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 . . .
This month there are two Open Letter books available through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program: The Pets by Bragi Olafsson and The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca. So any and all LibraryThing users should request a copy.
This news is a couple days old, but Viking Penguin recently launched a new online resource for reading groups:
Unique features of www.vpbookclub.com include the ability to personalize the site’s homepage, regular posts from authors, editors, and sales and marketing people at Viking and Penguin, as well as a forthcoming blog where readers can post comments and reviews. The site will offer a monthly newsletter as well as weekly news, awards, author tour updates and contests/giveaways. And, unique to publishing house websites, www. vpbookclub.com invites users to purchase items from the retailer of their choice, several of which link to each title’s page.
They probably should’ve come up with a better name so that they didn’t have to keep repeating “www.vpbookclub.com” over and over throughout the press release, but whatever, that seems to be the least of their problems. Joe Wikert has a really snarky report on his excellent Publishing 2020 Blog.
It probably seemed like a good idea at the design stage, but the implementation is, well…go see for yourself, but try to remain patient while the main page loads. I’m talking about the new VP Book Club, a new joint website offering from Viking and Penguin.
Tim Spalding does an excellent job dissecting the VP site on his LibraryThing blog. He refers to it as “a gorgeous mistake.”
The site is gorgeous, and the idea of featuring a Viking hardcover, a Penguin paperback, and a Penguin Classic isn’t bad. But do book clubs really need all these Flash bells and whistles? Probably not. I ‘d like to believe that book clubs are most interested in content, like Reading Group Guides, with or without simplistic questions. (E.g., “Our three principal characters all seem to be in search of something. What does each character in the novel gain/learn from the other?”)
Amazon Vine is a new program that Amazon.com is launching to put free copies of forthcoming books into the hands of their most vocal reviewers.
As they put it:
Vine helps our vendors generate awareness for new and pre-release products by connecting them with the voice of the Amazon community: our reviewers. Vine members, called Voices, may request free copies of items enrolled in the program and have the ability to share their opinions before these products become generally available.
Aside from the fact that it’ll probably cost a fortune and only be available to the biggest of the commercial publishers, I think this is a really interesting marketing advancement. At least for books. I mean, it’s sort of like advanced screenings for movies, but in this case you can basically hand-select your audience.
(It’s worth noting that this idea has already been successfully implemented already by Random House and Library Thing.)
This idea does reinforce my general belief that publishers need to start using the internet and finding innovative ways to get information out about books to readers. I
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