April’s “Third Wednesday Free-for-All” will be dedicated (nominally and initially, at least) to those labels so dear to the hearts of the buyers at Barnes & Noble, without which they would have no idea what shelves to put books on. Or, if you’re a pedant, “what shelves in which to put books.” Please feel free to comment and reply to this post with your thoughts and experiences so we’ll have something to trample underfoot on the third Wednesday in April.
Publication, Writing-(noun & verb)
I saw an email about this, but I’ll post here to add some additional activity to the blog.
Speaking as someone who worked at Barnes and Noble for many years, I am well-acquainted with genres, topics, and categories. In a bookstore the books have to be shelved according to genres/categories so that employees can easily find them and so that customers can browse the type of book they are interested in.
I think what separates genres are the specific characteristics that help define the genre. Mysteries are pretty obvious because despite their potential for variety they all follow a basic formula. There’s a crime or mysterious event, and then there are questions surrounding that crime or event. The characters spend the book looking for answers to the questions. Everything is solved at the end and guilty parties are named. Voila! It’s a mystery story. Then within mystery stories there’s different types; e.g. detective fiction, thrillers, crime stories, cozy mysteries. Each has a specific style that readers recognize and look for.
Sci-fi/Fantasy too has certain elements that readers look for to know that it’s part of that genre. Unlike mysteries these are less to do with plot and more to do with setting. Sci-fi is more science/pseudo-science based while Fantasy is more magic based. Defining characteristics can be settings on alternate/futuristic worlds, spaceships or other technologies, magics, or creatures that don’t exist in our world. Sub-genres then further categorize for the people who want space based stories, or Steampunk, or dragons.
Non-Fiction isn’t genre, I think of it as categories divided by topic or theme. At B&N customers would ask “Where’s your non-fiction section?” Employees would say “Everywhere that’s not fiction.” Customers thought we were joking (we were a bit). Calling a book non-fiction only tells you one thing; that it is not a fictional story. If you want a non-fiction book I can hand you a book on theoretical physics, a car repair manual, a biography of George Washington, the complete works of Thomas Aquinas, or the true account of a man who adopted a cat named Bob. Which do you want? Oh, you want a book about Spain because you’re vacationing there. Well, you probably won’t find it beside the biography or science books. That’s why there’s a category for “Travel Books”.
Authors might feel constrained by all this categorization, but it’s important for them to consider what makes a book fall into one genre or another just to understand what they are writing or want to write. Are they writing in a genre, or are they crossing genres with a sci-fi noir, or are they subverting a genre by using the elements of a cozy mystery while giving it an ethnically diverse setting in NYC’s Chinatown?
Categories and genres don’t matter so much in home libraries, but they are important for the publishing industry and for customers to know what type of book they are getting. If we want to be cynical about it we could just say that it’s a marketing ploy. Bookstores want to know where to put that book. Advertisers want to know what demographic will most likely buy it. Publishers want to know if it fits into their preferred category. Some publishers or agents deal with cookbooks and books about farming. Others publish mysteries and fantasies, but won’t touch romance.
Sorry, this is really long. If anyone agrees or disagrees with me, feel free to reply since I can’t make it to Wednesday’s discussion. Or let me know what you guys think after the meeting.
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This is fantastic, thanks Jenn! You’ll be with us in spirit (and text).