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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Let’s Talk About Genre-- The Good and the Bad

There is no question that the #1 trend in all adult fiction is that genres are blending. This is not a new trend; in fact, I have been teaching it for years, but it is reaching the tipping point.

But what does that mean for us as we work with readers? Do we need to abandon “genre as we work with readers? No, we just have to understand that genre is a tool. Tools help us but they need us to use them in order to “fix” things. Tools do not do the work themselves, they need a knowledgable user. Learn the tool and you can use it to it’s full potential.

Earlier this year I did a talk entitled “Working With Genre Fiction Readers,” in which I addressed this genre blending predicament head on. In that presentation I talk about my favorite essay on this topic, Michael Chabon’s “Trickster in a Suit of Lights,” from the first chapter in his book Maps and Legends. The quick summary of this essay is that the very best literature happens on the “borderlands” where genres blend and merge.

I was remembering back to this talk when, through my daily email from LitHub, I was notified of this FANTASTIC conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro in which they talk frankly about genre, both the perks of using it and the hinderances of being bound by it.

I spend a lot of of my time trying to help library staff understand what makes a genre, a genre because in learning this you will be able to better navigate this spaces between them. This rich space is where more and more of the books we are matching up to our patrons tastes are operating within.

The first thing to remember..and think of yourself here... is that readers do not only read genre fiction. Even the biggest mystery fan in the world reads authors in suspense once in a while. While many horror readers love psychological suspense and dark fantasy.

Readers may not even classify themselves as a reader of a genre. As you work with them, you might realize they have genre preferences, but if they are not offering to label the books they like on their own, don’t do it for them. Keep the information and your suspicions to yourself and use them to help you tackle the problem at hand...finding this reader a book.

It is equally as important to remember while authors are definitely much more cognizant of genre, they are also not constrained by it. In fact, the conversation between Gaiman and Ishiguro, linked above, hits this point exactly.  These two writers use genre liberally, but also nontraditionally, to craft universally accepted, award winning works of Literary Fiction. We can learn a lot from them, both about how to be a reader of todays fiction and how to better help our patrons find their next good read.

Look, it is not as if genres are surrounded by electric fences and the writers and readers have to get zapped in order to cross genres. Neither is there a war zone between genres. You laugh, but I always worry when I teach genre specifics on the blog on in a webinar that you will all lose sight of this important fact. It is important to understand the specifics of genres, but only if you use this information as your guidebook to help you navigate through the RA transaction NOT as a law which if broken will put you in jail.

So let’s take our example from Chabon, Gaiman, and Ishiguro.  Genre is helpful to start our conversations with readers. It gives us a jumping off point, but due to the nature of fiction today, we cannot allow ourselves to be constrained by it.

This is a topic I will be addressing here in more depth in the coming weeks, but for now, check out my presentation on the topic and the Gaiman-Ishiguro conversation.

Also, the expert in this area of genre blending in our public library worldview of the issue is Megan McArdle, who literally wrote the book on the topic. You should also go to her blog, Genrify, and check out her book for a more detailed discussion on this topic.

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