Monday, March 09, 2009


(WARNING: Deadline brain still in full force)

I never gave any thought to genre when I was a child. Hell, I really never gave a whole lot of thought to genre until I signed a contract with my agent. But looking back at over half a century of being an avid reader, I know my reading choices were affected by several parameters—the least of which was a genre.

My choices as a child were limited by 1) what my mother brought home 2) what was in the local Five-&-Dime (and for those of you scratching your heads, ask—I am giving away my age here…) 3) what I had to read in school and 4) what was available from the Scholastic Book Club that month (also part of school). I had Golden Books (remember those? They’re still around). I read stories about talking rabbits and talking cats and talking butterflies. Was I reading fantasy? Damned if I know. I was reading a colorful book with hard cardboard covers and a gold foil spine. I was having fun. I was being pulled out of my me-ness and my world and into Someplace Else in my imagination.

I also had several large books of fairy tales, which I assume my parents or some relative bought. There was the usual Mother Goose stuff but there were also Aesop’s stories, and then one book that I remember treasuring that had to be someone’s original ideas. Thinking back, they had an almost Narnia quality to them but they weren’t the Narnia books. There was one tale of a clothes cabinet in an attic, and the little girl in the story could use it for all sorts of adventures (I’m thinking a mirror was involved). I remember one of the stories involved a pair of red shoes (Mary Jane style from the illustration that I can still—vaguely—see to this day). The other involved a dress she wore in a print of multi-colored pom-poms. I craved that dress. There was something about that particular dress and its colors, but what and how and why are all long since gone from my mind.

So perhaps I read adventure? Thriller? With a fantasy sub-plot?

In school Dick and Jane were always doing something. Was that general literary fiction? A precursor of Oprah meets Dr. Phil? Then when I was nine or ten my mother subscribed to Reader’s Digest Condensed Classics For Children, and every few months a nice big fat volume came in the mail. For me. Oh, joy. Oh, rapture. I fell in love with The Scarlet Pimpernel. I solved crimes with Sherlock Holmes.

I wouldn’t know a genre if it bit me in the behind.

At the end of every school year, the local library had a book sale, with the children’s books all on long tables. I was in heaven. I had my dollar which meant I could buy ten books, and I grabbed them based on cover images, title. Genre? No clue. “Does this look like fun?” was my only parameter.

I read The Hobbit in eighth grade. Not because I was browsing the fantasy section but because everyone else was reading The Hobbit. I never asked myself if I like fantasy or whether I’d find stories about not-quite-human creatures believable. “Suspension of disbelief” had no meaning to me. After all, I’d cut my reading teeth on fairy tales. Reading about ogres and witches and fairies and talking mice and flying cats had opened my mind long ago.

I read for the sheer joy of the experience. Opening the first page of a book signaled to my mind an immediate shut off of here and now, of reality as I knew it. Even when I was a pre-teen and read You Have To Draw The Line Somewhere—a YA novel before such were labeled so—about a high school girl deciding between a regular college and an art school. No unreality in that but it was still not MY life or MY school or MY decision. So it required a shut off of here and now, which I gladly did. (If you think it’s amazing that I remember the title of a book I read when I was twelve, then you don’t understand the depth of my love affair with the printed word.)

I didn’t give one thought to whether or not I liked the genre.

Rather, the one common denominator in all that I read—once I could make my own choices—was “does this problem or situation sound interesting?” In essence, conflict. In essence, to quote Blake Snyder, I was interested in “it’s all about a guy who…” Whether the guy was a prince, a doctor, a magician or a high school student mattered not one bit.

In my twenties and later, I did a lot of book buying at the grocery store where, for the most part, there’s no genre separation. Oh, there’s a little, with romance books on the left of the long display and some science fiction and fantasy in a row at the bottom. Or vice versa. But as people read the back cover blurbs and replace them, the books just get put back…somewhere. So I chose much as I had a decade before at the school library sale—what looks like fun?

I first read Melissa Scott because I found her Five Twelfths of Heaven in a bin in K-Mart.

I found Sherrilyn Kenyon’s A Pirate of Her Own (writing as Kinley MacGregor) in a bin in TJ Maxx (or it might have been Beall’s Outlet…).

I found Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia…I don’t know where. I only remember reading it in college so possibly it was on a rack in the IU bookstore.

I didn’t read back then with one eye tracking whether or not the author fulfilled the conventions of the genre. I read because it was all about a gal or guy who… and it wasn’t where or who I was.

It never occurred to me to read—or not read—a certain genre because it wasn’t cool or it wasn’t something a female would read or it wasn’t highly regarded by this-or-that person.

I read because for a couple hundred pages, I wasn’t me.

So why do you read? What did you read as a child and has that impacted what you read now?

