Recently, I read a book in the wrong genre. Or rather, I tried to read the wrong genre into it.
I don’t remember the context in which I first heard of Max Barry’s brilliant Lexicon, but the jacket blurb focuses on the special school attended by the main character, so I categorized the book as Young Adult fiction and prepared myself for more sixteen-year-old narrators.
Lexicon is not, in fact, a YA book — both in my library’s view (which shelves it under Adult Fiction) and in my post-reading opinion — but the fact that I thought it was heavily impacted my reading of the book. For one, I assumed one of the other main characters (not Emily, the one attending the school) was also a teenager at the start of the novel, instead of being at least in his mid-20s. Given that the tale has three main narrators (one of whom is older than the others) and is told in a non-linear fashion, initially reading the characters as teenagers made tracking the narrative quite difficult. The overly scattered timeline is the weakest element of this otherwise smart, compelling novel, but I fully admit that my comprehension was hampered by my expectations.
Of course jacket summaries and genre categories are often useful, but over the past year I’ve come to more fully realize their stark limitations. Lexicon is not YA… but there are several chapters in which one of the main characters is in secondary school. How much school narrative does it take for a novel to become YA? Likewise, A Tale for the Time Being (another wonderfully intelligent, beautiful book) has two narrators: a middle-aged woman and a teenage girl. The older woman is the “main” narrator in the sense that she is reading the girl’s diary, and thus serves as the frame around the younger character’s narrative. As such, this book is also classified as Adult Fiction, despite the fact that half of the book is about (and from the perspective of) a teenager. If the roles were reversed, and the teen served as the lens for the adult’s story, I imagine the novel would be assigned the YA designation.
Naturally, it can be argued that YA books tell stories in a different manner, that they focus on different narrative elements and aspects of character development, and so forth. Still, it intriguing to consider how blurred and arbitrary the distinction between YA and Adult Fiction can become — and how pre-conceived notions regarding books affect how we read them. I wonder how my experience with other books might have changed if I had first assumed they were a different (yet vaguely accurate) genre.
I also have to wonder about the people who write book summaries. Why would Lexicon‘s jacket description read like a YA novel when the book isn’t? Lexicon isn’t even the first experience I’ve had with misleading summaries. I read Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park in March 2013 and adored it. Her second YA novel, Fangirl, was released September 2013, and I read the summary over and over, convinced that it would be completely uninteresting, but disappointed because Eleanor and Park had been so marvelous. Eventually, bored or procrastinating or both, I read the online preview — and I fell desperately in love with it.
Bearing this in mind, I cautiously read the description for Rowell’s Adult Fiction novel, Attachments. Again, it didn’t appear to be the kind of book I would find compelling. This time, however, I remembered to read the first few chapters… and, as I had half-expected, I was hooked. Attachments isn’t as gut-wrenching as Eleanor and Park or as obviously charming as Fangirl, but it’s quirky and funny, and I’m glad to have read it. Rowell’s newest novel, Landline (Adult Fiction) comes out this Tuesday, and I fully plan on reading it. If it weren’t written by her, I’d have completely ignored it, but I’ve come to realize that I love her writing, regardless of genre.
There are certainly types of books that I’m not interested in reading, but I’m starting to think that books with completely blank covers on unmarked shelves might not be a bad idea. We spend a great deal of time saying “I don’t like X,” and sometimes we truly don’t like X, but sometimes we’ve made X into too large a category, unnecessarily narrowing our reading habits. A genre and a jacket description aren’t the book: they are someone else’s attempt to draw a generalized, market-researched reader into the story. They try to tell us what we will like and what we won’t; they condition us to expect certain elements in the text.
As far as I can tell, there isn’t an easy way around these problems. The only solution I’ve come up with is to keep reading — and reading (almost) everything. I’ve broadened my book recommendation sources, and I’ve been pleased with the results. Takeaway for this week? Keep calm and ignore genre conventions.