Vulpes Libris

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.

Thursday Soapbox. Rosy Thornton: Books Should be Books!

On the Soapbox this week, writer of the political romantic comedy More Than Love Letters and campus novel Hearts and Minds, Rosy Thornton, looks at the way we categorise books.

*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

Vulpes Review
Tales from the Reading Room
Of Books and Bikes
Reading Matters
Other Stories

More rants from the Thursday Soapbox here.

31 comments on “Thursday Soapbox. Rosy Thornton: Books Should be Books!

  1. Rosy Thornton
    May 8, 2008

    Ahem! ‘Political romantic comedy’? ‘Campus novel’? Says who?


  2. rosyb
    May 8, 2008

    Ok, I do realise there is a certain irony in the intro to this piece where I categorise Rosy T’s books as “a political romantic comedy” and “a campus novel”.

    As soon as you are doing something like Vulpes, you realise how you DO need to categorise things so that people know roughly what ballpark area you are talking about. As soon as you write a review you have to try and sum up what kind of book something is. More difficult still is when we run “books for Valentine’s Day” or “books for Mother’s Day”. It raises all sorts of difficult questions: what is a valentine’s book? What is a “typical” mother? (although I imagine some of our idiosyncratic choices for the latter might be a bit more anti-M’s Day than anything else.)

    The point is – how do the right books find the right readers and vice versa?

    I do love Penguin orange covers but I’m not convinced that is the answer when we have such a huge diversity of books now. I associate orange penguins with interesting classics – but they were classics already by the time I came across them.

    But I don’t know what the answer is.

  3. Pingback: Thursday Soapbox. Rosy Thornton: Books Should be Books! :

  4. annebrooke
    May 8, 2008

    Tee hee! So true! Love it, Rosy. Actually, I’m thinking of calling my next book “The Bible” – I suspect it will need a very big shelf! Ooh, and that QI Oxford bookshop is fabulous too.



  5. Kirsty
    May 8, 2008

    The QI Bookshop *was* fabulous. Now, sadly, it is but an empty shell. Whether permanently or merely temporarily I don’t know. I hope it’s the latter. I fear it may the former; last weekend I had a peek in the windows and all the shelving has been taken down.


  6. Rosy Thornton
    May 8, 2008

    Noooo! Kirsty, that’s so sad.

  7. Eve
    May 8, 2008

    Fantastic Rosy, I really enjoyed reading that. And to heck with categorising, I say, a book is a book and shouldn’t be made to squeeze into a tiny pre-decided group. It should be like a tombola or lucky dip – you never know what you’re going to read next!

    I wouldn’t include children’s in this though since they need a bit of guidance in the suitability of the text (not mine I have to say since I am of the opinion that if they can be bothered to read it, they can read what they like).

    I too am saddeded to hear about the QI bookshop. I would have thought that if any Independent might have made it, one with the might of a popular TV show behind it would 😦

  8. Eve
    May 8, 2008

    And I shall be starting writing classes next week to try to make sense with my next posts… sheesh! 😉

  9. Tris
    May 8, 2008

    A book is a book – I wouldn’t really mind where mine were shelved – so long as they were read 🙂

    And I love the penguin covers too.

  10. Tania Hershman
    May 8, 2008

    A very interesting post and something I have been thinking a lot about lately. Over at the Short Review, we have a “find something to read by category” page, and every book is under several categories, because this seems to make sense. A book might be horror sci fi, or humorous magical realism, or humorous horror magical realist sci fi. Why should it have to squeeze into one shelf? In an ideal world one book would be found in many different sections of a bookshop – or the whole shop would, as Rosy suggested, be just sorted by size. I love that! Genre distinctions – any distinctions – cut out potential readers. Down with distinctions!

  11. Rosy Thornton
    May 8, 2008

    Tris, RosyB: Yes, I love the old orange Penguins, too. But of course in the real world it’s no solution. Look at the gorgeous, plain dove grey covers of Persephone books – perversely, the very absence of commercial images on the front shouts ‘literary’ louder than anything!

