Reece Dinn, one of our booksellers in the Liverpool One branch, has a few questions about genre. What are the hidden rules that decide which section a book is shelved under? Who decides this and what effect does it have on how the book is perceived?
When you walk into the Fiction area of a bookshop you find that Fiction is divided up into various sections, General Fiction, Crime, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, etc. In the Liverpool branch of Waterstones where I work there's even a clear dividing line between them, like enemy armies glaring at each other from across a battlefield, as if they're completely different from one another. But the boundaries between the different genres are very blurry, and they have been ever since man first put pen to paper to write a story.
You only have to look in the Classics section to see examples of this. Monkey – Wu Ch'Eng-En, Grimm Fairy Tales, The Nose – Nikolai Gogol, Dracula – Bram Stoker, Frankenstein – Mary Shelley, and, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, would all be shelved in the Genre Fiction sections if they were published today All of them many people who wouldn't normally read “genre novels” will have read because they aren't branded as being genre.
There are many contemporary authors who could quite easily be classed as genre writers but aren't. Margaret Atwood is one of the most famous. Handmaid's Tale, Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, all could easily fall under the Science Fiction heading. As would 1984 – Orwell, Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell and The Drowned World – J.D. Ballard. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell would fit perfectly in Fantasy too. Yet we refuse to “tarnish” them as genre, instead labelling them as Dystopian Fiction, or Speculative Fiction, Magical Realism, to name a few. All literary terms that are used, either by the authors or their publishers, to avoid branding novels under one category, altering the perception of them by book buyers browsing bookshops or websites.
But why? Genre fiction can be just as sophisticated as “literary” fiction, with the same level of depth and complexity, more even, in some cases. What is it about calling something a crime novel or a sci-fi novel that instantly casts them in a bad light? It's probably because it conjures a generic idea of what the book is about before you even look at the blurb. But this is unfair. Genre novels are wide and diverse, even in their respected genres. Crime is full of many varieties, from Cosy Crime, to Historical, Noir, the many different detective series', gangster, and so on. Putting labels on novels is misleading and taint a reader's view of books they might otherwise enjoy.
So how do we bridge the gaps between the different genres?
Well, first and foremost, trust in publishing. There are many novels that have been released over the past couple of years that are definitely cross-genre titles. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - Claire North (a previous Waterstones Book Club title) is another that teeters on the border between Sci-Fi and more general fiction. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, and more recently Bone Clocks, are steeped in Sci-Fi and Fantasy tropes that it's hard to tell what genre they really should fall under. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn, is the past year or two's most stand out title for crossing the genres, and that was even before the hit film came out. Its gripping plot, engaging characters, and Flynn's excellent writing, have all helped give it mass market appeal, bringing many non-crime readers to it.
The Girl With All The Gifts - M.R. Carey, a literary zombie thriller (and another previous Waterstones Book Club title), that twists what we know zombie horrors to be and gives it a fresh lease of life. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline, a novel set in a post WW3 world where most of the world's remaining population spend their time in a Second Life/ World of Warcraft style game. The game's creator dies and leaves behind a quest, open to the world, that whoever completes first will earn his life's fortune. Ready Player One is considered Sci-Fi but can easily be enjoyed by anyone who grew up in the 80's, or likes video games, or just a great story.
Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel, and more recently The Chimes - Anna Smaill, are dystopian novels that are considered highbrow. The Chimes in particular is very original, its world is one where music reign supreme and the threat of having your memory wiped on a daily basis, which gives proceedings a rather sinister tone.
Even literary giants like Kazuo Ishiguro, whose outstanding Never Let Me Go is another classic dystopian thriller, has dipped his toes into Fantasy. His latest novel The Buried Giant is an Arthurian era fantasy love story that showcases just how blurry, and almost meaningless, this idea of genre really is.
Second of all, and perhaps even more important than trusting in publishing, is trust in your local booksellers. We're all passionate about books, and the books we recommend you are almost always going to be great reads. It's good to try something different, and we will always be there to guide you in making the best choice.
So next time you pop into your local bookshop, and are about to venture over to the shelves you usually browse, take a detour, maybe explore the shelves staring at you from behind. You never know, you may discover something amazing, something that might just change the course of your reading future. And if not, ask a bookseller, we'll happily give you directions.
Reece Dinn is a Senior Bookseller at our Liverpool branch.