Genres, Tags, and Why Don't We Subcategorize Books?
Today’s piece in the New York Times on indie rock sub-categorization isn’t particularly interesting . . . although when you apply what’s been happening in music to the world of books, there are a few intriguing outcomes.
The main thrust of Ben Sisario’s Times piece is that indie music has atomized into a trillion little genres—which is a confusing, yet good thing:
For those who has scratched their heads in confusion (or rolled their eyes) reading a music blog lately, the joke is uncomfortably close to the truth. Ten or 20 years ago it was relatively easy to define the term “indie-rock” as a handful of related styles and a collective audience slightly on the fringe of the mainstream. But by the end of the decade it has become an ever-expanding, incomprehensibly cluttered taxonomy of subgenres. So you say you like indie-rock — well, do you mean mumblecore? Freak-folk? Ambient doom-metal? Eight-bit?
Keeping track of it all can be exasperating, which makes it easy to overlook an important fact: Despite this flurry of hyphenation, indie-rock’s gradual atomization has actually been good for the music. The reason there are so many names is that there is more variety in the music than ever. Now, thanks to an accelerated feedback loop of musical creation, consumption and online discourse, a hundred schools of thought contend.
The point that he doesn’t really bring out here is about how these aren’t necessarily “categories” in the top-down, where-to-shelve-in-the-record-store sort of way, but are more like the “tags” you find on Last.fm, serving as clues to help lead an adventurous listener to new bands.
I could be completely wrong, but it seems like it would be incredibly helpful for recommendations and the like if people more actively created interesting tags and sub-categories for books.
This sort of exists for some genres: under “science-fiction” there’s “steampunk,” “cyberpunk,” “alternate history,” etc., etc. And for “mystery” there’s “noir,” “detective,” “Nordic,” and so on.
But what about “literary fiction”? What does that even mean? And what is the difference—which can be found in some bookstores—between “fiction” and “literature”? (I’m sure we all know the answer to that, but isn’t it a bit like obscenity? Like you might not be able to define it, but you know “literature” when you see it?)
I have no idea what these sorts of tags might look like—or even if they already exist and I’m just not aware of it—but it would be really interesting to see how the proliferation of categories would impact reading recommendations. (And I don’t mean academic tags like “post-modern” or “meta-fiction,” which are rarely useful outside of dissertation writing.)
For instance, I just went to Library Thing to see what tags come up under Antonio Lobo Antunes’s Act of the Damned. This is one of my all-time favorite books, and in a certain mood, I’d love to read something as formally inventive and funny and engaging as this book. Here’s the complete list of tags for this book: 20th century, adultery, challenge, communism, contemporary, corruption, death, decay, dentists, drugs, family, fiction, first person, greed, incest, inheritance, Latin American fiction, literature, mental illness, political, Portugal, portugese_literature, Portuguese authors, Portuguese Literature, postmodern, poverty, revolution, Roman, romance, sex.
None of these are useful. (“Sex”? Seriously? Like there’s a book out there that’s not about sex?)
I know this is a digressive, meandering, possibly senile post, but it seems to me that readers would be the first group of people to be inventing interesting and creative neologisms to define what it is that they’re into. Shouldn’t there be some catchy tag that links Antunes to Cortazar to Calvino? Some label that a young reader could stumble across that would open up a new world of literature that they’d appreciate. There could be bookstore displays of these sub-genres, blogs about particular ones, etc.
Just a thought . . . And if anyone has any suggestions, or examples of how this already exists, please post them below . . .