Completely non-WoW post, nothing whatsoever to do with WoW.

A disclaimer, for the short attention span ooh shiny TL;DR audience… in this post, BBB goes bitch, bitch, bitch. I’m still trying to figure out of there was anything of value in this to anyone but me. But what the hell, here goes.

~ o ~

I like reading science fiction, and I like reading fantasy. I also like detective fiction, superhero comics, military adventure, action adventure, dramas, in fact I like books in quite a few different categories.

If you nodded along with that statement and didn’t see anything wrong with it, than it’s probably just me that has this grumpy old man problem with how I look at things. You’re probably going to think I’m insane. That’s okay, I think the same thing often enough.

See, I like to READ.

What I’m most comfortable reading are books. Books are portable. They don’t take batteries. If I drop one in a puddle, I’m not out a couple hundred bucks; I’m out a book I can pick up again at a local bookstore. I can take the book with me when I eat lunch, and I can leave it in the front seat of my car in the sure and certain knowledge that 99.999% of thieves will not break the windows of my car to steal it.

There is always that 0.001% chance you get a thief that wants to bring a book home to his/her kids; I’m willing to take those odds.

Sometimes the books have pictures, sometimes not. Sometimes the books are fictional, sometimes not.

Regardless, I like to read. Heinlein once wrote that he had it real bad; he’d read the used newspaper that was used to hold fish and chips if nothing else was available. Yeah, I know EXACTLY what he meant.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually become aware that books, those things I enjoy reading, are pre-segregated into categories. Books when they are published are carefully judged by others, and grouped together under category labels.

Sure, that’s obvious. It’s hard to imagine it being any other way. What in the heck can I possibly find in such an innocuous fact to be pissy about?

I’m going to be pissy about categories and segregation in general, but I’m also going to hit up the two biggest boxes that make my flesh writhe.

Science Fiction and Fantasy.

When I was a kid, those were two distinct categories. Science Fiction was one category, and Fantasy was another.

At that point, it was already much too late. The battle, if there ever was one, was long since lost.

What is the Keyser Söze quote? “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” 

Another applicable quote, often attributed to Edmund Burke; “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Well, in my opinion the greatest disservice ever done to open-minded readers was to allow people to create boxes (categories), assign labels to the boxes, and then judge each book for us, slapping a label on it before cramming them in their box and slamming the lid shut. A place for each book, and each book in it’s own proper place.

I say allow… as in, it had to start sometime, and that was the only time people had a chance to stand up and say, NO! It’s either fiction, or it ain’t. Any other category is subjective, judgmental, and in the eye of the beholder.

But it’s been too late for as long as I’ve been alive. It just took me a long, long time to notice the long term effects.

After that fait accompli, getting books categorized, the mopping up operations got under way, and have never stopped… people passing judgment on which book deserves to go where.

“Is this worthy of being in the fiction section, where serious works by important minds are gathered together? No! Into the Science Fiction box it goes with the other fairy tales and flights of fancy. Just keep that trash away from the serious literary works like The Great Gatsby.”

I did my best to make my point there with a sledge hammer. :)

Can you make a point with a blunt object? I’m willing to give it a try. If not, at least I can mangle similes so bad I make ‘em cry.

Here’s where I’m coming from with this, and my attitude incorporates elements of “the times, they are a’changing”, grumpy old man get off my lawn type stuff.

First off, I am the ultimate egalitarian. I believe that there is no such thing as someone that is suitable to decide FOR me what I should or should not be allowed to read and consider.

That belief is burned into my bones and blood, and informs everything else about me. Control of knowledge is, in my opinion, a direct attempt to control not just what people think, but HOW they think. Everyone should have an equal opportunity to read, to learn, to consider, and to decide for themselves what they think about anything under the sun.

If you are of the opinion, as so many folks seem to be, that there are some people that just need to be told what to do, that are good for earning a paycheck and not much else, the great unwashed, the lower or middle classes, the cows requiring shephards to point the way, and that above them are the elite thinkers guiding the engine of progress… if you think of people in terms of how productive they are in serving as fuel for the great engine of progress, and once someone is too old or inform to produce, whay are we still feeding them? Well, you’re not going to like me if you meet me, I’ll leave it at that. You don’t want to have me start looking you up and down and begin questioning publicly your ‘right’ to consider yourself one of the elite, let alone pinning you down as to what you provide to society in general, and humanity in particular, that justifies you getting free oxygen. Trust me. If you can judge others as being beneath you, I feel fine in judging YOU. No worries on my conscience at all for ripping you a new one.

Freedom of choice, freedom to accept responsibility for your actions, and freedom to suffer the consequences are also built into my attitudes as well.

All clear? Let’s go.

When I was a child of elementary age, I had available to me one of the greatest gifts possible. I didn’t know enough then to appreciate it fully, not the way I do now. But I had the gift, thanks to some beautiful tax paying citizens, and I used it just the same.

The public middle school I attended in downtown Miami, Florida had a school library. A large school library. A freaking HUGE school library.

In what way am I measuring size? Why, comparatively, of course, the same time honored technique I trust is still in use by boys in locker rooms everywhere. 

