please don’t tell me the genre

I’ve been thinking about genres again.

I wrote before about the difference between genres of subject (mysteries, sword and sorcery, sea stories) and genres of age, but now I’m thinking about (specifically) LGBT fiction, and (generally) whether books should come with labels or not.

I remember a book (well, I remember about it, and what it looked like, but not the title or author’s name… no, searching has revealed that it was, probably, Farragan’s Retreat, by Tom McHale, who was a big deal in the 1970s but seems to be sort of forgotten now), and for the first half it was a pretty good “literary” type of novel, and then halfway through it suddenly became a murder mystery.

What an unexpected (and pleasant) surprise. If the book had arrived labeled as a “mystery novel” there would have been a tendency to skim, perhaps impatiently, waiting for the part with the murder. Instead, the murder and the mystery happened without warning, which is usually how it happens in life.

I thought of this in relation to LGBT fiction (this applies to other genres, too). On one hand, I see the need for such a genre classification to sell books, but from the point of view of the fiction it’s kind of a shame.

I think it’s so much more interesting if gay characters pop up in whatever type of fiction you’re reading and writing (as happens in life), along with characters of more mysterious sexuality, and characters whose sexuality is never revealed at all. Why not? That’s world we’re all living in, after all.

From a commercial point of view, of course, categories are essential, because that’s how a lot of people buy their books. But it does take some of the fun out of reading.

I was reading a YA-ish book recently, and I’d neglected to look at the blurb, so I suddenly realized as I was reading that I had no idea whether was going to be a paranormal aspect or not. Based on what I’d read to that point, it could have gone either way. I deliberately didn’t investigate — it was much more fun to read it and find out as I went along.

Someone read all of my stories once, and he commented that there were a lot of lesbians. Well, I decided to crunch the numbers. I listed every female character, excluding the ones where there was no basis to say, and the I calculated the percentage. I don’t remember what the number was, but as far as I could tell it was surprisingly close to the estimated percentage of gay women in the actual population.

The lesson I take from this is that fiction in general (excluding that which comes labeled as “LGBT,” of course) underrepresents gay characters, by a significant margin. Which is, I know, another reason that there needs to be “LGBT” fiction.

But it’s still a shame.

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