Monday, March 1, 2010

Question Monday: To sort or not to sort? The genre debate.

YA, Fantasy, Sci-fi, Romance, Mystery.  Walk into your local bookstore and you will almost certainly find the books sorted into their own exclusive regions of the shop.  In theory, this system of sorting books into genres should help readers locate books that might appeal to them by placing books of a similar type near one another.  But in practice, I find that this genre-sorting often leads readers to overlook books they might love by encouraging them to linger in one comfortable genre area of the shop.  What do you think?  Do the benefits of genre sorting outweigh the possible negative consequences?

In the non-fiction areas of a bookstore, sorting books by category and content makes perfect sense to me.  Placing all the cookbooks in one area and all the gardening books in another is both logical and helpful.  But when it comes to fiction, does it help you find what you need more often than it makes you feel excluded from an entire genre?  Personally, I spent my teen & young adult years steering clear of the sci-fi and fantasy sections and avoiding the romance section like the plague.  The romance cover illustrations made that section seem intimidating to me, and I was uncomfortable with the thought of being spotted browsing in that area of the store.  Was that silly of me?  Definitely.  Now I realize that I was missing out on lots of wonderful books by imposing my own self-inflicted genre limits.  But it took me several years to correct my foolish genre-bias, and when I did finally dip my toes into the romance section I was surprised to find that many of the books I found there contained nothing racier than what I'd been reading for years in the mystery section (where I felt perfectly comfortable).  I certainly don't blame book retailers and their sorting policies for my personal genre prejudices, but I do suspect that I'm not the only person whose shopping experience is guided by such bias, and the bookstore's genre sorting system makes it pretty easy to avoid stumbling across anything outside your genre comfort zone.

Nowadays, I'm a 'free-range' shopper and consciously remind myself to venture into a variety of genre sections within the store to browse.  But I still wonder if those genre sections are inadvertently steering potential readers away from books they may love.  I frequently find myself describing a book I loved to a friend or family member & hesitating to describe the book in genre terms because I know each genre carries its own stigma.  For example, as I described my enthusiasm for Orson Scott Card's Ender series to a friend, I could tell it was climbing up the ranks of her "To Read" list until I mentioned that it is a sci-fi book series.   At the mention of the genre, her interest in the series dropped dramatically.  I know her reading tastes fairly well and strongly suspect that she would LOVE those books, but throwing the genre info into the mix suddenly made her significantly less likely to purchase them.  Experiences like that sometimes make me wish that every novel in the store was sorted into the general fiction section.

On one hand, genre labeling can be useful to give readers a concept of a book's possible plot, but I also think it is too easy to let a book be defined by its genre alone.  In the case of YA, I think the vague genre label  gives you very little idea of an individual book's plot.  The YA section is filled with so much variety that it could basically be an entire bookstore unto itself.  Within YA you will find romance, mystery, urban fantasy, sci-fi, and many other sub-genres, but there are definitely adults who don't venture into the YA section as they wander past it on their way to the "adult" areas of the bookstore.  Those adults may be outside the genre's target demographic, but I'd venture to say that many of them would love Suzanne Collins' Hunger Game series (as just one example of a YA novel with a lot of crossover appeal).  If its shelf position, which often seems to be about an inch from the stuffed animals & toys of the children's section, keeps an adult reader from stumbling across it, then not only will the bookstore (and author) miss out on a sale, but that reader will seriously be missing out on a remarkable book series.  The same thing is true for so many of the books in the YA section.

What do you think about genre labeling?  Love it?  Hate it?  Feel conflicted about it?


Anna said...

I remember the first time Shelley told me to read a book that I had to go into the dreaded romance section to buy. I was soooooooo embarrassed even at 30. I purposely went to a nearby town where I didn't know anyone who lived there (especially not any of my students!!)

I also hate the YA label on books. I get looked down on by so many people for loving YA. I tell people it's because I'm a teacher and I have to stay up on what my kids read but since I teach 4th grade special education I'm not sure how that holds up.

The great thing about YA though, is that with YA being it's genre you are allowed more genrebending books. I like genre bending!

Angela said...

As someone who has worked in libraries where the fiction is not sorted by genre but just alpha by author, I cannot find anything in a bookstore!! Although I do understand that some people just generally limit their reading to specific genres and are then able to quickly find books they will like to read, there are lots of books that could be placed in more than one genre and unless I ask, I can wander around forever trying to find them. I remember finding out (online) that bookstores were putting a series that I like in the romance section and I was so glad I'd never looked for it in a bookstore because I would have been very frustrated because I would never have thought to look in that section.

Then again, I know people who love bookstores and can't understand the library system for organizing books either so I guess it goes both ways. :-)

Jenni Elyse said...

That's a great question. I think there are pros and cons to both. Like you said, I think I miss out on a lot of books because I tend to stay in the genre I'm most comfortable with. But, at the same time, I like finding books in that genre.

Since I have access to Shelfari and Goodreads, I think I have a better chance at finding books outside of my comfort genre. But, for those people that rely solely on going to a book store, I'm not sure what the best way is because, inevitably, you'll always leave something out.

Violet said...

Thanks so much for all of your comments! :)

Anna - Without Shelley's influence it would have taken me even longer to conquer my nervousness about romance novels. I used to worry that I would run into a former teacher or a friend of my mother's while browsing through the half-naked covers of the romance section. But my fear of that type of potentially awkward encounter isn't enough to keep me away from fun books anymore. And I agree with you about the YA label. Far too many adults overlook or misjudge the YA section completely, and that is definitely to thier own detriment because they are missing out on some truly awesome books. I also agree with you about genre-bending. Many of the most original and label-defying books I've read in the past five years have been YA novels. And when I can find romance, adventure, fantasy, and mystery all wrapped into one book, I am a very happy reader. :)

Angela - I love the idea of all fiction being sorted alphabetically by author. I wish my local library organized their books that way. I can't even count the number of times I've wandered around looking for a novel before realizing it has been sorted into a genre rather than included with the general fiction, and I totally agree that many books could be sorted into two (or more) genres. Sometimes I can guess which section a bookstore or library may have sorted a book into & other times I find it completely baffling. For example, my library sorts some of Tamora Pierce's Tortall books into their "Juvenile" section & some into their "Young Adult" section. Why? I will never know. One of my favorite independent bookstores, Powell's, has a truly fabulous selection of books, but I often feel like I have to check five different regions of the store in order to find any given book.

Jenni Elyse - I love Goodreads & Shelfari too. They are great for discovering new books & for tracking recommendations & to-read lists. I owe you and our Lex & Dex girls for so many new discoveries over the past few years. All those recommendations have definitely guided my reading adventures in wonderfully fun new directions!

Debbie / Cranberry Fries said...

I'd have to be in the camp of love the sort. I have SO many books on my 'waiting to be read list' and I know what I like for the most part. I guess I feel like if I'm missing out on something I might hear about it from a friend and if not, well then I have enough to keep me busy/happy for the time being. :) Is that just being a bit too stubborn?

Violet said...

Debbie - Your logic totally makes sense, and I don't think that is too stubborn at all. It sounds like genre sorting helps you find more of what you like without making your TBR list unmanageable, that is a very good thing. :)

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