“Don’t classify me, read me.”

@mmdahlia27 asked on Twitter: What makes “literature” literature? Who decides & what criteria is used? Or, maybe just labels and why we feel the need/it’s important to categorize & judge everything.

I submit the above quote by author Carlo Fuentes. The second half of his soundbite: “I’m a writer, not a genre.”

The thing is, of course, is that until we get to know a writer, it’s difficult to decide whether we want to read them. Case and point: when I was growing up, really until I graduated high school, we went to the bookstore at least once a month. By the time I was fourteen, I didn’t have much interest in browsing the then-tiny young adult section for books to read. I moved on, to the other side of the bookstore. Not the area labelled vaguely “Fiction & Literature” but the shelves with the most exciting signs hanging over them: “Science Fiction/Fantasy,” “Horror,” and “Mysteries.” I wasn’t picky once I was safely within the bounds of those sections. I knew, probably anything I picked up would interest me, because I was interested, very broadly, in what we call genre fiction.

(If you’d like to hear more about my development as a reader, check out my essay, “Writers Are Boring” over at Stymie. /end plug)

To me, as a young reader who knew a few key names, genre categories were enormously convenient. They helped me find books I wanted to read. Of course, no categorization is perfect. Aimee Bender wasn’t in the fantasy section; she was over in Fiction & Literature, despite the fact that her work contains many aspects of the fantastic. As I grew as reader, I ventured outside of the neat categorizations and into the still-amorphous “Fiction & Literature” and I found wonderful books there, too, many of them with the same elements of the genres I so enjoyed.

So, why do we need genres, really? The only legitimate argument I can make for them is that they are useful to booksellers and consumers. Because, on a basic level, that’s the point of a category. They allow us to understand information quickly and easily. E.g. If I tell you a novel belongs to the fantasy genre, you know immediately that the rules of physics probably don’t apply in the novel’s universe. Probably a world (like or unlike ours) has been meticulously constructed. The novel features magic in some sense and possibly supernatural beings. You know, off the bat, whether that book might interest you. We apply these benefits also to the myriad awards available for writing. For example, the Hugo Awards will be announced this weekend, recognizing superior work in speculative fiction. The use of category here allows an organization to recognize quality in the kind of writing they enjoy.

The problem, of course, is that there’s overlap. And rather a lot of judgment. Labels lack nuance. Over time, they also pick up inaccurate associations, such as those we make with popular fiction, which is that it is not “literary” in the sense that it does not attend to character, language, structure, theme, and other artistic notions the same way that so-called “literary fiction” does.

What I find really funny is that “literary fiction” has subsequently become a genre in its own right–despite the literary establishment’s distaste for the word–defined not only by what it does, but by what it doesn’t. This issue stems in part, I think, from the visceral reaction many (but certainly not all) literary writers have to popular fiction: it is “low art,” it caters to the least common dominator,  it does not qualify as “serious work.” And then genre writers respond in kind, labeling literary fiction as boring, self-indulgent, and overwrought. You can see this most clearly in the latest Stephen King snitfest (in which he wisely does not participate).

This is, sadly, where categories damage us. It’s difficult enough to be a writer without infighting. And unfortunately, there is quite a bit of infighting. Moreover, some writers might find themselves unable to move easily from one genre to another, which inhibits creativity.

For my part, I think there’s only question you need ever ask of a book: did it move you? If so, recommend it to a friend.

What are your feelings about genre distinctions? Like them? Hate them? How might we reinvent them?

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5 thoughts on ““Don’t classify me, read me.”

  1. Oh lord, the genre question. Such a mess. Although you’re very eloquent and thoughtful here, navigating said mess.

    I wonder if genre isn’t something that a reader needs to grow out of, like sucking your thumb or biting your nails. It’s helpful and necessary at a certain stage of your readerly development, because it’s nice not to have to sift through shelves of suburban angst and party girls wearing lots of shoes when all you want is a damn dragon book. And then you grow up, and you have a couple of dragon books that blew your mind, and you read a book about an angsty suburban family that also blows your mind, and suddenly you don’t know where to head in a bookstore anymore. And while that feels disorienting and weird, it’s actually the best possible thing, because it means that you’re learning to read everything, regardless of genre or classification or your own previous notions of what was good, bad, boring or fun. People who never branch out, who always read what they have always read, are kind of stunted as readers, regardless of whether what they’re reading won the Nobel Prize or four stars from Romantic Times. They’re not changing; they’re not trying out new things; they’re not shucking the restrictions of “genre” to find all the good books out there that could surprise them.

    (Which is not to say that bookstores, or the book-selling industry, will grow out of genre. As you point out, it makes life easy for them. And commerce is kind of emotionally stunted as a starting point.)

