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Down With Book Barriers: A Rant Against Genre Bias

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor


ImageIt’s been almost two years since I originally wrote the below Book Nook column.  But given recent events in my own life, I think it’s worth a revisit from a slightly different angle.  I was e-mailing back and forth with a friend of mine, who I met through a fiction writing workshop I’ve been participating in for several years.  During our exchange, my friend suggested that I try writing “straight” (i.e. non-genre) fiction for awhile, which he said might improve the overall quality of my work.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t take his comments–nor the condescension that seemed to accompany them–very well, and called him on it in no uncertain terms.  And while much of my hurt and anger have (mostly) receded now, there’s one thing that still bothers me: my friend’s unstated implication that “straight” fiction is superior to genre fiction, both better quality and more important.

I am an avid reader, and have been for a very long time now.  I tend to genre glut, which means that when I get hooked on a particular genre (or author, even), I read it almost exclusively until I get tired of it.  This is not a new phenomenon.  In elementary school, it was Ann M. Martin and The Babysitter’s Club.  In middle school, it was Lurlene McDaniel and her brand of Love Story-esque teen romances.  In high school, it was classic literature.  In college, I was all about Nicholas Sparks and soft romance.  After graduation, I read a good many Jodi Piccoult-type “issue of the week” books before moving on to young adult literature (thank you, Stephenie Meyer).  And after I got tired of books whose protagonists were all ten years or more my junior, I moved on to urban fantasy: books with fantasy aspects generally set in a contemporary, and usually urban, setting.  And in between times, I’ve managed to squeeze in just about everything else.  I’ve read books that have made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe; I’ve read books that made me cry so hard I had the same problem.  I’ve read Pulitzer Prize winners; I’ve read Harlequins I hid under my other items in the checkout line.  I’ve read books with language that sings, and I’ve read books with language so clunky I want to get out my red pen and start editing it.  Hell, I even tried to read The Shack, but that was just so utterly wretched even I couldn’t manage that one.

What this means is that, although I read a lot of one genre/type of book at a time, through the years I’ve read a lot of different kinds of fiction.  Some of it has been amazing, and some of it has been terrible.  But consistently, what I’ve discovered is whether the book is considered “literary” or “genre” fiction, whether it’s shelved in the main aisles or off to the side, has nothing to do with how much I’ll like it.

The truth is, I’m a recovering genre hater myself.  For years, I would only buy things that I could find in the Fiction and Literature section of the bookstore because I thought, somehow, that it was “better” than the stuff I would find in the genre sections.  I honestly believed that the Science Fiction and Fantasy section would be filled with nothing but Tolkein and Star Wars spinoff novels.  The only mystery books I knew were the ones I saw on Murder, She Wrote.  And I figured no one over the age of 15 should be caught dead in the Teen and Young Adult section–and at any rate, I had left it behind much sooner.
But as I’ve allowed different types of novels into my consciousness, my fictional world–both in my reading and my writing–has become deeper and more complex.  What I’ve discovered is that the quality of fiction has nothing to do with where it’s shelved in the bookstore.  There is a lot of really bad “straight” fiction out there, just as there is a lot of really good genre fiction out there.  I just hope that most people don’t subscribe to my former prejudice and are willing to give it a chance.

 

Here’s what I wrote in 2008.  I still stand by it, perhaps even more now than I did then:

I was in the local Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago, looking for a Neil Gaiman book.  I wandered through the Fiction and Literature section for several minutes, wondering if G no longer came between F and H in the alphabet.  After weaving through the aisles several times, I realized that Neil Gaiman simply wasn’t there.

How was this possible?  How could Barnes & Noble, the bookstore giant, not have an author as well-known as Neil Gaiman?  Simple: I was looking in the wrong section.  Neil Gaiman was filed in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section–off to the side of the Fiction and Literature section, where I never would have found it if I hadn’t been looking.

What’s the problem here?  Why should I have to look in a totally separate section when I’m looking Neil Gaiman or any other author?  Plus, the distinctions between mainstream fiction and genre fiction are very dubious.  Why is Nora Roberts filed under Romance and Danielle Steel under Fiction and Literature?  What does Dean Koontz get the mainstream bookshelf seal-of-approval while Kathy Reichs does not?  And how come one of my friends found The Book Thief–a novel about a German girl in World War II–in the young adult section, when I know for a fact that I found it in the mainstream adult section?  And speaking of young adult novels, where the hell does one find Harry Potter anymore?

The fact is, fiction and nonfiction are very different beasts.  If you’re looking for a cookbook, being bombarded with biographies and how-to books would just be annoying.  But fiction is an opportunity to escape into another world altogether, and why should anyone not be able to dive into the world that’s most satisfying for them simply because they browsed in the wrong section?

So down with genre prejudices, with these artificial boundaries that separate books.  Why should fiction novels be characterized so narrowly?  Why should they be stigmatized because people say (and think) things like, “I don’t read science fiction/romance/fantasy/etc.?”  If we can start looking at everything as just fiction, then maybe we can look at their content rather than their positions on Barnes & Noble’s shelves.

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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