Thursday, May 15, 2014

Holy Subgenres, Batman!

- a post by Jeanna Mason Stay

I write young adult fiction mostly, and I love that the YA section of the library exists. I’m too young to have known the time when YA didn’t exist, but I can imagine it, and it makes me sad. I’m glad that there’s an awesome place for books that are especially for young adults. Sure, I think teens should read adult books too, but I think they deserve to have their own literature as well.

But while I love the YA section, I do not love what my local library has done with it. All of the books in the YA section now have nifty little labels on the spine that classify them into subgenres, which is great for someone who really wants to easily find a thriller or a romance or whatever. The problem is not that they have suggested subgenres for these books; the problem is that they are arranged according to these subgenres.

My library’s YA section has twelve (!!!) subgenres. I tried to remember them all, but I could only come up with eight:

-historical fiction
-science fiction
-paranormal romance (seriously! it has its own section)
-contemporary fiction

Now let’s take a fantastic book I just finished, Perfect Lies by Kiersten White. According to its label (and therefore its section of the YA shelves), it is a paranormal romance. First of all, it’s not particularly paranormal (there are special powers, yes—being able to read the future and read peoples thoughts or feelings—but there are no werewolves, fallen angels, blah blah blah). It’s got romance, but that’s not the main point of the story. And—the part that really amuses me—the book before it (Mind Games) is classified as a thriller instead. So the two books of the duo (duology? duet?) are in two different sections of YA.

How would I know where to find it? Yesterday I tried to see if a particular author I liked had any of her books in. Unfortunately, they qualify as contemporary, romance, and slightly (maybe?) fantasy. So I had to look in all three places (and a couple more, just in case).

But the real problem is not the issue of finding a specific book you want. After all, if I weren’t lazy, I could check on the computer and see where the librarians decided to shelve a particular title.

The real problem is that this shelving system boxes you in.

If you like paranormal romance, no need to ever look in another section again—no danger of accidentally discovering that you also would have really loved that historical novel or even that humor piece. If you like thrillers, heaven forbid you run across a fantasy novel that looks appealing. You are defined by a single, very limited genre.

I realize this has never really bothered me in the adult section; I’ve never been distressed that the mysteries and the sci fi didn’t play well together. I’m not sure why. Possibly because in my library’s YA section, there are only maybe ten linear feet of shelves, and it kills me to see it all broken down that way, all at the same time. Maybe because I hope teenagers are still developing their tastes and may be more willing to read outside their chosen genres—unless they’re forced into tiny boxes like this. Maybe because I think it’s crazy to have a section devoted solely to paranormal romance (hey, I have read and liked several of them, but I think that reading only paranormal romances is a terrible idea). Maybe just because I’m a curmudgeon.

I don’t know. What do you think? Subgenres—good, bad, ugly? Nuances and issues I’ve missed? Can you place your writing in one single subgenre to the exclusion of all others? Do you want to call my library and tell them to stop the madness?

P.S. In other news, a fun flash fiction contest is described here. You should enter!


  1. Man, that’s a terrible way to organize a library! If that were my library, I would complain. I think you should. Library shelves should be like boxes of chocolate- you have to have some sense of not quite knowing what you’re going to get as you’re making your way through the shelves. Having it organized by subgenre just takes all the fun out of it.

    The only thing our library has done like that was to create a separate section of “Graphic Novels” for comic books. And it irritates me because my 10-year-old son goes straight to that section and ends up checking out an armful of comic books. If they were interspersed on the shelves among other books, then I might have a better chance of him stumbling across something that better fits his reading level. (He says he likes the comic books because with homework and chores he doesn’t have much time to read and they are easy and fun and quick. This summer I’m making him read Harry Potter.)

  2. I am not a fan of Subgenres I think they can be confusing as one might not think the book fits into the category

  3. I love how you put it: "no danger of accidentally discovering that you also would have really loved that historical novel or even that humor piece."

    Great point. I concur.



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