When Obsessing Over Genre Leads Us Astray (And When It Doesn’t)

There are a lot of things that are designed to prime a reader for a book. Publishers design appealing book covers, add descriptive blurbs, and write jacket copy to tell readers what to expect from a story (and, of course, to sell more books). And readers gather information on their own — impressions of the author, reviews of the book from trusted friends, or background knowledge about what to expect from certain genres.

In addition to convincing us to read a book in the first place, these features also help orient our perspective about a book in a certain direction before we start turning the pages. But of course, any of these pieces of information can send a reader off in the wrong direction. An overly-hyped blurb can leave us disappointed. A nasty author can make us shy away from books we might like. And an over-reliance on genre can set a reader up with expectations that a book isn’t going to meet.

My most recent experience with this kind of genre disappointment was Jen Lancaster’s memoir My Fair Lazy. Based on the subtitle – One Reality Television Addict’s Attempt to Discover If Not Being A Dumb Ass Is the New Black, or, a Culture-Up Manifesto – I went into the book expecting a funny stunt memoir. And since I am so obsessed with stunt memoirs, I have some specific ideas about how a stunt memoir should work. When My Fair Lazy didn’t look or act like a stunt memoir, I started to resent the book (probably more than I would have if my expectations hadn’t been set in such a specific direction).

On the other hand, genre priming can be a useful tool for authors trying to tell complicated stories. China Miéville’s The City and the City is a perfect example. The City and the City is the story of two cities — Beszel and Ul Qoma — that exist within the same physical space, but have completely different social and political lives. Citizens of one city are forced to “unsee” and “unhear” citizens, places, and incidents from the other, or risk serious trouble. You can go between the cities, but doing so outside special areas is illegal and called “breaching.”

The plot of the story follows a traditional narrative–the crime procedural–which helps the reader navigate the the complicated, speculative world of the story. By giving the reader something familiar with the plot, Miéville makes it easy to just sit back and play around with all the ideas that the world of his two cities opens up. The movie Inception uses a similar trick, relying on the narrative of a heist movie to help the viewer stay grounded in a world that’s constantly shifting.

And then there are books that play with features of a genre in cool new ways and to appeal to different audiences. You don’t have to be familiar with the genre to understand the book, but it gives the story a layer of depth you might not have otherwise. My favorite recent examples are The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman, which play around with the structure and themes of fantasy novels but don’t require an encyclopedic knowledge of Narnia to appreciate the stories or characters.

Even though I’m sometimes led astray by orienting my reading perspective around genre, I still do it. Genre priming helps give my reading structure (I get a sense of what I could expect from a book) and helps give me a way to assess the books I read on something more concrete and (dare I say) interesting than whether I liked it or not. Being obsessed with genre and putting books in categories might feel limiting to some, but I know that it helps me read better.

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