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Monday, June 22, 2009

The Rules of Shelving Books: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Their Literary Friends

David Barnett of The Guardian had an interesting post about science fiction as a label and how certain authors of the more "literary" vein see science fiction in general. It was an interesting article that highlighted the three typical responses to science fiction by "literary" authors: it's trashy pulp, it's just a stupid label and all labels are pointless, and there's nothing wrong with writing science fiction, because like anything else, it has its pulpy and more literary sides (which also translates to: if you don't want to be known as a science fiction writer, then don't use science fiction elements in your fiction). Much of what is written in the post isn't really all that new; some of the authors we've heard from before (such as Margaret Atwood), and all that is being said is mostly a repeat or a rehash of an argument genre fans are all too familiar with.

But what interested me most about the post was Barnett's questions about shelving science fiction and fantasy. Winterson, it seems, has some rather radical suggestions:
Is it feasible, as Jeanette Winterson seems to be suggesting, to do away with all categories on novels, and simply file them all in an A-Z of general fiction? It might conceivably give every novel a fighting chance, but would the reader who visits a shop or library looking for the latest crime, war or, indeed, science fiction novel really be well served by such a move?
Personally, I think this is a bad idea. The thing about book buyers is that they often like to sit within their comfort zones. Few people consciously read outside of their "comfort genres" (i.e. the genres they find most enjoyable, which the individual consumer is unlikely to break away from). So, while it might seem like a good idea to dispense with labels and have a big literature section with everything shoved into one place, doing so could be a real deterrent for the consumer. How exactly are they going to find the next big thing in science fiction or fantasy or crime or mystery or "literary" fiction? True, they might pick up a book by someone outside of their typical genres, but what if they do this repeatedly and end up getting so sick of the time and money wasted to find one good book that they give it up altogether? I think we have enough problems getting people to read these days that adding more to the consumptive load of the consumer could be detrimental to reading in general. Personally, I might stop shopping at a story that shelves things like this. I like to look at books, but I'm also unwilling to work my butt off to find something I might enjoy reading. While I do spend a lot of time in stores like Powell's City of Books, it's mainly because of its size (it has about 9 aisles of science fiction and fantasy, plus at least ten more aisles for YA, and a dozen or so other sections that I like to peruse). Quadruple the size and take away the labels and I imagine the store would lose it's value for me.

But what about the problem of shelving books that are both "literary" and science fiction?
Are they right? If you want to buy Oryx and Crake or Stone Gods, should you head for the general fiction section in Waterstone's or the science fiction and fantasy shelves?
Powell's City of Books seems to have this question well addressed: they shelve books that are clearly of two literary veins in both places, allowing such books to be more easily found. For example: You can find novels by Karen Joy Fowler in both the SF/F and literature sections (specifically her novels with a more "fantastic" feel). Granted, Powell's is a special kind of bookstore, but cross-pollinating books seems like a good way to draw readers in from seemingly separate genres.

If we were to come up with a handful of rules bookstores should follow for proper shelving, they would probably be the following:
  • Keep all the labels (science fiction, general fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc.).
  • Shelve books that cross genres in multiple places so as to properly cross-pollinate works that cannot be so easily fixed into the narrowed categories we are familiar with.
  • Don't fall into the ridiculous trap of "quality" that is often argued by "literary" folks. A book with a spaceship is probably just as fantasy as it is "literary." Selling books is important for any author.
  • Offer recommendations (either in the form of "we recommend this book" or "if you like A, you might like B").
  • If possible, have knowledgeable staff in certain genres (optional).
Those rules seem like good ones to follow to me. But what do you all think? Obviously not all bookstores can do this; size is a factor. But a lot of them could follow Powell's example and help drive people out of their comfort zones enough to pursue authors they might never have found because they weren't labeled a certain thing. In any case, if you have an opinion, let me know in the comments section!

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  1. Great Read.

    I think there are two fundamental reasons people go to the book store.

    1. Buy a specific book
    2. Browse for a new read

    If you are looking for a specific book it can be hard to find a book that is cross-genre, I prefer Amazon for specific books.

    For 2, it works much better to separate by subject matter or genre so you can scan the shelves for something that catches your eye.

    More than anything I think having knowledgable people available is the best way to do it. Humans have the ability to come up with recommendations that categorical separation can't.

  2. Patrick: Thanks for stopping by. Those seem like good motivations for most buyers. Probably a couple of others that fit into the cracks, though.