Friday, June 14, 2013

Some library books are more equal than other library books

Are library fiction sections snobbish? Oh yes, completely! A huge amount of it is accidental, inherited, and unconsidered. Some of it, despite "Librarian" being an apparently female dominated profession, is sexist, and basically all of it is expressed in fiction vs. genre, and in the breakdown of the genres themselves.

Of all the genre sections Romance best expresses the bulk of these library class issues. Did you know that the romance section is not really the romance section? It is the "We will do everything in our power to only put crappy books in this section" section. Yes, there are lots of romance books in there, and, increasingly SF/fantasy, and I think even some westerns and mysteries, but always, only, the ones of any of those that are considered to be sort of crappy. If a romance book has any vaguely positive general recommendations, any notable wide world popularity, if there's a proper movie of it, if any other genre wants to claim it for its own, then you can be sure it will never spend a second of time in the romance section ghetto. Do I read romance novels? Sure I do. There are some wonderful romance novels. Are they in the romance section? Of course not. There is a little part in one of the fabulous Adrian Mole books, by Sue Townsend, where, if I remember correctly, Adrian gets fired from a bookstore job because he insists on putting the Jane Austen books in the romance section. Exactly. Here is an almost random selection of romance novels I just happened to run into in the fiction section while shelving there:

Gone With the Wind (not romance because it's historical, mmm, ha, no, maybe because the ending isn't happy enough?)
Pride and Prejudice (should I move it over?)
Bridget Jones Diary (because it's clever?)
The African Queen (an adventure novel! By an adventure writer!)
All Nicholas Sparks books (because he's a boy writer?)
Wuthering Heights (because it would be difficult to relabel? Because the author would be really pissed to be dumped with all that Jane Austen crap?)

The Science Fiction/Fantasy section has over the years accrued more respect, but the hard core literary classics are still kept safely in Fiction (1984, Brave New World, Metamorphosis). New Science Fiction/Fantasy is still sent to debut in fiction if it hews to the "real" world enough and has literary pretensions. Lev Grossman's Magicians books are currently in our fiction section, whereas Jasper Fforde started there and was a while ago demoted out. Bits of Ursula K. LeGuin are mysteriously over in fiction, like Lathe of Heaven, in what I would call the Magical Realism effect or the not too technologically different future effect. If you can get fifty percent of the book to be sort of in our world and you have a good reputation as a writer you might be able to keep a toe or foot in fiction especially as you can claim a link to some of the above mentioned classics like Metamorphosis or 1984. Horror is an unofficial genre at my library so it just goes in fiction. I suppose you could argue Kafka is horror genre, but I'm guessing if horror was sent off to SF/Fantasy Kafka would still stay in fiction. So would The Road by Cormac Mccarthy, but all the Stephen King would be shipped off with enthusiasm.

What would I do? I think it would be nice to admit that there's an ideology issue going on here. I personally like gutting the idea of "Classics" and just sending the genre ones to their genre a la Adrian Mole. I'm all about that kind of snarky democratization. And I think that's the best way to fix the slap in the face that is the Romance section. Yes, genre rules can be very murky, but they would be more manageable without the unconscious and conscious conceptions of good, and literary, and classic. In the end, I think, either accept the idea of genre and it's usefulness to the library browser, or get rid of it all together. It is, after all, all just fiction, and it all could be shelved strictly by the authors last name. Don't make me do that.

Maybe other libraries do it better than my own. It wouldn't be hard. If someone out there has Pride and Prejudice in the romance section it would make me, and Adrian Mole, very happy.


  1. This is so interesting. I always walk quickly past the romance section, lest someone see me there and think I might read such rubbish.

    I suppose there IS literary romance, which I will read (Trollope might fit the bill), but you're right, it's never in the romance section. It's always the worst stuff on those shelves. And Nicholas Sparks totally belongs there.

  2. The public library where I currently work doesn't recognize genres. We have all of the ficiton books done by author last name. On the one hand, I think this helps people avoid the stigma associated with certain genres- like kiminorkey mentioned with the romance section. On the other hand, I think that it hurts the browse-ability of the library. As libraries shift more towards the bookstore categorization system, I think that we'll probably see genres used more, but as you mentioned in your blog post, it can be hard to decide in which genre to put a book. -EF


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