In my case, I’ve toured some schools and seen some of the libraries in the area here in Minnesota, and they are… well, ludicrous. Pathetic. Mediocre. Miniscule. Marginalized.

The school libraries up here are f’ing shameful. They show all the care, thought and consideration you’d give to what trash can to stick in your second spare bathroom.

“Trash can? Got it, check.”

Same apparent care given to the school libraries.

“Does the school have a library? Room with books in, check!”

Not in my middle school as a child.

The middle school I attended, which as I recall was for 6 – 9th grade students, with High School covering grades 10 – 12, was huge. To handle the population of the middle of Miami, it’s probably not surprising. Massive sports fields, basketball courts, gyms and band rooms and just, holy cow. Big. And the High School! Damn.

We didn’t have cliques, we had the kind of gang wars you see in TV shows and laugh at as being impossible. No, they’re not, not when you get big enough class sizes, thank you. You put enough kids in one place with minimal possible adult supervision, and the Lord of the Flies becomes more than a book on a required reading list somewhere.

Well, along with everything else, the library was also super sized. And, believe it or not, the gangs didn’t often venture into it’s cavernous space. Perhaps they were afraid that the concentrated power of so much knowledge would cause their heads to explode.

I often wondered if it would, actually. Kinda like matter and anti-matter colliding. Gang kids and libraries. Boom!

This school library had an immense fiction section, of which I partook the way a starving man might launch himself at a Ritz cracker being carried off by ants.

I want to note here; a fiction section. Not a science fiction section, or a fantasy section, or a romance section or military or Judy Bloom style episodic or whatever.

Just fiction. Everything that wasn’t non-fiction went HERE in this big section of stacks.

Omigod, how the hell did anyone ever find something to read? I know, right? It must have been impossible to actually find a book in there!

Amazingly enough, I was able to find books. Granted, I did not know what pre-assigned categories the secret masters of the universe had previously assigned them to; I had to wing it, and pick stuff to read based on how their book jacket blurbs sounded. Sometimes, I went nuts and picked based on cover illustration.

Here’s the crazy part; I found out that there was no direct corrolation between the quality of cover art, and the quality of the written word within the pages. Holy shit, huh? You’da thunk the books with the best art on the cover would be the best, wouldn’t you?

Moving on, I didn’t browse the science fiction section looking for something suitably appropriate for my interests, as predetermined by someone that knows what’s best for me.

I also didn’t read books pre-judged as being suitable for my age.

Everything was there, apparently bought by the pound. Heinlein and Asimov and Bradbury and the masters of the Golden Age of science fiction, shoulder to shoulder with Tolkein and Chandler and Asprin and, oh heck, you name it.

I was a damn kid, I didn’t KNOW what my interests were yet. I just knew I wanted something to READ. And I had this gift given to me… no guidance. No “this is appropriate for your age, try this and see if it’s too difficult”.

Nope, just a big pile o’ books.

I was hunting for something cool and exciting, preferrably, but knowing something new wasn’t to be scoffed at, as long as it wasn’t boring.

I read a ton of stuff. I swept the library, and from there moved on to the public library that DID have sections and categories, but they were very tentative.

At that age I made a horrible mistake that I’ve carried with me the rest of my life. I paid little to no attention to the names of the authors or titles of the books I was reading. I just read everything, voraciously.

This has since bit me on the ass endless times over the decades, as I will see a book, read the cover blurb, think it sounds interesting, and take it home. About halfway through, it will occur to me that this story, these characters, this entire book seems suspiciously familiar.

Deja Vu? No, just a book I’ve read before without noting author or title, and now have read half of again without even bloody knowing it.

During that period in the school library, I found out that I wasn’t a science fiction reader, or a fantasy reader, or a detective fiction reader, or someone who likes westerns, or a historical romance reader, or any other carefully crafted pigeonhole to help the secret masters of the universe put me in my proper place.

Nope! I’m just someone who likes a well written book regardless of where the story may be set.

I didn’t set limits on what I allowed myself to read, and nobody else had set those limits FOR me.

One of the books there was the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson, and let me tell you something, if you think that a 12 year old can’t read something meant for adults and get an education, you’re crazy.

For one thing, it actually gave me some idea of how crazy you older idiots were in the sixties. Funny how that stuff kinda got buried and passed over in hostory class, as if the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the JFK assassination were the only topics worth knowing, and everyone walked aruond in suit and tie and were sober and sophisticated. Yeah, right!

Stoner hippies were an eye opener. Hi mom! I understand everything a LOT better now, thanks.

I’m going to ramble on further for quite a bit now, but I really wanted to get that point down, because it’s important to me.

I know for a fact that because there WAS no structure or classification to the fiction section of that library, I read and enjoyed books, was deeply enriched by books, and had my horizons expanded by books that I never would have read if there had been a “Science Fiction” section, or a “Fantasy” section, or a “clones of the Lord of the Rings” section.

It was a rude awakening when I went into a public library looking for books, and found out that there was a single “science fiction/fantasy” section to cram all those books into.

I still remember, and this goes back thirty years now, I remember that moment at ten or eleven when I looked around and thought, “What moron thinks science fiction is the same as fantasy, and lumped them both together like this? Wow, they don’t have a clue.”

