in books being repurposed into art. Being at the Last Bookstore and discussing this topic with one of my friends helped me see that. It’s as though the art becomes a new way to read an old story.

The upstairs part of the store includes small shops for local artists and the Labyrinth of Books. Although the lack of organization in the Labyrinth may drive some crazy, I quite enjoyed the varied selection from shelf to shelf. Some shelves are organized by color, and some are just a random assortment of books. Did I mention there is a section in the Labyrinth where books are $1 each?

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Walking around upstairs made me forget the rush of people walking around the Downtown LA streets on a Saturday afternoon. This bookstore looked like a place out of a book. Here dusty books and squishy, old chairs were right at home and welcome. The shelves were filled with books that felt like the kinds of places Jasper Fforde‘s Thursday Next could go–places one could walk into and get wonderfully lost for days. I’m pretty sure that if a hopeful reader were to walk through the tunnel of books in the right state of mind, perhaps she could find herself transported to any fictional world she wanted to visit.

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I managed to leave the store with a few books that caught my attention, including an interesting find called The Serial that was on a shelf in the $1 room. You can see the cover below. The story and illustrations inside are every bit as awesome as you think they would be. This book needs to be judged by its cover. If you are curious about the book, it has its own Wikipedia entry. I’m looking forward to flipping through its pages with a glass of cheap wine on a rainy night in the near future.

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The Last Bookstore first opened in 2005. It is a new store in a time when news of bookstore closures is far more common than news of openings. Perhaps its success lies in the way it creates an experience of browsing without a real clear idea of what the browsing reader wants to find. With more and more bookstores closing, it seems we are losing the old experience of happening upon an interesting book in the course of perusing a store’s shelves. Online browsing just isn’t the same as scanning shelves and grabbing a book that catches your eye.

If you live in the LA area or are planning a visit, make sure to schedule some time for a stop at the Last Bookstore. Allow a few hours because this is not the kind of place you should rush through.

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Gardens, Dragons & Wine

I recently took a break from the LA area and went up to Napa with some friends—both fictional and real. As I mentioned in my last post, I gave a lot of thought to the books I would take with me, and I ended up reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde. I also took Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain, but didn’t get to it on this trip.

I had never read The Secret Garden as a kid, so I was looking forward to it. I am part of a book group called Rediscovering the Classics, and this was the last book in a series of that explored books written by women in a variety of genres. Sometimes a book just happens to find you at a time in your life when it needs to be read. For me, The Secret Garden is one such book.

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Over the last few months I have put a lot of work into planting my own home garden. What makes this garden so special for me is that I am living in the house that used to belong to my grandmother. It was the house she and my grandfather raised my mother in and a house that I spent a lot of time visiting as a child. I have pulled many weeds, and I have planted roses, a wildflower garden, some veggies and a few other things. In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox and those around her are healed and changed by the garden, and working on my garden has brought me that same feeling. It’s a connection to my past as I pull weeds and dig in the same dirt that others in my family worked in years ago. I even have a pair of nesting Western Scrub Jays that have taken quite an interest in what I’m doing, much like Mary’s robin friend in The Secret Garden. Here is one of my bird friends admiring my work recently as I pulled weeds around my tomatoes.

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Although I read most of this book in Napa, I kept thinking back to my garden and hoping that five days without watering wouldn’t do my plants in. It turns out they thrived, and it made me realize that maybe plants do best when left alone to grow and bloom.

I also read The Eye of Zoltar, which is the third book in Fforde’s Dragonslayer series. I have been a big Fforde Ffan for quite awhile. This series is his foray into the YA genre after writing quite a few books for adults. In the first book in the series, Jennifer Strange lives in a  world where magic is real, yet magical levels are such that sorcerers are relegated to using their powers for things like rewiring houses,  unclogging stubborn drains and finding lost objects. Jennifer manages an agency for such a group of sorcerers, and the books follow her journey through that, troubles with the greatest sorcerer of all time and finding out she is the last Dragonslayer. Zoltar spent a lot of time with me in Napa, and I think this is my favorite book in this series. Here is a picture at the beautiful CADE Winery, which is situated high up on a hill and has amazing views of the Napa Valley–a view that was nice enough to keep me from opening my book while we waited for the winery tour to begin.

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Of course, no trip to Napa would be complete without a visit to two bookstores I have visited on previous trips there: Copperfield Books in Calistoga and Main Street Books in St. Helena. As I mentioned in my last post, both places are gems in a world where most bookstores are disappearing. I managed to pick up a copy of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth and some stationery. Even in a wired world, I still enjoy letter writing, so I buy stationery when I see it. It seems that good letter writing paper is getting harder and harder to find.

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On my last full day there, I went for a walk around St. Helena, and followed signs to the Robert Louis Stevenson Silverado Museum. When on a trip, I never pass up an opportunity to explore the small museums I find along the way. Such places are usually run by people who are passionate about what they do, and they therefore put a lot of care into the exhibits. If you happen to be in St. Helena, take a moment to stop by this little museum dedicated to the author. Stevenson and his wife Fanny Osbourne spent their  honeymoon on Mount St. Helena, and he wrote about the experience in The Silverado Squatters. The museum is located at the St. Helena Public Library.

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At the last winery I visited, I asked an employee in the tasting room to give me some suggestions on books to read about the life and history of the Napa Valley. He gave me some good suggestions on learning about wine and one history book, but I am really hoping to find good novels on the subject. I plan to ask this question on future trips to Napa wineries to see if I can find a fellow fiction nerd in the vineyards. If you know of any good novels about the area, feel free to make suggestions in the comments.