Genre seems to be on its way to a future grave, so it is appropriate to begin this discussion with the genre that has always looked ahead: science fiction. Once upon a time, science fiction works were fairly easily defined as "hard" (science-based) or "soft" (character-driven or "sociological sci-fi") – although even that had its difficulties (Anne McCaffrey, for example, has long protested the general categorization of her Pern novels as "soft").
Now, science fiction has now grown so many subgenres as to be nearly impossible to navigate without a guide, especially given the prolieration of similar monikers: if you like steampunk, odds are you won't care for biopunk. Science fiction has also grown a number of time-based categories to compound the confusion. For example, a given story written in the 1980s might be considered cyberpunk, whereas a similar tale published today would be considered near-future fiction. Meanwhile, older classics may or may not be sorted into the new categories in fairly arbitrary style, and popular genre-busters like Diana Gabaldon's historical time-travel romance novels often end up outside the science fiction and fantasy shelves altogether.
Other literary trends involve abolishing certain genres altogether. In 2005, author David Leavitt suggested that "gay fiction" should end as the Oscar Wilde bookstore in New York, widely heralded as the world's first gay and lesbian bookstore, shut its doors forever. "Once it was revolutionary to publish a gay novel, or open a gay bookshop, but now the time may be upon us when the revolutionary thing to do is to retire the category altogether," says Leavitt. "[E]very time I go into a Borders, I move a few books from the gay fiction shelf to the general fiction section, restoring them to their rightful place in the alphabetical and promiscuous flow of literature."
Johnny Temple of The Book Standard offers another reason to do away with the gay and lesbian sections: "Though the idea behind the segmentation is to connect book-buyers with titles likely to interest them, few authors want to limit their audience by being housed in a separate section–one that’s often hidden in a back corner of a store." In addition, that ability of segmentation to connect readers to new books is far from perfect: Leavitt found "gay fiction" by straight authors usually shelved in the mainstream fiction section, whereas "mainstream" fiction by gay authors remained in the gay section despite the lack of relevance.
Some retail outlets have gone so far as to internalize the splintering and restructuring of genre. In Portland, Oregon, the bookstore Countermedia shelves its stock based on its own category system; one might find half a shelf dedicated to "Freaky Stuff." The legendary independent video rental store Movie Madness follows similar unique conventions, including for example, shelves dedicated to horror films centering upon "bad seeds." Considering the current spate of high-profile genre-bending films such as David Cronenberg's Oscar-contender "Eastern Promises," described by the director as a homoerotic Russian mob thriller, Movie Madness may indeed have better luck categorizing modern film than your local Blockbuster – but finding something specific in either one can be surprisingly difficult.
So why not do away with the splintering of genre and return to "simpler" shelving practices? In some cases, genre is synonymous with a cultural identification that many are loathe to simply abandon. Cyberpunk, steampunk, and biopunk all carry with them audiences firmly entrenched in the statements of the genres – politics, fashion, and ideology, respectively. In an increasingly varied world, one could expect this fragmentation. It's visible in pop music as well: we are far from the days when a single artist could dominate pop culture as thoroughly as the Beatles or Elvis Presley. Our tastes as a culture are so varied now that no one act could garner such a large percentage of the population's interest.
"I wasn't aware that your sexuality was something that you could (or would want to) 'move past,'" says AfterElton.com blogger Brian Jurgens of the "post-gay" movement. Though it's a fair point, sexuality itself is changing its stripes. Last year, podcaster Cunning Minx coined the whimsical term "boobiesexual" to describe the growing number of straight women she knew who were "into" breasts. Rachel Kramer Bussel expanded the term to include gay men who were similarly enamored: "Boobiesexuals mess with our strictly defined norms. What does it mean to be aroused by a woman, or at least her tits, but not want to have sex with her? They counter our very simplistic ideas about lust – if you're into me, you must want to fuck me – when true desire is more complex." Thus the busting of the gay genre could conceivably have nothing to do with "moving past" one's sexuality but simply no longer defining it quite so sharply.
Whether we deal with broad, splintered, or merged genres, there is no easy answer – on shelves or in life. The question of how (or whether to) segregate works of art seems to mainly serve as a comfortable once-removed method of asking the question of how (or whether to) segregate human beings. Existing in small groups is comfortable but limiting; it's easy to get lost in larger groups, but it's easier to find diversity, too; when there is no grouping whatsoever, it's often idealistically satisfying but chaotic in reality. How we manage our art will speak volumes about how we manage ourselves.
Photo by One Good Bumblebee under Creative Commons license.