It took a long time to really come to grips with the idea that some folks actually feel challenged by having any other style of writing given official recognition. That there is a self-styled elite class of literary snobs out there that want to keep ‘populist trash’ from being classes alongside their favorites.

As I said, egalitarian. Thinking like that doesn’t come naturally. 

There are people out there that know that they know better than you or I. That think that they ARE better than you. Better than me. Better than all of us unwashed swine reading our populist trash.

“Populist trash” does say it all, doesn’t it? The opiate of the masses. Those things we use to distract us from the pathetic meanness of our little lives. The things we read that are barely one step up from TV.

Do I really need to say more?

Categories do serve a purpose… in the exact same way stereotypes do. They allow us to make surface judgments about something without taking the time to THINK, or take a risk and spend some time to find out more for ourselves.

Oh look, a republican, a democrat, a conservative, a liberal, a green energy wacko, an NRA gun nut, a blue collar worker, a politician, an executive, a banker, a high school dropout, a biker, a nerd, a geek, a goth, an emo, a jock, a stoner, a tofu-eating pillow-biting kool-aid drinking Obama supporter.

Labels. Stereotypes. A simple grouping of words meant to take the totality of all that a person is, and dismiss ALL of it in one shot. To dismiss THEM, make them irrelevant, their opinions, their dreams, their hopes and their goals, flush them all and cram them into a box.

Labels. Categories.

It’s the same thing with books. You take a book, slap a “Science Fiction” label on it, and dismiss it. It’s just science fiction, after all. No actual thought went into it. Populist trash.

You think I’m overstating things?

Maybe I am at that.

But I’d like you to take a little time, and think about your own experiences in book stores or libraries.

Have you ever known you liked the writing of a particular author, and went looking for it, only to find it in not one, but multiple areas?

Take John Ringo for example. He wrote some books that were categorised as science fiction. So, they got slapped with the sci fi label and shoved into the sci fi library stacks.

But then he wrote some military adventure fiction. Not a single science fiction aspect to it at all.

You go looking for those books, and half the time you’ll find some are in the science fiction section, because he’s a “science fiction writer”. He was tagged and bagged, and so that’s where his books get shoved. Not all of them, clearly not everyone is with the program.

And that’s what makes it really stand out. It’s not consistent. It’s each book, or each author, getting judged and then dismissed.

Take another example, Dean Koontz.

When Dean Koontz books were first published, they were categorized as “Horror”. Stephen King, too. And Straub, and others.

Dean Koontz is a great example, though, because although his books all hold some element of the fantastic, the amazing, the supernatural, they are a far cry from “Horror”.

Suspenseful, sure. Surprising? Certainly. More fantasy or speculative or thoughtful, in my opinion.

But they’re also one other thing.

Almost all of his books culimate in inspirational endings, as in “leave you feeling good, with thoughts of a positive nature”.

Yes, there may be suspense, surprise and fear along the way, but I’m having a hard damn time thinking of a single Dean Koontz book that had an ‘unhappy’ ending.

Dragon Eyes was one of the most intense books in my opinion, with a truly terrifying opponent, but even that book was a triumph of compassion and order winning over chaos and evil.

But you look in a library and see where Dean Koontz can be found. Some of it is in the fiction section, and some of it is still in horror, if there still IS a horror section. I think that the popularity of Stephen King actually helped to kill the Horror category over the last few decades.

It’s still there to be found, though. “Is my Raymond Chandler book in the mystery section, or the fiction section at this library? What did the judgmental folks decide here?”

Lee Child is another one. Adventure fiction, hugely enjoyable books. I’ve seen them both in fiction, and in mystery. Likewise with Ian Rankin.

Lawrence Block seems to be nailed down in the mystery section, although I’ll be damned if I can understand how his Matthew Scudder books are somehow less ‘fiction’ than Lee Child.

There is one other aspect to categories I swear I’ve noticed, and I really don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg.

When I started reading books that were science fiction, the books were fiction first and foremost, and the science part meant they looked with keen analysis on the world we live in, and took serious looks at the underpinnings of everything.

A book could be considered science fiction if it was about exploring alternate, currently non-existing forms of government. Political science was enough science, when looked at speculatively, to be science fiction. It didn’t have to have rayguns and flying saucers.

Emotions, relationships, alien reproduction as a metaphor for human sexual mores and cultural attitudes, it was all fair game to be written about, and called science fiction.

It almost feels like, at some point writers began writing TO the stereotypes and categories.

As though the success of a series like “The Lord of the Rings” brought respectability, and that encouraged writers to follow in the same mold.

Or “Star Wars” and writers of science fiction.

To what degree does the existence of a category and a stereotype about that category encourage people to write FOR that category, trying to be included?

Do mystery authors try to write in a formulaic way so their book qualifies to be labeled a ‘mystery’?

I told you this was a cranky old man post. I have no wonderful new ideas.

Categories are here to stay. That war was lost before it ever started. Who chooses categories? Who judges books?

I’m sure things have rolled along to through the generation to the point that the original elitist snarks are long gone, and most people who are in the position to make those choices are in that field because they love it, love books, and would never think of having some secret, machiavellian plot in mind to marginalize the books they don’t like by sticking them safely in a category.