    I guess what my ramblings come round to showing is that there is no getting away from it – there will always be factors by which a book is pre-judged. I was just trying to use the soapbox to make a (slightly oblique!) plea for readers to question their own prejudices – and to be slower to leap to judgement without giving a chance to the text between the covers.

  12. Emma
    May 8, 2008

    Lovely piece, Rosy, thank you. Made me laugh, too.

    One of the things about Penguins, of course, was that they weren’t originals – they were always licenced from the hb publisher – so you could count on at least some readers to have an idea of what they were all about, regardless of the plain covers. And of course they WERE genre specific. I’m sure some authors in 1932 were frothing at the mouth to find themselves in green-for-crime when they thought they were lit’ry… They did also put an image of some sort on the cover quite soon: as I recall (biog of Allen Lane, and the book about Penguin covers whose title escapes me both highly recommended, BTW) as soon as the other hb publishers banded together to found Pan as a counterweight to having to sell pb rights to Penguin, they went straight to illustrated covers, and Penguin had to do the same, to compete, because like it or lump it, readers do look for guidance.

    And there’s a different angle on the cover question, of course. It’s PhD day today, and I’ve been looking at all the things in a novel that aren’t the main text – forewords, authors’ notes, acknowledgements, disclaimers, historical notes, further reading and so on – because they’re all things which are trying to guide the reader in how they should read the text. There’s a PhD to be written – not by me – about the role of the jacket/cover as well as all those things in how readers then set out to put the story together in their minds from the text. Everything from the plaintive Amazon reviewer who says, ‘This didn’t turn out to be what I expected,’ or the cheerful one who says, ‘Don’t let the blurb put you off’ to sophisticated semiotic analysis… I can feel a blog post coming on – thanks, Rosy!

  13. roger
    May 9, 2008

    Great piece, Rosy, loved it! I don’t know if they still are, but didn’t French books used to be published with very plain and uniform paper covers – if they had covers at all? I might be having a bit of a brainstorm here.

    It’s weird for me, sometimes, to stop and realise that I am a crime writer. I don’t honestly know how this has happened. I suppose I made a choice at some point, but I honestly think I spent years writing (unpublished and probably unpublishable) novels that did not fit easily into any genre. Then I decided that I wanted to explore the idea of genre, and write a book that conformed to genre rules… in my case, I was drawn towards crime. For me it was as much a writing challenge as anything else – first and foremost a writing challenge, and one that excited me. Anyhow, I would say that the door to the citadel was opened then, because it was suddenly a lot easier for a publisher to see how they could position me within the market. I would argue that I was the same essential writer though – just one who had decided to climb inside a pigeon hole. Or should that be pigenre hole?

  14. litlove
    May 9, 2008

    I loved this – so entertaining! I think we should all stand out against categorisation as far as possible, because publishers and marketing people make way too many decisions based on labels. I say this from the position of having taught a lot of seminars on the difficulty of making absolute distinctions between history, autobiography and fiction. Once you start really poking around in these classifications, the borderlines become very fuzzy. But I also speak as someone who loves all kinds of novels and gets annoyed when people look down their noses at wonderful reads with vibrant characters that happen to have the kind of cover that indicates fictional frothiness. So few novels really fit their labels tidily.

  15. marygm
    May 9, 2008

    Great piece, Rosy. I agree totally about this business of categorisation, especially between ‘literary’ and ‘fiction’. But is it possible to read without any expectations at all? It seems that word-of-mouth is the most powerful way to sell books and that creates expectations too.

  16. ireneintheworld
    May 9, 2008

    completely agree rosy. actually i think that if the general reading public were allowed to make the decision for themselves there wouldn’t be this fear of literature; it would all boil down to just ‘style’, and they would either like a writer’s style or not.

