That statement was further bolstered this week by the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction being given to The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
This novel is remarkable in many ways. It is a debut novel. It received a star review when it was first released from every major review journal-- even Kirkus! It is technically well written yet compulsively readable.
But it is NOT remarkable in that it is unclassifiable by genre. In fact, it is typical of all of the very best fiction being written today in that it uses the best of many genres to tell a moving, thought provoking, and compelling story. Here is a list of the genres you could file The Sympathizer under:
- literary fiction
- psychological suspense
- espionage thriller
- historical fiction
It is not any one of these though. It is all of them. And this idea of books having to always fit into a single genre box is untenable today. As I discuss at length in my popular Working With Genre Readers lecture, readers don’t live in genre boxes and author’s don’t write penned in my them. I go on to expand that point further by citing Michael Chabon in Chapter One of this nonfiction book, Maps and Legends, where he says that the best writers today are those who write on “the borderlands,” whose works cannot be pigeonholed into a single genre. That is where the best storytelling is happening-- both from a “best” books point of view and from a reader enjoyment standpoint.
The Sympathizer’s Pulitzer is a great opportunity for us to engage in a conversation about genre blending with our patrons and amongst ourselves. While it might seem on first glance that all of this genre blending will make our job of matching leisure readers with the best book for them much harder, in fact, I would argue that it can make it easier.
Think of yourself as a reader. I bet you probably don’t like only 1 kind of story. Take me. Yes, I like horror but I also enjoy literary fiction, psychological suspense and historical fiction. I even enjoy a bit of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery thrown in. And the books I tend to LOVE combine these genres (maybe not all at once, that is a bit too much) more than any single title that is just 1 thing.
Thankfully, since genre blending has been a trend for awhile now, there are a few resources geared specifically to helping you to identify the right mix for the reader in front of you.
For those of you who have access to NoveList, they recently introduced an “Appeal Mixer” that you can use to concoct the perfect blend of book for the reader in front of you. Here is an article about it that anyone can access.
Megan McArdle is also the author of a great RA guide focused on Genre Blends [full disclosure, it’s the same series as my book]. And she also has her own virtual "Gender Blender" that you can use to identify titles here.
So embrace the trend. Talk to your patrons about all the genres they like. Find them books that can be tailor made for their own unique recipe of genre blend. The Sympathizer is already the book of the moment. Use the conversation opening it is presenting to start the genre blending conversation-- again with patrons and with each other.
On a side note, I will be traveling around Northern IL in September for RAILS, leading book discussions and helping book discussion leaders set up networking groups in their region [see this article for an explanation] and The Sympathizer will be the book we will discuss at each stop. As well as being discussable on its own, it will also help us to have a larger discussion of this genre blending trend.