In certain circles, "genre" is a dirty word. Reading mainstream literature is culturally acceptable, but voraciously thumbing the pages of a science fiction or fantasy novels is something better left for the nerds and adolescents that live in their mothers' basements. And the real value of literature can only be obtained through books about people and life, not from books about unicorns and other planets.
Read the last SF Signal on SF books for YA readers.
I say hogwash. People who think such things are shortchanging themselves by falling into the genre trap.
What's the genre trap? For readers, the genre trap is making unfounded generalizations about fiction books based on their classification labels, a behavior that only stands to come between readers and good books.
Here are some tips on how to avoid the genre trap.
Recognize the Benefits of Genre Labels…
If genre classifications are a trap, then why do they exist?
One reason is that categorization matches readers with books. It's a book marketer's job to connect readers and books. A simple way to do so is by classifying a book as belonging to a specific genre of literature. It's incredibly convenient for, say, a science fiction fan to specifically wander the dedicated aisles of the science fiction section of the bookstore rather than trolling aisles and aisles of randomly placed books, looking for a title that happens to meet their particular hunger. Categorization is a convenient tool that, for a sf fan in this case, filters out the "noise" of the non-sf books, making it easier for sf readers to find what they are specifically looking for, or something that might otherwise quench their sf thirst.
Simply put, genre classifications are convenient handles that readers use to find books. To that end, they are useful.
...But Beware the Pitfalls
While genre classification is a helpful tool, it's not a perfect one. Fiction is a very fluid thing. It's quite easy for stories to span multiple genres, appealing to readers in different genres in different ways. Science fiction mysteries, for example, might be enjoyed by both sf readers and mystery readers. (An argument can be made here that sf fans are more open to reading mysteries than mystery fans are to reading science fiction. I leave this as an exercise to the reader.)
Another example: some stories can easily be classified as science fantasy, a mash-up mixture of science fiction and fantasy that would appeal to fans of both genres. So, in which section of the bookstore do they get shelved? How will readers know where to go look for it? The trick is to know that "genre" is a huge umbrella term. Know the limits of labels. Don't let them build artificial walls segregating you from other books you might enjoy. Read far and wide, both within and outside of the genres with which you are familiar.
Another pitfall with genre labels is that it's easy to make generalizations about the books they're printed on. Science fiction fans see this all the time. If it's got a spaceship on the cover, then people who deride science fiction won't go near it, no matter how accessible—or enjoyable—it might be for them. This unfortunate bias exists even within science fiction itself. A hard science fiction fan may balk at the idea of reading a book with two space marines sharing an embrace on a book cover. ("If two people are hugging, it must be romance, not science fiction!") In the meantime, they may be missing one of the best military science fiction stories they've ever read. My advice? Keep an open mind and you will be rewarded.
The Bottom Line
Perhaps the appropriate lesson to convey here is a time-honored one—don't judge a book by its cover. Whether a book uses the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, horror—or any genre—says nothing about the value of the content. In fact, you can read a rich, rewarding story about people in a book featuring a unicorn (The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, in case you want to know). You can find life lessons in a thought-provoking, literary novel set on other planets (The Birthday of the World: And Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin). Just don't fall into the genre trap and you will find them.
There are so many treasures in the world of literature, it'd be a shame to miss them because they were on the wrong shelf.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.