How do you find things in a bookstore? Umapagan Ampikaipakan rants about the arbitrariness of classification
“I despair of ever getting it through anybody’s head I am not interested in bookshops, I am interested in what’s written in the books. I don’t browse in bookshops, I browse in libraries, where you can take a book home and read it, and if you like it you go to a bookshop and buy it.” — Helene Hanff, Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
WE live in a time with unprecedented access to the written word. Books are available everywhere. We can get whatever we want, whenever we want. With the flick of our wrists, with the snap of our fingers, with the click of a button, we can do anything. Everything. You can browse through countless works of classical fiction, available for free, all across the world wide web.
You can place an order for that out of print edition of your wife’s favourite childhood book from a secondhand dealer in Namibia. Carefully bubble wrapped and couriered out to you within 24 hours. Nothing is out of reach. There are even little electronic devices that allow you carry entire libraries in the palm of your hands.
And yet, every time you walk into a bookshop, you are suddenly confronted with a very curious thing. It is an illogical thing. It is an arbitrary thing. It is a shelving situation that needs to be addressed. For it is impossible to find anything any longer. Dewey be damned.
It is something that would be acceptable if it was merely a matter of marketing. Those distinctions by demand are at least sufficient if not necessary. The section for “chick-lit”, or for “romance”, or even that eternally obliqued “mystery/thriller”. Because it is done to appeal to a certain demographic, to those who are entirely discriminatory in their reading choices, for those who choose only a specific kind of fiction. Because such shelving makes it easier for them to locate their book of choice, to pay for it, and be on their way. Because such shelving gets those people out of bookstores as quickly as humanly possible.
But what is it that separates “fiction” from “literary fiction”? There is a capriciousness in classification, a brutal administration that is beyond comprehension. There is an unfair delineation between Alice Sebold and Anita Shreve, between Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe, between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie.
What is “women’s fiction”? What does that even mean? It isn’t “romance”. It isn’t “chick-lit”. Sometimes there’s Margaret Atwood and Iréne Némirovsky, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes there’s Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver. Zadie Smith might be considered to be too “literary”.
And what about “Asian Writing”? Is it merely a Booker that determines Kiran Desai’s location over Preeta Samarasan? Will Tan Twan Eng now suddenly find himself becoming less “Asian” and more “literary?” Why do some Asian authors transcend that geographical boundary between shelves while others don’t. Is the “Asian Writing” section some sort of purgatory for all those who try hard, but can in fact do better? Does it not even warrant the labels “fiction” or “literature”?
It is the slightest bit condescending. Because we aren’t talking about sub-genres of fiction. We’re talking about a classification of fiction that is a reflection of quality. There is a distinction between something considered to be “literary” and something that isn’t. Especially when that which isn’t is considered to be a lesser thing.
And so I am constantly reminded of this old one liner by George Carlin and it goes a little something like this: “I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.”