Thursday, October 3, 2013

Stuffing a Square Peg into a Round Hole

If you've been in a bookstore lately (and if you're like most people you haven't), you would see the titles organized by genre. The purpose of this is to help a potential customer find something to buy. The idea behind it is good, but the execution doesn't always follow.

Some books could easily fit in more than one genre. I've always found the literature section an odd one, because all good books are literature. And a lot of horror books are also science fiction or fantasy. And fantasy just means something fantastic or imagined, but it's turned into castles, magic, and dragons. Which means other fantasy books that don't include magic, dragons, and castles have to go elsewhere. And what about supernatural books? Yes, they could be horror, but they could also be fantasy or suspense.

I get annoyed for two reasons. First as a consumer I've had trouble finding a specific book I went into the store to buy, because I wasn't sure of the genre. Second, as an author I'm not always sure how to classify my books. My most recent title, Wandering Koala Digest 1, contains a supernatural thriller, but also a science fiction novella. So do I put it in horror, because it's not really horror, but there is no supernatural category? To me that's like putting a square peg in a round hole--it just doesn't fit so well.

That's one of the joys and wonders of the digital bookshelf--a title can be listed in multiple places without having to place a physical copy in each one. You can also search for a specific title and get right to it. It's no wonder I've gravitated more and more to buying books online and as digital editions even though I love the feel and smell of a physical book, and I love browsing bookstores.

So what does any of this have to do with the above illustration? It could easily fit in several categories: science fiction for the weird monster, pulp fiction for the protagonist, horror or supernatural for the weird monster, graphic novels for the visual nature, young adult because that's usually the reading level I write, or even holiday/special occasion for Halloween because of the weird monster. Maybe we just need a Weird Monster genre?

Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think.


  1. Hi, Jeff.

    I thought I'd say hello and leave a comment, just for old time's sake. Remember when we used to do this all the time?

    I wonder if you could clarify your argument. It seems like you're saying that genres are not a good standard for organizing books in a bookstore, but they are a good standard for ebook sellers. Personally, I have just as hard a time finding new ebooks as new paper books for some of the same reasons you list. In fact, it's harder for me online, because the options (and ways of presenting those options) seem so limitless that I don't know where to start. Browse a genre? I could do that. Look through recommendations based on my purchase history? Could do that too. What about recent bestsellers, new releases, or books by local authors? My point is that all of these things are very convenient, but they still don't clarify the nature of the books in each section in a meaningful way. Having a book listed in multiple genres is convenient, but it doesn't really address the problem you state in the beginning: that shelving by genre is a flawed organizational system.

    What system would you propose instead?

    I'm not so sure that I agree with your premise. It's true that the labels we give genres can be applied rather more broadly than we tend to apply them, but is that a bad thing? Specificity in this area is really the only help we can give to potential readers. Take Fantasy for instance. You're right to point out its multiple meanings, but in context the word is really more of a quasi-universal piece of jargon - a colloquialism.

    We all know that in the fantasy section we will find books about wizards, knights, magic, castles, fairies, princesses, etc. We also know that any book in that section will likely have something similar to the above as at least a part of it. Many of those books will have other elements, true, and many of them could be classified differently with as great justification, but what we've done is give the reader a moderately specific guide without overdoing our specificity and creating an overwhelming number of detailed categories. Books vary so widely, as you point out, that to try to classify them more accurately might be stifling to creativity. Also, it might really be useless. To specific a system could rob books of some of their mystery. Having to sort through fifty genres instead of twenty would just make the task that much more difficult.

    It's really the same reason we don't just have all books of any kind simply thrown together on the same shelves and alphabetized. There has to be some distinction, but there also needs to be some vagueness or it defeats the purpose.

    As to how to organize bookstores better, I don't know. I've shared your frustrations, but I don't think they just apply to physical stores. For ebook stores to have the edge here, you'd have to assume that every reader was finding the books they wanted wherever they searched. And listing books in all genres they could possibly be considered under kind of dilutes the value of the genre system for the reasons mentioned above.

    I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know the answer, but I don't think the genre issue is very much to blame. I could be wrong, of course.

    Also, I don't really consider graphic novels a genre as much as a separate, but related art form. Like film and television. Or like painting and photography. Similar but different media with different rules and conventions. There are many genres of graphic novels, just as there are books. I thought it might be useful to make that distinction.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I kind of dumped my brain there. Maybe it was coherent and maybe not, but take it for what it's worth, with a grain of salt.

  2. Adam,

    It's good to hear from you and to read your insightful comments once again.

    I'm not saying genres are a bad way to organize books per se, but that the genres physical bookstores use can be confusing, unhelpful, and far from accurate or precise. For example, ghost stories are almost always put in horror even though not all ghost stories are scary. Science Fiction and Fantasy are usually lumped together even though a realistic, hard scifi story couldn't be more different from a magic and wizards story set in a fictional country. That's what I meant by putting a square peg in a round hole--books are stuck in places they don't really fit for lack of an appropriate place.

    The current genres are fine for traditional books that stick closely to their decades old genres, but some people like to jump genres such as Stephen King whose stories tend to be both horror and science fiction. Even his detective stories that aren't really scary tend to get lumped in with the others even though they're very different. I personally like genre jumping stories, but finding them is a real challenge because they don't fit in with the conventional categories.

    This has caused me frustration as a reader, because I've gone into bookstores looking for a specific book and couldn't find it even though the website said they had it, because they had shelved it in a different genre than it really belonged and didn't bother to tell me. Even the employees who looked it up on their computer couldn't find the physical copy in the store.

    And lumping graphic novels together as one genre in the scifi section is strange considering there are comedies, dramas, crime, mystery, thrillers, superhero, science fiction, fantasy, young adult, perverted adult, and just about every other type of story possible. Realistically, they should be broken up and put in with pictureless books. A few are such as Maus, but most aren't. Like you say, a graphic novel is more of a form like film or writing than a genre.

    Digital bookstores have the luxury of creating many more categories and sticking books into more than one, so they can be more precise, but that doesn't mean they always are. And you are right about all those additional categories creating more confusion with too many options to wade thru.

    I don't know that I have a better solution, but identifying the problem and the specifics is a good start. I think digital bookstores that can list one book in multiple genres is a good start. If I come up with a better, final solution, I'll write a post about it.