I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Defining Genres

Tonight in the RA class we are going to begin defining the genres for the students.  We take them on at a rate of about 4 per week.  Last week I was also honing my definition of "Horror" for the new book.

While I have been focusing on updating my genre definitions, it seems I am not alone.  Readers and librarians are clamoring for the experts to provide clear, delineated definitions for genres in order to help them find their next good read.  In just the last few days alone, I have come across many articles trying to define genres:
I do not disagree with this desire to define the genres; I make my living off of defining genres. However, I feel this rush to assign exact definitions to genres needs to be tempered with a couple words of warning.

Definitions of genres are a product of the point at which they were defined.  Case in point, horror. When I wrote the first edition of the horror book, horror was dependent upon a paranormal element, but in the intervening years, a new genre, paranormal fiction, has evolved and horror needs to be redefined in more detail to separate it from paranormal.  So the lesson here, it is fine to define genres, but let's re-evaluate those definitions regularly.  Teaching helps me here because I am forced to re-evaluate every definition, each semester.

Some of the best and most popular fiction today is written "between" the genres.  For more on this argument, I suggest you read the chapter entitled, "Trickster in a Suit of Lights" from Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands.  Think about the "hot" books right now.  I cannot go anywhere without hearing about A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness and The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier.  Using the links to read about these books, you will see that they cannot easily fit into a single genre.

This genres blending issue is huge as we help patrons.  At the BPL we pull out science fiction, fantasy and mystery to shelve separately, but elements of these genres are popping up in other genres.  Our patrons are confused as to where to look for the books and authors they enjoy.  Adding to the confusion is that authors do not all write in one genre anymore, and we are forced to decide between keeping books shelved in their genre, or keeping authors together.

Case in point: Harlen Coben.  Coben began as a mystery series writer but has since changed to writing very popular, stand alone suspense novels.  This change did not happen overnight, however, we first shelved Coben in mystery and continue to keep all of his books there, so as not to separate the author's works.  Arrghhh! Very frustrating for me and patrons.  We train them to look for suspense in the general fiction, but then in the next breath we tell them that Coben's suspense is in mystery.

The solution: interfiling all fiction titles together by author only and using genre stickers to call attention to those which are clearly in a specific genre.

This is an issue I have been wrestling with seriously since 2009. You can use this link to see what I had to say then, with a link to an article where some best selling authors discuss this same point at length.  It also has a link to a Fiction-L discussion where libraries shared their thoughts on this topic too.  Please note, this is still a very controversial issue in library circles.  There are many passionate views on both sides of this issue.

My tune has not changed much from that older post, although my incessant nagging to change how we shelve fiction at the BPL has gotten somewhere.  We hope to begin undertaking a major renovation of the BPL toward the end of 2011.  It will greatly improve the patron experience, especially for adult leisure readers.  And as part of that renovation, our fearless leader, Kathy, is seriously considering  that we will banish separate genre shelves and move toward an interfiled but still genre stickers adult fiction collection.  We are in the fact gathering process of how to best interfile the books and train patrons embrace the change.

So see, while it is valuable to define genres to help us to serve our patrons better, it is important to consider what assigning these strict definitions means for your services to leisure readers.  Be specific in your definitions, but also be willing to revisit them.  Be willing to help genre specific readers, but consider Chabon's "Borderlands" too.

Now to practice what I preach and get ready for class tonight.


Alissa W said...

We are struggling with the same thing at my library. One of my staff wants to create a separate "horror" collection, and we struggle on a daily basis of whether to put the paranormal romance in science fiction or regular fiction. We pull out Westerns, Sci Fi, Inspirational Fic and Mystery. Until last year we also had a separate paperback collection and when I interfiled those I got a lot of flack from customers. I am seriously considering interfiling, but know it would be a huge change and don't have support from staff (yet). Thanks for the resources & this discussion!

Becky said...

Alissa, keep documenting your struggles and talk to libraries who have made the switch.

The change issue was our stumbling block too, but coupled with our renovation, it should work out.