    • It is a messy question but I find it endlessly interesting, if only because many individuals in the publishing and writing communities seem to put so much emphasis on what is essentially a completely arbitrary distinction.

      I like your notion that genre is something to grow out of. Like the rail they put around skating rinks — when you’re just starting out, you need something to hang onto or you’ll fall on your face and get run over by the rest of your Girl Scout Troop*, but if you’re really going to skate and enjoy it and become proficient, you have to let go and just go for it.

      Of course, what’s sad is that many readers never venture outside of their little boxes at all. Including some ostensibly well read people who have devoured all of Dostoevsky but “don’t care for” Kurt Vonnegut and consequently won’t touch Cat’s Cradle with a ten-foot pole. And of course, it works both ways, but I think genre writers have a particular sensitivity to the genre debate because in many venues, the work they do and the stories they care about get dismissed. Which I understand would make you bitter and defensive, but of course that doesn’t help anything either.

      Can’t we just all be friends? /sob

      I’m curious what will happen with genre definitions as the online industry overtakes brick-and-mortar stores. For example, on amazon, you can tag books multiple ways, so they actually exist in more than one category. Of course, it also kills my browsing experience personally…but that’s a discussion for another day.

      *Didn’t actually happen, but in third grade, I was pretty sure that’s what the outcome would be.

  2. In a bookstore, I’d say the categories just help a person find what they’re looking for. It’s not a perfect system, and I have problems with it, but if all fiction was just under one big sign, you’d never be able to find anything unless you already knew the author going in. On the other hand, maybe you’d accidentally discover more and we’d all have broader reading horizons.

    For me personally, some books are for entertainment, and others break my brain and change the way I see the world. Of course, each individual is going to have a different experience with each book. I think it’s safe to say that most speculative fiction/genre books are only aiming to entertain, like a TV show. That doesn’t mean those books are without value or anything like that, but their purpose is different than “literary fiction,” which is trying to do something different and make me question social institutions or connect deeply with a person in a completely different life situation, etc. Whether a given book succeeds is always up for debate.

    Ultimately, though, I think *trying* to be literature is kind of weird. It mostly sounds like an author’s trying to imitate Hemingway or Faulkner, which is no way to actually achieve literary merit. I’ll tell you right now, Hemingway didn’t get famous by imitating those who came before him. For me, literature is what survives decades and centuries and matters to people long after the author is dead.

    That being said, @mmdahlia27, if you want to know who decided what should be in the American canon, read D.H. Lawrence’s book “Studies in Classic American Literature.”

    • From that perspective, it would be author who determines the genre by choosing a more complex or simpler purpose (“brain breaking” vs. merely entertaining). But then, that isn’t exactly the case, is it? And what of the books that aim to break your brain but fail utterly? You say success is up for debate, and of course it is, but I think it’s kind of key in the discussion. Technically those books are still categorized as “literary fiction” but by your definition, they’re actually not. And then, of course, there are the genre books (The Wind-Up Girl) which are entertaining AND brain breaking, so what of them?

      My problem isn’t that genre distinctions exist–as you say and I mention above, they do make life easier. My problem is that the categories have been extended beyond their original meaning and there’s a qualitative assessment attached to the label, that because something shares characteristics with entertaining fiction, it in no way could be fiction that breaks your brain. Or put another way, labels can interfere with the appreciation/acceptance of work that I would otherwise call literature.

      I agree with you that the literary canon is determined primarily by critics and historians, although many of the authors I love from previous eras almost slipped into obscurity and are only part of the current academic curriculum, I would argue, as the result of serendipity.

      I wonder if Maggie Mae’s question wasn’t directed more at the possibility of literature being something we interact with now, a mutable experience, maybe even a kind of evolving organism.

      • I think I’d argue that a book can be “literary fiction” without being “literature.” And you raise an interesting question in, if a book fails in its goals, does that change what genre it’s in? Do intentions set the genre? Or actual results? Or the audience?

        2) entertainment: I didn’t mean to imply that a book that aims to alter the way you see the world cannot also be entertaining. Huckleberry Finn is an excellent example of a book that is both funny and thought-provoking. I’m happy to accept that books can be both.

        3) Moby Dick and Gatsby are both evidence of the roll serendipity plays in our establishment of literary canon. I suppose that’s true of all culture and all shared memory.

        4) I think there are books we can hope will endure, and books we can share and love and keep, and in that way we have some effect on what will be canon in the future, but being rather stuck in the present I’d say our ability to interact with literature is limited to your own conclusion of reading and sharing what moves you as an individual.

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