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Friday, February 8, 2013

What Makes a Genre a Genre?

I signed up to do the Genre Variety Challenge this year which I thought would be easy for me because I read so widely, and I take great pride in that. I signed up to read thirty different genres this year! Back when I used to be a sales rep, I have every kind of store covered. Cooking store? No problem, I've read food books. Pet bakery? (Seriously.) I can recommend not only pet books, but even pet cookbooks. You're a museum with an upcoming gross exhibit on bodies and need some adult books? Easy. Check out StiffDriving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain and Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, all books I've read. My boss could send me anywhere from a museum to comics store to a gardening store (The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms and Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers) and I could always speak about at least a handful of book on their topic.

But now that I am forced to categorize books, I am reminded how hard it is to sort books at the Friends of the Library sale. What category should The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship be in? Sociology? Biography? Regional? How about The Tall Book: A Celebration of Life from on High? Or any book by John McPhee? Or Cloud Atlas?

Although what I'm finding even harder is deciding what IS a genre. Is Young Adult a genre or just an age category? Can stunt memoir stand on its own as a separate genre from memoir? I include novels about art in my art category in Goodreads, but is "art novel" really a category of its own? What about regionality? Books set in the American South or in Asia? Can I include a book that is a memoir in the "medical" or "legal" or "food" categories? I am trying to remember by days working in a bookstore and where it would be categorized, but that doesn't solve everything (we didn't have a biography/memoir section at all and books would be shelved in whatever secondary section that would otherwise fall into. If there was no secondary category at all, they'd go in essays. It wasn't the best plan but I didn't have any say-so.) The library helps somewhat, but it sometimes categorizes things bizarrely, in my opinion, at least in the nonfiction section. Adult fiction in the library only has four subgenres (African-American, mystery, sci fi/fantasy, and short stories, although the spinner racks also add Westerns and Romance) which can't possibly be enough (not to mention there are dozens of authors whose books are split between two sections -- sometimes even different books from the same series.) While I may not always agree with them, I now have a lot more sympathy for the librarians coming up with the Dewey numbers for books and the buyers at bookstores that have to make these calls.

What are your classifications for what makes up a genre? Can you help me figure out if I'm cheating at my Challenge? I know ultimately it's up to me, but I really want to nail this one, and if "literary fiction" really shouldn't count separately from "general fiction," I don't want to count it.

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