01/11/2012 12:36 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2012

Is Literary Fiction A Sham?: Alternative Ways To Classify Books

Genre has become a touchy subject.

It indicates a book's place in the market, how to sell it and who should buy it. It is designed to do a book buyer's work for them, defining an audience according to their reading habits and creating categories that writers ascribe to whether they like it or not (and some do!) But books are too organic and complex to be pigeonholed.

As literary website "The Millions" recently pointed out, "if genre was once a signal to the reader that certain things would happen in a certain way and at a certain pace and to a certain kind of character, that definition is dead."

The biggest issue, as touched upon in an essay by an irked Salman Rushdie, is that if we were to chart book categories by their value to society, "literary" fiction would sit proudly at the top, highlighted in bold italics. All other genres would form its subordinate, dismissible and often entangled branches.

Yet how we differentiate between "literary" and everything else is arbitrary. Qualifiers seem to include introspective narration and beautiful language. But from what I can tell, "beautiful language" is really just code for "adherence to western themes and style."

This isn't a surprise: the writers-of-yore we enthrone are often white, European men. Of course, American publishers and readers enjoy stories about far-flung locations, but anything too syntactically colloquial isn't considered "literary."

Authors with colorful voices still seem to throw bones to more traditional critics and publishers. Books such as Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, narrated by a beefy, Dominican guido who knows his sci-fi, fuddle nice, simple metaphors with SAT vocab as if to say, "Nerdboy, please. I've read Joyce."

The fact that some literary books have classifiable characteristics (the newly-popular "Zone One" is a literary zombie tale according to "The New York Times") shows that genre fiction isn't viewed as merely different than literary fiction. It's a fiction sub-category. "Sub" meaning "under" or "below."

Publishers' and booksellers' tendency to lump novels into groups seems harmless enough. If literature wasn't classified in some way, we'd be left wading through piles of books in which "Twilight" was stacked between Jay-Z's memoir and Christopher Hitchens' essays. Genres allow a reader to make a beeline for their favorite section, and spend to the time they'd have to commit to rummaging through randomness on reading instead.

So categorization is necessary -- but the current system is flawed. Why is Haruki Murakami's latest opus, "1Q84," spotlighted on the "Modern Classics" shelf in many bookstores rather than placed alongside other works by Asian writers? Is it a statement on the book's quality, or is it something else? Perhaps it's popularity (or his publisher's willingness to shell out extra bucks for a prominent bookstore placement). Perhaps it's his devotion to post-modernism, seen as a predominately western affectation.

Same goes for "Salvage the Bones," the National Book Award-winning novel by Jesmyn Ward narrated by a poor black girl in Mississippi. The diction adds to the book's dazzling metaphors and bleak tone. Still, it's difficult to pinpoint why this novel has been awarded a revered literary prize, while Sister Souljah's "The Coldest Winter Ever" is tossed aside into what The Guardian calls a problematic, less serious category: "Urban lit". Both novels chronicle the perils of poverty. Both novels employ lyrical language. Both novels are written and narrated by African American women. But Ward's book is peppered with Faulknarian themes and mythological motifs. Do such conventionally western elements a modern classic make?

There's also Jeffery Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot" to consider. More than an elementary boy-meets-girl page-turner, Eugenides' story delves into semiotics, Eastern religion, and the function of the book in society now that Victorian themes are becoming irrelevant.

A reviewer at "The Observer" says it's a shame that the tale of betrothal with the most media attention was written by a man, because females covering the same subject are equally talented. It would be unwise to assume that books by women, about women aren't as thoughtful or labyrinthine as Eugenides' latest, but unfortunately many are shelved under "chick lit," a term defines as "sentimental."

Elizabeth Day, author of "Scissor Paper Stone," an earnest book with a fuchsia cover, wrote in a piece for The Guardian last year, "the idea that men and women like different books has gained a depressing currency... Men, you see, don't need their own category. They have serious literature, not 'dick lit.'"

