Discussion day: What’s in a genre?

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Genre word cloud

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When I say the word “genre” what comes to mind? There are so many different genres of novel that a specific definition is hard to pin down. Here’s what Dictionary.com has to say:

1. A class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.
2. Genus; kind; sort; style.
That’s awfully vague. Let’s try wikipedia:
The term for any category of literature or other forms of art or entertainment, e.g. music, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones are discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.
That’s better, though still not very specific.. Genres are extremely helpful when picking out what to read next. I know, for example, that I will probably like a Sci-Fi or Fantasy novel over most Mystery or Romance novels. I love that they keep all the books that are similar together in one place and if I ever needed to, I could wander through one specific section to find something I’ll like (not that I’ll EVER need to again, with a TBR list of 500+!)


The problem with genres, as I’m beginning to find out, is the genres are generally so open to interpretation. I know, as readers we like our freedom of choice and expression, and if you want to call a book a certain genre, I’m not gonna argue with you. Subjectively, you as a reader read it that specific way, and that’s fine by me.  But say, for example, you’re at your local library. If it’s anything like mine, they had to decide which genres to separate out. There are 22 different genres on wikipedia’s list of genres and that’s not even counting all of the sub-genres under things like Action, Fantasy, or Science Fiction!


This eliding of genres is definitely necessary – but as a reader, it frustrates me to no end. My library essentially has five sections: Fiction (of which there are a few shelves marked as mystery), Non-fiction, Romance, Sci-fi/Fantasy, and YA. Now, I can understand why they put Sci-fi and Fantasy together. They’re both “speculative” or “imaginative” fiction. That makes sense to me (though why novels like American Gods by Neil Gaiman and Graveminder by Melissa Marr are classifed in the Fiction section makes NO sense). But what I don’t get? Throwing all the YA into one pile. Granted, it’s probably their smallest collection, but it does have it’s own little room that could easily be divided up into small sections. But for some reason the powers-that-be have decided that YA is a genre – everything else is sub-genre. As a genre-specific reader (I’ll read anything Sci-Fi or Fantasy, no matter what age it’s geared to) this industry wide distinction has me itching my teeth in disgust!


There is another facet to the problem, of course. Someone (if you can remember who, MEGA brownie points) once said “There is nothing new on this earth” or something like that. That may be true, but author’s are still trying, and the easiest way to get around that is to combine old things in new ways. I can’t tell you the number of books I’ve read that straddle the line between Sci-fi and Fantasy, or Fantasy and Contemporary. Mixing of sub-genres is even more complicated, and would require a national, or possibly international, committee to decide on. I mean really, who decided that in YA the sub-genre would be Paranormal Romance, while in adult the exact same genre masquerades as Urban Fantasy?!


I honestly don’t have a working solution to this thing either. I can see both sides of the argument. My OCD side hates the fact that we can’t be more specific and uniform in the way we describe our books. The rest of me feels like that kind of system would be FAR too much work for everyone.


What would you suggest to describe genres? Should we be more specific? Less? Is there any one genre that you wish we would pay more attention to?

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5 Responses to “Discussion day: What’s in a genre?”

  1. That’s funny that you mention your library having so few genres. I feel like mine is the same. We have fiction, western, fiction PB, romance PB, YA, etc. BUT, the other day I found The Time Traveler’s Wife in the YA section (the placement of the book isn’t decided by us, but by the Library of Congress or something), AND in the general fiction PB section there are a ton of books that I would categorize as romance. They may not be Harlequins (which is what’s IN the romance PB section), but they’re romance nonetheless.

    I do wish that we could break it down more, but in a public library setting that would be SO MUCH WORK. Perhaps if each library could really do their own thing and not have their book placement decided by someone else. It would be nice, say, if I’m going into the YA section to see what books are contemporary YA or something, but that’s not going to happen.

    Of course, that’s why you have the help desk! So we can help you! :)

    I’m thankful for GoodReads. It helps me figure out what certain book genres are without me having to do a lot of work.

    • Anne says:

      Oh I hear ya! Working as a cataloger I know how much work it would be to reclassify everything, and I’m totally not suggesting that. I almost want to say let’s just do away with the genre system, but then it’s harder for browsers to find stuff, you know? There’s no real good solution, I just wanted to vent lol.

  2. […] Anne talks about genres and how vague they are. Are you OCD like Anne, wanting to have books narrowed down into certain genres when you browse the bookstore or your library? […]

  3. Ooh genre classification is such a complicated thing – and so many books are cross-genre. I don’t mind my library having a YA section, because I feel teens may more easily find the books they will probably like – and they have a space (an entire floor in the case of my library) for themselves. I honestly though never check out the library by genre. I usually just browse the shelves if I’m in that sort of mood and pick out whatever looks good to me.

    • Anne says:

      Oh I’m certainly not suggesting do away with the YA space! I like that they have all the YA books together! I’m just saying that it might be nice if they divided them up by genre within that a little. :)

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