And do you quiver with excitement over a bin full of mixed books in a bargain store…or do you need your genres properly cordoned off on shelves?

Inquiring minds want to know. ~Linnea

Linnea Sinclair
// Interstellar Adventure Infused with Romance//
Available Now from Bantam: Hope's Folly


  1. Linnea:

    Good observation about how we introduce children to reading then separate everything into genres.

    My early reading centered on the Children's Library (which was a separate building from the adult library).

    My mother wanted me to read because I was failing 5th grade because I couldn't read -- just didn't GET IT.

    I hated reading. Then my mother, in desperation, snuck me a book from the ADULT LIBRARY. It was BATTLE ON MERCURY. (I've since bought a collector's copy for $40 or so.)

    After that, you couldn't stop me, but I REFUSED to read children's books until I found the SF shelf in the children's library and zipped through Andre Norton, and couldn't stand Nurse Nancy and Nancy Drew stank. But the boy's books were really good and I gobbled them up.

    But there wasn't much kidlit - and so my Mom kept sneaking me books until they finally let me take out adult books myself. I remember librarians kept saying I wouldn't like it because it was too grown up. They were wrong.

    Suddenly I went from a D and F student to an A and B student in reading and spelling, vocabulary and all that verbal stuff.

    I did become a more eclectic reader though because I ran out of SF fast. In High School I even saved up all my bottle return money to buy Ace Doubles (25 cents! and I still have the whole set!) and re-read them all several times. I was the re-read freak of the century.

    I re-read Andre Norton's STAR RANGERS 16 times before I lost count, the book I re-read the most often and finally had to write the sequel to myself (DUSHAU trilogy).

    I also re-read SWORD OF ALDONES multitudinous times.

    But even so, in those days, that wasn't enough (even with the SF magazines) to keep a reader supplied. So I read mysteries and everything else.

    When I was in 6th grade or so, I used to sit in the fiction stacks while my Mom was getting books. I'd sit on the floor and look up at all the books and read the TITLES and tell myself the story that just had to be in that (forbidden adult) book.

    That was about when I discovered I didn't need to read books -- I had plenty of books inside me that were even better. Sometimes written books disappointed me. My own books never did.

    When I was in High School, one day walking to Chemistry class, I stepped across a crack in the walk and BECAME a professional writer by deciding that's what I'd be. After school, I went to the library and took out books on writing.

    I wanted to write my own books so I'd have something to read in my old age.

    If I have a phobia, it's a fear of having nothing to read.

    As life is at the moment, I have more to read than I can read. That may not last, but I still have plenty of books inside me to enjoy when I can't read.

    Still, it's a question of finding just the right book among all the undistinguished ones. Genre helps find something for the right mood, and I learned early to follow particular writers -- and very soon after that to note the publisher's imprint from books I love.

    Then I learned it isn't the publisher -- it's the EDITOR that counts. Worse yet, the least often cited person who counts the most in knowing a book is good before you read it -- THE AGENT!!!

    So my quesiton to librarians is why don't they file books on the shelves BY AGENT?

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  2. Anonymous7:55 PM EDT

    LOL! shelving by agent...what a concept!

    Re how I buy books: I go to the huge remainder sell-offs and scoop up stuff that sorta sounds interesting. It's a great way to get out of a rut and experience new things that 'didn't make it' or ran out of steam. I've found some fascinating stories that way.

    Late last year our local Lions Club held a $1/kilo [think $.50/pound and you're close] sale. They had a huge hall full of donated books. I bought two bags, about 10 kilos worth. When I got home, I categorised and put on my 'to be read' bookshelves. There were thrillers, computer dummy books, best sellers by authors I'd never bought, all sorts of things.

    I love to browse the big bookstores, but sadly, I don't have the money to buy there. I love libraries and often scan the 'new books' shelf for something to catch my fancy. I've even been known to grab books from the rubbish heap from time to time. Can't bear to see a book destroyed -- ever.

    So there's my dirty laundry.

  3. I've been trying to figure out what about this post and comment makes admitting that I tend to shop by genre intimidating. It is, and I can't figure out why. {spread hands}

    Of course I'm really interested in reading interesting books. I'm sure we all are. Unfortunately, if I look over books at grocery stores, large drug stores, and Walmart, I tend to come home with books that look a lot more interesting on the store's racks than they do on my To Be Read shelves. At home, they tend to sit around unread until I get a space crunch bad enough, the least interesting books get pulled and either given as gifts or donated to the library. In the interest of making sure my book-buying budget goes to books that get read before being given away - or even better, get kept - I pretend that certain stores don't carry books when they do carry a few. {lop-sided smile}

    So what's left? In my town, there's currently the public library, a Borders, and a small independant bookstore that's very limited in its adult fiction selection, but a true wonder at ordering any still-in-print book I and my relatives have asked for. {SMILE}

    The public library is the second biggest branch in the state. Adult paperbacks are sorted by genre. The rest of the fiction is only sorted by age level, but there's quite a bit of it. I need a way to spot the most likely to be interesting books before my eyes glaze over and they start looking too similar to choose between. The best ways I've found is 1) familiar authors, and 2) covers that look similar to the covers of my favorite authors. Both methods tend to sort things by genre.