It’s just the way it’s done.

I do think about that kid I was, and wonder what my worldview and understanding of things would be like if I’d just been restricted to Judy Blume, the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mysteries, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.

Hmm, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. Hell, I loved that series, come to think of it. I wonder if I can find that set for Alex to read someday?

31 Responses to “Writing about reading genres”
  1. bigbearbutt says:

    Holy spelling mistakes, Batman!

  2. adgamorix says:

    I completely agree, and I was much the same way as a child.

    I was around 5 or 6 (already had a firearm, wasn’t living in Texas yet – yeah, that’s how I remember years) when I discovered a box of Hardy Boys, Louis L’Amour, and Edgar Rice Burroughs books. It was like, a treasure chest in my own home. They’d been put in a box because we didn’t have the shelf space for them – I’m quite confident in saying that every book by those authors (well, Hardy Boys) was there. I read them all, nay – I devoured them. I was never without a book, and to this day I carry one in my laptop bag, one in my truck, and I even carry one backpacking. It’s not uncommon for me to be in the middle of two or three at once. This has only been a problem when I was reading Heaven’s Devils and Legion (40k) at the same time. Too close in story worlds.

    Anyway, I hate that the sci-fi/fantasy section gets such a bad rap. They’re not better or worse, just different. I mean, I would consider anything that’s non-fiction to be fantasy, no? After all, you have to imagine that a specific book’s timeline actually exists.

    Oh – and keep on blogging, regardless of what it’s about. I write for me, not for my audience. If someone reads my blog and enjoys it, great. If not, that’s fine too. I have close to 200 blogs in my feedreader, and I rarely read all of them. I just skim the title/opening lines – and then either pass or stay. For example, I rarely read fanfiction/RP – I just hate reading stories on my computer. I’m sure some of them are great, but I have a general “pass” mentality on them. Doesn’t mean I don’t come back the next time there’s an update to see what’s going on.

  3. Manxome says:

    LOL. It did wander around and ramble and crank a bit, but thanks for reminding me just how vast our public school libraries were and what that did for me. I find my eclectic reading list as broad as yours and the library was a refuge for me as well. And yes, I’d read the paper the fish & chips came in without a doubt. Have you read ingredient and warning labels when, ah, indisposed for a while? Yeah. I thought so ;)

    Anyway, thanks also for reminding me the free-form flow and discovery that came from those times. I never would have discovered Roger Zelazny without a broad “fiction” section, for instance.

    I think the categorization is a by-product of our commercialization. Bookstores and retail necessarily has to provide us a fast path to find what we want (and separate the $ from the wallet) and has become very good at this. Modern bookstores, such as Amazon, must rely on this “browsing” method as well. I think we’ve become used to it and look for it in our libraries and, in fact, our libraries are embracing those conventions and implementing them as well. Our local library has a funding policy based on ‘turns’ of a book…its better for them financially to have the books out perpetually than to collect them back and have them available. These priorities ask for categorization so we, the customers, can find what we’re looking for and move on. The loss in the system is, of course, the process of discovery.

    Or I could just be getting older as well, and it could simply be a lack of time to idle for hours in an air conditioned library instead of, um, playing WoW. Or something…

  4. Adanos says:

    I dont know why were you freaking out about this… I mean, you were “labeling” yourself by saying “ohh, im not writing WoW related stuff” “im a WoW writer” …. so quit complaining, and realize… most of your audience likes this kind of offtopic stuff.

    On a side note, I think you overreact a bit on the labeling…. I do think it has went a bit too far, but sometimes you do want to “read a scifi book” or a “romance book” or whatever, it helps narrowing down stuff.

    I do sometimes go to a book store, without knowing what to buy… and just choose a label, and pick a random book, just sayin’

  5. Tesh says:

    Excellent article, BBB. Bearwallrant or no, this has some gems of thought in it.

    I’ve been a library dweller for a long time; the library of my middle school was the best place to be. Quiet, too. If I spent time at school out of class, it was there or in the math rooms (I was on the math and chess teams, and voluntarily went to an extra after-school math class). My school did have small labels denoting sci-fi and fantasy, but it was all lumped together in a Fiction section. I’d literally grab an armful of books and just go see what they had to offer. More than once, I’d get odd looks when I checked out a dozen books or so, only to return them a week later, completely read. It’s a habit I carry to this day. I never check out one or two books.

    I have very, very little tolerance for those who would decide for me what I should or should not read. It’s just a reflexive thing; I’ll even look at the “staff recommendation” rack in the library and deliberately avoid those books. It’s interesting; there really is a huge difference in thinking patterns between those who would direct, and those who just do… and I don’t give up that freedom if at all possible.

  6. Goad says:

    This post reminds me of Pirsig’s polemic on “Phaedrus’ Knife” in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Cutting the world into easily digestible pieces saves us from having to make decisions on our own, but it comes at the terrible price of the atrophy of our mind’s ability to critically analyze a thing for its true merits.

  7. Neil says:

    Tangential:

    For what it’s worth, B3, there’s some amazing work out there that incorporates elements from sci-fi and fantasy. Sure, some (even most) stories are easily classified into fantasy (I ride my horse and chop off your king’s head with a magic sword!) or technology (My robot best friend and I fly around in our spaceship hunting down aliens). But there are some fantastic works that feature magic and technology working side by side, in unison. Is that scifi or fantasy?

