Genre ghettos


Yes, I’ve often wondered about the Edgar Awards. Although, technically, they honor books in the “mystery, crime, suspense, and intrigue fields,” (as Edgar winner Nancy Werlin mentioned in yesterday’s comments) even though they are given by the Mystery Writers of America. So clearly, they have a pretty broad interpretation of the field. And, when you think about it, Edgar himself wrote mystery, crime, and suspense stories; I can’t think of anything I would call “intrigue” in his oeuvre, right off the top of my head, but all the others are there. So I suppose Code Name Verity could be labeled suspense or intrigue (well, it is about spies, and in my mind, that’s the definition of intrigue), and Amelia Anne definitely includes crime and also suspense.

This blurring of the lines (is this a “thriller” or is it a “mystery”?) causes problems in libraries all the time. Many (most?) public libraries have a “Mystery” section, separate from regular fiction. The problem is deciding what goes there and what goes in fiction. So do you put this year’s big thriller and Edgar “Best Novel” nominee, Gone Girl, in the fiction section or the mystery section? It’s definitely not a traditional mystery in which a detective (amateur or professional) solves a crime. But there’s a crime (multiple crimes), and there’s lots of suspense. Results of a quick catalog check:

Santa Clara County Library: Mystery

San Jose Public Library: Mystery

San Francisco Public Library: Mystery

Berkeley Public Library: Fiction

Solano County Library: Fiction

Napa City/County Library: Mystery

Benicia Library: Mystery

And those last three are funny, because Solano, Napa, and Benicia share a catalog.

Of course, the real problem comes when Gillian Flynn writes another novel and it fits even less into the “mystery” genre. Then we shelve it in fiction, and our library users who want to read the next Gillian Flynn novel get upset with us because they can’t find it because it’s not next to Gone Girl on the shelf.

Can you guess that you got me on one of my pet peeves about library classification? I don’t like this dividing fiction up into genres, because there’s too much guesswork involved. I get that it is easier for our users to find similar things to something they liked if we have all the mystery books (or science fiction or fantasy or westerns or romance books) shelved together, but there’s too much of a grey area for too many books. And why privilege those particular genres? Why not have all the coming-of-age stories in one place, or the comedies of manners? Why not further subdivide “Mystery” into hardboiled, cozy, suspense, spy, etc.? And what about horror? Where does it go?

Nowadays, especially, we have a lot of ways for our library users to find the books in the genres and sub-genres they like. We have much better subject classifications for fiction in our online catalogs. We have great databases like Novelist and BookBrowse and NextReads. We create displays and bookmarks. And all you have to do is type “Gillian Flynn readalikes” into a Google search box to get dozens of suggestions.

So why not just lump all the fiction together? (At least I’m not suggesting we put it back into the Dewey 800s!) Admittedly, this was something I was never able to achieve, and the practice may now be too firmly entrenched, but it still makes sense to me.

To relate this to teens (and, I have to admit, I see much less genre separation in teen library collections than in adult), it seems to me that ghettoizing mysteries or science fiction or whatever takes away a big part of the serendipitous discovery that can happen on the library shelves. In general, I think teens are much more open to crossing boundaries. We see them reading from the adult, children’s, and teen collections. We see them reading massive adult nonfiction books and also going back to childhood favorites. I actually remember reading books when I was a teenager because they were on the library shelf near one containing books by a favorite author. So why not throw everything up there and let people discover?

Final note: I am not recommending that we do away with shelving fiction books by author. I firmly believe that it is good  library service to have a system that enables users to find the books that we own! Nevertheless, isn’t there something compelling about this?

Color [Creative Commons: chotda]

– Mom



Filed under Books, Library administration

4 responses to “Genre ghettos

  1. Alys

    This is why I like the genre stickers you can put on the spines of books. That’s what we do in my youth area. All the books are shelved together, with genre stickers. That way if you have someone who doesn’t care what they read, all the books are right there waiting to be explored. But if you have someone who’s decided they only want to read fantasy, or that today is Tuesday and Tuesday is Mystery Day, then they have a quick and easy method of locating what they’re looking for.

    • Sarah Flowers

      Well, I get that, but I’m not personally a big fan of stickers (book decoration, as a friend of mine calls it). I actually think that stickers, while they can be helpful, can also be limiting to the person who thinks, “Oh, I don’t like science fiction,” when really they might like some science fiction books, they just haven’t found the right one yet.

  2. I’m of two minds regarding labels or genre shelving – on the one hand, it does help people looking for a great new [mystery/fantasy/romance] read, while on the other it can keep people away (not to mention confuse people who think Gone Girl is more mystery than fiction or suspense).

    As for authors writing outside genres, I ran into that a few years ago looking for the new Julian Barnes – fiction? mystery? biography? cookbook? I had to ask the information person in the bookstore, who sighed mightily and knew exactly where it was because everyone was having the same problem finding it!

    • Mark Flowers

      I’m not sure if I have a whole post in me on this, so I’ll respond here (that’s a lie – of course I could talk about this for hours; I’m not sure I have the energy to *write* a whole post on it).

      The problem is a very long and complex one, obviously, and I don’t have any easy solutions. I hate it when some James Pattersons are in fiction and some are in mystery. But then, that hasn’t stopped us from completely separating a nonfiction author’s works (even on the same general topic) if they are on slightly different aspects of a subject.

      I mean, the final answer is that there is no one “place for everything”, which is why we need good catalogs and good librarians (and bookstore employees!). But it’s certainly frustrating.

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