    Borders would be almost as bad, and online worse... except that they tend to sort by genre. If I stick to genres that I know have a higher proportion of interesting books, and stay away from those that have relatively few interesting books in them, I can find a lot more books before I have to quit searching. {Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  4. I read where-ever and whenever I could. Underneath the sheets "Don't you know it'll ruin your eyes" (it did!) Under the desk during school lessons.
    Bliss was visiting families on holidays and being shown a box of books I had never read! Loved Arthur Mee's Encyclopedia (the stories and puzzles). Enid Blyton.
    The longest six months of my life was waiting impatiently for the Australian release of the "Return of the King" (book version).
    I too, loved books that stirred my imagination. That woke the dreamer in me. I always wanted to know what came next.
    Apparently, my taste in reading was supposed to develop as I aged. I was supposed to abandon books of my childhood and read "good" authors. I am a sad disappointment.
    I'm afraid long winded descriptions and books devoted to the craft of language rather than the telling of a tale were wasted on me. If it didn't sweep me up in the story, forget it.
    But genre, that's a hornets nest!
    I still want to know why families were happy to admit to having every Agatha Christie ever written but would never admit to having any Romance stories (except Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen).
    Is it that we believe Justice is achievable and every crook should get their come-uppance, but "true love" and HEA's only happen in fairy tales?

  5. Anne, thanks for commenting. First, nothing was meant to be intimidating. I'm guessing you skimmed over the DEADLINE BRAIN warning. This means I'm writing while seriously multi-tasking, half my brain in some intergalactic war, part dealing with my mother's failing health and her nursing home issues, part dealing with my ill beloved cat, part dealing with the laundry to-do pile after a week of (beloved) houseguests and I still have 80K words to write under my contracted WIP. And other things I'm forgetting right now...

    That means I blabber on. And I was thinking of how I first learned what I liked to read, and how I chose the books I did that most impressed me. There was no Amazon "You Might Also Like" section when I was growing up OR when I was in my twenties. Or thirties. Or hell, my forties. The entire job of "book choosing" has changed greatly. IMHO IMHE and your mileage may vary.

    This also comes from recent book signings, what with FOLLY just out and all, where I sit behind a table in Borders or B&N and deal with the strange looks I get from customers when I say I write science fiction romance. "Oh I could never read that!" (ie: science fiction, usually from women) or "Oh, I could never read that!" (ie: romance, usually from men.)

    So Deadline Brain popped all that shhhhhhtuff out when I realized at 9AM Monday that, YIKES!, it was my day to blog and whatinhell can I blabber on about that's remotely related to writing?

    And I realized that I'd never said "Oh, I can't read that [genre]" and I begin to wonder why... and that's where that all came from.

    I've also often wondered if people who choose SFF also loved fairy tales as a child. My non-scientific brain feels there might be a correlation there. An early trend of acceptance of the unusual, the inexplicable?

    Or maybe no correlation at all. It's just one of those things deadline brain spews out when I'm behind on deadline and flailing around in my office in a tizzy.

    As was said in THE WIZARD OF OZ (movie version): Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

    (I'm sure the wizard had deadline brain too). ~Linnea

  6. Jacqueline, I'm astounded to learn you were failing 5th grade! And hated reading! Talk about an about-face. So glad you found the adult section of the library. ;-)

  7. Oz, yep, we're twins separated at birth. Flashlight under the covers. Ah, if we'd only had ebook readers (with backlights!) back then. A whole generation of kids now will never know the thrill of flashlight under the covers and a good book. So naughty!

  8. Linnea:

    Actually, yes I was failing reading in 5th grade, and in retrospect the issue had to be subject matter.

    It's characters and stories that interest me, and the only genre with MY STORY in it at that time was SF. I'll happily wallow in any genre when the STORY is about some character who interests me.

    I HATE HISTORICALS -- But I love Yarbro's St. Germain and she insists she only writes them for the historical backgrounding. I'm reading about the 1500's in Venice right now - an AU fantasy about Nostradamus - THE ALCHEMISTS PURSUIT is the title, I think. I love it.

    I HATE POLICE PROCEDURALS - I liked the FLIPPING OUT novel I discussed in my Tuesday post on the HEA, but I love a lot of other police procedurals and so on. I'm basically a Sherlock Holms fan.

