As is often the case on lazy Saturdays, which is when the complete lack of work makes us realize we have absolutely nothing at all to do, Mandy and I found ourselves in a book store.
We really don’t ever know what we’re doing there. We’ll meander over into the science fiction/fantasy section, peruse the comics and Manga, pilfer through some board games and wander back to the magazines so I can check out rags like Bloody Disgusting and Fangoria (to which I lovingly refer as “gorno mags”). Occasionally, we’ll pick up a book or two, look at the back and say, “I’m going to buy this,” and then promptly return it to its place on the shelf. But as far as having an overall goal to our visits, we have none. We are the worst kinds of customers: Those who loiter, but never shop.
We do, however, often engage in intelligent conversation.
“What the fuck is the ‘literature’ section,” one of us asked the other. I don’t remember who; after you’ve been married for a while your brains begin to coalesce.
“It’s a catch all,” replied the other, the one who hadn’t asked the original question. “Whatever’s popular gets tossed in because it’ll sell more.”
“That’s stupid,” the first claimed, and the second agreed.That is incredibly stupid.
There’s a lot hubbub over genre. Time and time again, I’ve read that “genre fiction” — that is fiction that can easily categorized (westerns, science fiction, romance) — is inferior to “literature,” that somehow featuring cowboys or dragons or space pirates or ripped Native Americans with smooth sinewy muscles glistening an oily brown in the sun are somehow unworthy of taking up shelf space next to Sue Grafton’s alphabet books. “Literature” has come to be synonymous with “superior,” which is weird because I could have sworn I saw a whole slew of Nicholas Sparks novels filling at least a shelf’s worth of space within that section. To me, and I’m an idiot so take this with a grain of salt, Sparks’ novels are romance. Therefore, they belong in the “romance” section. Some may consider them to be a higher caliber of romance, likely because they’re printed in hardback and are published by some of the more respected publishing houses, but the stories within center around the plucking heartstrings of two individuals who usually have to overcome some obstacle before they can be together. Then, one of them dies. That’s a romance novel.
What’s most amusing are the titles that share both space on the genre fiction shelves and the “literature” shelves, as if somehow these novels have split the seams of their lowly categories and have grown snugly into broad generalization. I’m talking Stephen King (horror, science fiction, drama), Neil Gaiman (science fiction, fantasy), Cormac McCarthy (western, science fiction, thriller) and, of course, the army of writers who together form the “author” James Patterson (crime thriller, mystery). These authors write within genres. Sometimes they are different genres, or occasionally mix genres (as the best writers do) but they are genre writers nonetheless. Clumping them together with the general term “literature” because it sounds more important is just silly.
I propose either an all or none approach to categorization: We either break down novels into one of six or so distinct genres (science fiction/fantasy, romance, thriller, drama, humor, plotless ramblings, etc…) or throw them all together in a section simply labeled, “BOOKS.” That way, there’s little or no confusion. Because, while I’d be remiss to label what Nicholas Sparks writes as “literature,” there is no doubt in my mind “Message in a Bottle” is a book.