Monday, November 1, 2010

Consume and Contemplate: Genres and the Names We Give Them

As many of you may recall, a while back I wrote a post on ratings, how different bloggers do them, and why I feel so conflicted about them. Jessica of Chick Lit Teens followed this up with a post entitled, “But How Does That Make You Feel,” where where she talks rating based on how she feels about books.

"You see, I appreciate quality, but that’s not what my blog is about nor is that what my ratings are about. When I review a book, it’s feeling that means the most. A five star book, to me, does not employ a whole host of literary devices, it doesn’t cause me to think about man’s true purpose on this earth, and it may not change the way I see the world. What it does do, however, is capture me. Five star books are the books that I cannot put down, that have me thinking about them long after I finish, that make me smile when I see someone pick up a copy at the bookstore, that have me sobbing or gasping for breath or laughing hysterically because I’m so enthralled."
-Jessica of Chick Lit Teens


Jessica’s post has inspired me to continue to explore my thoughts about not only ratings but genres which are applied to books. I love this post because as someone who reads many genres, including most YA, adult fiction, classics and periodically non-fiction, it makes me think about how I and other readers treat not only individual genres. Furthermore, it leaves me pondering what makes me prefer some books over others and how my favorite books differ from the ones I’ve read a year ago and mostly forgotten about.

Yet before I delve into discussing ratings, I should say that I’m not sure how the labels that are applied to individual genres mean very much. For example, how does our society decide what a classic is? Is it a book that has never been out of print in its entire life? A story that employs more literary techniques that one person can list? A novel that’s published by Penguin, Oxford World Classics, or any publishers that has an imprint with the word “classic” in its name? There are some classics which sit contently in the ranks of my all time favorite books, like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Others I struggle with a bit more, like A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce. While I really enjoyed reading about Stephen, this novel is set in a very particular historical period, and I spent a good deal of it flipping back to the footnotes to read about positions of power in the Catholic Church and whatnot. I wonder if I might have enjoyed the book just a little bit more if I had all of this background information ingrained in my brain, instead of pausing to acquire it. Reading the book and writing a paper on it was a great learning experience, and perhaps I’d enjoy it more if I read it again, going into the story with a stronger base of knowledge. That being said, reading is often a learning experience, and the struggle that can come with learning is usually worthwhile.

Another label for a genre which mystifies me is literary fiction. What makes something literary? If you look up literary on the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition that comes up is “Pertaining to the letters of the alphabet” (see the full definition and etymology here). I also tried looking up literature, and one of the definitions I found said “Literary work or production,” and to be honest the rest of the definitions were all fairly similar to that (see the full definition and etymology here). With that being said, it sounds like the vast majority of what I read qualifies as literary. I realize that some authors who fall under the category of literary fiction are considered quite reputable by many (myself included), such as Salaman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Saran Foer. While I l enjoyed work by each of these, I wouldn’t describe any of their novels as light reading, because they all had pretty heavy themes. Is this a characteristic that defines the genre? I don’t know. However, I will tell you this: grim moments, sadness and the ability to make me cry are not qualities which cause me to say that I don’t like a book. If an author can bring me to tears or tie my stomach into knots, he or she is probably doing something right.

And then there’s young adult. I tend to think of young adult books as those who are marketed at readers aged from roughly twelve to early twenties. I would also say that a lot of these books feature teenagers as prominent, if not main, characters.

Of course, these are only a few genres within literature. Now, one big question remains: as a blogger, book lover, and someone with a B.A. in English, how do I treat all of these very different genres? How do they make me feel? This has already been a pretty long post, so instead of delving into this question now, I'm going to leave you all with that cliffhanger. Be sure to check back, as my answer is coming later this month.

1 comment:

  1. What an excellent post, Liz! I think that this is why I have such a hard time rating the books that I read. What is deserving of a 5 star? Does it need to be some awesomely written book? Is it enough if I just simply couldn't put it down. I mean, I've given 5 stars for Twilight, Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud and Pride and Prejudice...for VASTLY different reasons. I couldn't put down Twilight..I mean, I neglected studying as hard as I generally do for my final exams when I picked that book up. That has to mean something? EL&IC elicited all sorts of emotions in me and had me hanging on to every word and thinking about this book long after I finished it. P&P was probably the slower read out of the three I mentioned yet I held on to every beautiful sentence and love the story line and appreciated its timelessness. I feel like sometimes I'll see some reviewers who talk about literary devices and this and that..and I feel dumb and compelled to do the same. I was a business major..not an English major..and I've just loved to read, purely and without dissecting it to death, for as long as I can remember. So, I think for me, it really is about how things make me feel and I should stick to that. Would I love to be a little more sophisticated about reading and pick out these literary devices and whatnot...yep! But I think I'm ok with going based on feeling. :)

    Very thought provoking post!

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