There is a moment from early in my reading history that has always stuck with me. English class, first year at Alness Academy. When we finished a book we had to write a 100 word summary. The more books you read the more stars you got. I can’t remember how many stars I had, but I had read enough books for Mrs Davidson to notice a trend in the titles I was choosing.
That trend was Star Wars. All the books I read were Star Wars books. Lots of different Star Wars books from lots of different series (from the top of my head I remember the Galaxy of Fear YA series, the X-Wing Rogue Squadron series, the Mandalorian Armour series – all about what Boba Fett does after escaping from the Sarlac’s guts – and the Young Jedi series), but all Star Wars books nonetheless. Noticing that I was limiting myself, staying firmly on Tatooine when there was a whole galaxy to explore, Mrs Davidson quite rightly tried to expand my horizons by giving me a new book she thought I would like. I can’t remember what it was. I have an inkling it may have been a Terry Pratchett book, which makes the coming confession all the worse, but I may be mixing memories with the time a few years later when my brother paid me to read Sir Terry’s Jingo for him and write up a report – again for Mrs Davidson. What I do remember was what I said about it. That is the part that sticks with me. My report was short and to the point (unlike this rather rambling blog post). It simply read: “It was good, but it’s not a Star Wars book.”
The mistake I had made, and continued to make for a long time, was to think that there were types of books, kinds of books, categories. The word I’m skipping around is genre. I used to read by genre. Fantasy and sci-fi: those are the books I like. Anything else, not interested. But the more I have read and the more I have read books recommended by others I have come to realise one simple truth: genres are for people who sell books, not for people who read books (and not for people who write books either).
What has all this to do with Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake? It is this. If I told you this book is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, far in the future, with humanity reduced to one single, slinking, stinking individual called Snowman who spends his days hiding from genetically engineered super pigs and rat-snakes, where would you look for it in the book shop? Sci-fi section, surely? But no. It’s in general fiction. Why? Lots of possible reasons. The one I’d go for is that it was nominated for the Booker Prize and the Booker judges won’t pick a Sci-fi book any more than Jeremy Clarkson would pick a bicycle for car of the year. In the end it doesn’t matter why. The moral of the story is that not all the best sci-fi books are in the sci-fi section and not all the books with true literary merit are in literary fiction and some of the books that tell us the most about ourselves and our place in the world do so by building a whole new world and filling it with goblins and trolls or spaceships and lasers or vampires and ghouls.
So don’t stay locking the genre cage. Break out and try something new. Oryx and Crake is a good place to start. I still don’t know what shelf it is supposed to go on so for now I’ll just keep it on the one I use for good stories. It’s the only category that really matters anyway.