Wednesday, 6 June 2012

When Labels Don't Stick

I was writing something else and this is what emerged. Originally meant for one of my end-of-week listicles, it just kept stretching and stretching... until I ran out of steam.

When labels don't stick

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 06 June 2012

Some time ago, Stephen Colbert's "Maurice Sendak-inspired" I Am a Pole (And So Can You) reached the top of the New York Times' list of best-selling "Advice, How-to, Miscellaneous" books. It also made Publisher's Weekly's list of best non-fiction.

Colbert is tickled. "A pole can't give you advice, it's pure fantasy," he cracked.

Yes, advice from a comedian on reaching new heights in life and work while staying on the straight and narrow? Tall order for a satirical book about a cartoon pole that's searching for a purpose in life - and bears a striking resemblance to the author. But maybe it'll rise to the occasion - who knows?

If the pigeonhole fits
Classification of titles has been a headache for anyone who deals with books and maybe movies and music. Particularly books, because every tome that's published has to have its cataloguing-in-publication (CiP) data registered with the respective countries' national libraries. Even this system isn't perfect, either.

Bookstores categorise books differently, too. At one bookstore's "Children's" section, some tween romance and Twilight-esque YA titles appear to be lumped together with picture books and Geronimo Stilton.

And what happens when it turns out that part or all of a non-fiction title was fabricated or plagiarised by the author? Should Greg Mortenson's books be shifted to the "Fiction" shelves or a new "Embellished Non-Fiction" corner?

Is it that hard to add a "Tween" or "Young Adult" category into the database? It could be, given the complexity in defining the database structure and all the possible attributes a book can have. But, Stephen Colbert... isn't it obvious that Pole belongs in the "Humour" section, or is there something I'm missing?

Not quite birds of a feather
With thousands of books published each year, bookstores, publishers and literary agents are hard-pressed to make their clients' books stand out of the sea of print, and we're not even adding e-books into the equation yet. So it makes sense for booksellers to take aim at specific demographics - a cheaper, more effective way of marketing. Hence, the need for genres.

Author Karen B Nelson suggests that readers who go for specific genres rely on this kind of pigeonholing to help them choose their reads, based on their needs and expectations. She also quotes English professor Dr Timothy Spurgin of Lawrence University, Wisconsin as saying that "as writers have become more and more interested in crossing boundaries and mixing genres, publishers and booksellers seem to have grown more and more determined to use genres as marketing devices."

But then, she asks, "...what about crossover books – the ones that could just as easily be classified in two distinct genres? Or those that shatter the whole idea of what a genre is supposed to be?"

Nelson recognises that crossovers are "a marketing department's nightmare, and every librarian's headache." The need for pigeonholing also affects authors. Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, had some trouble defining it. She'd tried calling it "noir", which is usually associated with hard-boiled detectives, but what she was trying to do was literary fiction, with the usual trappings of noir.

"I think of noir as fiction infused with a certain sense of style," Mandel writes, "a certain darkness, an understanding of the essential unfairness and indifference of the world — this mysterious place we find ourselves in wherein terrible things happen to good people for no discernible reason — and an understanding that it's necessary to go on and continue to be honourable regardless." But does noir always have to be crime fiction?

And does sci-fi always have to entertain? Many tend to think so. But with productions such as Avatar, one can't be sure. Critics have pointed out how the film is but another 'noble savage vs civilised brute' trope. Some found the film entertaining but may chafe at the alleged morals spliced between the frames. And I believe that there's even a lesson in E.T. somewhere.

Writing in the Guardian, sci-fi writer Damien Walter argues that writers of what he calls "fantastika" with a more critical understanding of their genre create better, (maybe) multilayered stories than those who, I might hazard, merely pull things out of their hats.

One should note that Colbert and fellow funnyman and fake news commentator Jon Stewart are supposed to be entertaining, but because they peel open each news clip and point out the funny, misleading or outright lying bits in the process, they appear more credible than the news agencies themselves. Even the New York Times once pondered putting Stewart in the same league as the likes of Walter Cronkite.

So perhaps Mandel's interpretations and musings over noir may help her come up with something better, a sort of "literary noir". Which may not be a bad thing. Writing is, among other things, an art, and the tendency to stick to well-defined borders would make for a boring and sterile pool of literature.

In the end, what probably matters most to the reader is whether he'll enjoy the book, as Nelson suggests. And maybe the price tag.


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