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?