The genre of a book is hugely important in determining into whose hands the book goes. Genre affects everything from the way the book is designed, marketed and ultimately sold. Covers, the first thing to grab your eye are highly influenced by genre. The blurb/summary whose job it is to sell the book pulls out different parts of the story and uses different language depending on genre. And then of course, there’s the fact that people tend to go directly to the section of the library/bookstore than they already know and like. Which is fine if the book is conventional, but if it’s not, where does it go? And what of books that are incorrectly classified?
Genres exist out of a need to simply, to create order. Imagine looking for a book in a library or bookstore that did not categorize its books. It would be impossible to find anything unless you knew exactly what you were looking for. It’s much easier to head to the romance section to find another romance book to read. Or even to the right age section, like looking for a picture book in the kids’ section.
Yet, genres also bring with them certain conventions and expectations. They have become much more than a way to facilitate the search for a new favorite read, they are boxes into which books must fit. This leads to two problems. The first is that books within genres become homogenized leading to the tropes and cliches that populate all classifications. If you like a specific sub-genre you can know what to expect every time you pick up a new book. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but people can easily get locked into a specific genre and never branch out and expand their comfort zone (but that’s a whole other topic for another day). Age classifications can sometimes be even more challenging as the lines between middle grade and young adult, and young adult and adult are very blurry. Do you go according to the age of the protagonist, which doesn’t always correlate to the overall mood or message or the story, or according to the common tropes and themes of the age grouping? It’s a landmine of grey areas.
The second problem comes with books that break conventions and exist between genres. Sometimes the book is shelved in both locations, but mostly a judgement call is made by either the publisher or librarian or bookseller to categorize it. Sometimes these books can make it past their classification and be read by a wider audience (like how Harry Potter is widely enjoyed by children and adults alike, to use the most obvious example). Yet, other times, books get trapped by stereotypes and lose a part of their audience, or worse, get lost in obscurity.
When The Book Thief was first published in Australia it was published as an adult book. However, in the United States, it was published as young adult. To me, The Book Thief is an adult book. I am by no means saying that a younger audience should not read it, in fact I think teens should read it, but nothing about it says young adult. Liesel, the main character is nine years old, and it’s narrated by Death who is an adult. It also follows none of the conventional young adult tropes of romance and angst. I have never been able to figure out exactly why it was marketed as young adult. Thankfully, it still reached the large audience it deserved, but I fear that not all books are always so lucky.
Another book that, in my opinion, got wrongly placed in young adult is The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch by Daniel Kraus. I just finished reading it this morning, and is in fact what inspired this post. Sure Zebulon Finch is trapped forever at 17, but after years of experiences he acts more like an adult than a teenager. Even the problems he faces are such that can be appreciated by adults. Once again, teens can certainly read it, but the subject matter doesn’t scream young adult to me. And judging by the fact that it made it onto Entertainment Weekly’s Top Ten Books of 2015, adults are the ones reading it. I can only hope it finds its way into the hands of the right readers.
Perhaps the best example I have of classification gone wrong is the movie Crimson Peak. It was marketed as horror and relasesed for Halloween despite the fact that it very clearly is not horror, causing many moviegoers to complain that this movie was bad because if failed to scare them. Del Toro himself took a stand against the classification, insisting on numerous occasions that the film was a gothic romance and not horror. So it’s not really much of a surprise that movie did not do that great at the box office. It attracted an audience entirely wrong to appreciate the movie. And I cannot imagine that Crimson Peak is the only movie/book to be mislabeled.
So hence a petition for publishing companies to not treat genres so glibly because they can and do have ramifications. The people in marketing need to be much more careful about how they classify books and movies and not just take things at face value. But it goes both ways. People need to be more open minded about genres and do a little more homework before selecting their next read. So yes, genres are important, but we need to be made much more aware of them.