"Chick lit" isn't the only offensive label. Countless titles fall victim to inaccurate categorization. When we hear "fantasy," many of us think of forum-generated "fan fic" writers embellishing the stories of Tolkien's star-crossed lovers with their own elfin daydreams. This is unfortunate for authors such as David Anthony Durham, who began scribing fantasy stories after publishing two literary books and receiving an MFA from The University of Maryland -- and presumably would like all of his work to be taken equally seriously.

I know, I know. Plenty of authors write decidedly plot-driven stories, and take pride in their "sci-fi" or "mystery writer" epithets. But according to The Millions, more and more literary writers are exploring back alleys, deep space and other territories previously uncharted by their ilk. If self-aware narration is accompanied by an unrealistic plot (again, by our culture's standards -- voodoo and curses are unremarkable facts of life in some societies,) does the writer's title gravitate away from "serious" and towards "fantastical"?

If we aren't to group books into categories with prejudiced or dismissible undertones, then how else are we to label literature? Here are some alternatives to consider:

Cultural References
Rather than lumping books into categories largely determined by the author's gender or ethnicity, it may be more useful for readers to search based on specific topics, events or cultural references. If you enjoyed "Visit From the Good Squad," you might like to read more about the music scene in America in the 90s. If you adored Ava Bigtree of "Swamplandia!" you'd probably want to know more about wilderness conservation or small-town theme parks.

One such a database is BookLamp, a self-described "Pandora for books." Readers can discover books they like based on a novel's "DNA," which is based on plot points and language. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," for example, is flagged with "criminal investigating" and "newspaper reporting." The language ranks high in motion and low in density. Predictably, the system conjures up the other two books in the Millenium trilogy as similar reads. But Danielle Steele and Alice Munro are also listed, showing the system's ability to expose users to new voices.

Books are choc full of content, and could be grouped into endless categories, including subject matter, setting, time period and writing style. Sure, knowing that an author is a woman or an African American can illuminate rather than restrict, but this shouldn't be the only consideration when assigning a label. Because of this, a system of tagging (a la Twitter) rather than grouping may be more accurate and conducive to accidental discovery. "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf, for example, could be labeled not only as a classic or women's fiction, but #modernism, #England and #dinnerparties.

Though such keywords exist on Amazon, this feature is not taken advantage of by the site. Like a pop-up ad or an RSS-fed Twitter handle, it seems to be used only by authors and publicists for the sole function of self-promotion. It is therefore ignored by users and seen as a nuisance to the general public.

Hopefully this tagging won't doomed to irrelevance, because it has great potential to influence how we choose what we read -- especially if the tags could be determined by readers rather than publishing houses.

One site that shows promise in this arena is Small Demons. Though still running in beta, the programmers aim to create a "Storyverse," guiding users to "new music to listen to. New movies to watch. Places to visit. People to know. And of course, new books to read" based on making connections between the individual cultural elements that exist in each book.

Strategic Placement
While online book sites have the advantage of customizable recommendations, an art that Amazon and Goodreads have mastered, they still lack the joyous, meandering process of scouting in physical stores, flipping through entire chapters of novels that catch our eyes.

So how could Barnes & Noble and local bookstores compete with the prejudice-free selection process? The Strand, a beloved New York City store featuring "18 miles of books" seems to have the right idea: its buyers order several copies of one book, and place each under a different label. For example, "And Tango Makes Three," an illustrated story about homosexual penguins raising offspring, could be placed with Children's Books, but also GLBT Literature and Banned Books (it ranked among the ten most banned books last year.) This makes it easier for customers to discover a book in a context that they already engage with, and fixes the problem of limiting each book to a single genre.

Employee Recommendations
The biggest selling point for bookstores is their tactile and personal nature. Many brick-and-mortar shops feature a table of books that employees recommend based solely on their tastes.

Of course heeding advice from a seller totally unaware of your interests could result in wasted money, but it could also introduce you to a writer that Goodreads' algorithm would never have suggested based on your past reading experiences.

If you'd prefer more nuanced advice, it's as simple as asking a diversely-read employee for help.