Categorisation or Segregation?

I had two separate sources of inspiration for this post. First off, I’ve started posting book reviews on a shared blog, The Good, The Bad, & The Unread, which gave me the original idea. Then my friend, Angela Benedetti posted her response to this post by Hal Duncan, both of them saying more or less what I’d been thinking. And that is… to what extent do book categories help or hinder readers and authors? I may be marginally more polite about such things than Hal was in his post, but I do wonder whether the purpose of reviews, beyond offering an opinion on whether a particular book worked for the reviewer, should be to help readers find more of the same sort of books they’re currently reading, or to encourage them to branch out and read books that are outside their usual comfort zones. After all, I’m one of a small bunch of the regular attendees from the UK GLBT Fiction Meet, who also go to the Festival of Romance every year, and I’m probably one of the most vocal in telling mainstream romance readers to broaden their reading interests as widely as possible.

Charlie reading aloud
Charlie Cochrane reads from her historical romance at the Festival of Romance

If we’re looking at giving readers more of the same, then obviously we need to tell them up front exactly what they’re getting from each book. If I just read a really good book about e.g. 19th Century lesbian sheep-farmers in the Australian Outback and want to read more of the same while I’m in that sort of mood, then maybe I want to skim a reviews blog for posts labelled as Lesbian Historical Romance and then read more closely to see which, if any, are set in the 19th Century, on farms, or in Australia.

On the other hand, I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on. The tiny library in the next village was divided up into Books for Children and Books for Adults, and each of those sections was divided into Fiction and Non-fiction. So I grabbed books based on the title, the cover art, and the blurb. As I was a fast reader, I tended to go for books with lots of words and tended to drift towards the Books for Adults from quite an early age. I suspect someone gently steered me away from the bonkbusters, but no one stopped me reading science fition books with lesbians in them, or from horror collections and crime novels for that matter.

Vila Cat and a book
Vila Cat considers whether to read a GLBT anthology

So, should a review start by telling readers how much the reviewer enjoyed the book and/or what didn’t work for them, and then move on to explaining who, if anyone, falls for whom? Should it start by telling them whether a novel’s setting is contemporary, historical or futuristic; whether its rules run according to the world as we know it, the world of high fantasy or our world with paranormal elements; whether its intended audience is a general one, young adults or new adults? That last division is where things start to get tricky: books get labelled as YA or NA, and books get labelled as erotica or erotic romance, but there’s no specific label for books aimed at the assumed majority of romance readers i.e. readers older than the YA/NA demographic.

Blue Cat and a book
Blue Cat thinks about reading a heterosexual category romance

Fair enough, you might say, but then do mainstream review sites need to label some books as lesbian romance or gay romance, if they aren’t also labelling books as heterosexual romance? Isn’t that just marginalising anything that isn’t a book about heterosexuals? And what about the bisexual characters? Do we need a label for bisexual romance, and how do we then apply it? When the protagonist is bisexual? When protagonist and love interest are both bisexual? When a character being bisexual is important to the plot? What about trans* characters? What about books or series that focus on more than one type of relationship?

I think we need publishers that specialise in books that fit a specific demographic, just as we need small publishers with a wider demographic and big mainstream publishers that take more of a chance with some of their imprints than others. I also think there’s room for review sites that specialise in one or more types of book, and review sites that review everything. I just want to find a way of encouraging more people to read everything, while still being able to find the right book for every mood without too much searching. So how do we achieve all that?

I don’t have the answers here. I just have a love of books and a need to find better ways of telling other people what I think of books and giving them as much information as possible for them to decide whether a book that worked for me would also work for them and, possibly, whether a book I didn’t like might be something that they would like.

Blue Cat being disapproving
Blue Cat disapproves of categorisation; he disapproves of most things

And to go back to the starting argument, are categories such a lesbian romance, gay romance, or even inter-racial more about helping people find more of the books they want to read, or just as much about giving hesitant readers an excuse not to read particular categories of books?

This month’s photos come from my Festival of Romance 2012 set and from a challenge I took part in, set by Mindy Klasky to show cats reading her The Mogul’s Maybe Marriage. Of course, I went a little further and also photographed cats reading the Tea and Crumpet anthology that I have two stories in.

9 comments

  1. I read a wide range – but it depends on my mood. So I depend on “labels” to know what to expect: romance or thriller. I hate horror and can be really upset by improper labelling and spending money on something I really, really don’t want to touch. And if I buy a lesbian book, I’d rather not spend my time reading about a large chunk of hetero sex.

    Would love to have a category interracial because I would like to read more of it, but it is difficult to find by reading the blurbs.

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    • Interracial’s a category I see used a fair bit on some of the eBook publisher and 3rd party seller sites, and I have slightly mixed feelings about it, in that I want more racial diversity in my reading, but at the same time it’s very much of a catch-all in that there’s often no way of telling whether one of the characters will turn out to be a white US or UK national, or whether the book is going to be about negotiating two cultures I know less about (which is what I really want to read more of).

      And yes, labels are great for avoiding books you really wouldn’t want to read (although so are well-written reviews!) but I do worry that they scare off too many people who might e.g. love to read a gentle lesbian romance with a similar setting to the heterosexual romances or non-romantic historicals they read. At 16 in the 1980s I might have been more cautious in the books I took out of the library (especially given that I was relying on my rather conservative mother for a lift home) if they’d been published by The Lesbians’ Press rather than by The Women’s Press šŸ˜‰

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  2. Hi Stevie. Yes, it’s an ongoing debate, isn’t it? Sarah Waters pulled off the mainstream appeal trick, but rather aided by the fact that her talent is such that the literary establishment HAD to take notice. In my naivety I thought I could write a lesbian novel which would appeal to any woman over 30, but it took two years of rejections before a small publisher (male and straight, oddly) decided to invest in it. After a period of promoting it as LGBT he has now as a matter of policy categorised it as general women’s fiction, which is a huge vindication. It will never be a best-seller in today’s jostling market, but it’s been wonderful to get feedback from both lesbian and straight readers, and even one or two men. My shtick is trying to write us into the fabric of a richly varied human race.

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    • That’s a great success for you there: congratulations!

      There are so many issues that all of us struggle with, possibly from different perspectives based on how we identify, but I like to think that all of us can gain from reading about similar situations to our own, even when the protagonist comes from a slightly different background.

      I hope we get to see more books classified as women’s fiction, or even just as general fiction, that just happen to have lesbian, or bisexual, or trans*, protagonists dealing with issues that affect all women (or all people).

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  3. Oooh, I’d love to read about lesbian sheep farmers in 19th Century Australia!

    Categorisation – I don’t know about it, really. On the one hand, it’s easier to make a choice when someone else has already sorted books into categories, but on the other hand I wouldn’t necessarily categorise the same set of books in the same way; and I’ve also recently realised that I’ve recevied completely the wrong impression of some book-categories because the same descriptors are used in movie categorisation. Case in point: I’ve ignored the ‘horror’ section of every bookshop & library for over 20 years, but thanks to finding a copy of ‘Queer Horror’ in my UK Meet goody bag I realised I had completely the wrong impression of the genre as the stories in that anthology were so varied and completely not what I expected to find šŸ™‚

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    • Someone really needs to write that book šŸ˜‰

      I haven’t looked at that horror anthology yet, although I keep meaning to. I used to read horror when younger, but most of the books in the category that I’ve picked up recently haven’t been to my taste. Obviously I’ve been picking up the wrong ones!

      I suspect this debate is going to keep running for a long time…

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