Genre confuses many readers. At least it confuses readers on Goodreads. It’s not a rare occurrence that fantasy is shelved as science fiction and vice versa, or that books set in the 1980s are shelved as contemporary and as historical fiction with equal frequency. I sometimes debate with myself if I should shelve a book set in the 1990s as contemporary or not. Where exactly are the lines drawn between contemporary and historical fiction? What happens to contemporary fiction when it becomes outdated? Can it be considered historical fiction then? If not, then what genre does an outdated contemporary book fit into?
There is a fair bit of ambiguity when it comes to genre classifications. Genre, after all is not absolute. Take horror, for instance. Horror contains books that provoke dread or cause fear in characters and/or readers. Yet some readers are more easily frightened than others, so what one reader considers frightful, another might just shrug at. On what scale then is frightfulness measured to determine which books should be classified as horror?
Ambiguity of genre however, exists mostly in those instances when we’re trying to delineate classifications. Separating similar books into differing genres is bound to cause confusion. Why one book is considered to be action while another with similar themes is considered to be adventure might just be a matter of dispute.
Genres in themselves are useful to readers, writers and publishers alike. Readers who enjoyed a particular story set in medieval Rome are likely to enjoy other books with the same setting. Where would they find such books? Under historical fiction. A writer who knows the elements of romance is going to be more focused in her writing if she too intends to write romance. Publishers can use genres as a guideline for future publications. Whether you consider YA to be a genre or an age classification, YA books have become popular among adults, so with the awareness of the expanding target group, publishers can have clearer vision in their marketing strategies. Anyone notice how many recent YA book covers could easily pass off as covers of adult fiction titles?
Point is, genre helps people find the books they want and with an ever growing catalogue of books, classification is necessary to navigate the book landscape. Without genres, it would be difficult to find books that one is more likely to enjoy. Never mind the ambiguity, even if it frustrates me when a book that is clearly realistic fiction keeps being shelved as paranormal on Goodreads.
How do you approach ambiguity in genre classifications?