The Rampant Coding of Literature
Have we become too genre-obsessed?Our enthusiasm for classifying has never waned. Once written language emerged, classification soon followed. We may thank Plato and Aristotle for getting the ball rolling by sorting various literary works into genres (from the stem of the Latin genus, denoting kind, rank, or order)—and not just the works themselves (epic poems and the like), but also the writers suited to particular genres.
Plato, for instance, argued in The Republic that the same person could not write both tragedy and comedy (which were among the earliest categories). His pupil Aristotle went a step further, asserting that genre is an expression of the writer’s character. Aristotle classified the Iliad and Odyssey as tragic poems not on the basis of their formal composition, but owing to their “seriousness of outlook and nobility of character,” according to Joseph Farrell, a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, whose work I draw upon here.
Fast-forward to the modern era. Twentieth-century writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein began experimenting with literary forms that defy easy classification. By 1959, the French writer Maurice Blanchot, was eager to blow the doors off genrefication altogether. He writes what I suspect many writers (and painters and dramatists) were already thinking: “The book alone is important, as it is, far from genres, outside rubrics—prose, poetry, the novel, the first-person account—under which it refuses to be arranged and to which it denies the power to fix its place and to determine its form.”
But Blanchot’s call to arms essentially fell on deaf ears. Today, readers and writers alike are conditioned to expect fiction (and memoir) to conform to genres and that genres will serve as navigational aids for the reading public. Book reviews and loglines readily latch onto the convenience of genre: a chilling mystery, a heartbreaking romance.Indeed, the publishing industry has doubled down on classifying books according to Book Industry Standards and Communications coding. Every major distributor relies on the BISAC system of assigning numeric codes to genres and subgenres, from Amazon to Baker & Taylor and beyond.
On the one hand, I understand the necessity of classifying books. Apart from satisfying the human need for order, it’s convenient and efficient and, therefore, useful for business. If I owned a bookstore, I’d want to know which book belonged on which shelf. I couldn’t read them all myself to find out, could I? And, let’s face it, there are a ton of books out there—and more coming every month.
On the other hand, I find this chopping up of the human imagination into bite-size bits quite dispiriting. A quick survey of the BISAC codes reveals the extent to which genre imposes a great deal of structure. There are, for instance, 49 categories for romance, 18 each for science fiction and mystery, and 16 for thrillers. One could argue that the proliferation of subgenres in these and other categories is liberating. Surely every writer can find a home on the BISAC’s long list.
Still, I am not comfortable with being pigeonholed—the sum total of my years of drafting, redrafting, submitting, and publishing a novel reduced to a numeric code that summarizes my book in some fashion. I’m also frustrated because I, like many others, write across genres and in different genres. One of my books coming out this year is a mystery-thriller (already a genre hybrid), but it’s also dystopian, as well as speculative. Throw in political. Where’s the code for that?
One of my as-yet-unpublished novels is a fantasy, an LGBTQ coming-of-age tale, and arguably an entry in the new category of climate fiction (so-called cli-fi). Got a code for that one?
To fully appreciate the artificial shoehorning of genre classifications, consider a modern masterpiece of creative fiction, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s literary fiction, of course. And historical fiction. And fantasy. And a ghost story. And, arguably, a parable. I refuse to assign a code.
I suppose I should accept the fact that we’re never going to do away with assigning genres to literature. But I, for one, refuse to let genre labels dictate or limit what I choose to write. If I’m inspired to write a cowgirl-space-epic-murder-mystery-romance, then so be it. Have fun figuring out what shelf that book belongs on. My only job is to write the best darn book I can—and not to worry about which label someone will inevitably slap on it.
Amy L. Bernstein is a journalist, playwright, and nonfiction book coach. Her novels include The Potrero Complex and The Nighthawkers.