On Being a Genre Omnivore

I’ve been wanting to write a post about genre bias for a long time, but I honestly haven’t been sure of what approach to take. After all, bias is inherent in the reading experience. It is every reader’s prerogative to choose the books that interest them and avoid the ones that don’t, and genre frequently plays a role in helping readers decide which books to pick up and which books to pass over.

I’m not a picky reader, but I am a lot more likely to choose a book that uses my preferred character or plot tropes. I tend to prefer some genres to others depending on mood, time of year, what genres my recent reads have been, and a whole bunch of other arbitrary categories. However, I will more or less pick up any book if the story sounds compelling enough.

My omnivorous reading habits are largely a result of my upbringing. My mom is a librarian, and I grew up in a house where books were always available and reading material was never censored. We discussed books around the dinner table and on car trips, and we were open-minded enough to admit that the books we loved didn’t always match up to our usual expectations.

I understand that not everyone was raised this way, and certainly not everyone reads this way. And that’s fine. If historical fiction isn’t your thing, or if you only love mysteries when they contain fantasy elements, great. It doesn’t bother me when people read what they like and skip what they don’t.

What bothers me is when genre bias becomes a strange point of pride, almost, or a rallying cry against other genres. People who proclaim that they “never read X” or that “Y is just too weird for them” tend to raise my hackles, because those kinds of broad generalizations almost always sound judgmental. Discussion is great, and talking about what sorts of genre-specific tropes work or don’t work for you is great. Being dismissive or patronizing of an entire genre because of one common stereotype or theme are not.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve let genre stereotyping dictate my reading habits. When I was a teenager, I somehow convinced myself that science fiction would contain more particle physics or time travel theory than actual story. And though there are plenty of books out there that rely heavily on scientific principles to convey the experience of a particular character, I hadn’t actually read any of them when I came to this conclusion. My opinion had no basis in reality or experience.

Maybe you prefer to read fantasy epics instead of romances, or fiction instead of nonfiction. Maybe you haven’t made it through a single classic without falling asleep mid-sentence. Are you still going to write off—pun definitely intended—a potentially awesome story because you refuse to read anything set in space? Or because you think that an adventure book can’t possibly contain the same quality of story-telling as a work of literary fiction?

When you decide not to read something just because you think you won’t like it, you’re eliminating hundreds of books that you might actually love if you gave them a chance. I’m not saying that you should give up the kind of books you really enjoy. I’m definitely not saying that we should stop talking about genre fiction or genre stereotypes. I think it’s incredibly important to shout about the books we love–regardless of genre–where anyone and everyone can listen.

All I’m asking is that the next time you explore your local library, or bookstore, or browse your favorite online retailer, you keep an open mind. Who knows? Your new favorite book might be waiting on a shelf where you never thought you’d look.

 

What books do you love that are categorized by genres you don’t usually read? I want to know!

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