Conundrum by Sheila Simonson

The public library I haunt slaps tiny labels on the spines of half the books in the fiction collection.  These little icons tell patrons they’re reading fantasy/science fiction, mystery, romance, historical fiction, or westerns.  Works of fiction without warning labels are either Great Literature or stuff that defies categorization.  I feel uneasy about these labels, though I admit they’re a time-saver.  When I’m in a hurry, I zip through the shelves looking at mysteries–or another category if I’m not in a whodunit mood–so I can’t complain.  Even so, I think the labels can be harmful to writers, and maybe to readers.  More than once, I’ve skipped past a favorite author because a book was mislabeled or missed being labeled.

When I’m in a library that doesn’t use labels (or in a bookstore that doesn’t segregate by category), I seem to have no trouble finding something good to read.  I fall back on writers whose names I recognize, but I remember how hard that is on new authors.  Or I look for funky titles, even though I know the pain of searching for a catchy title, or being stuck with what some marketing maven wants.  As for readers choosing by the cover, please!

The biggest problem with labels is that most works of fiction can be categorized more ways than one.  Molly Gloss’s brilliant novel The Jump-off Creek, for example, could be labeled historical fiction or western fiction, or unlabeled as literary fiction.  I might have skipped it if the librarians had slapped a bucking bronco on the spine.  Half of Georgette Heyer’s regency comedies could be called mysteries.  And what do we do with authors who callously change categories?  I used to write regencies.  Now I’m publishing mysteries.  My current project is science fiction.  I know I lose some readers when I move from one category to another, but I gain others.  Do I need labels?  Labeling is a conundrum for writers as well as readers.  Publishers may need it as a marketing tool.  I’m not sure why librarians use it.

Recently I checked out a book by a writer I enjoy.  I assumed it was a mystery and plunged into it.  It was full of well-developed characters in interesting situations, but a third of the way through I started to worry.  I don’t necessarily like mysteries that start with the heroine finding a corpse on page three, but here I was, well into the book, and there was no Body.  My anxiety grew.  Finally I had the wit to look at the spine.  No label.  It was not a mystery.  The author had no obligation to kill anyone.  The point is, my label-oriented expectation distracted me from the book’s real merits, and that was deeply unfair to the author.  So that’s my conundrum for the week.  Labeling?  No labeling?  Truth in labeling?

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4 Responses

  1. The need to have a corpse in a mystery puzzles me. My fourth book had a stalker theme, and there was no actual murder until the very end. The mystery concerned the identity of the stalker. My then editor at St Martin’s took me to task for this, and though she let that book stand she assured me that in future books I needed to produce a body by chapter three. So Ok then. The rest of my books had properly early murders. However, I seem to recall reading mysteries without murders that I enjoyed…my memory is not what it was and I can’t name one, though.

  2. And then there are the times when librarians put one or more books in one genre and they become known in another genre, like mystery. You need the online catalog to know that that other book is shelved in another section. I once asked then to change a label. The mystery collection at my local public library is large and prominent so they probably wouldn’t gain by shelving all the fiction together.

    Gail Hueting

  3. I find this post fascinating. How true that we can’t/shouldn’t categorize, which people are prone to do in all areas of life. So Crime and Punishment is a mystery. Or isn’t it? Okay, call it a literary mystery. Frankly, I don’t read a lot of mysteries per se, but I love a mystery in the books I read, and most contain one. Librarians must go crazy trying to get a novel in its rightful place. Why can’t we just call a novel a novel?

  4. Yes, and there are sub-categories in each category too–noir, cozy, traditional, paranormal, you name it.

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