There is a long-standing convention that books fall into distinct and definite categories. If the story involves spaceships with laser-blasters, it is classed as a Science Fiction story. If the lead character has pointy ears and fights with a bow and arrow, then it would probably be regarded as Fantasy. And, if the story involved a murder victim and a detective working to solve the case, well, clearly that is a crime novel.
These shortcuts can obviously be useful and bookshops use them to help customers navigate around the store and they provide a simple shorthand for cataloguing and organising.
However, there is an argument to say that this is a lazy way of looking at literature and that, rather than helping people find books that they might like, it funnels readers into definite silos that they can find it hard to escape from.
Let’s imagine for a moment that I’ve written the greatest love story of all times (I haven’t, but just go with it for now). If I set that story in some rural setting circa 1833 with period costumes and rugged scenery, I can guarantee that you’d find this book under the Romance section in Waterstones. But, if I set the same story on a planet called Hellenia and make it about two terraformers in space suits, then it’ll be found next to the works of Isaac Asimov on the Science Fiction shelf. Yes, the context is different, but the fundamentals of the story could be exactly the same. Does the emotion and empathy of the writing become any less relevant or powerful by the relocation in time and space?
Would a story that explored loss and grief be more likely to be set in a modern day, urban environment or in a tree-city and involve a character called Earik? Would it make the writing any less powerful or the emotion any less real?
I don’t mean to suggest that the location where a story takes place doesn’t impact how events are perceived – see my previous blog about locations as characters – but that isn’t my point here. The fact that we insist on characterising books in a certain way almost certainly limits the types of stories and the quality of the writing that people are exposed to.
Consequently, when something comes along that mixes or clashes genres, it presents a conundrum to the publisher on how to market it. Unlike films, that can use trailers and star name actors to help sell and showcase the story, books don’t really have that option. Yes, there are book trailers, but their quality varies massively and the only star name every attached to a book, is the author.
All this reinforces the importance and having a broad reading range. If your literary diet consists only of the ilk of The Lord of The Rings and A Song of Fire & Ice then you are missing out on so much other great writing. Never be afraid to mix up genres – it’s totally fine to go from 2001 to 1984 or from The Shining to Sherlock Holmes. Don’t be afraid to put down a Jane Austin and pick up Mary Shelley. Throw in non-fiction as well – biographies and histories can be supremely entertaining. I believe that the more you read across as many genres as you can, the greater the appreciation that you’ll have when a story comes along that doesn’t fit neatly into one of these pre-defined boxes.