I have a friend who’s an avid reader. “I don’t care if it’s a real book or on my Kindle,” she tells me during one of our regular Sunday morning chats. “I don’t care if the characters are black, white or purple. I don’t care where the story takes place. I just want to be able to curl up and get lost in a good story.” She’s a writer’s dream reader, don’t you think? She gives equal opportunity to all books.
As a young girl, I spent as much time as I could in the library. I never worried about genre. I wanted escape. I chose my books by the cover, the story summary, by author, by first paragraphs and friends’ recommendations. It was a failsafe system back then, and though my selection process has become more sophisticated, the old system is still the basis for finding a good book. And that’s why, with some exceptions, genre labels don’t work for me. I’m like my good buddy: I just want a good story. And depending on my mood, it doesn’t matter what genre that story falls into.
Like most writers, I have lots of books. They bulge from shelves and the tops of cabinets. They’re piled on my coffee table, my nightstand and my dresser. They fall into the categories of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. After that, I refuse to put them into specific genres. It’s too hard.
So, I set out to learn more about genre, these categorizations tossed about by authors and publishers that often guide what we will and won't read (or buy). Wikipedia defines genre fiction as “a term for fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.” Interesting, but confining. WikiAnswers lists over fifteen categories that include poetry, short story, drama, adventure and tragedy. Confusing. That one seems a bit more inclusive than another site that lists seven popular genres. Selective?
I balk at these classifications because they’re so general and yet limiting. Oh, they work if I'm in the mood for a mystery or thriller, but otherwise I don't consider genre. Categorizing makes it easy for bookstores and libraries to shelve books into sections. Yes, genres help readers figure out where to find the books they like (sometimes): science fiction, mystery, crime fiction, romance, and so on. But these classifications raise questions for me. Not every book is clear cut. I found other categories: African American, Asian American, autobiographical fiction. Whew! If an African American or an Asian American author writes a horror novel with characters with their backgrounds (or not), where do those books go on the bookstore shelves? How are they classified? By author’s race or story content? (Warning: this may be a trick question!) Or what if an author, not a person of color, writes, say a mystery or romance, about a racial group—how is that book classified? Or is that confusing genre with something else?
Am I being too picky? Do I not understand genre? Sure I do. I simply refuse to be governed by it. I have books that are both cookbook and memoir—what’s genre is that? I love Toni Morrison, ZZ Packer, Alice Munro, Walter Mosley, Tayari Jones, Julie Otsuka—are they genre fiction or literature? I dont care. They're wonderful, complex writers.
If I sound frustrated, I am.
I try to avoid labels or being put into a box in my everyday life, and I don’t like being boxed into genres for what I read or write. Like my friend, I just like good books—well-written books that capture and hold my attention, challenge my imagination, and leave me wanting more. That’s what I hope I’ve written and that’s what I like to read.
How do you select the books you read?
In 1999, Jacqueline Luckett took a creative writing class on a dare, from herself, and began writing short stories and poetry and never looked back. Searching for Tina Turner (Grand Central Publishing) is available at bookstores and online. Passing Love, releases in January, 2012.www.facebook.com/Author.JacquelineLuckett Twitter: @jackieluckett http://twitter.com/jackieluckett