Do we need genres?

Posted July 10, 2016 by Lory in discussions / 42 Comments


An earlier version of this question was about the definition of science fiction / fantasy / speculative fiction, but then Falling Letters beat me to it with this well-expressed post. And then from The Worm Hole came the question of whether translated fiction should be considered a genre. This got me thinking about genre classifications in broader terms: what are they, and do we really need them? Do they help us in finding books that we connect to, or do they become reading prisons that we close ourselves off in?

We all know that “genre fiction” is a put-down for some highbrow types. To them, anything that doesn’t belong to the club of adult realistic fiction (or magical realism, which gets an honorary membership) is not worthy of notice. Science fiction is somewhat respectable because it has science in it, and speculative fiction sounds kind of cool as well. But fantasy, romance, or (ugh) YA? Forget it. For some, even historical fiction is a no-no, because it plays around with facts and is often associated with the dreaded “romance.” On the other hand, there are those who seem to crave books that fall into a formula, and read exclusively from the mystery or horror or sci-fi shelves without considering that there might be other books with elements they would enjoy.

How did these labels arise, anyway? Did Homer consider the Odyssey a fantasy, or the Iliad historical fiction? Did his audience need to pigeonhole them in order to understand what they were getting, and reject it if they didn’t want it? It seems that somewhere along the way our simple enjoyment of stories became self-conscious, becoming attached to values and attitudes not necessarily present in the stories themselves. And, of course, when money and marketing come into play, there’s a high priority placed on getting books to the right readers, or rather consumers. But does our system work?

I started out thinking about fantasy and science fiction, because this is an area where I feel one label is unfairly given more respect than the other. Just because a story includes rockets and space travel doesn’t mean it’s plausible; a lot of science fiction is really fantasy in disguise. And just because a story includes magic doesn’t mean it isn’t true. If you’ve had a very powerful or transformative experience, how do you describe it? Don’t you often have to say “It was like I was on fire” or “It was as though my heart turned to stone”? That’s metaphor, and it’s what fantasy is made of. It can be used well or badly, artistically or commercially, but that’s not the fault of the “genre.” If you’ve read a fantasy book you hated, and swore off fantasy forever, was it the genre or the book you disliked? There’s such a huge range within the genre, and it overlaps into so many other areas, that I fear those who swear off that section of the library or bookstore are cutting themselves off from some books they might actually love.

But that’s just one example, and perhaps not the best one; the same could be said of any genre, and sometimes the lines are even more unclear and arbitrary. (Age limits or ranges on books are particularly irritating to me.) Yet there is a huge sea of fiction to navigate if we lack any method of differentiation. Do you have any ideas about how else to do it? Or do my questions seem unnecessary to you, because you like the genre labels we have just fine?






42 responses to “Do we need genres?

  1. Personally I think genres are quite useful, as it makes it easier to find books you’ll like to read. I know that my preferred genre is fantasy, because I like magical elements and epic stories with lots of characters, and to me the label is short-hand for that.
    However, I totally agree that one result of genres is that some books are given more respect than others, often unfairly, as they fall victim to assumptions or stereotypes of their genre. YA, for example, is definitely a genre that’s looked down upon, and whilst as with any genre there are some rubbish books, there are some that are very good and people are missing out by dismissing the entire genre.
    Great post! This is definitely an interesting thing to think about 🙂

    • I think I’ve gotten less genre-bound with time. Now I look more for the mood or overall impact of the book. But there’s no easy way to categorize that; reader responses are the most helpful thing.

      • I agree with the original comment and with your response.
        Friends, serendipity, and practice and experience in choosing books make my reading better every year.

        The more open to trying, the more surprises I find.

  2. I have no idea how genres came into being, but I’m betting it started with marketing, etc. And I do think genres can be useful in helping readers sort the books that might be interesting to them (plus, I tend to love categorizing books), but can also be pigeonholes. I usually avoid romance, sci-fi, mystery, etc – they just don’t work for me, but there are certain books that technically fall in those genres that have worked for me in the past (I know this is not unique, but Station Eleven and The Martian come to mind). It took someone else telling me “you will probably love this even though you don’t normally like X genre” for me to pick those up.

    • It’s a very personal thing. Individual recommendations by people who know you can be great for breaking out of the usual patterns.

