Prompted by the excellent essay that appeared on The Rumpus satirizing the idea of writing "The Great American Woman's Novel" (Here), I got to thinking about genres of fiction. The essay, written by Elissa Bassist (her web site here) is delightful and hilarious, poking fun at the designation of "American Woman Writers" in Wikipedia, among other things. Following her article, come the comments (both at The Rumpus and at other sites that have reprinted the piece, like Jezebel.) and some of these are funny, too. But many of them dropped the satire and took more serious umbrage with the idea of a "Woman's Novel" or "Women's Fiction" in general.
And these responses made me sit back and think about how to (and why to) divide literature.
Of course, there are the craft concerns: fiction as distinct from poetry as distinct from nonfiction. And there can be reams and reams written about the fuzzy grayness and liminal areas and how even these distinctions are problematic. But I won't go into that (at least not right now). Just take fiction... and take it at your average bookstore. You'd expect a division for Science Fiction, for Mystery, and for Children's and/or Young Adult fiction. These seem natural and needed, helping to funnel the right reader to the right area. Saves time! Of course, I can think of crossover texts -- books that I think belong just as much in the "general" literature as in the Mystery section.
But more, I can think of my surprise (and, indeed, even anger) at some of the categorization I've seen in stores. Many bookstores have GLBT sections or African-American sections. I've gone looking for Jeanette Winterson books in the "general" section, not found them, and been redirected to the GLBT section. At the time, I thought, why not have copies in both? Surely Toni Morrison (among others) belongs just as much in the "general" literature area as in an African-American section... I'd say the same for Winterson. Those who've commented on Bassist's satire seem upset by the designation of Women's Fiction, which is stacked with romance and a certain ilk of thriller.
What's the problem here? The problem is that what makes sense for consuming and marketing -- getting the reader to the shelf that they want to be at -- creates strange divisions in the literature. More, it seems to imply a hierarchy. Tacit in this is the implication that the "general" category of literature is superior, the Promised Land of the bookstore. To belong there is to have made it. The other sections feel lesser.
I say this more as a writer than as a reader (though, as I say above, I do feel some discomfort as a reader as well). Many bookstores have a historical fiction section, and I know that my first novel, Revolutionary, is historical fiction -- no doubt about it. I wouldn't mind having it in the historical fiction section. But I'd want it in the general category, too. Why? Because I believe it is a book with literary merit beyond its being historical fiction; I believe its a book that would appeal to a variety of readers, not just those who like historical fiction.
So maybe that's the problem with the divisions: they feel limiting. If it's in literature, then your book can be anything; you as a reader can be anything. But if your book (whether a writer or a reader) is in a specific section, that seems to imply something about you -- you are "only" a ________. Perhaps Bassist has the best solution: satire is the answer!