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 . . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .