What Aisle Is That In? [AKA/Capitalism]

…The rigid distinction made by publishers –either short story or novel–excludes other possible short forms (which still may be found in the prose works of the great American poets, from Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days to many pages of William Carlos Williams). The demands of the publishing business are a fetish that must not be allowed to keep us from trying out new forms” (Calvino 49 − 50).((Calvino, Italo, and Patrick Creagh. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Cambridge, Mass: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.))

In bookstores, genres help the reader navigate the enormous number of options by grouping books genres and subgenres, such as horror, travel guides, science fiction. Yet as the need to shelf books in one physical location diminishes, and as social reading (think Good ReadsAmazon’s suggestions, LibraryThing, etc.) increases, how does the importance of genre change? What happens to the created hierarchy of value based on genre when the reader is no longer focused/fed based primarily on genre but shifts instead to a more amorphous web if interest?

For example, if we consider Amazon’s “shelving” matrix of the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature, it’s interesting to note that the queer-graphic novel-autobiography Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel, will lead potential readers not only to other graphic-novel based memoirs but also to text-based ones, such as to Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being. Yes, these are all memoirs but the crossing from the graphic-novel, historically seen as a lessor genre, with more “literary” work reflects a shifting in how genre works as we move away from traditional marketing. An even larger shift can be seen by the links to books such as A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory and Women: Images & Realities, A Multicultural Anthology. Compare this with a brick&mortar version of Barnes & Noble, where Bechdel’s graphic-novel is shelved only under biographies and is missing from even the graphic-novel section.

Beyond bookstores, however, is the larger issue of the commoditization of creative works and the hierarchy created by that process. The influence of capitalism over defining and maintaining genres without fuzzy borders is similar to that of the gatekeeper. As the Calvino quote above hints at, the danger of a supply/demand model imposed on writing and art is the financial value of a particular work or genre becomes conflated with its intrinsic value.

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