Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The bookshop with no science fiction section

Photo by Brewbooks c/o Flickr
After attending the Eastercon panel Pushing the Boundaries of Genre, I came away rather unsatisfied. Instead of addressing the panel's title, the panel quickly retreated into the tired argument that often rears its head whenever the word 'genre' is mentioned.

The debate, such as it was, almost immediately became framed around the simplistic notion that the idea of genre is either a good or a bad thing for books – discuss. The various positions can be briefly paraphrased.

Some see genre as a useful tool: for writers it can provide a series of tropes with which they can tell a story or subvert conventions; for publishers, bookshops and readers it can be an easy way to get certain kinds of books in the hands of those who want them. Others see genre as a barrier: for writers it can be a creative straitjacket; for readers it can become a stultifying monoculture; for publishers and bookshops it can mean marginalising any books which do not fit into safe and recognisable categories.

Having followed some of this debate before, largely on the intertubes, I've often felt that little serious attention is given to the various individuals and organisations whose competing desires, needs and fears help create and define the genres themselves.

Authors, for example, want to reach the audience they have had in mind while writing their book. For some authors, this might mean simply selling as many copies as possible. Perhaps the book is a purely commercial proposition (which doesn't mean it is not good nor entertaining nor even art) as everyone needs to live and for some writing is the means to that end. For another, it might be a labour of love. Years of hard graft,  in which they have distilled the essence of something they feel in their hearts, to produce a piece of art. Selling many copies would be a bonus, but for these authors the book's publication is also a part of honestly getting the their message across if it is to reach its intended audience.

For the commercial author, genre publication will almost certainly limit their maximum sales to the audience for that genre. However, their book may go on to sell heavily in that genre. Ignore genre and perhaps you'll garner new out-of-genre readers, but will they offset or outnumber those seeking out genre who miss the book or who decide, on seeing the cover, that they don't read this kind of thing?

For the author unconcerned with genre but wishing to get their message across widely, genre could be considered a backwater in which their work is ignored or not taken seriously. Or it might be a means of reaching those who are most likely to engage fully with their work. Alternatively, publishing outside genre could lead to engagement with a new audience; or finding almost no audience whatsoever.

Publishers generally want to sell as many copies of each book at as good a price and at as low a cost to themselves as is possible. The only question that therefore matters to the publisher is: how do we achieve this? The question of genre is therefore not a philosophical or ontological one, but one purely of accounts. Whether a book will sell better in or out of genre is a guess based on experience, intuition and sticking a wet finger in the air to test the prevailing wind direction.

(None of which is to say that publishers do not take into account an author's feelings, as well as frequently taking risks on books, packaging, ideas, formats, innovation and so forth based on nothing more substantial than their gut instinct and love of a good book well published. Like authors, publishers can be as wayward as any human being.)

Not altogether different to publishers, the bookseller is trying to sell as many books as they can to stay in business. However, in the case of bookshops usually – though not always for larger chains – they have no choice in how the book itself is presented.

If it looks like a genre book putting it in a section outside of that genre is unlikely to be a wise move because potential readers may not find it. If the publisher has chosen not to make a genre book look genre, then readers outside the genre section may pick it up while those who do find it in the genre section might notice it because the book stands out from genre clones (I'm talking to you, mysterious dark-cloaked, sword-bearing figure who has launched a thousand epic fantasies – I exaggerate, a tad).

Of course the bookshop can refuse point blank to play the genre game and ignore utterly the usual bookshop categorisations. The issue of genre or not to genre then disappears. This leaves readers with a potential problem (and quite possibly one of bankruptcy for the bookshop).

According to former Booker judge John Mullan, science fiction books are found in 'a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other'. Take note, SF readers, you are special! His point, essentially, was that it is a self-enclosed world, one to which many people have no access. Some readers, like Mullan, find it scary and off-putting (and socially unacceptable, though this, I believe, is changing). Others, less concerned with judging a book by its cover, head straight there.

The reader in the genre section can be reasonably assured that they can find what they are looking for, the path to readerly satisfaction is clear. The reader outside the genre section is on their own, wandering a forest of books with only the signposts of cover and blurb to guide them.

So are you the kind of reader who wants to get lost, or would you prefer to tread a well-worn path? Like many readers, you probably like the pleasant surprise of getting lost sometimes, while at other times you might prefer the comforts of knowing exactly where you are going.

Shades of grey
Naturally, in my dichotomies above – between artist and hack; mercenary or nurturing publisher; readers who like what they know and readers looking for the unknown; pile-'em-high and specialist bookshops – there are many, many shades of grey, not to mention those who embody and revel in both extremes.

My point is that writers, readers, publishers and booksellers, unsurprisingly, are as variable as people and their motives for engaging with books are as various as any we ascribe to people doing anything. And they will have many and divergent views regarding each and every book, let alone whole categories of books.

So a simplistic question like is genre good or bad can never hope to provide a meaningful statement about an entire industry, or even one particular subsection which frequently complains about its apparent neglect.

One of the panellists – Robert V.S. Redick - described his confusion at visiting a bookshop and being unable to find its science fiction section. On asking a staff member where it was, he was told the shop did not have one – all the books were mixed in together, by author, A–Z. He said that it was something he'd wanted to see for years, had occasionally argued for, but when presented with what he'd called for, he realised that he no longer knew where to look to find something to read. He was at a loss.

In answer to the question is genre a good or bad thing, there is only one adequate response – what is best for each, individual book? The conversation starts and ends there.


1 comment:

  1. Great post, Colin! I for one would not be able to buy anything in a bookshop with no genre separation. Simply because I have no time to browse through all their titles to find something I like. I'm a genre reader and I don't mind crossovers as well, but I need those boundaries and tropes, i'm comfortable with them, that's my drug of choice. Without them I will be lost.