    I am the absolute pure-quill WESTERN FAN. I love westerns, grew up on them and just can't get enough. My first novel had a quasi-western setting, set in the future!

    I HATE ROMANCE GENRE -- the way it used to be, not today's Romance which is the kind of stuff I always wanted to read but set against an SF background!

    Guess what Linnea writes?

    Also, one thing that bores me about genres is that they're pure. What I really yearn for is the MIXED GENRE novel -- criss-crossing as many as possible, but always with the cognitive dissonance that is the trademark of SF in the foreground.

    BATTLE ON MERCURY was about a kid (not that much older than me at the time) on Mercury because of his father's job, who made friends with an energy ball which had been declared a physical phenomenon, not even an animal nevermind a person.

    Turned out the energy-balls were people, and the friendly one had compassion.

    COMPASSION is my story, improbable, impossible, astounding, cognitive dissonance inducing COMPASSION is what it's all about.

    How many of us love people but don't really have compassion for them? Can you learn compassion? Are you born with it? Does the lack prevent Romance from turning to Love?

    Tell that story against any background and I'll review it in my SF/F review column.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  9. I'd tried to allow for the deadline, but now I realize that's only one of many sources of stress for you at the moment. {sympathetic smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  10. I know I've answered, but I don't remember exactly what I said. Thanks again for explaining that the dealine was only one of many stresses. You didn't have to share that, but I appreciate that you did. {Smile}

    {pause} If I reject a book because of a genre, it's because the genre normally hits a major aversion or squick of mine. (For instance, I dislike contemplating the mind of a murderer, so I avoid adult mysteries and a lot of urban fantasy.) That doesn't quite fit the folks you mentioned, tho, so I don't know what they were thinking. {lop-sided smile}

    Book choosing hasn't changed that much for me. Before Amazon though tof suggesting books, I had friends who'd cheerfully recommend several dozen books at the barest hint someone might be wondering what to read. Before I met those friends, I had two parents and a couple of defacto godparents nudging me from fantasy series to science fiction writer and back again until I got the message. {chuckle, Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  11. I'm a little like Jacqueline. I couldn't read in the second grade. My mom is a HUGE reader. But mostly of serious real-life history based fiction. She was a History major and Politician by profession so that was what held her interest. She read us Shakespeare as bedtime stories. She did sometimes read SF, my grandfather had written some SF, and Georgette Heyer books, I think she saw that as a guilty pleasure like keeping a hip flask or eating a pound of bridge mix alone in your room.

    Mom was horrified that I had trouble reading. I was dinosaur crazy as a kid, still am. On of the ways my mom got me to read on my own was telling me she wasn't going to read me any more dinosaur books. That and realizing that my two years younger sister could read my school reader and I couldn't got be reading. For a long time though I had no real interest in reading fiction,. I read all sorts of kid's non-fiction science books. This was the peak of the Space Race and I wanted to be an astronaut big time. Or maybe a paleontologist.

    My mom tried to get me to read Anne of Green Gables, Little house on the Prairie, and even Nancy Drew (which she thought was sort of brain candy not really good reading material.) I would have rather had needled pushed under my finger nails that read those books.

    Somewhere along the line I found the Space Cat books on my own. They were what they would call Chapter Books today. Stories about a cat that goes on adventures with his Astronaut person. I was pretty much hooked. Not long after my mom got me a copy of R is for Rocket and the Martian Chronicles from the library and that was all she wrote.

    I went to an all girls school until 6th grade so it was a shock in 7th grade when all the books I wanted to read on our required "optional" reading list were on the "boys" list. I had no clue girls were not supposed to read SF. I had already read every SF book at my neighborhood Library by that age.

    My local library shelved most SF together with only a few books shelved in an area where those under 18 could not check them out. My mom signed a card saying I could check out any SF I wanted when I started HS. I had already read books like Dune, Childhood's End, and Stranger in a Strange Land when I was in Jr. High.

    I read LoTR between 8th Grade and HS and started reading some fantasy then. One of the times I got in the most trouble at HS was when the study hall nun, a volunteer from the Sisters of Mercy retirement home next to my HS, found be reading Anne McCaffery's Dragonquest in study Hall. The original cover had a semi-naked man on the cover and you would have thought I had a copy of Hustler the way she reacted.

    I read my first non Heyer Romance novel when I was out of college and un-employed and had to read my room-mates used books.

    Except for a brief teen flirtation with Black Stallion and similar Horse books, working my way through my mom's Heyer stash the summer between 7th and 8th grade, and a few mystery writers like Tony Hillerman and Sharyn McCrumb, I read almost nothing but SF from the 5th grade on. It's really the only fiction that holds my interest. I live in the real world. I read to get away from that. I don't want to read about real people with real problems that I could hear about eavesdropping in line at Kroger's..