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Don't judge a book by its genre

17th October 2011 - Adam Howard

Many readers of literary fiction rarely stray into the genre fiction sections, but there's plenty of crime, science fiction, fantasy and horror worthy of consideration amongst the greats.

I've always had a problem with so-called 'genre' fiction. Not the books themselves, of course, but the fact that the category exists at all. Obviously I realise for convenience and ease of use, Crime, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Horror et al must remain separate from general fiction or it would be so much harder for people to find what they wanted. But my fear in splitting novels up along genre lines is that you subconsciously divide along quality lines as well, and end up considering all those books in those separate sections as 'lesser' than the ones in Fiction A-Z.

The Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerOne couldn't possibly consider including Nineteen Eighty-Four in Science Fiction, it's too serious a work of literature! And don't even think about putting Raymond Chandler in A-Z: he's a crime writer through and through! Never mind his influence on postmodernism that can be seen in everything from Thomas Pynchon to The Big Lebowski. It seems that, when categorising fiction, it all seems to work on double standards.

Of course, I can totally understand why Orwell and Chandler are in their respective sections: Chandler's writing is an awful lot more crimey than Orwell's is science-fictiony. But when categorisation like that is so instinctive I can't help but worry that we put things in science fiction or crime or horror because we don't consider them 'literary'. Sometimes, I fear we don't a novel seriously purely because it's of a certain genre. There's a wealth of great novelists to be found in the genre sections, from Ursula Le Guin to James Ellroy to HP Lovecraft. And while they're never going to win any major literary awards (no one in our sci-fi or crime sections has ever won the Booker, with the exception of John Banville's crime written under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black) that doesn't mean their not of immense intellectual worth.

The Magicians by Lev GrossmanTake, for example, a recent discovery I made: Lev Grossman's The Magicians and its sequel, The Magician King . Both of them are remarkable novels, taking well worn tropes exemplified by Harry Potter and the Narnia novels and focusing on realistic characters, realistic settings, and a rigorous internal logic, transforming established fantasy conventions into something new and vital simply by doing them so well. I have unbounded enthusiasm for Grossman as a writer, and I'm not the only one - established literary heavyweights such as Pulitzer winner Junot Diaz and The Time Traveler's Wife author Audrey Niffenegger are among his champions - and yet, he remains basically unknown, especially on this side of the pond, simply because his novels are full of talking bears and magic spells.

And it's not just Grossman who gets sidelined because his books get put in a separate section: you can find some of the greatest writers in the world right now in the sci-fi and crime sections. James Lee Burke, for example, is a staggeringly talented crime writer, and his novel The Tin Roof Blowdown, set in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, should stand next to The Corrections and The Road as a document of Where We Are in the Twenty-First Century.

Reamde by Neal StephensonNeal Stephenson, oddly branded as a science fiction writer even though many of his novels are set in a recognisably real world, writes dense, sprawling novels that are comparable with Umberto Eco in their unabashed intelligence. And yet, they'll never sell quite as much as the big sellers from general fiction, because people assume that as they're not a big fan of crime of sci-fi.

I'm not saying that we should be breaking down the barriers between genres and just have one big fiction section - people need to be able to find the book they want. What I'm saying is that people should dismiss a novel just because it's written in the style of a certain genre, and there's something of value in every fiction section if you're willing to seek it out. The enormous success of George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series just goes to show that fantasy can have mass appeal, and that it doesn't matter what genre a novel is as long as it's good. Hopefully it'll open people's eyes to the pleasures of genres they've previously left unexplored.

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