Our Reading Lives

On Ignoring Genre Divisions

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Jessi Lewis

Staff Writer

Jessi Lewis has her MFA in fiction and an MA in Writing and Rhetoric. She was one of the founding editors of Cheat River Review and now works to bring her own fiction, poetry and essays to eyes each month.     Twitter: @jessiwrit

The Internet world loves debates, but there are some debates that wear thin. For me, few of them are as thin as the debate over genre division.

I understand it may seem strange or surprising for some readers when elements of the fantastical or surreal enter books that are expected to be realistic. I can’t, however, seem to understand why books that merge genres are upsetting. In a similar light, as a writer, I’ve loathed the conversation about whether or not my work, or anybody else’s work for that matter, is literary, because I’ve found in my experience that somebody in the room probably isn’t discussing the concept from an analytic standpoint, but is instead just not a fan.

It would be lovely if we could just take commonly accepted writing divisions and erase them. Start fresh. But that’s not how the world of publishing works.

I’ve been through the great gambit of genre label attacks and judgments, and it’s pretty tiring. I try, though, to keep in mind how amazing it feels to look back at my favorite books and see that this debate hasn’t stopped me from reading what I want to read. And this is the most important part of reading– open-minded willingness.

When I struggle with my own genre snobby-ness that sneaks in every once in a while, I try to remember that while shockingly, I loved Moby-Dick, I didn’t consume Moby-Dick like I consumed Harry Potter. At the same time, I felt like I could meet Hagrid and Ahab on the street at any moment. They’d chat awkwardly.

Let’s not talk about how I’ve come across high school English teachers denouncing both of these books. Let’s just spread the love around– these books are overwhelmingly influential no matter how you look at them, no matter their labels.

tracksWhen I hear about arguments over fantasy books and their worth, I think back to when I came across Patricia C. Wrede’s The Enchanted Forest Chronicles at the perfect time in my reader life, and then suddenly I could enjoy humor and fantasy elements like I couldn’t before– flying carpets and running gags. Now when I read magical realism, in work like Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, the unbelievable elements show me how the magical can exist where folklore overlaps everyday moments. These books are so unbelievably different, but I choose to love them both because I simply can’t forget them.

When I come across arguments about fiction and nonfiction and one’s greater worth, I remember how Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed caused me great devastation at the height of a relationship between two characters, and that Cheryl Strayed’s nonfiction work, Wilddid too. I could connect with both. But connection was never based on whether or not these events really happened (That is, if nonfiction events can really be defined as actually having happened. But that’s another bucket of worms.)

their eyes were watching godI know that I am more balanced after simply consuming books one after the other in rapid fire across the literary, genre, adult, and young adult spectrums. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, Holly Black’s Tithe and Robert C O’Brien’s Z is for Zacharia have all helped me compose myself to be what I am. So did Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, but each in a different way. It doesn’t matter how old I was when I read these, because they all had a pretty fantastic effect when I read them.

While reading each of these books, I remember that when I looked up from the pages it felt as though I was crawling out of my own mind to meet the world. Then I was better in that world. This did not require devaluing one form of story in comparison to another. Nor did it establish a great proud division between the genre and the literary. It was just reading, and it was awesome.

In light of recent debates, and debates that have been going on for years and years, I’m relieved that some encouraging teacher, parent, or fellow reader (I can’t give credit to any one individual) taught me to recognize genre labels and how marketers and publishers place great emphasis on them. The point of these categories is to make sales, to better define readerships, and to market books. It’s important to not let such labels narrow acceptance of books, both the traditional ones and the ones that break down barriers. For me the debate is done– the reader who loves his or her favorites, but appreciates the power of all forms and even where those forms overlap, comes out on top.

You don’t have to love every type of writing. But, you probably don’t need to look down on whole writing forms, either.


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