I used to be a fan of genres. Science fiction, fantasy, gothic... but not westerns, no definitely not westerns. I spent countless hours of my youth reading Star Wars novels. I just chewed through them. Some of them were good, some of them woefully mediocre, and some beyond bad. But, I read them because of the name on the front, not for any other reason. It was a trap, one I think far too many people fall into. For in the last few years, I've slowly come to realize the truth: genres suck.
Yes, they can be helpful. There are differences between genres and specifics to each that lead some to gravitate towards certain ones and others to shy away from them. I am a sci-fi fan, there is no doubt about it, but I don't like the vast majority of science fiction books. Several Hugo and Nebula winning books that I have read recently have disappointed me. Others are some of my favorites. What it comes down to is a sense of exploration and newness that science fiction has. It is that idea of a blank slate, of endless possibilities. Truly great sci-fi creates a sense of wonderment that is beyond compare. But, that doesn't mean other genres cannot do the same thing, or invoke different joys in a reader or viewer. Even, explaining why I love science fiction limits the genre, because not all, or even most sci-fi elicits that sort of feeling in me. Just some, and others of my favorite science fiction do no such thing.
So, genres are a nice indicator of certain themes that one might think to expect in a piece of art, but they are frighteningly problematic. When they confine us into little regions of fiction, they are only hindering our enjoyment. For far too long I avoided westerns for whatever reason, but No Country for Old Men was a great movie, and Deadwood is one of the best TV shows I have ever seen. And that only leads me to the question of what a western even is. Do they have to take place in the western United States during the 19th Century or is it specific themes which form a genre? What about The Gunslinger by Stephen King? Is it a western or fantasy? What genre is Firefly?
Even my esteemed colleague here at BSD has been mutilated by this stealthy succubus, claiming he dislikes anime. While, I cannot claim to be all that well-versed in the genre, Spirited Away and Kiki's Delivery Service were wonderful movies and if cinematic Japanese video games count, well... those are some of my favorites. While I may not delve into some genres enough, I have abandoned claiming not to like genres. Genre-ism simply is not helpful. Romance, Mystery, Alternate History, Slasher Films... I can name a book or movie I have enjoyed from most any genre that I can think of. Military? Saving Private Ryan. Romantic Comedy... Groundhog Day (or is that sci-fi too?). Alternate History... The Man in the High Castle. Mystery? Sherlock Holmes. The the only real criteria I have is whether or not it's any good. Isn't that what matters? Just take a step back, do yourself a favor, and do just a little delving. Find something that sounds interesting or is supposed to be great from a genre you thought you hated and let yourself experience something new. Because, really... aren't we all violating the true spirit of that old cliche... aren't we just judging books by their covers?
While these thoughts have been floating around in my head for a while now, what really inspired me to write this (though it has taken me far too long to actually get my thoughts down) was an article in The Guardian by Ursula K. Le Guin late last year. It is ostensibly a review of Margaret Atwood's latest book, The Year of the Flood, but to me read more like a critic of the publishing industry in general and genres in particular. I won't rehash it completely, but in short: Atwood argues she doesn't write science fiction, while Le Guin can't blame her for not wanting to be relegated to "genre fiction", but doesn't agree. Neither do I, to tell the truth and the whole ordeal is a sad state of affairs. I don't believe anything should be called "genre fiction", or maybe everything should be, but either way the title is meaningless. Everything fits into some genre or another, or two, or three or seventeen. You can fit it into some category that will help it reach it's audience, but ultimately it only restricts it. I understand that The Year of the Flood is much better than the average sci-fi novel out there (or would imagine it is, not having read it, but having thoroughly enjoyed Atwood's novels The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake), but it is also much better than the average novel period. Call it speculative fiction or future fiction or post-apocalyptic-dystopian-geneticism... just call it something that is helpful. Because, despite how much I am railing against genres, they are useful if used as descriptors. I like to know a little bit about what I am going to read before I read it. The problem is that genres are limiting us, not helping. Give me the genre and then tell me if it's any good or not and we are set. It's the latter that really matters.
Despite how much I love thrill of the hunt for used books, there are simply too many to sift through by myself. Which is why I rely on reviews and lists, word of mouth and advertisements on the back of milk cartons to decide what I should read. I search for used books all over the place, but I try not to allow myself to be biased by the genre in my searches. Library book sales are unmatched for book hunting, for the simple fact that you can load up on a bunch of books you didn't realize you needed or wanted for only a few bucks, but they are always so hectic. The internet is obviously the most convenient route, but it has it's drawbacks, too. First, you never really know what you're getting... condition, smell, delivery time, all unknowns and I dislike paying a cent for a book and $3.99 for shipping. Ultimately, though, it just feels like cheating. I would much rather have the thrill of finding the book somewhere than giving in and ordering it off of Amazon. So used book stores are without a doubt my favorite. You simply cannot beat the ambiance and smell of them. Recently, I was even a bit disappointed when my favorite store fixed the light over the sci-fi section... I preferred the dimness. Yet even there, in my sanctuary is the horror of genre. Sci-fi, fantasy... mysteries, westerns, romance.... and, worst of all "literature".
Yet, if I am going to be honest, the demarcation is helpful. I avoid the romance completely, not from an aversion to love, but with the the knowledge that anything in that section is going to be dreck. If I'm going to invest the hours it takes to read a book, it's not going to be for smut. That's what porn is for. The well-written love stories are in the normal fiction section anyway, because apparently a criteria for the romance genre is that it must be bad. Which, I don't get at all. If we're going to make these categories, shouldn't we stick with them? Shouldn't 1984 be in Science Fiction? Or All Quiet on the Western Front in historical novels? Or is that not historical because it was written only ten years after the war? I don't even know the rules on these things. But no, those two aren't even in normal fiction, no... they have been exalted to the "literature" section, not that I really know what that means.
Yet, again... I can't say this division doesn't help me. I am a book elitist and much of what I read comes from stuff that would be termed "literature", though from the narrow way the used book stores describe it, nothing written in the last half-century counts. But, literature is not a genre and is far greater than the two shelves worth of Dickens, Hardy, Austen and Sinclair Lewis in the corner of the store. Literature is no more and no less than the art of the written word. As impossible to define as I know that is.
So, I will continue reading literature, which really amounts to anything that is well-written enough to keep my attention, no matter the genre. If you'd like to keep reading uninspired, bland fiction, be my guest, just maybe think about trying a bad sci-fi book or a bad western once in a while. It might surprise you.