The Tyranny of Genres

Saturday 27th December 2014

Amazon book categories

Categories help us navigate an overly-complex world. Fish, poultry, meat, vegetarian. Romance, thriller, mystery, sci-fi. Those tags are the signposts people follow to find a meal or a book to satisfy them… and often end up bored by the same old same-old. Unfulfilled. Food, like books, is so much more than the ingredients or recipe.

I used to only read sci-fi. Then, age fourteen, after discovering Tolkien (as you do), I widened out to fantasy. And now, I read neither, having overdosed on magic and quirks of quantum theory. Those same categories now help me to avoid the books I once sought. And, among their number, some books that—undoubtedly—would have proven to be the best read of my life.

As a writer who wants to surprise readers, I’m not so appreciative of genres. Sure, a murder mystery is a great recipe, but the story I wanted to tell didn’t fit. And some genres are so proscriptive, I can hear the click of the handcuffs. Romance? There must be a happy ending. Mystery? There has to be a murder and if it’s not in paragraph one, I won’t be reading paragraph two.

The books I’ve read that say the most about love, don’t have happy endings. And to suggest that nothing could hold any intrigue except a death is to be hopelessly detached from endlessly intriguing reality.

Is it any wonder that, as a reader, I switched off to an entire genre—a genre I used to love? The first ever Big Mac is delicious, but by Big Mac number thirty… not so great.

The thing about categories is, they’ve always been a lousy way to find good books. As a child, I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At seven, I hadn’t grasped the concept of author, and searched the library time and again to try to find another book that even came close to that wonderful story. My efforts were fruitless. I never stumbled across another Roald Dahl title, because I was picking up anything with a cover illustration by Quentin Blake. I wanted more magic but found only hollow stories that didn’t speak to me. Roald Dahl was there. I simply couldn’t find him.

In the age of Search, categories ought to be dead. But they’re not. Try going onto Amazon and searching for “books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Does it search the also-boughts and reviews? No. Amazon is not Google. If I like James Lee Burke, I can’t search for books liked by fans of James Lee Burke. All I can do is see what’s selling in thrillers. Search on Goodreads is a bust, too. Google itself lacks enough control of context to narrow results just to books.

We’re stuck with categories.

Bad ones.

Hence the giant Amazon bucket for Literature and Fiction. Good luck navigating almost a million titles in there.

And series like mine, where every book is different, don’t fit well into categories anyway. If I want people to discover, read and enjoy my books (and what writer doesn’t want that?) it’s likely I’ll have to stop writing wide and find a narrower genre, but one where the constraints aren’t so obnoxious, they kill the story. And maybe that’ll end up being sci-fi or fantasy. At least a love story there can have an unhappy ending, and an intriguing mystery doesn’t mandate a corpse.

Of course, maybe an upstart book store will crack the book search problem, and we’ll be able to read as healthy omnivores. Or is that too much like science fiction?

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