Sunday, June 6, 2010

On the failures of genre.

We have this section in the bookstore. It's kind of a problem. First we called it cultural studies. Now it's "Modern Inquiry." The fact is, we don't really know what it is. To encompass the whole of the books on that shelf requires a vague, somewhat mysterious name. How, after all, do you sum up a shelf that includes both Malcolm Gladwell and Joan Didion, William Vollman and Bill Watterson?

Every once in a while, I want to run through the store mixing up the shelves. I want to get rid of all the signs and mix photography with fiction with business with humor. I want you to stumble across Camus when searching for George Carlin and to have to figure out which one is meant to be funny. Maybe I'd tear off the covers too so that everything was equal--last names written in sharpies so that you'd have no concept of what had been a New York Times Bestseller, and you couldn't even read blurbs on the back: Alice Munro assuring you that this is literary fiction or Gary Vaynerchuck telling you that this is an in-your-face viral marketing book.

But aside from the fact that such actions would cause thousands of dollars worth of damage and assuredly lose me my job, I understand why it's not allowed. It's helpful, when you need a medical book, not to have to paw through page after page that turns out to be about psychology or finance or zombies. Sections, genres, can be helpful. But I have to wonder if they don't cut off some of the options available to writers, to publishers.

In writing classes, one doesn't deal with, "genre fiction." But "genre fiction" which is supposed to outlaw robots and dragons doesn't include Kafka, who wrote about transforming into a bug or Marquez who writes about an angel landing during a crab storm.

When I interned for a publishing house, one of the first things we had to judge a manuscript on was where we could see it fitting in a bookstore. Would it be sci-fi or literary, young adult or general?

I often wonder what would happen to Frankenstein if it were written now. Would it be written off as a "horror" book, or would it, like Vonnegut, shake off the stigma of its themes and get shelved under "Shelley?"

I don't know. I don't know any more what genres I want, what genre means. But there is a way through it all. Walk into sections you don't know about, the ones even we can't describe. Take a look at Modern Inquiry and see what you happen to find.

1 comment:


Only tangentially related, but: I went to buy a copy of Steinbeck's TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY at the Framingham B&N. I looked in nonfiction and couldn't find it. The person at their help desk immediately found it in fiction. I commented that it was nonfiction and he looked at me as if I came from Mars or whatever, saying it was fiction. I insisted that it wasn't and he said something like, "Well, Barnes and Noble says it is."