Searching for a copy of Diana Gabaldon's Dragonfly in Amber, the second novel in her Outlander series, in a used paperback store, I was unsure where to look. I knew the books were romances, so should I look for it in that category? But they are also historical fiction, set mostly in the 18th century, so should I look there? The novels have to do with time travel, so perhaps I would find the book in science fiction or fantasy. Striking out, I finally asked the proprietor for help. She suggested I try paranormal romances. Paranormal romances? I would have never guessed. I didn't even know such a genre existed.
I can understand why booksellers divide fiction according to genre. Many people walk into a bookstore knowing exactly what kind of novel they want to read, a mystery or a western perhaps, and so they can go directly to the genre they seek without having to wade through a lot of novels they would never want to read. I suppose that's a good thing, yet such readers are likely to miss something good when they shop this way.
Recently I finished reading two books, Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver and Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, that readers who shop by genre might miss. Stephenson's novels always seemed to be classified as science fiction, yet Quicksilver is a historical novel set in the 17th century. Much of the story has to do with Isaac Newton and other early scientists, but still it seems like a stretch to term it science fiction. Meanwhile Russell's short story collection, to be found with the general fiction, would delight many science fiction readers. These are fanciful tales about bizarre worlds, such as the title story about daughters of werewolves sent to a school where nuns try to turn them into ladies. Sci-fi fans who can't get through Stephenson's massive novel, the first book in a trilogy, mighty enjoy Russell's book, if they are lucky enough to find it. Meanwhile those who love good historical fiction may never come across Quicksilver because they will be looking in the wrong place.
Because of the success of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, all of Alexander McCall Smith's books are likely to be found in the mystery section. Yet even his "detective" novels barely qualify as mysteries, and the 44 Scotland Street books certainly don't.
What's to be done? Forgetting about genres altogether would probably be too much to ask. Too many people go genre-shopping to find the books they like or to avoid those they don't like. Booksellers, however, should stop thinking that any book must be shelved in one place or another. Why not both? Why not shelve Dragonfly in Amber with the romances, the paranormal romances, the historical novels, science fiction and, yes, general fiction? That way everyone who might want to read it should be able to find it with ease.