Nov 25 2008 6:08pm

Genre Blithe

Despite the occasional writing I do, short and long, I’m really an editor; not only do I seem to have more of an editorial personality (as has been told to me anecdotally by both editors and writers), but it’s what I do with the vast majority of my working hours as well as some of my free time.

One project that I’m involved in these days is the New Haven Review, a fledgling journal that has the mission of drawing attention to both New Haven–area writers and unfairly neglected books.1 Our publishes reviews on a regular basis of said books; in our , which comes out twice a year, we’ve so far published essays, memoirs, photography, poetry, and fiction. One unintended but really interesting consequence of our desire to celebrate New Haven’s writers, however, is that we’ve become—well, not genre blind, because that’s being willfully ignorant, but what I’ve taken to calling genre blithe.

The New Haven area’s writers, after all, are a diverse bunch. We’re rife with nonfiction writers of every conceivable stripe; in fiction, just off the top of my head, we have literary-fiction writer Alice Mattison, science-fiction writer Gregory Feeley, and mystery writer Karen E. Olson.2 To be worthy of the name, the NHR must be friendly to all of them. But because we accept submissions from anywhere, it means that we also can’t reject a piece just because it doesn’t fit into the conventions of a particular genre. Which is convenient, because we wouldn’t want to do that anyway. For the New Haven area, the NHR is an exercise in community building, a neat way for the region’s writers to get to know the other writers who live next door to them. So far, it has been succeeding very nicely on that front, which is altogether a wonderful thing.

But for the audience outside the New Haven area, we’re making a big assumption that there exists a type of reader you don’t hear very much about: an intrepid and omnivorous one, devouring books across genres, across fiction and nonfiction. This year, such a reader may have bought, say, Neal Stephenson, Toni Morrison, Michael Pollan, and Diane Ackerman, and enjoyed each equally, though probably for different reasons.

According to the popular conception of avid readers, we’re divided into our respective genre camps and don’t often venture anywhere else. Because each group seems to describe itself as living in a ghetto, I’ve started to imagine the reading public as a city teeming with diverse neighborhoods. The popular press would have us believe that the walls between the neighborhoods are very high—it’s more of a medieval city to them, I suppose—with very few gates, which are usually locked and have small, clouded windows. But I’m not convinced that’s true.

I’m sure there are many readers who stick exclusively to one genre, which I don’t mean as a judgment at all; one should enjoy what one reads. But I think lots of readers—perhaps a significant majority—read more broadly. They may like a particular genre very much, but also like good books of any kind and could be found reading SFF, romance, mysteries, literary fiction, and nonfiction. I imagine avid readers to be a lot like avid music fans, always looking for the next thing that’ll quicken the pulse and set the brain on fire, wherever they may find it.

What I’m saying is, I’m not convinced that the walls separating the ghettos are really there; readers may live in one neighborhood, but they’re always visiting others. Or, if the walls are there, then readers are constantly drilling through them, digging under them, to see what’s on the other side.3 What would happen if more publications—and publishing houses—grabbed a shovel and helped them?

1 This mission is by no means exclusive, however. We also publish stuff we just think is really good.

2 We’re also desperately trying to claim John Crowley as a New Haven–area writer because he teaches at Yale and spends some time here, but really, we’re kidding ourselves: He lives in Massachusetts.

3 Yeah, this city metaphor is pretty shaky. Be patient with me; I’m only on my first cup of coffee.

Rf P
1. readforpleasure
"may like a particular genre very much, but also like good books of any kind and could be found reading SFF, romance, mysteries, literary fiction, and nonfiction"

That's pretty much my preferred brew. Especially anything that mixes 'em up or is otherwise difficult to classify.

I don't have any perspective on how common it is to read across genres, though. If anything, having a book blog makes me more aware of how specific many readers are. The internet makes it easy to find silos in particular topics, but I tend to go to many online sources to find the breadth that I enjoy. I would read NHR for that. Actually, I'm reading it right now and enjoying it. I'm writing up some thoughts on a "real" memoir (Sean Thomas) versus a fictional one (Martin Amis), and Jim Knipfel's "Why fiction can be more truthful than memoirs" strikes a chord with me.

"We’re also desperately trying to claim John Crowley as a New Haven–area writer because he teaches at Yale"

And why not? The university is part of your community's cultural resources. If you didn't integrate those connections, you might needlessly impoverish the community you're trying to build.
eric orchard
2. orchard
In my case I read very broadly but read everything as though it was fantasy. That's also how I view the world. Magic has almost become synonymous with story to me.
Sandi Kallas
3. Sandikal
I was sticking pretty much to science fiction because I was afraid of the sheer volume of books in the other sections. In the past, I've read a lot of very popular best-sellers and a lot of highly esteemed books. I'd be disappointed at least half the time. So, I stuck to science fiction because it was fairly safe. I'd read an occasional clunker, an occasional "WOW" book and a lot of entertaining fiction.

About a year ago, I joined GoodReads and have developed a network of reading "friends" whose opinions I trust. As a result, I have been reading a lot of good and great books across genres and haven't encountered many clunkers. I am a voracious reader and I appreciate well-written books, even if I don't like them. It just amazes me how many books achieve popularity and/or acclaim without being any good.
Jon Evans
4. rezendi
I would really like to believe that a significant majority of readers read broadly, but, alas, I don't.

Anybody out there have any actual data? I'd love to be proved wrong.
zaphod beetlebrox
5. platypus rising
"may like a particular genre very much, but also like good books of any kind and could be found reading SFF, romance, mysteries, literary fiction, and nonfiction"

I don't read romance-I suppose when I feel that itch I turn to slash (fan) fiction ahem
all the others yes

mainly political and historical,to understand more of the world where I live

yes,many authors and many different styles,it's difficult to generalize

crime and sf/f

Both great passions,and at times I think they appeal to different areas of my brain

In fact I've a long history of tempting crime-fiction fans with Ursula K.Le Guin,PKD,Sandman or Watchmen - with some success,

and viceversa with Ellroy,Crumley,Jim Thompson

authors in both fields (at least many of those I like) seem to read pretty much across the board-
the fans,not so much
6. rogerothornhill
Finally emerged from post-Thanksgiving insanity and caught up with this. Thank you, Brian, for alerting me to your journal, which I will now try to follow.

Yes, the delimitation of genre is just the laziest form that ideology/aesthetics can take. Like yourself, all good writers are just trying to describe the world they live in, with whatever tools they find handy. As allegedly mainstream writers like Junot Diaz, Jonathan Lethem, and Michael Chabon show, a genre like scifi or fantasy isn't a prison. It's a prism, a way of refracting reality. For those of us whose minds were formed by the 1970s, it's a powerful, powerful tool for understanding what's in front of us.

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