    There are even some particularly interesting passages in the Wheel of Time series where we find out (no spoilers) that the highly-skilled magic users of the past created devices of such amazing power that could be used by someone with no knowledge or aptitude of magic whatsoever. It got me thinking “how’s that any different from technology?” Relatedly, there’s a famous quote about sufficiently sophisticated technology being, for all intents and purposes, magic.

    Orson Scott Card wrote a book about writing science fiction and fantasy, in which he discusses the similarities and differences between the two genres and ends up lumping them together into a single category called “speculative fiction.” It’s an interesting read (actually, I think you’d really like it: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy) and has some fascinating insights on how to deal with the unique intersections between these two genres.

  8. Murklins says:

    I’m lucky enough to live across the street from a library that’s only a few years old here in my city (in New Zealand). They have one big fat fiction section and that’s where I browse, mostly! You have to browse by author, not fiction category, so it works for me. Cranky old man posts are still good reads.

  9. Avoran says:

    Hey B3!

    I’ve never commented and I don’t even have you added to my feed for some reason. But the start of every day sees me finding you in my favorites list and coming to your sight for more ramblings.

    You finished writing this post and I’m sure you looked at it and thought “No one in their right mind will read all of that.” That’s where you would be wrong. You have a huge reader base that comes here for the personality and style that you put into your writing. The post you made not all that long ago about the barricades in front of your work to keep cars cutting across had me grinning ear to ear. While some(most?) of us haven’t a clue what you really look like, your personality and flare automatically has us imagining the shit eating grin you have when seeing those people slam on their brakes. Keep writing; I promise we’ll keep reading. :)

    – Avoran

  10. Imalinata says:

    I see categories differently. If I know that I am in the mood to read a romance novel, I want to be able to go to one section and browse to see if any of the authors I already like have something new out and to see if any of the books by authors I haven’t read, grab my attention enough to want to buy that book. I don’t want to have to sift through thousands of other books to find those authors.

    However, I think there are certain fiction categories that make sense in my mind because the type or topic of the writing is very different: romance, science fiction/fantasy, young adult, then the catch-all fiction. My local library has mystery as a category which makes no sense to me. I mean, what IS a mystery novel? A whodunit? Is Lillian Jackson Braun (the cat who series) a mystery writer but James Rollins writes thrillers? Where’s the dividing line? To me, if you can’t easily list the differences between proposed categories, it belongs in Fiction.

    If I want to read romance, there’s a grouping for that. If I’m in the mood for a new science fiction book, there’s a grouping for that. If I’m feeling ambivalent and nothing is grabbing me from either of those locations, I’ll wander through the fiction section to see if anything sounds interesting. To me, the categories aren’t to prevent me from reading other kinds of books (believe me, when I was a kid, I too was reading whatever I felt like regardless of category – except for romance novels, my grandfather would have frowned on buying me those when I was little) but to make it easier for me to find specific types of books.

    As much fun as it is to spend all day in a bookstore or in the library, sometimes I need to pick a book (or books) in 30 minutes or less and that’s when I really appreciate having a few subsections to browse through instead of the entire fiction stock.

  11. Seleria says:

    This is completely unrelated to the post… but, I just saw a bumper sticker on a truck in Seattle that says “Where in the HECK is Wall Drug?” I got a kick out of it, thought you might enjoy knowing that others have ventured into the middle of nowhere to find out exactly what 400 miles of billboards were talking about.

  12. Lenaiya says:

    Awesome post, BBB, I loved reading it. It made me laugh, and it made me think. I really enjoy reading anything you write – keep it up!

  13. Clapus says:

    I got a Kindle last Christmas and if it possible I am reading more than ever. I do not know if this is print or is just an eBook, but look for a book called Song of Thunder: A Thriller by Keith Ellis. A fine popcorn book, you know a book that you can read in about 4 hours. Also look for books by J.A. Konrath I found them under the ‘technothriller’ genre.

  14. leah says:

    we like to put labels on things because it makes it easier for us to understand them. sometimes those labels are also used to judge (it took me several years and multiple read alouds to convince my husband that romances were not some horrible pornographic pulp novels designed to give women unrealistic expectations and only read by those, who were unsatisfied with their relationships). But labels are really not all bad.

    I like to read. I read various genres, old books, new books, serious books and lighthearted books. the only books I do not read anymore are the “literary fiction” of the depressing variety where characters do not grow and the plot goes nowhere.

    But sometimes I feel like reading specific types of stories and that’s’ where categories/genres come in. they make stories easier to find.

    I think of it as going shopping for food. imagine if it wasn’t split into neat isles with all the serial in one isle, cleaning products in the other, frozen foods in the third (with subcategories of dinner type foods and sweets like ice-cream and frozen pastries) meat isle, dairy isle. personally I want to spend less time looking and more time cooking, eh..reading :P

  15. bigbearbutt says:

    I do agree with the sentiments most of you shared, that there is a point to having categories of some kind. I think Imalinata expressed it for me the best, by saying that some categories are really expressive and helpful… but others just say “wtf?”

    Sure, now that I’m an adult, I’ve exposed myself (no, I’ll leave that in just like that, wth) many different styles of writing and flavors of books… and some of my favorites are those that simply explode from genre conventions and go wherever the author wanted. Like Dean Koontz, for example.

    Then again… somewhere along the line, Dean Koontz became an author who wrote books I loved, simply devoured, but once read… I don’t have any desire to reread them. I’m not sure why. I think part of it is that he describes things so beautifully that everything comes alive… but when you boil it all down, not a whole lot happens. Like, if you cut out the description to make it a movie, it’s about a movie’s worth of story.

    Great story, but still. Re-reading is hard.

  16. Stonedrake says:

    Categories are a tool, nothing more. Yes, they can be, as Goad, said, something for “cutting the world into easily digestible pieces saves us from having to make decisions on our own, but it comes at the terrible price of the atrophy of our mind’s ability to critically analyze a thing for its true merits.” Forks can also be used for hurting people. This does not preclude their use as a useful eating and barbecuing implement.

    Up until the sixth grade, I read everything any library could throw at me. Since I was averaging one adult novel *every day* and sometimes two, this was a lot of books. Like your library, BBB, mine wasn’t divided into sections beyond ‘fiction’ and ‘nonfiction’ (incidentally, I didn’t let that distinction bother me either. I read almanacs and nuclear physics references with the same degree of pleasure as I read Foster’s novelization of “Alien” and “Les Miserables”.

    When my family moved from Fort Bliss to Fort Bragg, I encountered the first public library within walking distance of my house (it was next door to my elementary school, as a matter of fact). Even better, it had a computerised card catalogue that let me search on Library of Congress criteria. For the next six years, I learned that what I liked fell into several broad categories, (‘science fiction’, ‘fantasy’, ‘military’, ‘espionage’). Further, I discovered there was a term for those stories that I actively *hated* (‘urban fantasy’, ‘romance’, ‘horror’, ‘thriller’). Sometimes a book would cross multiple categories and although that made life difficult for the librarians, it was no trouble for the computerised card catalogue, since it considered them all ‘fiction’ and just tagged them with all the categories that applied to them.

    TL;DR: categories are a useful tool, but they are only a tool. They don’t replace thought, they aid it.

  17. Tactician says:

    I’ll keep it short and sweet. You have an excellent point and a keen eye for the social underpinnings of cultural trends, and there is no need to apologize for your exuberant exasperation. Not to categorize … but you’re a bear. Sometimes a bear has to trash your living room before you realize how stupid your life and its accouterments are, but you don’t blame the bear for following its nature – you take a good hard look at what the bear trashed and why you never needed it in the first place.

    Your nature is not a hindrance. Keep up the outstanding work.

  18. Kaethir says:

    Where do people that think so linearly and regard Sciene Fiction and Fantasy in such a light put such works as Huxley’s Brave New World, or Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, or even Orwell’s 1984? All are definitely set in “Science Fiction”/Futuristic landscapes but they are highly regarded and often required during the Middle School – High School years.

    Just like Gaming has long been stereotyped as a children’s activity, so has scifi/fantasy been stereotyped as a children’s genre, or at least one with less literary… wherewithal?… than the “classic” authors. It’s ridiculous.

    While I tend to look in the SciFi/Fantasy sections first, I do also tend to read whatever I see that sounds like it has a good story…

  19. Micathius says:

    Perhaps it is because I have lived in a rather small town most of my life, but at least in my high school, there were very few separations as far as the books went. Childrens, Non-Fiction, Biography, Information (things like language books, text books, encyclopedias and such), and the Fiction section which as far as I know still hasn’t been picked apart any further. Categories can help in some ways, like if you liked this book you might just perhaps like these other books, but like with music it is mostly over done.

    Rules, borders, categories and the like were meant to be broken, surpassed and left to waver in the dust. We see it with everything else, but perhaps it is just human nature trying to reassert itself. Brings to mind the old ideas, “If something does not have a name, does it still exist?” The answer is yes, of course, but there will always be someone seeking to place a name tag where there is none.

  20. I found this an interesting read. I’ve been and avid reader all my life, and my third grade teacher remarked years later on my ability to find a way to catagorize any book I read as something other than “fantasy”…which they all kinda were.

  21. Mannyac says:

    I too grew up in Miami, and though the educational system itself may be a bit suspect…there is an incredible library system. The public library system was phenomenal, and and I am lucky enough to live in a part of Virginia that also boasts a great library system. And I was lucky enough to grow up in a house hold that had books EVerywhere, and a mother who had an attitude of “if its on a shelf, you have my permission to read it” No, oh thats too adult too complicated; don’t understand a word, there’s the dictionary. How many 14 year olds have read the Decameron by Boccaccio? Shoot how many 30 years olds have even heard of it?
    I, too am a book-aholic, I freely admit it. One of the best vacations I have ever had consisted of kicking back in my home office, cracking a bottle of single malt, firing up a cigar and reading; and thanks to an awesome wife, I got away with this activity for five solid days, freakin’ heaven!.

