Sometimes, the easiest way to learn anything about myself is for me to reorganize my bookshelves. It’s a task that has to be done at least once a year as the influx of new books purchased during the prior months need to be properly catalogued and placed with the rest of their genre brethren.
I have two large bookcases with five shelves each. One bookcase holds genre fiction – the growing collection of science-fiction, fantasy, thriller, and romance. And the other holds a strange variety. The top shelf contains a motley collection of books I use for research – travel journals, mythology, and more than one tome dedicated to witchcraft in some form or another.
Another shelf is dedicated to the classics – Shakespeare, Shelley, Austen, and Melville – along with literary criticism such as the study of American literature’s obsession with love and death. Yet, as I started on the second bookcase holding the motley collection, I wondered for the first time why I worked so hard to keep the genre fiction from mixing with the so-called literary fiction as if the books carried some communicable disease that could leak into the pages of my copy of The Great Gatsby and diminish the green-toned dream of Jay Gatz.
I’m not blind. I’ve always known that I’m something of an Ivory Tower purist. The written word is precious to me. That constant struggle against the imperfection of language and the murky judgment of the writer as he works to capture a moment in time, a memory, a poignant point in history. And then to succeed with a beautiful turn of phrase or a single word that halts the reader, catches him breathless, speechless, and lost within the fabricated moment. There is no joy like it.
But don’t get me wrong. I love my genre fiction. I love my vampires, werewolves, witches, monsters, and romances that bear no semblance to reality. I love the worlds they create, the struggle of the characters in a moral battle that carry shadows of similarity to our own world. And yet they remain separate. Does some bit of my subconscious actually believe these books are less worthy than my copies of Hemingway and Atwood? Have I been brainwashed by institutional instruction into believing that genre fiction isn’t a voice that needs to heard, a baser form of writing that should be read only behind closed doors, under the covers by flashlight? And as such, do I think less of my own work by choosing the voice of a vampire at ease with her own dark nature as a Metatron for my views?
The division of the two worlds grows even murkier when looking at what I choose to keep within the literary fiction. Why haven’t I moved my copy of Dracula to sit next to my books by Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Kim Harrison? Why is not Pride and Prejudice comfortably placed among my other romances? Why has not my precious Dorian Gray been placed next to my equally precious Neil Gaiman books? Is it a matter of time and survival that have earned Stoker, Wilde, and Austen a place among the classics? Is it their place in the rubric of most colleges that has given them an immunity from the disease that is genre fiction?
I finished organizing my bookshelves, finding I am no closer to the answers of my questions. The last of the books are slid into place and a familiar ache grows as I look them over, a part of me wishing that I could give them all equal, top-shelf status. I wonder momentarily if I should now move my copies of Vonnegut closer to my Hemingways considering his all-too-recent death -- a beautiful voice and mind that has grown still but never silenced. Or maybe somewhere between Dorothy Parker and Margaret Atwood.
But for now he stays in his place. Stoker, Austen, and Wilde also stay in their place next to Shakespeare and Melville. Change comes slowly within the world of literature like a building tsunami until it washes over and through everything we know. And like every book, change starts with a question.
Who are you?