MARTHA THOMASES: About genres
Over the weekend I started to read Will Self’s most recent novel, The Book of Dave. Like so much of Self’s work, this volume could quite comfortably be racked in the science fiction section of your bookstore. Set five or six centuries in a post-apocalyptic future, English culture has evolved based on its sacred text, the recovered letter from a divorced father, Dave, to his son.
It took me the better part of two hours to read the first chapter, which is only 27 pages long. In addition to creating a new religion, Self created a new language, an educated guess as to how English would mutate over the centuries. He thoughtfully provided a glossary in the back, but it still required me to extrapolate a great deal from my limited knowledge of English geography and manners.
This is my idea of fun.
Self is a writer who speculates in the most outrageous ways. In Great Apes, he created an England in which apes are the most evolved primates, and the culture is adapted accordingly. In How the Dead Lives, he imagined that, when you die, you get a dull, clerical job in the suburbs of London.
You won’t find Self’s books in the science fiction or fantasy sections of your bookstores or libraries. You also won’t find Riddley Walker, a book by Russell Hoban that’s a clear antecedent to The Book of Dave (Self wrote an introduction to a reissue of Hoban’s classic in 2002). You won’t find Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, a novel about the pharaohs that includes mental telepathy, magic and time travel.
No, these are “literary” fiction, and they get racked with other novels that, allegedly, belong to no genre, like Waiting to Exhale, Oliver Twist, or Portnoy’s Complaint.
Genre is a useful construct. Sometimes, you want to find a book about a particular subject, whether it’s true love or rocket ships or murder. Putting those books together is a service to the reader. If prose books were racked all together, in simple alphabetical order, you might find Dickens next to the Dummies guides.
That’s about as useful as putting all the graphic novels together.
It’s not as bad as it used to be. Ten years ago, you’d find Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen next to Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury in the Humor section. Booksellers now realize that just because something is called a “comic book,” it’s not necessarily funny.
The term “graphic novel” gives booksellers a way to separate the category from humor. Unfortunately, books like the Pekars’ My Cancer Year or War-Fix by David Axe and Steve Olexa, are non-fiction, which makes it seem unlikely that they would be novels.
Comics fans should know this. Comics fans understand that The Simpsons is different from the Fantastic Four, even though both are about families. Comics fans know that Cerebus is not a funny animal story of the same kind as What’s Michael. Naturally, you’d expect the better comic book stores to rack their books in a way that shows this sophistication.
You’d be wrong.
In my experience, which is extensive if not complete, most comic book stores rack their books by publisher. Marvel books are with Marvel books, DCs with DCs, and if the store is big enough, Dark Horse and Image get their own sections.
The stores don’t do this because they’re idiots, although that’s sometimes also true. Many comics fans buy their books this way. Which seems odd to me, even though I mostly read DC superhero comics. When I go to the bookstore, I don’t go to the Penguin department. When I go to the video store, I don’t go to the Warner Bros. section, or the Weinstein section, or even the MGM Musical section. Why should I have to go to six or seven shelves to find Garth Ennis recent titles?
Will Self is one of my favorites, but I’d have trouble finding his books if I had to remember his publisher from one title to the next. By the way, he’s currently with Bloomsbury.
Martha Thomases is the author of Secret Identities: A Novel with Super-Powers and is ComicMix’s v-p of corporate communications.
The regular occupant of this space, news editor Elayne Riggs, is out this week. The ComicMix staff offers Elayne our deepest sympathies and love on the passing of her father.