April 17, 2008

Lists and Categories

I ran across a link to this today, which is the 110 Best Books as determined by The Telegraph. I don't know if there's anything particularly new or original about it -- people are always making lists of "best" books -- but a couple of things did catch my eye.

One of the things I noticed is that all of the listed books (unless I've missed one or two) are European, and nearly all of those are British, and most of those are English. Well, it is the Telegraph, so perhaps nobody ought to be surprised. Annoyed, yes; surprised, no. There's quite an on-going kerfuffle in the comments section over this, which I think is well worth a look.

The other thing I noticed, which is really more what I wanted to talk about* is how the books are categorized.

The list is divided into several helpful categories, presumably in case you want to avoid certain genres. Or seek them out. Or perhaps because things in lists look neat and tidy when they also have subdivisions. Here are the categories:
Literary Fiction
Romantic Fiction
Books that Changed the World
Books that Changed Your World

All very neat, at least written out as above. But when I started looking at the actual books listed, some of these categories started to break down.

The Classics are pretty straightforward: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Barchester Chronicles, Pride & Prejudice, Gulliver's Travels, one-two-skip-a-few, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch. Yup, those are classics. I think that everyone would agree that these are classics, even though people's individual definitions of "classic" may differ.

But there are lots of books which would fit in multiple categories, or which don't seem to fit their spot on the list at all. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is listed as children's fiction. I don't object to children reading it, by any means, but I don't think the fact that children read it sometimes makes it children's fiction.

1984 is listed as science fiction; most would probably peg it as speculative fiction. Brave New World is in the same position. A la recherche du temps perdu is pegged as literary fiction (whatever that means) but I think you could make compelling arguments for its being a classic and romantic as well. Of course, that might mean using the term "romantic fiction" in a slightly subtler way than the Telegraph does. The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, surprisingly, is not categorized as science fiction. (It is, apparently, a book which has Changed My World).

Very strange. Wouldn't they have been better served by having a fantasy category as well as one for science fiction?

It makes me wonder (again) about genre distinctions and how we use them to "grade" books. Classics are worthy but boring, literary fiction is better than romance, science fiction is interesting but unworthy -- isn't that how it's supposed to go? And how, if you're making a list such as this one, are you supposed to decide where certain books go? Is Sherlock Holmes crime or classic, or classic crime? Is The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe children's fiction or narrative theology? And what on earth do people mean when they use the term "literary fiction"? Fiction that's highbrow but too new to be a classic? Fiction that isn't bubblegum? What about the fact that literature means, basically, "stuff written down"?

Maybe I'm being overly picky. But it's a strange little list they've put together.

(Also, 110 books is only, what, a years' worth of reading? If you're looking for something more substantial, try the list of 1001 Books to Read Before Your Die. There's even a spreadsheet you can download for keeping track).

*I know, I know, Eurocentrism = bad. We get it already. I just want to talk about genre distinctions.


effing librarian said...

no, you're not being picky with the list. I gues lists are categorized to appeal to a specific audience, not what you would call it, but how do they want it called. accuracy isn't too important.
anyway, thanks for saying hi.
hi, back.

Dew said...

I think genres are so arbitrary that I would probably have trouble with any list with categorizations like this. I have trouble even in my own blog choosing tags for my posts! I end up calling nearly ever graphic novel both graphic novel, fiction and comics, for example. Then you get those graphic novels which are really memoirs, and what the heck is the difference between memoir and autobiography, anyway?