I was watching an independent film titled Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same when I stopped to consider whether Barnes and Noble has a marked-out section for Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Fiction. Then I asked myself the question: should B&N strive for genre exactitude and expand the signage in their stores or should they continue with a reasonably limited collection of genres that will avoid the clutter and confusion of too many categories but at the same time will allow for many worthy titles to be lost in the morass of titles that are mistakenly related: Fish For Sashimi filed in the Aquarium section; The Great God Brown lost in Speculative Religion; Stephen King mistakenly placed in with the good books; Rikki Ducornet sorted under Hot Authors.
We seem to get into a discussion of genres at least once a year. I personally subscribe to the theory that genres were created so that booksellers would know where to exhibit their wares. For most readers, if they enjoy reading, say, Science Fiction, then if someone tells them a book is science fiction, they will read it. Besides, where do we slot Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same: under Psychology, under Sexual Preferences, under Science Fiction, or even under Stationery Stores.
Last week the New York Times Sunday Book Review section posed the question: Do Genre Labels Matter Anymore? The two-sided approach of Bookends gets a little bogged down in Dana Stevens’s agenda to somehow twist a common discussion of genre in books to equate to the recent expansion of our concepts of gender. Gender/genre makes the association seem inevitable but just because we didn’t stay the course with poetry and prose doesn’t mean that the analogy is useful.
Leslie Jamison is more on target with her discussion of genres.
Do genre labels matter? Sure they do. Not as rigid categorical descriptions but as illuminations of desire. It’s futile and misguided to insist on their absolute boundaries (“All great works of literature establish a genre or dissolve one,” Walter Benjamin said), but they do offer a set of crude terms we use to articulate hungers for which we haven’t found or wrought a more precise vocabulary. We want language to transcend its instrumental signifying origins, to buck its packhorse saddles, to surprise us. So we say: Poetry! We want access to the mystery of other people’s lives, or we want to know why an entire civilization collapsed, or why a man killed his mother, so we say: Nonfiction! Each is more apt as a symptom of hunger than an absolute type of artifact. That wanting is the molten core — for truth or beauty or resonance — and the texts are just the cooling lava formations that form across the crust, the byproducts of craving. There are important differences between fiction and nonfiction — and I believe in the ethical necessity of fact-checking, which viewed rightly can become its own sort of generative formal constraint — but our uninterrogated absolute distinctions leave much middle ground unspoken for.
Oh Dear. Is Leslie beginning to wax poetic in her prose?
What if we thought of genre in this way, as a set of groping terms seeking the contours of more nebulous hungers? What if genre was just desire in the dark? It seems to me that genre labels are just a way of making small talk at the picnic, which only mattered — in the end — as prelude to the more complicated years of conversation that followed.
I’ll stick with the idea that genre designation allow big bookstores to have a way to organize their stores so that the average customer can hopefully find the book or subject they are looking for.
And by the way: the most disturbing genre designation is “Literary Fiction.” Whoever came up with that one should be forced to read Dickens in some South American jungle for the rest of his or her life.