    BUt I do understand your rant on pigeon-holing books. I agree with you that fiction is fiction and non-fiction is non-fiction. We (yes, you and me, B3) remember when we looked for books by wandering, or searching in a index card file! But even then books were segregated by subject but if my memory served me correctly that was in the file, not on the shelf. You had a fiction section in order of the last name of the author..period

    Anyway we live in an age of everything having to have a label. Kinda sad really when other people make those decisions for us, and we go along. So rant on!!!!

  22. jinkx says:

    I have the kind of parents that let me go to the local library and where pissed when i came home telling them that the librarian refused me a book cuz it wasnt ‘fit for me’. They gave me the gift of reading without restriction and its the most beautifull gift they ever gave me.

  23. Winterspite says:

    Great post – I had a lot of good memories from reading it. Huzzah for John Ringo – have you read any of Larry Correia’s work yet?

    I’ve been reading since I was crawling, or close enough as makes no difference, and I was definitely in the same boat as you. I think I was 9 or 10 years old when I picked up a copy of Dune and read my way through it, then through the next 5 books in the series. Very, very eye opening at the time – and I didn’t even understand it all. Reading Dune again a few years later, then a few years after THAT, I still picked up new things.

    As to your first point about physical books, I was definitely on your side of the argument until recently. (Un)fortunately, I’ve been gifted with the ability to read books quickly. If you take your average novel (say… A Hymn Before Battle), I can probably knock that out in 3-4 hours of solid, uninterrupted reading. Maybe it takes me a little longer, but that’s roughly my pace – hours. Then plan on being in an airplane or airport for 10 hours, then having frequent downtime in the evenings for a two week business trip, then flying home… and a nook isn’t a “nice to have” item anymore, it’s a requirement. The major downside to this of course is that I now buy TWO copies of books – hardback Baen books when they come out for my bookshelves at home, plus the eBook version to read and cart around with me.

  24. kattrinsaa says:

    Good thought provoking post bear,

    When I have to go to the big city to work, my habit is to stop into barnes and nobles after lunch before i head back to the office. I wander around the fantasy/sci-fi, go up to the teens section, (was looking for a paperback of brisinger) and then wander through the technical section. (found a nice book on wow addon lua programming but never bought it.)

    I have bought a few books there, after being given “The curse of Chalion” I ended up buying “Paladin of Souls”, I bought paperback copies of “Eragon” and “Eldest.” Call me strange, but I refuse to buy a hardback of a part of a series when I already bought paperbacks of the predecessors. That’s like buying most of a series of movies on vhs and buying the rest on dvd. I have to complete my harry potter series one of these days, I have all 7, but 3 are paperback (that I bought) and 4 were hardcover gifts..

    Like you, my HS library wasnt broken down into sections other than fiction/non-fiction and reference. The public library there lacked a bit to be desired tho, all three books had already been colored in…

  25. Jenna says:

    The Eyes of the Dragon was my first experience with Stephen King, and a step away from the D&D style fiction I had started to devour at age 10.

    I think the first time I ever realized that there were people out there that… I simply could not abide… was the first time I saw someone turn their nose up at Stephen King. “Genre literature.” It wasn’t “real literature” according to these people, at which point I decided that obviously these people were used to Other People not thinking for themselves. I find Stephen King to be a fantastic storyteller. His syntax, diction, grammar, flavor text, what-have-you… is solid. I’m not saying I’ve loved everything he’s ever written or that he is above critique… But I knew at that moment that “Those People” had no idea what a good story was about.

    This extended into SciFi/Fantasy (which I have also always hated having lumped together, and yet own a couple of books that fit into both)… Which, as you said, Those People have dubbed “populist trash”. I don’t think you’re overstating that factor at all.

    Finding Authors In Multiple Places: Neil Gaiman. I still couldn’t stick a firm label on the books of his that I’ve read. I guess it is all technically ‘fantasy’, but in a way, that’s a hard stretch for me to slap that single label on things like American Gods and Neverwhere.

    Aside: I would love to see a “horror” section in a bookstore, but I think most of them have given up on that and put it in the “Science Fiction & Fantasy” area. I know that my local B&N has. Though I can still also find Lovecraft and sometimes Derleth in the “fiction” section.

    Libraries: My school library in elementary school (up to 6th grade) had some serious conservative Baptist deep south issues. I watched the librarian throw away MANY fantasy novels. Including the entire? “Guardians of Flame” series by Joel Rosenberg. In brief, it’s kind of… the old D&D cartoon, as a series of novels. From Wikipedia: “The series is about a group of college students who participate in a fantasy role-playing game, and are magically transported to the world of the game by their gamemaster.”

    These books were thrown away because they were “of the Devil”. In fact, much of our “fiction” section (they had genre stickers. SciFi/Fantasy was a sky blue sticker with a unicorn head) was treated this way. The only set of books I remember them keeping was the “Enchanted Forest Chronicles” – a set of books by Patricia C Wrede (Dealing with Dragons, etc) and I’m still shocked they kept those!

