Should We Get Rid of Genres?

This is a guest post from Zachary Littrell. Zach comes from Maryland, but greets people with “Howdy!” An educator and writer, he’s happy to talk with anybody about books and mathematics. And as someone who keeps a hammock in his living room, he’s an expert at hearing people say, “Oh cool, is that a hammock in your living room?” Follow him on Twitter @AnAnteaterMaybe.


Show of hands: how many of you have not read a book because it’s in a genre you don’t like?

Don’t worry, my hand’s up, too. If yours isn’t, then bless ya, you’re better than me. Historical fiction doesn’t light my fires. And biographies are a usual pass for me. Look, we only have so much time on Earth, and genres are a quick filter to zero in on books we think we’ll actually like: if you like sci-fi, and you have a choice between a space opera and a Victorian romance on the high seas, then it sounds like an easy choice to me, matey!

But you wouldn’t judge a book without reading it, right? We all like to think of ourselves as open minded readers, but I reckon you look at the book’s genre right off the bat when considering purchasing or borrowing it. But there’s two problems with that: what do you do with books that walk the line between genres, and what about books that are perfect matches made in heaven, in everything except genre? Is genre labeling getting in the way of enjoying books?

dune frank herbertLet’s start with books with wibbly-wobbly genre definitions. If you want to cause some mischief, try asking people how they define science fiction from fantasy. Any definition you come up with will undoubtedly come with exceptions. The great classic Dune by Frank Herbert is a landmark science fiction novel…that looks a lot like fantasy when you look at it sideways. Take, for instance, the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of highly trained women who cleverly manipulate the galaxy’s dukes and their bloodlines, are able to access the knowledge and experiences of dead ancestors, and can control the weak-willed with the power of the Voice. They are even called witches, to boot. The only real difference is Dune provides a little bit of a scientific veneer to its magic, but obviously it’s a book a fantasy fan could enjoy…if they can get past the science fiction label.

What about Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? It is an intimidatingly dense Italian historical fiction novel set in a 14th century abbey and filled with references to conflicts between mendicants and benedictine monks, discussions of the Bible and Aristotelian philosophy…and Sherlock Holmes fans would love it. The main character is the friar William of *ahem* Baskerville. It contains loads of jokes and winks that murder mystery fans would eat up as Eco plays around with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s format, just set in a different century.

Or what about the wild experience that is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves? That’s a book that almost challenges you to try to pigeonhole it—it’s a postmodern satire…and a horror novel…and a love story? The label of ‘Horror’ is going to scare some readers right off the bat, and the label of ‘Romance’ might scare off even more (let’s not get started about the baggage people bring when they hear “Romance”). And the fact it’s multi-genre will make another group roll their eyes altogether. In reality, like a lot of books, House of Leaves is a thing unto itself, and it’s a genuine shame if someone skips over reading one of the most inventive novels of the century because it might have…*checks to see if anyone is in the room*…a little romance.

So what do we do? Do we chuck genres to the curb entirely? No, I don’t think so. They are useful litmus tests. And genres come with subgenres (like high and low fantasy, or hard and soft science fiction) to try to address these oddball corner cases. But the real message you should take is to pause and think for a moment about your genre biases. Especially right now, when our personal preferences can isolate us from exploring other spaces and ideas, we shouldn’t allow preconceptions about books keep us from discovering the next novel that opens your mind to brand new horizons. So don’t be bashful about going down that bookstore aisle you’ve never gone down before. You might be surprised at what you find.

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