Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
"Genres can be a tidy way of understanding what you might expect overall from a story, a shorthand that there will be elements in this tale that speak to you as a reader. Genres, however, can sometimes draw artificial lines that people don't cross. I will admit there are genres I thought I didn't read . . . until I did."
Three years ago, in a column by the Readers' Services Coordinator at my local public library, Polli Kenn discussed the library's then new "Genre Book Club." Once a month, the library staff "puts together a list of highly rated and representative books in a genre," which readers can then request, read, and discuss.
I've been on a library kick in my blog lately, mostly because of National Library Week--and my passion for libraries--but I've been wanting to write about this column independent of libraries every since I read it.
Because Kenn writes about how genres define and perhaps limit what we read.
Kenn points out that readers can have favorite genres they read--and ones they don't read.
I know that's true for me, that I read some genres more than others because I know I like them. I like what I can expect from a mystery, and I don't like what I (think I can) expect from a romance (though Kenn's column tells me I might like romances if I would read one written by Courtney Milan, Julia Quinn or Eloisa James).
The "shorthand" that is a genre label captures basic elements that makes someone (a librarian? a bookseller?) categorize a book as this genre and not that genre. And there's a much bigger story here, too, as there is for most things genre, about the greater commercial value of some genres over others, the stretching of a genre category by publishers and marketers in order to help a book sell--but that's another post another time.
I do read much more widely in nonfiction genres and in what Amazon calls "literary fiction" (what a baggy category that is on Amazon, and it includes many of what I would call romances), so it's not like I read only mysteries.
But when I'm tired or stressed and just want to pick up something for fun, it's easy to pick up a mystery and know puzzles will be solved, smart people will win out, and life will all make sense. Unless, of course, I'm reading a mystery by John Harvey or other mystery writers who like to upset conventions, but even then I know, after their first book, to expect the conventions to be upset. Mysteries are my comfort genre (thanks, Leighann Dicks, for the concept and term!)
But Kenn suggests, rightly, that I might be limiting myself by reading only preferred genres, and that I should stretch myself to read good examples of other genres--even romance?
My resistance to the idea shows up in the fact that I first ended that last sentence with an exclamation point--even romance! and couldn't do it, ending it with a question mark instead--even romance?
I know I also enjoy reading science fiction, but not yet fantasy, so there's another genre I could stretch myself with, maybe more easily than with romance. Each of you might be able to suggest other genres I should cross into. When Kenn wrote three years ago, the next month's genre in the Genre Book Club was "urban fantasy," so the genres you like might be broad or narrow, but there will always be other categories we could explore. What genres do you think I should try?
Since that column, the library developed and posted on their website reading lists for 19 genres from the Genre Book Club. I've already read some in Dystopian Fiction--Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Hilary St. John Mandel and Cormac McCarthy--but the reading list recommends other exciting possibilities. Of the other genres they've listed, I've hit a few Food Memoirs, Historical Fiction (I've read only the non-romance type, being too ridiculously consistent, I suppose), Horror, Humorous Mysteries, Magical Realism, Mysteries (of course), Noir Fiction, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Suspense, Travel Writing, True Crime, and Women's Fiction (these are all their labels, created to draw readers to a monthly book club).
They have other reading lists on the site, too, including a Social Justice Book Club, Roadtripping, and, my favorite category name, "To Be Continued: Books to Read Later," ones you want to read, just not right now.
So many genres, so little time.
I could also stretch myself into other genres they have reading lists for, including LGBTQ Graphic Novels. Every list has something that looks great, that I'd like to read.
Except romance. I still can't get myself to cross into the romance genre.
I bet if I dug into why I haven't read romances, I could see all sorts of things about myself. Genres do show us stuff, reveal who we are, individually and socially. Janice Radway wrote a fantastic book called Reading the Romance, exploring who reads romances, what they offer, how they're marketed. Now there's an example of a great scholarly book, if you're looking for one.
And I bet if I tried reading romances, I'd learn other things about myself and people. So I'm willing to try if you'll tell me about a romance you really love. I won't judge. I promise. I don't like to think of myself as biased against any genre, without even having given it a good try with a good example of the genre.
Because that's the other part of genre-crossing, of course. You have to read a good example of the genre to give it a fair chance. When we read a particular genre a lot, we learn what we like and we can seek out authors or recognize what makes a particular book good--for us. But when we're new to a genre, as Kenn says, we need help finding the good examples so we don't just reject the genre outright based on one poor text.
And here I am back to libraries, darn it. Librarians can suggest examples of genres for you to read. And their website is full of reading lists and recommendations, even individualized ones. I just can't seem to get away from libraries. It's become National Library Month for me, rather than week.
But social media is great for reading suggestions, too, whether literary or scholarly genres, fiction or nonfiction. So feel free to post your genre suggestions--and a good example of it--on my Facebook post or Twitter feed.
What about you? Do you comfortably cross genre lines in your reading? What really good romance should I read to stretch myself? What other genres should I try? Men's Rural Utopian Short Epics, anyone?