In our latest guest-blog, genre writer Adam Christopher asks about those shelving units in the bookstore, marked “Science Fiction and Fantasy”. Do we really need them?
I’ll be honest: there’s something bugging me. It’s something that a lot of people seem to like to talk about, to wring hands over, to frown at. A million foreheads creased with worry and chins stroked thoughtfully.
Genre. Categorisation. Classification. Shelving. Who’s going to buy that? Where on Earth would you shelve this? And so on, and so forth. Books that don’t fall neatly into one genre or another are, we are told, a Big Problem. Unshelvable, unsellable.
They’re wrong. It’s a lot of blood pressure raised over precisely nothing.
At least, that’s what I think. I’m a writer and a reader and, importantly, a customer. And as a customer, I have no trouble at all with genre and categorisation and shelving.
But let’s take a step back.
Books, writing – it’s an art, certainly. But for publishers and booksellers it’s a business. The object of the game is to make a profit, so the author can get paid, the publisher can get paid, and the bookseller can get paid. I’m not arguing with any of that. Deathless prose is fine and dandy, but if it doesn’t sell, you’re going to have a hard time making a career out of it. Unfortunately, that’s a fact of the business that some writers don’t – or don’t want to – understand or accept.
I have no particular insight into the world of publishing or personal experience, but as I understand it, it might go something like this: An editor likes a book and wants to buy it. But, for the bigger houses at least, there is a crucial second step that most people forget. The editor has to sell the book within their own house, to the marketing and sales people. The editor has to make a case for the book, on its expected audience, its expected sales, and the long-term plans for the author (remembering that nobody gets a one-book deal).
For the marketing and sales people, they want to know who will buy the book, and to understand this, they want to know what the book is. Crime? Science fiction? Fantasy? Easy. If the right boxes are ticked, the publisher can then sell the book to the booksellers. If they can say a book is science fiction, that’s easy for the bookseller to understand and space can be made on the appropriate shelf.
But what happens if the book isn’t easily categorised? Okay, a book can be genre, but technically everything is either ‘genre’ or ‘literary’, and outside of fan circles and conventions and Guardian book reviews, that term doesn’t mean much. Likewise ‘speculative fiction’, easy for us to understand, is a mystery to the general public. So when an editor loves a book, and wants to buy it, and the marketing guy asks what it is and the editor says, “Well… it’s science fiction, but with fantasy overtones and steampunk elements. And magic, but no spaceships, but there is time travel and classical mythology”, it starts to get very, very difficult. People get confused. What kind of book is it?
Okay, time-out. I’m generalising very broadly indeed. Not all publishers are like that, and it’s a more complex process than I’m portraying, but I’m trying to get to the heart of it. At the recent Alt.Fiction convention in Derby, the matter of genre and categorisation came up in a few panels I attended. Publishers and agents alike debated the matter, some very strongly for strict genre guidelines, some very strongly that classification doesn’t matter.
For advocates of the former variety, cross-genre becomes very, very difficult. A book might be amazing, but, some claim, if it doesn’t fit comfortably on a particular shelf, it won’t sell.
But here’s where – from a customer’s point of view, anyway – it appears to come apart at the seams. To me it’s a classic case of not being able to see the wood for the trees.
My local high street bookstore is nicely sized. The fiction section occupies probably half of the store, with a big wall of mainstream fiction, a good, double-sided, free-standing shelf of crime, another with classics on one side and graphic novels on the other.
And a wall of science fiction and fantasy. Admittedly only a quarter the size of the mainstream fiction wall, but there is it. It’s easy to see. It’s easy to find.
This section has it all – everything genre and speculative that you would like. New releases, classic works, hardcovers, paperbacks. Those series or authors who have a large enough body of work are grouped onto their own little shelves – Warhammer, Star Wars, Tolkien, Stephen King, etc. Aside from those subsets, it’s all alphabetical by author.
As a reader and buyer of genre fiction, I have no problem whatsoever in navigating this wall of wonder. A swords and sorcery epic sits next to a far-future space opera. H.P Lovecraft leans against George R.R. Martin. It’s a treasure-trove of science fiction, space opera, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, supernatural, alt history, horror-supernatural-alt-history, steampunk, old weird, new weird, and many more genres, subgenres, and cross-genres.
It’s all there.
So why is genre and categorisation such a bugbear for agents and publishers? There’s the shelf. Weird horror steampunk western? Great, put it on the shelf. Supernatural time-travelling rock’n’roll space opera? Great. Put it on the shelf.
Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m looking at it upside-down and back-to-front. The wall in my local bookstore is labelled “Science fiction and fantasy”, and sure, The City and The City by China Meiville or Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard do not, strictly speaking, fall under either or these categories. But the bookstore can’t rename the wall “Speculative fiction”, because nobody will know what the hell they’re talking about. Likewise “genre” is equally inappropriate, as then all the crime novels and romance novels and Western novels (if they still existed) would have to be lumped together.
But do they have to rename anything? As a genre fan, I know that the bookstore’s category of “Science fiction and fantasy” really means “Speculative fiction” and encompasses everything that I enjoy reading. Perhaps the concern comes from trying to capture that ever-elusive general reader, the casual bookstore browser? But while Mr. Joe Public might very well pick up the latest Stephen King or The Passage by Justin Cronin, are they really going to be interested in King Maker by Maurice Broaddus or Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann, even if they ventured into the “Science fiction and fantasy” section and found them there? And yes, positioning these two titles – and a myriad of other cross-genre releases – is extremely difficult when you’re trying to reach everyone. But are you? Is that really the point?
The Passage is an interesting example. It’s a genre book, no doubt about it. It’s a vampire horror. But, having been lauded as this summer’s hot release, it’s being marketed as… a book. That’s it. It’s a novel. Here we have marketing deliberately aimed at everyone. No categorisation, no genre. It’s a novel, it might scare you. That’s as far as it goes. And The Passage will sell by the million.
So is that an argument for dispensing with genre and classifications altogether? I don’t think so. My bookstore browsing experience would be infinitely less pleasurable if I had to wade through a giant, uncategorised system that mixed mainstream, literary, crime, classics, science fiction into one big alphabetical-by-author shelf. True, for those who don’t habitually browse “Science fiction and fantasy”, they may discover a whole new world of fiction that – shock, horror! – they may actually enjoy. Or more likely, they’d just complain at all these books about wizards and dragons and space octopi being in the wrong place.
It’s a complex debate with many positions. This is just one point of view. Have I misunderstood? Have I got it completely wrong? I would love to hear an alternative viewpoint, an argument for why you must not rewrite the King Arthur legend as a tale of urban gang warfare in downtown Indianapolis. If classification is important and cross-genre is the bane of bookselling, I want to know why.
I really think it doesn’t matter. Look, there’s the shelf. Sure, it’s not called quite the right thing, but I know what it means, and all the stuff I like is on it.