  3. Another really interesting and thought provoking post.

    I agree we need some differentiation. The Science fiction and Mystery genres make sense to me. “Young Adult” does not make sense to me.

    I also think that some folks get too attached to particular genres and box themselves in. I was like this with Science Fiction when I was younger.

    • That’s very easy to do, when books share a common characteristic one enjoys. But I do think it’s important to look elsewhere for other books that might also be appealing.

  4. YA makes sense to me, because teens very frequently *want* a teen section where they know the books are going to be aimed at them. They want that space where they are sure of what they will find. This is true for a lot of people.

    Looking at it solely from the librarian perspective, genres break things up and help construct a map of sorts. Book bloggers probably don’t have the issue I’m thinking of, but a majority of people, presented with a massive and undifferentiated pile of books, will not go looking for one they like; they will feel unable to cope and give up. Thus librarians try to break things up and give clues so that people can easily look for things they like.

    For example, a really obvious tactic is to take a trough, fill it with a nice variety, and label it “Good Books.” (This works well in a children’s room.) A person who can’t deal with giant shelves of books may look at that nice little trough and say “Aha! This I can deal with!” Genres work kind of like that too. It can definitely become limiting, but it starts as a tool to help newbies learn their way around.

    This was all kind of theoretical for me until one day when I was chatting with a friend–a middle-grade teacher by training. We both had toddlers at the time. She said that she wanted to get more books for her son, and I said that we checked out piles from the library. She went to the library all right, but found the children’s room really intimidating because she didn’t know much about picture books. She just knew where the Thomas the Tank Engine books were, and that was all she ever checked out. That was what really brought home to me that an awful lot of perfectly intelligent people nevertheless find large piles of books to be kind of scary. How do you figure out which ones you want? They’re not sure.

    • Good point about piles of books being intimidating to those who are unexperienced in navigating them. I always like seeing what librarians pick for theme shelves — around a season or idea or historical event. That can be a good way to break out of genre labels.

  5. This is a really interesting question! I definitely agree that there are pros and cons to defining books based on genre, especially because there are many books that don’t necessarily fit into a particular genre (and I’m sure there are a fair few novels that never even make it into print for this very reason). It can be handy to know which genre tends to work for you as a reader, though. 🙂

    • It can be a good starting point. It seems a pity to stop there, though for some people that may be just what they want to do.

  6. I don’t know about other people, but I need genres! I know what I like, and I don’t consider it to be like a prison. I’ve tried all sorts of genres, and I’ve found the ones that work for me. They have certain elements that I like, and I want to be able to find those. I hate when sites aren’t organized by genre or books don’t have genres listed because sometimes you can’t even tell by the blurb, and honest I don’t want to have to read through a thousand blurbs just to find one that’s sci-fi or fantasy.

    Maybe certain genres are given more respect or unfairly stereotyped, but honestly, I just don’t care what other people think about that? Like, I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. I mean that, for example, I still LOVE vampire books and read them all the time even though that somehow became a negative and “cliche” thing as soon as Twilight got popular. I couldn’t care less if someone judges me for it or if other people judge the genre. So I feel like the people who like the genres don’t really care what other people think, they’re going to read the genres they like anyway. And the people who snub certain genres and think the ones they read are “better,” well, they’d find something to complain about and some way to make certain books seem inferior even if there were no genres. So I do believe genres have more pros than cons and do help getting books into the right hands of people who will enjoy them most 🙂

  7. I may have smiled when I saw the title of your post. Reading a lot of literary fiction lately but not being comfortable making ‘literary fiction’ a tag on my blog, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. (I understand the idea behind ‘lit fic’ and like that implication that you’ll be picking up a potentially taxing book so if that’s what you want, do it, if not, don’t choose it, but genre fiction can be just as mentally taxing sometimes and even if it’s not it’s no lesser than lit fic. If all literature was mentally taxing there would surely be fewer readers and fewer books read by the readers that remained.)

    I think the ‘issue’ is that the answer to both your questions – do they help; do they become prisons – is yes. They help us find the books we want to read but they do limit the range of subjects and just things in general, that can be written about. (I’m thinking here of the discussion that’s ongoing about self-publishing, the way authors turn to it in order to write whatever they want… and then in due course they do gain readers because readers don’t always want the limited genres either.)

