Categorical Incoherence

In this morning’s e-mail, from the increasingly accurately named Random House

I was trained in social science research methods, and one of the things hammered into us is that if you’re going to give someone a multiple choice question, the answers need to be meaningfully different from one another. The question “what’s your favorite dinner?” can’t include the options for both fried chicken and Brad Pitt, because one is a food and the other a dinner partner. (At least, we hope…)

Categories matter, dammit. And it’s not as though there’s a single category system that should always pertain regardless of circumstance; categories are situational, related to what we hope to accomplish more than to the thing itself. The thing is a thing; the category into which we place it says more about us than about the object. It’s an end-based sorting mechanism, and we determine the ends toward which we sort.

The thing that got me started this morning was an e-mail from Random House, entitled “The YA Heating Up This Winter.” YA, for those of you outside the book world, is short for Young Adult, the middle of three age-defined book categories:

  • “MG”—Middle Grade, ages 8-12
  • “YA”—Young Adult, ages 13-17
  • “NA”—New Adult, ages 18-24

So these are fine categories for educators, I suppose, perhaps indicating the range of vocabulary that a reader would need. (Green Eggs and Ham was famously the outcome of a bet Dr. Seuss made with his editor Bennett Cerf, that he could write a successful and engaging kids’ book with fifty or fewer distinct words.) But it’s a dumb category for a bookstore, or for its readers. Let’s look at the books in this morning’s YA e-mail:

  • Karen McManus: One of Us Is Next
  • Melissa de la Cruz: The Queen’s Assassin
  • Astrid Scholte: The Vanishing Deep
  • Holly Jackson: A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder
  • Ransom Riggs: The Conference of the Birds
  • Natasha Preston: The Twin
  • Marie Lu: The Kingdom of Back
  • Jennifer Niven: All the Bright Places

If these weren’t segregated by age, they’d have little enough to do with one another. They are, in order, a contemporary murder mystery, a historical fantasy, a speculative-future fantasy, a cosy mystery, the fifth book in a Harry Potter knock-off series, a psychological thriller, a historical bio (think Amadeus), and a Nicholas Sparks-derived limp romance. They’d be all over the bookstore if they were aimed at adults, but here dumped into a single age-defined box. Kids who are into dragons and magic are different from kids who like murderous high school cliques, but “kids” is the ruling category from the publisher. (In our local bookstore, the books for kids from birth through 16 or so are on an upper floor, surrounded by plush toys and board games… not exactly the landscape for a disaffected Goth kid who just wants to read.)

Within adult books, the distinction between “literary fiction” and “commercial fiction” makes me nuts. Where does Ursula LeGuin belong: in the science fiction genre pool, or in literary fiction because her work is so remarkably elegant and inventive? Bookstores, and the publishing community, have to have a single, stable shelf location for whatever unit comes through the door. The fact that it may not match the author’s conception of it is irrelevant; the book has become a marketing decision, no longer a writer’s story.

A few years ago, I heard the poet Carl Philips tell a story. His early poetry was more overtly political, focusing on his sexual and ethnic identities; his later poetry doesn’t abandon those concerns by any means, but adds other issues to his array. After a reading, a young man came up to him and said “I liked you better when you were a gay poet.” Gay poet is the reader’s box, not the poet’s box. The poet’s just writing stuff.

My friend Aimee tells me that the paper arts community is currently embroiled in a controversy over the definition of paper. American carmakers increasingly don’t make cars, but rather SUVs (don’t you DARE call them a station wagon, even though they are) and trucks (having shed the earlier prefix word “pickup” to become more manly). And “books” are all over the map, from paper objects to audio and .mobi files. In a few years, it won’t be possible to buy audiobook CDs, because CDs won’t exist as a useful category any more, either.

I don’t know… I mean, you know, who cares what you call it, right? But the issue is that categories do the work of including and excluding, perhaps the most basic functions of both social and intellectual life. The publishing industry has built an entire acquisition and sale structure around these inept categories, so they’ve taken on a weight for both readers and writers that they don’t deserve. I’ll quote Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press, on what the categories “literary” and “commercial” do:

Consider Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir that’s as formulaic as it gets. Her concept is in her title: eating in Italy, praying in India, and loving in Indonesia. And the names of all the countries she visited start with an I. This was a highly commercial and highly acclaimed memoir, and its easy summarization is part of what defines it as commercial.

The writer Neal Stephenson uses the categories somewhat more literally, implying that authors of commercial fiction are expected to support themselves through commerce, whereas authors of literary fiction are expected to support themselves through patronage, like university jobs. Again, this is not a distinction useful to readers just looking for a good story, nor to writers just trying to write one.

Building a book is hard enough. Building the category adds an extra burden, more uncertainty.

More tomorrow.