Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Genre Problem

Genre’s are a big problem, in my opinion. For authors, there’s the problem of determining which genre their work fits in, but that isn’t the problem I’m talking about. Genre’s are supposed to make it easier for readers to find the kind of books they enjoy. It’s a noble goal, but as I glanced at a book review posted on a blog the other day I saw the words “World War II fiction.” My eyes glazed over and I clicked away, thinking that I wasn’t interested, but as I did I realized that I didn’t know if I would enjoy the book or not. Mention World War II and I get images of slaughtered Jews, green shirted soldiers and Sherman tanks in my head. I see fiery red explosions in a night sky, thanks to the movies I’m sure. I see red armbands with swastikas. And at the moment, I’m not looking to read about that stuff. The same is true of Westerns. I see cowboys on horses. I see bandits holding up a stagecoach. I’m not sure that I want to read about that either.

But here’s the thing. I’ve enjoyed some World War II stories. I’ve enjoyed some Westerns. However, having enjoyed some doesn’t mean I’m going to pick up the next thing that comes along in that genre. In fact, as I said before, my eyes glaze over at the mention of them. The name of the genre tells us nothing. Even with genres like Mystery, Suspense and Thriller, which are more helpful, we don’t really know what the book is about until we pick it up.

To further demonstrate the problem, let’s consider two books. Both are World War II novels, so they would be on the same shelf in the bookstore. The first is about a British spy who falls in love with a German intelligence officer. The second is about a Jewish man who is trying to free his family from a concentration camp. They fall into the same genre, but they are two very different stories. Now, let’s move back in time a bit and go out west to the American frontier. Here we have another story. This one is about a man whose family has been kidnapped by Indian and he is trying to rescue them. Of the three stories, which two are the more similar? The first two or the second two? The second two, of course, but in a bookstore you will find these two books in different aisles, while the first two may be sitting right next to each other.

Readers don’t really make their book buying choices based on genre. They want to know what they can expect as they read the book. The genre doesn’t always tell us that. Even within the Romance genre, which is the strictest of all, there is great variation in what the book is about.

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