  17. Emma B
    May 9, 2008

    I’d just mention that publishers wouldn’t be obsessed with pigeon holing if it wasn’t for retailers. Genuinely, you can’t sell a book into a retailer in any quantity unless it has a short, clear elevator pitch – which comes as much from the cover as anything. Hence you get a book that depending on your POV could be crime, historical fiction, romance or even fantasy pigeon holed as just one of those.

  18. rosyb
    May 9, 2008

    I suppose that problem of categorisation is evident even in Vulpes. (Take a look at our category list where we are bending over backwards to get specific and meaningful categories, but inevitably something won’t fit and we’ll be making a new one – in which case the whole thing gets so complex you wonder if it is a bit of a catch 22). Perhaps the trouble is the fixedness of the categories. It would be great to have a load of peculiar choices for Valentine’s Day one week and then look at the same book in terms of detective fiction or themes of loneliness or something the next. Seeing the same book in different ways. But then that hardly solves the problem of trying to get something across in as short a time as possible does it?

    I was inspired by RosyT’s post to write a bit about this on my own blog:

  19. Simon Thomas
    May 10, 2008

    Another review of Hearts and Minds if you click on my name! Should take you to the correct link…

    Charity shops baffle me the most with their Literature/Fiction divide – because it is almost always based on the knowledge of the person working in the backroom. I’ve seen Wuthering Heights under children’s literature…

  20. toujoursjacques
    May 10, 2008

    What an excellent post followed by thoughtful commentary. Much to think over here. Sorry to hear the bookshop you recommended is gone. It sounded fabulous! TJ

  21. Jackie
    May 10, 2008

    This was a brilliant example of irony and very entertaining. I really like the idea of arranging things by theme. But I shuddered at your idea of no covers, as an artist, I really savor that part of a book. Having really enjoyed this clever piece, I hope Ms. Thornton, that you remain in Fiction(alive) for a very long time to come.

  22. Lucy Diamond
    May 14, 2008

    Great post! It made think of the second-hand bookshop I used to go to in (supposedly right-on politically correct) Brixton where they had two main categories of fiction: Women’s Fiction and Literature.
    Make of that what you will… (and yes, I did complain to the manager!)

  23. rosythornton
    May 15, 2008

    Ooo, Lucy – don’t get me started on how gender comes into all this stuff! Someone else needs to do a soapbox on that one.

  24. Emma
    May 15, 2008

    Daunt’s, the bookshop in Marylebone, started as a travel bookshop, so all fiction is arranged, by country of origin, in with the guidbooks and memoirs. Wonderful for browsing…

    And thanks for the inspiration, Rosy – it’s finally resulted in a blog post…


  25. Pingback: Hearts and Minds (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

  26. adele geras
    May 16, 2008

    Marvellous piece, Rosy! And I do agree but I would a) miss the lovely covers that some books have and b) not many people would be tempted to buy books under their plain wrappings. People who knew the reputation of the writer would buy their book but in order to sell in numbers, you need to tempt the people who DON’T know such things. If there were a different way of paying writers, none of this would matter, but unfortunately you have to sell in oder to be re-published!!
    I think the cover of your book is good, btw. And the book inside is lovely!

  27. rosythornton
    May 16, 2008

    Hello, Adele! You are right, of course – and my tongue was very much in my cheek when writing this article, because I also love a lot of book covers to bits. But I do think there is far too much narrow categorical thinking by publishers – concerned to tap an identifiable readership and thus unwilling to take risks – and probably too much judging-a-book-by-its-cover by consumers of the end product.

  28. Pingback: Incoming! Crossed Wires, by Rosy Thornton - Ms. Bookish

  29. Pingback: BOOKS AND MOVIES » Bookish links for Saturday, June 13, 2009

  30. emily cross
    November 28, 2009

    Brilliant post Rosy!!! Extremely entertaining, thanks for directing me here!

  31. Pingback: The Tapestry of Love, by Rosy Thornton « Vulpes Libris

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