Amanda Nelson of Book Riot recently shared this spreadsheet for tracking her reading, and since I’m one who likes to occasionally analyse what I’ve been reading (see my annual book stats posts), I decided to grab the spreadsheet and use it to make my tracking a little more robust. It’s already shown its usefulness by making me aware that I’m reading very heavily of white Americans this year, although I’ve been doing much better at reading books by women.
But there was one part of the spreadsheet I was surprised to find I had a lot of trouble filling in: Genre.
For someone who reads almost entirely in the speculative fiction genres, labelling books as “Sci Fi” or “Fantasy” was never going to be good enough. I had to get a little more specific than that. But it turns out some books are harder to define.
Take, for example, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince. On the simplest level, it’s a science fiction novel. But for a more accurate label, what do you call a book about teenage artists engaging with class conflict in a post-apocalyptic Brazilian matriarchy which has nanotechnology and ritual human sacrifice, all taking place within an enormous pyramid?
What of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon? Science fiction also, this is a weird alien invasion novel which includes elements of Nigerian folklore that would edge it into fantasy territory in some minds. What one label can you put on that?
It’s tempting to just drop the “genre” column from this spreadsheet entirely. In many ways genre is only a marketing tool, not of as much relevance once you’ve picked up and read the book. And past a certain level of specificity, these labels can lose their usefulness as a way of analysing reading habits. But on the other hand, genre labels can be a way of beginning discussion of a work; of identifying books to recommend to others; of saying what it is you like when “science fiction” is far too broad a category.
So no, I can’t bring myself to think that such labels are totally unnecessary. I want that easy shorthand option when talking about good books. I just wish I had some idea what labels to use more often. (Though not at the expense of missing out on such complex and interesting stories, of course!)