Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Do We Need the Mystery Section?

In the past few years I started reading crime fiction and in particular I enjoyed getting to know the mystery/crime section and recommending from it when I worked with readers, especially once I realized how passionate my readers were about their crime reading. I also realized quickly that not only are crime readers passionate, they are picky as all get-out. They like what they like. If they read cozies, or Holmes, or Italian, or British, or Canadian, or supernatural, or whatever- that's what they want. Out of all of the categories of readers, they consistently struck me as the least likely to read outside their comfort zones.

I'm no different. This winter I enrolled in a crime fiction reading group and read eight crime novels by different writers, from different eras and representing different styles. Frankly most of the time the books have been a struggle for me, because most of them are outside my bailiwick of gory European crime and antihero books. My favorites were in line with my typical tastes- antihero books and Mediterranean noir. All those hard-boiled noirs we had to read? Puts me to sleep. Classic procedurals? I need a little more, you know? But that's just me, and my reactions are not a reflection of the quality of the books, just my own taste.

But why is this? Why are crime readers (myself included) so difficult and yet so easy to please? Because if you give a cozy fan a new cozy series, he or she will be pleased as punch. But try to sell that person on something even a little grittier and you are plumb out of luck. So what do you do if you have a cozy fan asking for a book and you have nothing new to offer?

I don't think you say come back later. If you know the person likes cozies, for example, you already know something about their tastes and now is the time to introduce them to similar books in the general fiction section. It works the other way too. The person who likes hipster fiction from small presses will like hipster crime, too. (I've seen that play out so I know it's true.) Take that fedora-and-skinny-jeans-wearing-coldbrew-drinker to Melville House. My husband reads science fiction and fantasy, but he also likes crime- the right kind of crime, crime with supernatural or fantastical elements, like Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri series. So the kind of crime someone likes has a lot to do with the other books someone reads.

All of which leads me to ask, do we need a crime section?

Crime readers know the authors and series they enjoy, and they know to hit the shelves looking for those things. When they run out is when they ask for help. So that's the opportunity for the bookseller or the librarian to come up with suggestions, either crime or not, that the reader would enjoy, and we can do that from the general fiction shelves as easily as from the genre shelves if we know our stuff. Moreover, eliminating the crime section would give readers the chance to browse the entire fiction selection and therefore the chance to find all kinds of things they might enjoy. I know one man whose tastes in crime are so specific he will only read mysteries set in Venice. If he only ever browses crime, how will he find the other fiction set there, which he would probably enjoy to? The list of examples goes on.

In New York City I've encountered bookstores and libraries that shelve by genre and those that do not; sometimes it's a matter of space if a place just doesn't have the room or the setup to separate them but I've found a lot more serendipitous selecting going on in those that do not shelve by genre. It also saves the reader time if he or she only has to search once to find a particular book that in another store might be shelved in either fiction or crime (since the distinction can be a fine one at times). I'd rather have just one place to look for a book and not have to guess or ask for help. Many readers won't ask booksellers for help so it pays to make it easy to find things.

So I'm going to advocate for blending the crime into the general fiction more generally, if you will. Doing so would give readers the chance to encounter more, make searching faster and make recommending more seamless, too. It would also communicate the idea, valid in my opinion, that genre distinctions can be capricious and superficial, and often have more to do with someone's ideas about marketing than about making true distinctions between books. Sometimes I think the distinctions set up by sectioning do more to keep readers away from great books than they do to help them find anything anyway.