    I think we need them, or would need something similar that effectively did the same thing, because it would make finding books even harder. It’s that idea that genre fiction isn’t as good that’s the problem, that could do with changing.

    Very good point about magical realism.

    • There seems to be a strong impulse now both toward genre-based and genre-breaking publishing. We want to have it both ways!

  8. I don’t think too much about genres but as someone above said it most likely came about for marketing purposes and I guess to some extent it is useful – I am one of those readers who mostly just reads the genres I like. But then I have to be careful not to get into a rut and not reach out to books I might enjoy. That’s where I find blogging extends my circle of reading because I try books I might never have otherwise. I notice some get upset by some names for genres or disagree with them. For example I hate the term ‘chick lit’ because it is used to cover a huge amount of books and also it sort of sounds derogatory!

  9. I’ve talked with friends before about how great it would be if we could have the kind of super-specific genre recommendations for books that we have for Netflix movies and shows. Wouldn’t that be nice? Meanwhile, existing genre distinctions are still more useful than frustrating for me, even if I do think it sometimes pigeonholes books unnecessarily.

    • It is hard to imagine a world without them! What I would really like is to keep them but make them somehow more flexible and differentiated.

  10. Thanks for the shout out! Your comments really get to heart of the genre debate. Are we limiting ourselves by labeling books/defining our reading by genre? I often say I’m a ‘fantasy’ fan but not a ‘scifi’ fan. That could mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people 😛 I think if we did away with genres and just tried calling everything ‘fiction’, a similar labeling system would eventually spring up again because we’d be overwhelmed otherwise. I’m not sure there’s a solution to the issues genre labeling causes. That’s why I try to use additional methods when describing or choosing a book, such as highlighting unique elements or comparing it to other authors.

    • That’s why I look to detailed reviews and blog posts to tell me more about a book. Just the genre label is not always enough for me.

  11. I think that in the past books were expected to fit into a small genre box which allowed bookstores to figure out where to shelve it, but that is beginning to break down as more and more book sales take place online. I notice that as I apply tags to some of my reviews, I have to add a lot of them. Hopefully we will do more to move from a single genre to multiple tags (as many as a book needs).

    And I think that you can find good & bad books in every “genre.”

    My Most Recent Discussion: Love It or DNF It: Living with Chronic TBR Overflow Pt 2

    • Very true, when books can be on virtual “shelves” and don’t have to fit on physical ones it is easier to give them multiple labels or tags.

  12. I love my mom to bits, but I hate the way she treats fantasy. I’m not sure she does it intentionally and she certainly isn’t trying to be rude, but it comes across that way. We might be hanging out with one of her friends and have a conversation like this:

    Friend: “Ohh Ashley! I heard you like to read!”
    Mom (interrupting): “Oh but it’s nothing you’d be interested in. She reads young adult fantasy.”

    Something in her tone makes it sound like she’s really saying, “She still reads books for children.”

    However, I don’t think getting rid of the fantasy label would stop judgements like that. Instead of saying “fantasy” she’d just say, “She reads books about magic and wizards.”

    • It’s hard when people make snap judgments about your reading preferences. You’re right that they would probably criticize the content if we didn’t have genre labels, but having them makes it easier.

  13. I like genres! Instead of having to read the synopsis of EVERY book, I can just head straight to the “Young Adult Fantasy” section. At the same time, however, it makes me miss out on some good books. Genres help me stay in my comfort zone, so I miss out on a few suspense books that maybe, I would enjoy.

    • Yes, it is great to know where to head for books you know you’ll like, but there’s the risk of missing out on others that might not be included there. However, we can’t read ALL the books, much as we would like to, so something has to get left out.

  14. I definitely see your point, but I am very glad for genres most of the time because it tells me what to expect. I have learned over time that I generally like Fantasy and many different types of YA. Sci-fi is touch and go for me, but I know that there’s a chance I’ll like it. I’m NOT (usually) a fan of thrillers or cozy mysteries or pure horror, so it would take something special to make me pick up a book in one of those genres. I also have to confess that books that are labeled Literary Fiction often lead toward boredom for me. Again, I have to have some pretty strong recommendations in order to branch out and read Literary Fiction because, even though I appreciate its literary value, I typically don’t actually enjoy it. And reading for me is all about enjoyment. Great topic!

