Category Failure

This is the first of two having to do with the pitfalls of categories.

The Gestalt principle of continuation, from Smashing Magazine. Do we look at the colors or the shapes to decide what we’re seeing? Which category matters?

Item One. Which of these four things doesn’t belong?

  • fork
  • knife
  • spoon
  • plate

Most people would pretty easily say the plate is the outlier, because three of them are “silverware” or “cutlery,” and the plate isn’t. And they’d be right, but only within one system of knowing. Any of the other answers would be correct as well.

  • fork doesn’t belong, because the others are all five letters and “fork” is only four.
  • knife doesn’t belong, because the other three are all designed to carry food.
  • spoon doesn’t belong, because it’s the only one with a repeated letter.

Item Two. What do these three things have in common?

  • Grand piano
  • Vibraphone
  • Timpani

Well, of course they’re all orchestral musical instruments. But they’re also things I can’t afford, and things too heavy for me to carry.

Item Three-A. What kind of writer writes about all these different things?

  • The cultivation of oranges.
  • Professional tennis.
  • North American geology.
  • The history of fish.

Item Three-B. What kind of writer writes novels about these different characters and circumstances?

  • A divorced pool player in his fifties
  • An orphaned chess player from her ages 8 to 20
  • An alien who comes to Earth to retrieve water for his dying planet

The answer to 3A is John McPhee, and the answer to 3B is Walter Tevis.

(I had the chance to meet John McPhee once, a wonderful storyteller. And he said that bookstores hated shelving his books, because they never knew where to physically put them. Sports? Natural sciences? Agriculture? Business and economics?)

Item 4. Let’s say you have a book about the ways that American suburban teenagers use their homes and their schools and their communities, a book about how kids form particular kinds of emotional relationships with their places. Which of these Library of Congress designators would you use to catalog the book?

  • GF, for human ecology and “anthropogeography”
  • HM, for sociology (specifically social structure)
  • HT, for communities
  • NA, for architecture

Well, you’d be wrong no matter which you chose. The publisher put my first book under HQ, for The Family, Women, Marriage, and Sexuality.

All of this has been on my mind for the past few days because I’m at work on a new novel, which almost certainly would be put on the bookstore shelves as Young Adult. (A little hubris there, imagining my fiction on a bookstore shelf… a boy can dream.) Since I started writing fiction in 2013, I’ve completed seven novels and now at work on the eighth. And none of them would sit on the same shelf in the store. So what kind of writer am I?

Not to mention the giant category divide between my fiction and my nonfiction, already two genres that a single writer shouldn’t straddle. When you apply to writers’ conferences, you have to declare your allegiance to nonfiction or novel or short story or poetry. You aren’t allowed to just show up and be a writer, you can’t have dual citizenship. You have to declare a community and forsake all others.

The closest analog to what I do would be “women’s fiction,” which isn’t a genre like mystery or romance or horror, it’s not a category about plot structure. The Women’s Fiction Writers Association defines their field as “layered stories in which the plot is driven by the main character’s emotional journey.” And that’s exactly what I write: layered stories in which the plot is driven by the main character’s emotional journey. The difference is that my main characters are men, of widely varied age, having reached some point of unsatisfying accomplishment in their lives and wondering what, if anything, might be next. And the Wikipedia entry for women’s fiction clearly says that “There exists no comparable label in English for works of fiction that are marketed to males.”

And now we’re back to another category system, one that claims that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I described my writing to a long-established literary agent a couple of years ago, and she said, “You’re asking men to think about their emotions. They don’t want to do that.”

I have an uncategorical response to that, which I’ll spare you.

It’s hard enough to describe a book in five seconds, as Joe Biel claims is necessary. It’s even harder to describe a writer. Categories help. But they aren’t right.