This is a post I’ve been planning and stewing on for the better part of six months. It came about as most things do for me, I experienced something that made me ask a question. I was at the West Salem Branch Library, my usual workplace, and I was in the stacks shelving fiction. As I went down the aisle, placing books in their respective places, I noticed that I shelved multiple Science Fiction classics in the general fiction section. Greats like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Huxley’s Brave New World, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, and Orwell’s 1984 were all cataloged G-FIC. And not just in my library, but in almost every other library in our consortium of 19 public libraries!
Initially, I was a bit miffed. Why were some of the most celebrated books in Science Fiction history having their genre erased? Both Fahrenheit 451 and Flowers for Algernon have won Hugo awards (the oldest Science Fiction and Fantasy award in the country), and Keyes’ novel also won a Nebula (the most prestigious of SFF awards, depending on who you ask), but if you visits the Salem Public Library, you won’t find them with their Speculative peers.
I had to know why, so I emailed the Collection Development Librarian at Salem Public Library to learn more. Now, I work with Emily Byers on a number of projects at the library and knew she would answer my question with the care and thoroughness she exhibited in her daily work. I didn’t expect a two page email that detailed all the possible factors that Selectors and Catalogers must consider before deciding where to place a book in the library.
And while she admits that cataloging is both an art and science that is “ultimately subjective”, she outlined some of the criteria she used to decide on genre placement versus general fiction.
Factors range from the librarian specific, Bib Records and BISAC subjects from the vendor, to the discretionary, such as Reader’s Advisory considerations (who would want the book, and how can we make it easier for them to find it?) and how closely a text adheres to genre specific tropes. “In more ambiguous cases I would consider the work as a whole — for example, it may have a science fiction element (i.e. technology that’s not currently available), but without separate world building or other SF elements beyond a future setting, I might put that book in general fiction where it might be found by more readers.”
Hard to be riled up about books being more generally accessible. I mean, that’s the whole point of libraries; to provide services and access to materials. Emily even offered up some reference titles for further research on the topic if I was interested, which I totally am, so she even offered ease of access to me! She really opened my eyes to the work and consideration that goes into selecting and cataloging materials, especially in a library as big as ours, with over 500,000 circulating materials!
But what really stuck with me from this conversation was an even larger question: what purpose does genre really serve?
In the sense of the library, having collections divided into genres helps facilitate patron searches. For instance, I know that I like to read Science Fiction and Fantasy, but I also know that I’m not as well-versed in the genre as I’d like to be. I can go to the library, find the section I want, and then browse with relative confidence that I will find something that will pique my interest. And I have, on multiple occasions.
But as a writer, why do we write in genres? And how do the two functions of genre, from a writing and reading perspective, gel together?
These are, of course, completely subjective questions. My answer will be wildly different from yours. I read SFF because I love the awe and sense of wonder I get from reading something born from someone else’s imagination. Something I could have never come up with myself. Like pretty much every aspect of N.K. Jemisin’s novels, the setting of Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City, and pretty much all of Sanderson’s magic systems. I read SFF because it helps me expand my own creativity and strive to write beyond my own perceived limitations.
But, I write SFF for different reasons. I don’t think there’s just one, and I think the reasons will grow and change as I do over the years. Right now, I’m experimenting with analyzing emotions and human motivations, and seem to be most comfortable doing so through a more removed lens, like that of an AI or non-human being. I think I write SFF because I tend to feel a bit separate from my peers, and have found an angle into expressing that isolation within the tropes of Science Fiction and Fantasy.
And thanks to all my reading, I’m learning to build imaginative worlds, invent complex magic systems, and tell stories from perspectives I may not have personally experienced along the way.
I also think that, by writing genre fiction, my stories and their themes are more likely to find readers with similar interests and concerns as myself. By writing genre fiction I may very well limit my audience, but I think I also increase my chances of proving successful with my readership, because we all know, at least a tiny bit, what the heck we’re getting into when we crack open those pages.
Does genre fiction have an advantage over general or literary fiction when it comes to discussing and exploring themes of humanity? I don’t necessarily think so. I think genre fiction has an advantage to me, because it’s the content I’m drawn to, and only the content we ingest actually has the opportunity work its magic on us.
So yes, I was initially peeved to see so many of Science Fiction’s giants shelved in General Fiction, as if the genre had been shorn from their spines because they had ascended from the hive of scum and villainy that so many people think is genre fiction. But, ultimately, placing them in with general fiction makes those titles easier to find for people who might not otherwise think to read them. And that’s a really good thing. Any time a book finds itself in a patron’s hands, that’s a good thing.
A great thing is when the patron comes back, excited and enthralled, asking, “Do you have anything else like this?”
Nothing feels better than knowing a book suggestion was a hit with the patron and then launching into a discussion of what they liked about it and what they’d like to get out of their next read. That’s what I really love about my job; I get to talk about books with members of my community and help them find their new favorite authors.
And the day I get to show someone that there’s an entire section of the library they might like, the day I can introduce them to Genre Fiction, and they’re world broadens just that little bit more? That’s the best day.