(The first of a three-part series that explores a hidden root of the problem in popularizing Visionary Fiction as a genre and proposes a nifty ready-made solution to it.)
All Fiction to the Back of the Bus
If you’ve felt that writing fiction is sometimes perceived as second-class to writing non-fiction, know that the apparent prejudice is not the product of your imagination. Speaking of the endemic “disdain that the library profession has held for fiction and for fiction readers through the last century,” in her Master’s thesis in Library Science, Kerri L. Huff explains: “The professional librarian saw fiction as ‘being unreal or nonfactual’ and not ‘worthy of serious study’. Librarians were educated to try to convert fiction readers with the ‘uplift theory’ by using the reader’s light fiction reading as a step in the way to turning them onto reading ‘classics’ or non-fiction, otherwise ‘appropriate’ literature.” Such intellectual bias would perhaps be tolerable if, on asking for the Visionary Fiction section in a library, you had only to endure being shuttled off a remote annex where, you were told, all fiction was kept. You’d expect, when you got there, to find a map, a floor plan, or at least signage separating the vast fiction collection by type or subject matter. Instead you would learn that all fiction, no matter the genre, is shelved by author name. “A public library’s adult fiction collection is seemingly organized for the convenience of the librarian and therefore, it has been assumed for the convenience of the patron,” Huff says of this arrangement.
Dewey Did It
To find the culprit for this institutionalized prejudice against all things fiction, we have to go all the way back to 1876 and a certain Mr. Melvil Dewey, creator of the eponymous Dewey Decimal Classification system (DCC). Dewey’s classification model, used almost exclusively in American public libraries for the last 150 years, works well in separating non-fiction works by subject, with the lion’s share of available call numbers, 000-700 and 900, allotted to it. Only 800 is reserved for Literature in all types and genres with only the narrow slot 813 for fiction by American authors and 823 for their English counterparts. All works of fiction are shelved in order by author in those two slots. Thus, the popular Dewey Decimal System “suffers from one notable shortcoming: that is its inability to deal with works of fiction.”
And the Library of Congress Followed Suit
The Library of Congress Classification (LCC) system, used by most research and academic libraries in the US and largely modeled after the DCC, demonstrates similar disdain for fiction. With the rest of the alphabet going to non-fiction, only the letter P is assigned to Language and Literature with Class PN listed as “Literature (General)” and Class PZ as “Fiction and juvenile belle lettres” (The hyperlink to belle lettres for those who dare try to decipher what it’s supposed to mean.) The instruction, How to Find Fiction for one LCC library reads: “Like in most academic libraries, there is no ‘fiction section’ in Sawyer. We do collect fiction, but we treat this collection like all the others: we catalog it according to the Library of Congress call number system. This means that fiction is shelved according to the author’s country of origin and time period. Critical works on fiction (literary criticism) and translations are shelved side by side with the novels.”
Simply put in Rodney Dangerfield’s immortal words, all fiction works, not just Visionary Fiction, “don’t get no respect” in libraries from either the DCC or the LCC.
But Bookstores Couldn’t Afford to Do Dewey
All of the above refers to libraries, which generate only a small portion of a writer’s revenue (if we risk discounting the word-of-mouth sales generated by satisfied readers of the library’s freebie). And libraries have an opposite purpose to book vendors, which produce the lion’s share of a writer’s income. Libraries want to keep books on their shelves; readers only pay if they don’t bring items back. Bookstores want to get books off the shelf; you pay to take it out and they don’t want it back. (Ebook vendors, if you think about it, serve both purposes, but more on that in Part 2.)
While book vendors can classify non-fiction as the libraries do and still serve their patrons, they never could afford the DCC/LCC’s slight of fiction. Customers with cash in their pockets want fiction of a type determined by taste, not necessarily by author. They ask for Science Fiction as a type, or books like those written by Isaac Azimov. And they usually choose what to buy through the pleasurable per se process of browsing. (The well-named online browser is a nod to this uniquely human yen to mosey and test-taste before committing to buy.) So, in addition to wide aisles and comfy chairs to accommodate the grazers, bookstores needed a better method to categorize and cluster fiction than either Dewey or the Library of Congress offered. And for it to work publishers and distributors also had to buy into the system.
It’s in your Genres
And this marketing requirement to match customers’ habit and taste in buying books gave birth to the ever-after unruly Genre. A French word actually, it is defined as a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like (some stylistic criteria) —of the same root as generic, thus signaling an abstract tricky enough to make trouble. As the Wikipedia article notes: “Genres are formed by conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones are discontinued. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions.” It also calls genre an “intangible taxonomy” (where taxonomy is supposed to be a “stable classification system”).
To sum up so far: the genre problem for Visionary fiction authors is rooted in the slippery ad hoc genre system devised by the book industry, which was cobbled together to adjust for the prejudice against all fiction built into the two categorization schemes (DCC and LCC) adopted by libraries back in the 1800’s. No wonder we Visionary Fiction authors are having some difficulty defining, stabilizing and promoting our brand of fiction.
Click HERE to continue to Part 2 of this series, which looks at the BISAC—Book Industry Standards and Communications—system, now coming into its own, and the cool and easy solution it offers for the specific Visionary Fiction .]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Victor E. Smith (Vic) is a writer specializing in Visionary Fiction, a semi-retired computer trainer to the publishing industry (15 years as a consultant to The Wall Street Journal), and a spiritual/paranormal researcher currently residing in Tucson, Arizona. He is a member of the Editorial Team of the Visionary Fiction Alliance and author of The Anathemas, a Novel about Reincarnation and Restitution. His website and blog can be found at victoresmith.com.