    Back to the “not real literature” thing… One day I decided to try out what they are calling “real literature” these days, and picked up a collection of stories by Rick Moody. In an interview I remember reading, Rick Moody made some kind of claim about how characterization and plot “get in the way of a story”. That didn’t put him on the right stepping stone with me, and the horribly written slop that was his book sealed the deal. Metaphors that were more like riddles (or meant/invoked NOTHING), paragraph long details about things that never surfaced again in the story, nor had any importance even in the moment they were described and just… pretentious syntax meant to bedazzle the reader but really ended up befuddling them. And in the end, the reader is supposed to come to the conclusion that the writer is just Oh-so-better than they are, and that obviously, they are not “high-brow” enough to “get” what the author was trying to say. Rubbish and poppycock.

    “Heinlein once wrote that he had it real bad; he’d read the used newspaper that was used to hold fish and chips if nothing else was available. ”

    I am guilty of reading every shampoo bottle, every anything bottle in the bathroom while taking a bath or whatever. I am also the person who will, when conversation lags in a restaurant setting… grab the bottled and packaged condiments on the table and start reading the labels. I can’t help myself.

    RAMBLING COMMENTS ARE RAMBLING.

    I guess the short version is: Post good. Judgmental Labeling Bad. Bear good.

  26. ech says:

    You go looking for those books, and half the time you’ll find some are in the science fiction section, because he’s a “science fiction writer”. He was tagged and bagged, and so that’s where his books get shoved.

    The topic of pen names came up on John Scalzi’s blog the other day and one reason some writers use a pen name is to get around this bucketing. So Ringo could have chosen a pen name, like “John Starkey” for his military fiction. Of course, if it came from Baen, it might still have been shelved in SFF. One other reason to use a pen name is if you go from writing say, hard Sf space operas to feminist high fantasy, you might want a pen name so your regular readers don’t freak out.

    Do mystery authors try to write in a formulaic way so their book qualifies to be labeled a ‘mystery’?

    According to a friend, yes. Mysteries are as sub-bucketed as SFF, maybe more so. There is a local mystery book store here in town, and they have a sheet at the register with a bunch of categories and authors who write for the category.

  27. Nathlar says:

    Nice rant, i like those random non WoW things.
    I started reading when i was 4, and my tastes are similar to yours, i read almost everything and love doing so. It feels weird, but since i got my Kindle i have almost never got a “paper” book again, i just love that piece of plastic that let me take all my books around without carrying too much weight.

    What i love most of reading a lot of different stuff is that i never know where the next real gem is going to come. I’m not talking about fun books, there are a lot of those and they are nice, but the incredible ones that make you think. I love anything with a decent story if it has great characters in it, where someone puts it in a book store? i don’t care much.

  28. Zahraah says:

    They could also fit some of ringo in the erotic section too :) Writers get taught to write for their audience, so the labels are as much for labling the writer as well as the market/reading audience, I like urban fantasy ( horror in most chain stores) , and have been reading space opera/sci fic/spec fic/miliary sci fic. Theres a difference between SF & SF Science fiction or speculative fiction. Die hard Science fiction readers will debate to great lengths as to what qualifies a book/story to be entitled to that label. I would say most labels are just publishers trying to keep it neat and tidy, maybe it should be much like music has become Eg Metal = Heavy metal, Power Metal, New Metal, Thrash Metal, doom metal, Black metal, Viking metal, Folk metal and so many others. I think we need some labeling so we are able to find what genre we know what we like, but it needs to of broader scope then what we see now. ( and not just like the mills and boon labels. I’m gonna punlish the first ” Thrash Spec Fic” novel or “Power Mystery” book.

  29. Slack says:

    i read through this entire thing, i am an avid reader (16) and at the age of 12 my dad introduced me to some of the greats! stephen donaldson (new book coming out in a few months yay!) Asimov and his foundation series and Heinlein with Stranger and Job. it still shocks me that people dont recognize the name asimov despite the fact that half of them probably watched irobot, anyway great article and i completely understand where your coming from,

  30. Aelinna says:

    Glad you posted this, maybe could have been 50% the size ;)

    I would say the problem is not in the categorisation, but those that agree to be bound by them. Check out the nonfiction sometime, for a voracious reader it’s not all dry. I really enjoyed “Why Children Fail” from the Education section, and I have Robbins’ Pathology (although that is bloody hard going for a layman like me). I feel obliged to namecheck Robin Hobb for quality fantasy and Charles Stross + Greg Egan for scifi.

  31. HerrDrache says:

    Books!!! I grew up with books – probably too many, and it probably started the downward spiral of me needing ever-stronger glasses. I’m not too fond of labels myself, as long as it’s glaringly obvious: Space-ships go to sci-fi, magic swords and dragons go to fantasy, “Memoirs of the Last 5 Presidents” go either to fiction or horror :P Thing is, I “need” some kind of label, just to be able to find my books again. Sure, *I* sort them, and I know where the “overlap” area is, too – but it helps finding that “Whatchamma-geddon by Arthur or Gene somethingorother!”

    As to e-books, and e-readings, I’m sorry, I’m too paranoid. If it’s on paper, you can’t mess with it. I’d like to be able to read the exact same story 10 years from now that I read 10 years ago. Don’t change the words due to some political correctness stuff. West Side Story: the song contains the word “gay”, I don’t care what it means today, I know what it meant back then, and don’t you dare change it because of whatever!

    Perhaps I read too much Orwell when I was too young :P

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