A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
*Thanks to Natmandu on Flickr for this picture of a beautifully wrapped book, from the Slightly Foxed Bookshop in New Zealand.
Books Should Be Books! by Rosy Thornton
A large, independent bookshop near where I live (which shall remain discreetly nameless) used until recently to categorise its books – of the made-up variety – into two distinct sections: Literature and Fiction.
Before I ever thought about writing novels myself and merely read them by the rucksackful, the distinction used to mystify me. In fact, I experienced it more as an irritating inconvenience than anything else. My reading tastes were – and are – eclectic, and since I could discern no obvious reason why some made-up stories should be located on one side of the shop and some on the other, I generally had to check both sets of shelves before locating the author or work that I was seeking.
Then I began writing my own stuff, and sending it out to agents. On opening the Writers and Artists Yearbook I found the same baffling dichotomy. In order to know which agencies to approach, I had to decide: was I ‘literary’ or was I ‘commercial’?
Literary or Commercial: All that Glisters is not Golding.
Aside from the virtual impossibility of having any objective perspective on one’s own work, the question was an impossible one to answer, because I had never really grasped where the difference might lie. So I went back to my local bookshop and began my investigation. At this point I should perhaps confess that, when I’m not getting up at dawn to write novels, I am a lawyer – and lawyers love to categorise. We define and taxonomise and distinguish: it’s what we’re conditioned to do. We are, in many senses, simply a subspecies of librarian, analysing stories (except ours are of the non-made-up variety, as found in the law reports) and putting them into tidy boxes according to made-up rules. But I digress.
What, I asked myself was the ratio decidendi: the reason or reasons for placing a book on one side of the shop as opposed to the other? In Literature, with its resonances of Eng Lit, of the academy, of giants’ shoulders and the power of the written word – or in Fiction, with its suggestions of storytelling, of unreliability and untruth?
The main criterion for being shelved in Literature, I discovered, was being dead. Not merely the long-dead, like Austen and Dickens and Eliot and Hardy – survivors of the test of centuries – but the more recently deceased were located here, too. I found not only the William Goldings and the Muriel Sparks but also Nevil Shute: a favourite of mine, in fact, but surely only a good, old-fashioned storyteller, who if he were starting out today would be submitting his work to agents handling ‘commercial’ fiction? Yes, being dead for a couple of decades was definitely your best bet.
For the living, the key thing seemed to be to get on to a GCSE or A level syllabus. Any author routinely read in a schoolroom seemed to qualify as Literature. This is the point at which I shall not name names, for fear that any examples I choose – in either direction – might prove invidious. But I will say that the dividing line did not seem to relate to genre in any simplistic way. Dorothy L Sayers (dead) was Literature; PD James (happily very much alive) was Fiction.
Off the Shelf Solution
There, then, is the difficulty: so what, you ask, is my solution? Well, let me take you for a moment to the Cambridge University Library. There the books are classed and shelved according to an idiosyncratic variant of the Dewey Decimal system. The number which indicates a book’s subject matter is followed by a letter, which classifies the volume according to its approximate height. (I know, I know. But even though this means books about the same thing being located inconveniently in four different places depending on how big they are, it apparently maximises efficient use of shelf space.) A version of the same system should, I believe, be mandatorily adopted by all libraries and book stores. The books should not be classified as Literature or Fiction, they should simply be allocated to shelves according to size. (Think how handy it would be if you were looking for something small to slip in your aircraft hand luggage.) Stephen Fry’s QI empire, I understand, runs a bookshop in Oxford which is a pioneer of a similar kind of iconoclasm. There, apparently, the stock is ‘arranged thematically so that a novel might end up next to a work of popular science or a reference book’. Mr Fry, I salute you.
Books Under Cover
Covers, of course, would remain an obstacle. Cover design is the enemy of the level playing field: the insidious perpetuator of stereotypical assumptions. Look at that figure-in-a-landscape in oils: Literature. Look at that soft focus photograph of a child’s feet: Fiction. In my brave new world (Aldous Huxley: Literature) all publishers would be obliged to turn out novels in plain brown covers, bearing only the title and the author’s name – rather like those lovely old orange Penguin paperbacks which filled my parents’ bookshelves.
Did I say the title and the author’s name? That would be no good, either. Beatrice’s Betrayal by Belinda Blacklace: most decidedly Fiction. Titles, therefore, would be replaced by the ISBN number alone, and covers would have the author’s name removed and a code number substituted – much as we have with anonymised examination scripts, to prevent examiners from subliminally awarding higher marks to Steve than to Stephanie, to Ms Singer than to Ms Singh.
Problem solved. In my Utopian future book world, the text would stand alone; the author’s voice would speak for itself. I’m neither Literature nor Fiction, I just write books, OK? Now pigeonhole me, if you dare!
More on Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton’s Writewords page
Reviews of Hearts and Minds
More rants from the Thursday Soapbox here.