More on Genres and Subgenres

Several things happened in the last week that started me thinking again about my earlier description of lab lit as a genre or subgenre. The first was an email discussion about scientists as fiction writers. The next was Jerri’s comment on my recent review of Simon Mawer’s novel, Mendel’s Dwarf. Another was something I read in Pippa Goldschmidt’s blog. And then there was an incident that happened  in a  bookstore most recently.

For some time I’d been wondering whether only people trained in the sciences could write authentic, convincing fiction about science. The email exchange convinced me that many good writers who are not scientists have written novels with scientists as major characters who are portrayed doing what real scientists do. I realized that I had been focusing on the very small number of lab lit novels about “basic” or “fundamental” research.

Then Jerri commented that he liked reading fiction based on science written by well-established scientists. His example was a novel I haven’t read. Based on a very brief synopsis, I concluded, correctly I hope, that I should start by looking for it in the science-fiction section of the bookstore.  Earlier I have discussed how the typical science-fiction novel differs from lab lit as well as what I’m calling fiction about science.

While reading Pippa Goldschmidt’s blog, I discovered that her recent novel, The Falling Sky (see my review), is frequently shelved in science-fiction, yet it is a contemporary story that has almost no obvious practical consequences—although the main character’s research is a potential challenge to a fundamental assumption of modern astronomy and cosmology, the occurrence of the Big Bang.

The very next day, I asked a bookstore that has taken my recently published novel, Vanessa’s Curve of Mind, on consignment, whether they would put two of four copies of the science-fiction shelves. (It had been in the general fiction section, where I think it belongs, but, inspired by Goldschmidt’s experience, I was curious whether I might also appeal to some sci-fi fans.) I was astonished to learn that as a matter of policy, the store will place a title in only one section. I had to decide between general fiction and science-fiction. How odd!

Is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin science-fiction or literary (general) fiction? It’s about space travel and life on a distant planet; it won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, both of which are limited to science-fiction. Yet distinguished literary critic Harold Blum wrote that it “… has raised has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time.” Wouldn’t you expect to find “high literature” on the general fiction shelves (as well as in science-fiction)? Some bookstores have a classics section. Does it make sense to put copies of LeGuin’s novel only there?

What purpose do genre classifications really serve? Putting The Falling Sky on the science-fiction shelves won’t sell many copies to readers looking for distant-future, space travel stories—but maybe a few. And shelving The Left Hand of Darkness in the science-fiction section won’t attract many readers interested in “high literature” (what I like to call “serious” readers). With rigid genre classifications, public library users, too, will miss wonderful opportunities to enjoy the kind of books they like.

Presumably, bookstores want to sell books and libraries want to serve the public. Often under-funded libraries have an excuse. If you have only one copy of a title, it has to go one place or the other. (Catalogs usually don’t allow cross-references, although there’s no reason why a computerized catalog couldn’t list a book in more than one way.)

Bookstores have no excuses, however. They usually start out with several copies of a recently published book. Why not put an equal number in two, or even more, places and see where they sell more quickly? If a books sells well in one section but not another, the remaining unsold copies could gradually be moved to the section readers have decided they belong. Obviously, books that sell well from both sections should continue to be represented in both places.

I’m still looking for enlightenment on the current upheaval in the publishing industry. However, with the explosion in the number of books being published and the increasing power of computer search algorithms, I think the role of genre classifications needs rethinking.

Libraries have already reached a high level of sophistication in harnessing the computer to serve all their patrons. All that may be needed is a small tweak in their database and an informational campaign to raise user awareness of how search techniques can lead them to more fiction like the books they’ve already read and to new novels they might otherwise have passed up. Such educational programs tend to focus on nonfiction.

Bookstores, however, if they’re going to survive, need to rethink how their shelving policies can best serve their customers.

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