The creeping coding of literature
By Amy L. Bernstein |
Our enthusiasm for classification has never wavered. Once the written language emerged, classification soon followed. We can thank Plato and Aristotle for getting the ball rolling by sorting various literary works into genres (from the root of the Latin genre, denoting genre, rank or order) – and not just the works themselves (epic poems and others), but also writers adapted to particular genres.
Plato, for example, argued in The Republic that the same person could not write both tragedy and comedy (which were among the first categories). His pupil Aristotle went further by asserting that genre is an expression of the character of the writer. Aristotle classified the Iliad and the Odyssey as tragic poems not on the basis of their formal composition, but because of their “seriousness of perspective and nobility of character”, according to Joseph Farrell, professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, whose work draws here.
Fast forward to the modern era. Twentieth-century writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein began experimenting with literary forms that defy easy classification. In 1959, the French writer Maurice Blanchot was eager to blow the doors of genrefication completely. He writes what I suspect many writers (and painters and playwrights) were already thinking: she refuses to be arranged and to whom she refuses the power to fix her place and determine her form.
But Blanchot’s call to arms essentially fell on deaf ears. Today, readers and writers are conditioned to expect fiction (and memoir) to conform to genres and that genres serve as navigational aids for the reading public. Book reviews and loglines easily cling to the convenience of the genre: chilling mystery, heartbreaking romance.
Indeed, the publishing industry has redoubled its efforts to classify books according to book industry standards and communications coding. Every major retailer relies on the BISAC system of assigning numerical codes to genres and subgenres, from Amazon to Baker & Taylor and beyond.
On the one hand, I understand the need to classify books. In addition to satisfying the human need for order, it is practical and efficient and, therefore, useful for business. If I owned a bookstore, I would want to know which book belonged to which shelf. I couldn’t read them all myself to find out, could I? And, let’s face it, there are a ton of books out there and more to come every month.
On the other hand, I find this cutting up of the human imagination into chunks quite discouraging. A quick overview of the BISAC codes reveals how the genre imposes a lot of structuring. There are, for example, 49 categories for romance, 18 each for sci-fi and mystery, and 16 for thrillers. One could argue that the proliferation of subgenres in these and other categories is liberating. Every writer can surely find their place on BISAC’s long list.
Yet I’m not comfortable being pigeonholed – the sum total of my years of writing, re-editing, submitting, and publishing a novel reduced to a digital code that somehow sums up my book. of another. I’m also frustrated because, like many others, I write across genres and in different genres. One of my books coming out this year is a mystery thriller (already a hybrid genre), but it’s also dystopian, as well as speculative. Add policy. Where is the code for that?
One of my as-yet-unpublished novels is a fantasy, LGBTQ coming-of-age tale, and arguably an entry into the new category of climate fiction (called cli-fi). Do you have a code for that?
To fully appreciate the artificial shoehorn of genre classifications, consider a modern masterpiece of creative fiction, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. It’s literary fiction, of course. And historical fiction. And fantasy. And a ghost story. And, no doubt, a parable. I refuse to assign a code.
I guess I should accept the fact that we are never going to give up assigning genres to literature. But for me, I refuse to let genre labels dictate or limit what I choose to write. If I’m inspired to write a cowgirl-space-epic-murder-mystery romance, then so be it. Have fun finding which shelf this book belongs to. My only job is to write the best book I can – and not worry about the label someone will inevitably put on it.
Amy L. Bernstein is a journalist, playwright, and non-fiction book coach. His novels include The Potrero Complex and The Nighthawks.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 9/5/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: The creeping coding of literature