The end of genre: Readers’ Advisory in the age of genre blending

Readers’ Advisory is an important and sometimes underutilized library service, at least at my library. Skills that make for a good Readers’ Advisor are muscles: They atrophy with disuse. That’s why I always leap at the chance to advise our readers, whether actively or passively.

While a recent Library Journal survey found “more than half of respondents say RA increased in importance in the last three years,” I’m just not seeing that at our library. Don’t get me wrong, I think readers will need RA more than ever now that publishing is exploding. I mean, in the last eight months, my small public library purchased over 8,000 items. That is far too many for readers to explore without completely getting bogged down. And, I have seen a few more people asking for help finding the next fiction series to dive into. That’s why I’ve been spending a great deal of my time getting our RA materials in order.

Readers’ Advisory from Library Advocate

Recently, I’ve updated our science fiction and fantasy advisory materials – some thoughts from which were incorporated into a recent post about science fiction. I plan to offer some thoughts on fantasy, too, but all this discussion of genre has got me thinking about how much genre traps readers.
Let me explain:
The first question in any Readers’ Advisory interview is this: “What sort of books do you read?” Good librarians will follow up by asking for a list of the last few books read and clarify which aspects of these books especially appealed to that reader. This process helps librarians narrow down the vast field of books down to a few key authors/series. But the problem is that readers just don’t know how to describe some of the books they like. Or they do, but they don’t offer enough information to allow librarians to extrapolate likes into potential likes. I think great Readers’ Advisory broadens a reader’s horizons. We can do this by offering one or two books that will definitely appeal and at least one wildcard that shares a similarity with the reader’s likes but isn’t necessarily something they would pick up on their own. Without doing this, readers are trapped into a genre, losing the chance to discover new authors/styles/genres that they might equally love.

When I worked recently to do a year-in-review of the books I read in 2014, I struggled to classify some of the books I read. This is because most of the books that appeal to me are a mix of genres. There might be science fiction with a noir-flavored mystery, or literary fiction mixed with elements of high fantasy, but I rarely read books that fit into a specific, narrow genre. When it comes to RA, thinking of genres as fluid as opposed to distinct can help RA librarians come up with better recommendations. This is what Megan McArdle talks about in the latest book of (expensive) professional literature that I get the chance to read thanks to my job.

The Readers' Advisory Guide to Genre Blends by Megan McArdle

The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Blends by Megan McArdle

I loved McArdle’s book The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Blending. It probably sounds boring to you non-library workers. Actually, it’s kind of a boring title even to me. But it was excellent. McArdle gives an overview of genres, discussing the Adrenaline, Fantasy, Historical, Horror, Mystery, Romance, and Science Fiction genres. She then jumps into the meat: How authors are meshing these genres into completely new books. She then offers examples of each, as well as plenty of read-alikes (think, “If you liked xyxyx, then you should read xxyxy”). The book gave me a lot more confidence in my ability to offer new options to readers, as well as finding plenty of books to try out for myself (I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will never get my to-read list down to manageable levels).
McArdle has a lot of nuggets of wisdom, but I loved this the most:
“If genre fiction is derided by some as escapist reading, I would like to go on record as saying that an escape into literature is not something to be denigrated. If a book can take you somewhere else with your imagination and if, as in the best reading experiences, you also take something back with you, those are surely journeys worth taking.” p. 49.
So, why did I title my post the end of genre? Well, I don’t mean that genres as we know them have stopped existing. Far from that, genres are most definitely alive and well. In fact, using genres to organize libraries (as bookstores do, for example) is gaining popularity in many school libraries. This is called genrefying a collection or genre-fication, and a lot more can be read about that from Mighty Little Librarian, Mrs. ReaderPants, and the Bespectacled Librarian (among others).
For me, though, the blending of genres has sometimes served to muddy the waters enough that readers are no longer trapped by genre. And we librarians no longer have to confine our RA recommendations to one genre or another. I, personally, look for books that don’t conform to any one genre when I am on the hunt for my next great read.
And I think all you readers out there should do that, too. Prefer sappy Nora Roberts romances, but want to give fantasy a try? McArdle advises you read Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost. Love science fiction, but find that you are strangely attracted to those mystery television shows? I know you will love James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. Genre blending gives readers the chance to find a book that meets all of their interests. And McArdle’s recommendations really offers something for everyone, and I am not kidding. She even breaks down how far into another genre a particular book reaches. And you have to give credit to some of these authors. McArdle does:
“Genre blending is not about breaking a genre or ignoring what makes it great – writers who blend must have a solid knowledge of and respect for a genre before they can use it.” p. xii
So with all these options, why is RA still so hard? Why can’t librarians just glance at this book – or any other RA resource – and quickly place the perfect book into a reader’s hands? It’s because, as I have said and McArdle explains, “Reading is an incredibly personal thing, and no two people come away from a book having read it exactly the same way” (p. 176). Successful readers’ advisory requires librarians to interact with patrons and to understand exactly why they like a book, something that readers aren’t always able to identify. In the end, some of it is our own opinion. But next time you ask a librarian for a recommendation, do two things for me: Be specific about your likes and suspend your reluctance to try new genres. You never know what incredible worlds your friendly, neighborhood librarian might introduce you to today, if only you are willing to give their suggestions a try!

One thought on “The end of genre: Readers’ Advisory in the age of genre blending

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro | Beta Librarian

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