    • It’s so interesting to try to identify what exactly it is about those genres that you like (or don’t). The question for me is whether the marketing people are using those same criteria.

  15. I believe genres are useful servants, but we need to empower others and challenge ourselves to not let them cripple our reading.

    Thanks to the young lady and her comment about her mom. I would love to talk to her, it’s painful to be looked down like that. I’m not the biggest fan of fantasy, but unlike the commenter ‘ s mom, I believe that to be a personal trait. We all get what we get from different books.
    I find fantasy a very reputable genre, but I may be biased as a homeschooling mom. I like a few si-fy titles. However, I find them different. Maybe some genres enjoy more reputation than others, but to us, true readers, there’s mainly good and bad books, and a few spectacular ones.

    • I think being swayed by “reputation” gets in the way of seeing what’s in front of us. Let’s judge each book on its own merits.

  16. As I’ve developed a classroom library and tried to make it more accessible and appealing to my students, I’ve really started to think about this. I’m used to the “typical” genre labels–sci fi, fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, and realistic fiction, maybe romance and westerns as well. But students ask for things like “a scary book” or “something that will make me cry” and honestly, any of those genres could produce a book that would fit those descriptions. What about war books? Books with GLBQT themes and characters? Books that address mental illnesses and conditions? Animal stories? There are so many categories. Then there are all the “official” subgenres–high fantasy vs. urban fantasy, dystopia vs. alternate history, etc. I had a bin of books in my classroom last year labeled, “Juan’s books” because a student named Juan kept discovering all these gritty teen novels, dealing with drugs or gangs (and race and class), and other kids looked to him for recommendations. He knew what he liked, but “realistic fiction” or “contemporary fiction” both seem inadequate for describing what that was. I understand the purpose of genres, but find it hard to decide what categories are both broad enough to be widely understood, yet narrow enough to actually be useful.

  17. As usual, I’ve arrived late to a splendid discussion (with these accompanying thoughtful comments0 about a fascinating topic. I agree that dictating what genre a novel is both contains and constrains it; but then we all need handy markers to attract people’s attention (tags anyone?), and where would we be without descriptive words such as adjectives and nouns (“splendid discussion … fascinating topic”)?

    I think it is the ‘constraining’ aspects that mostly bugs us, the way a genre label can by implication belittle the novel in question. We all know great works of literary merit that go way beyond the limitations of the tag, and often within themselves encompass several genres — say, satire and fantasy, or crime and historical fiction, or allegory, romance and tragedy.

    I go with the readers that have only two overarching categories for fiction: good and bad, with shades of grey in between of course! The only genre that I as an adult reader really feel uncomfortable about is Young Adult; but if books are seen as educational in the broadest sense (as opposed to ‘merely’ entertaining) then the YA label, in drawing potential readers into the joy of reading, does them a huge service.

    • The YA label is one of the most problematic to my mind, because it describes the readership and not the content of the book. To me a YA book should be anything a young adult will read — which could be drawn from any genre, and if it’s good, there’s absolutely no reason why older adults should not read and enjoy it as well. But some expectations and assumptions about what young people want to or ought to read have accrued to the label, giving it a sort of vague content that then acquires the connotation “books that are not fit for ‘real’ adults.” Which does a real disservice to some of the truly exciting and thoughtful works being produced under that label today.

      • Absobloodylutely, Lory, you said it so much better than I did! The few author autobiographies I’ve read pretty much all underline the fact that they were voracious and omnivorous readers when young (wayward parents notwithstanding!), not giving a fig what genre the work was or whether it was thought suitable for young innocent minds. And like you I do love so many of those YA books, for their honesty, intelligence, sensitivity and so on when I compare them with some of the trash that is directed to an adult readership.

  18. I really liked Neil Gaiman’s essay on genre in his new essay collection The View From the Cheap Seats. He talked about genre as defining a set of elements a book is expected to include and where the reader will be disappointed if they’re missing. I think genre is useful in that way – it helps people find books with elements they’re excited about. I also agree with you about the downsides of genre though, that it does allow people to shut themselves in a box or to stereotype certain books.

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