At the American Library Association’s (ALA) conference on Saturday morning, the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA)-sponsored panel, “Beyond Genre: Exploring the Perception, Uses, and Misuses of Genre by Readers, Writers, and Librarians,” had so many interested attendees that the room had to be changed out for a larger one. Its audience—the bespectacled, the tote-bagging, the iPad-ing—were there to see crime novelist Laura Lippman (“Tess Monaghan” series), fantasy author Naomi Novik (whose “Temeraire” series inserts dragons into the Napoleonic Wars), and women’s fiction writer Margaret Dilloway (The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns) talk about the limits of genres, and where and how those limits are being pushed and pulled.
“If there is a formula, please give it to me,” said Lippman, rejecting the idea that genre novels—as opposed to works of literary fiction—follow a prescribed recipe.
On her own writing, Lippman said, “I am trying to find a way to see how quiet suspense can be.” Her project, though it is less a concerted effort and more a persistent interest, is to see how slow, domestic, and interior a thriller can be while remaining a thriller. “I was never trying to get away from crime novels,” she explains, “I was just trying to push it.”
Dilloway described herself as a writer of women’s fiction, though the title seemed to frustrate her. “I will always be writing about women,” she said, concluding that, ”I suppose I will always be writing women’s fiction [but] the unspoken response to this statement is why authors who write about men are not writers of “men’s fiction.” Happily, Dilloway was unrepentant about her subject matter. Because of this constant, she explained—the interior lives of women—her genre is static, only the subgenres change. (Dilloway’s husband suggested that women’s fiction plus sci fi would equal a new subgenre, “sci cry.”)
Novik brought a particularly interesting perspective to the table. Not only is she the author of a genre-bending series, she is also “a huge fan fiction reader and writer.” In that mode of writing, she explains, “you have even a more extreme problem of abundance and curation.” Novik works with an archive that curates and organizes fan fiction, An Archive of Our Own (AAOO), which has deepened her perspective on genre. “Part of genre questions are marketing issues,” she reflects, “Where do we put this so readers can find it?”
AAOO uses a taxonomy of tags to organize their collection, which are standardized but not restricted in use or number. Those in charge of tags are called “tag wranglers.” Just as many stories can be tagged according to the works to which they refer—Doctor Who, the Harry Potter series—they can also be linked by tags that refer to broader themes or common tropes. Stories can be linked with tags such as “amnesia,” “pregnancy,” even “pregnesia” (presumably a terrifying combination of both), which allows readers to find stories across fandoms.
“Choice in general is difficult for humans,” Novik summed up, which makes it all the more important to help guide readers through the selection process.
How to successfully provide that guidance was addressed on Sunday, June 30, by a group of readers’ advisory (RA) librarians from Illinois’s Schaumburg Township District Library. Sponsored by the Public Library Association (PLA), the “Leading Readers to Water…Guerilla Marketing for RA” program was packed, with the floors covered with seated librarians a crowd at the door peering inside. Everyone had a laptop, a notepad, or a tablet device out, and it’s no wonder: the five speakers laid out practical idea after practical idea in quick succession, with an occasional quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War thrown in for semi tongue-in-cheek inspiration.
Helen Stewart began by asserting that, “Readers’ advisory is a transformative act.” She encouraged RA librarians to be anticipatory—to instigate conversations and extend them—rather than merely reacting to requests. She highly encouraged using shelf talkers, cheap but clever displays (e.g., a tape outline of a dead body around a murder mystery table), and mugs or name tags that display what a librarian is reading. They make great conversation starters.
“Not knowing where to begin with an author is a major impediment for readers,” Stewart explained, “Do the work for them.” Adding a special sticker to books in a series or preparing annotated book inserts, which can speak to readers in a way in which the language on the book jacket doesn’t, help titles more approachable.
“Remember, not everyone reads in English,” Nancy McCully added, as she suggested starting book clubs in other languages. She also suggested that book clubs meet in central library areas, rather than cloistering themselves in conference rooms. Let their discussion act as an advertisement for other readers who might be interested in joining.
Susan Gibberman told the audience not to get discouraged. “Yes, I have run a program for one person before,” she revealed. Gibberman also pointed to public computers as a great place to promote a library’s collection, whether by placing flyer images as a desktop background or screensaver, or using the area around the terminals themselves to advertise. She recommended NoveList, Earlyword, and Epic Reads as great online RA tools.
Bearing Quick Response (QR) codes, Kate Niehoff encouraged libraries to use them around the library. “Anybody with a smart phone can use one,” she said. Niehoff also spoke about social media. “Kitsap Regional Library is my current library crush,” she said, for their excellent RA work on Facebook. She added, “Facebook is not all about marketing. It’s not a one way communication tool.” Like any other library space, it’s ultimately about engaging your patrons. Ask questions there, she encouraged attendees—these questions could include, “Who is your favorite literary dad?” right before Father’s Day, for example. Images are important, Niehoff added, without them a Facebook post “is pretty much useless.”
As for Twitter, she suggested that libraries set up custom feeds, for instance of all of the users you can find in a library’s given service area. It’s a good way to keep track of what people in your community are talking about, and helps to initiate conversations about relevant books or library programs. Niehoff also encouraged libraries to use hash tags such as #fridayreads, and to connect and promote with local bookstores on Twitter.
Both panels tackled the hard work of getting readers to a book they love, regardless of what genre it falls in or how that connection happens. If these panelists are the example, both writers and librarians are up to the task.
Check out a list of suggested books and article about genre and “recent but sure bet” genre titles prepared by RUSA CODES RA Research and Trends Committee.