Purge of the pigeonholes

Review published on May 7, 2013.Reviewed by Mike Stafford

Not too long ago, I found myself asking a depressingly redundant question. Talking about our current reading material with a work colleague of mine, I asked “what genre is it?” I know what I was driving at – the day was busy, and my question was conversational short-hand for “how can I understand what it is you’re reading while putting the minimum possible effort into discussing it?”

As any pop philosopher will tell you, we live in a culture of information overload. For us humble book bloggers, that information overload takes a curious form. If you blog for long enough, sooner or later (more likely sooner), you’ll end up receiving more books than it’s humanly possible to read. If you happen to be a human with a full-time job and, say, a family who enjoy tearing you away from your books for more than five minutes a day, you’ll find yourself needing an advanced filtration technique to decide what to read next.

Common courtesy can do some of the job for you. If you’re receiving books from a number of publishing houses, sticking to just one is bad form. If you’ve got the new Nesbo, Rankin or McDermid jostling for position with a debutant, go for the little guy – the big guns can live without one more drop of praise in the ocean. These tactics though, will only get you so far. You need something else to silence the reviewer anxiety, the cartoon demon on the shoulder that nags endlessly away about all the neglected books.

This, dear friends, is where genre comes into play. A quick look on Amazon these days and the field of crime is heading towards atomisation. I count 18 sub-categories of Crime, Thriller and Mystery – but to what end? Does anyone actually benefit from this plethora of pigeonholes? Fellow blogger Keith B Walters sagely pointed out to me recently that this allows for broader use of the “‪#1 bestseller” tag. Beyond that though, all endless sub-divisions have done for me is increase the number of books I receive that find their way toward the lower end of the inbox. Like an online dater passing up potential partners because of mismatched taste in music, I’ve become a selfish utilitarian, passing up untold joy because of an inflexible but convenient little matrix. It crept up subtly at first. A thirst for gritty realism saw pre-20th century crime shoved aside. An apparent desire to broaden my horizons saw me shelving books whose blurb started with a description of the crime scene. Wanting to stick to pure crime, I steered clear of the supernatural or any element of the occult.

The main loser, of course, in this ruthless drive to rid myself of reviewer anxiety, is me. One of the best books I read during 2012 was Lloyd Shepherd’s The English Monster – and it violates each of the insidious little rules above. In fact, it transcended not just the array of sub-genres within crime, but the main genre divisions too – crime, historical fiction, fantasy. It blended all these, and had some disquieting things to say about British history, and I’d have missed it if I’d stayed wedged inside my little box.

The best art comes when the artist sets aside formula and strives to express himself. Similarly, the purest appreciation of that art comes not when we approach it as consumers, understanding it through a pre-existing commercial framework, but tackling it as one human being engaging with the work of another in all its complexity. Yes, reviewer anxiety is a small price to pay for leaving yourself open to everything the world of literature has to offer.

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