Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How to Label Wine and Books

Yesterday, I got into a discussion on Twitter about the validity of labels/ categories/ genres for fiction: namely, middle grade —tween — young adult — new adult — adult.

 I don’t like admitting I was wrong, but I will say this: I used to believe in labels. They guided me to the same sorts of books over and over. Books I knew I would like. And they also allowed me to be snotty about books with other labels. But it meant I also missed hundreds of books that I also would have liked, because they didn’t sit on that shelf. Labels can be a great finding tool, but remember that they are, by their very nature, exclusionary.

As far as whether or not middle grade, young adult, adult, etc. are useful labels, I think this: once upon a time, we had an idea that one became a more sophisticated reader the longer one had been reading. Like a wine-drinker whose palette refines and longs for more complicated sensations. So children’s books were supposedly simpler and adult books were more complex and young adult books fell somewhere in between.

But that’s a model that doesn’t account for books that work on several levels. Quite a few novels reward both a shallow read and an analytical read. There is something for the most flippant of readers and something for the most jaded.

What to do with them, then? Do we put all of the complicated books with hard words in adult? Do we put all of the simple books in children's? What about the complicated children who want heartier fare? What about the exhausted adults who want only to be diverted for a moment at the end of the day?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that I mistrust labels deeply. Yes, they should guide readers, but they should never guide readers away. I don’t understand the shame in getting a book from the young adult section, or the romance section, or the sci-fi section, or the picture book section. Someone else put those labels on that book, not you.

And they aren’t the boss of you.
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