Wednesday, December 29, 2010


One of the minor irritations in my life is the Ottawa Public Library's policy of segregating out genre fiction. First because they don't do a very good job of it (I've found Minette Walters and Jonathan Kellerman in the "everything that isn't crime, western, speculative, or romance" section), second because cross-genre novels such as Robert Sawyer's Golden Fleece can't be in both SF and Crime at the same time, and third because it cheats readers of the opportunity to find really good books they wouldn't have read had they not stumbled upon them while browsing integrated stacks.

When it comes to fiction, I consider myself a small-L liberal. There are types of fiction I don't normally read, but I don't relegate that fiction--or its readers--to any particular spot at the back of the stacks.

Time was, stories were stories. Shakespeare didn’t discriminate against
romance (Much Ado About Nothing), fantasy (A Midsummer Night's Dream), horror (Macbeth) or crime (Hamlet). Neither did his audience. Then someone got the bright idea of labelling them, and all of a sudden some stories had to be kept apart, as if they'd contaminate the others (or maybe the readers). It may be convenient if you’re looking to read crime not to have to browse the entire fiction collection, but if you don’t know what you want to read, if you like (as I do) to take a "tempt me" approach when scanning the shelves, then ploughing through nothing but crime (or SF, or whatever) wears you down.

The library used to label books--literally. They put little stickers on
the spine to show you whether the thing was romance, historical, or fantasy. Of course, most Arthurian stories are all three, and Storyteller published an Arthurian crime series by Vicki Cameron. But the library likes to label fiction as one thing, to the exclusion of anything else. Are its patrons that narrow-minded?

The trouble with labels, adhesive or verbal, is that they stick. People
make assumptions based on the label, rather than what’s inside. Take,
for instance, the novel Zulu, by Caryl FĂ©rey. I don't use words like magnificent lightly, but I use it to talk about Zulu. That's not just my opinion. It's won several awards.

I recommended it to my writing class (something else I don't do lightly)
and one student read it. She agreed on the calibre of the writing which,
she said, one doesn't usually find in "novels like this"--i.e., crime fiction.


The fact is, one rarely finds writing of the calibre of Zulu in any fiction. And when one does, it's usually at the expense of story. (All style and no substance is a frequent knock against the literary genre. And, BTW, the OPL does not segregate out literary fiction as a genre--but that’s another blog.)

There's a misconception among non-crime readers that it's all like
Agatha Christie or Anthony Boucher: lots of puzzle, very little meat.
But crime fiction has evolved. There's now a subspecies I've heard
referred to as "classic mystery" but even in the "classic" days some
crime writers were digging deep to explore the human condition; Raymond
Chandler comes to mind.

Besides writing to die for, Zulu has an exotic setting (South Africa), political background, and intensely real characters. There’s also a love interest. So it’s got a lot to offer people who don’t normally read crime, but they’ll never find it because it’s been consigned to the Crime section. I found it on the New Books shelf (which is integregated), picked it up because of the title, and took it home because of the setting. The genre was a bonus, but I wouldn’t have put it back had the jacket blurb mentioned a vampire. Am I the only one who chooses books this way?

I miss the days when one never knew what the next book along the shelf
would be. Browsing the stacks was more of an adventure, and even when
beelining toward a particular author, I'd make serendipitous discoveries
along the way. But librarians, after all, are paid to put books into
fixed categories. I just hope, for their sakes, they don’t live their
whole lives that way.

Melanie Fogel is the former editor of Storyteller, Canada’s Short Story Magazine. An occasional writer herself, she teaches creative writing for the Ottawa School Board’s Continuing Education program, and has presented workshops at the Surrey and Bloody Words writers' conferences, as well as most of the writers’ organizations in Ottawa. She has a WiP website at


  1. I agree that integrated is best. Browsing the stacks is a great way to find unexpected treasures.

  2. Reposted at