Of course labels are useful to a certain degree. But, like democracy, they are also broken to a certain degree. There's no perfect system and here I poke at the imperfections.
I use labels. I have a soft spot for zombie movies to enjoy with beer and peanuts to hand. And so I have on occasion Googled "best zombie movies" and checked to see if I missed one.
But the flip side of this approach is that it often walls us away from something great based on a one word label that wholly fails to capture the brilliance of the thing we're denying ourselves because of a trivial categorization.
And I see it taken to such extremes...
(click for detail)
When someone asks for very specific elements in a book, and I have seen requests like "should include centaurs and detailed accounts of sword-making", they appear almost to be taking the quality of the book as irrelevant. Give me a book that justifies this label. Not give me a good book.
Similarly when they use a broad label to rule out an ocean of novels it seems equally strange. Some readers may say, for example, "I don't want to read any steampunk" or "If there's an airship in it, count me out," And I boggle. It's the fault of the label ... of the idea of a label ... that these ten thousand hugely varied things can be tied together with one word and that one word can then allow them to be safely discounted from your consideration. Maybe you once read a book that sat under Label A and didn't like it. Maybe you read three. And now all books under Label A are tarred by association. You walk right past that shelf.
Consider it again. Literally, if there is an airship in it ... I'm out. The presence of a mode of transportation seals the deal. Forget how compelling the story is, how vital the characters, how powerful the prose. How you might need to put the book down and breathe away the excess emotion. Nope, it has hot air in a bag. I'm out...
Free choice is exactly that, free, and everyone is totally entitled to make it based on arbitrary considerations, prejudice, or the shake of a magic 8-ball if they so desire. I'm just encouraging a step back from the ontological brink,
Labels are too small for novels. A good book, whatever its page count, is a vast, sprawling thing, a work of intellect, poetry, insight, fun, enthusiasm, loves, tragedy, questions and more questions. Anyone, for example, who sidesteps the excellent Senlin Ascends because it contains an airship or can be stamped with the label STEAMPUNK, is missing out on a brilliant, literary journey.
And from my own personal corner. Anyone who avoids my work simply because someone else has stamped it GRIMDARK and they now expect some shallow tale of nihilism and violence, is likewise discounting something that may prove very different to their expectations.
When we label books it's rather like trying affixing a postage stamp to a container ship and considering you've covered it.
When I write I make no effort to colour between the lines. I wander from fantasy to sci-fi to horror. I may even stray into romance. And when you can't even keep within one of the very top level labels it seems strange to tow around a label from the sub-divisions of just one of those.
OK, you got me. Genres aren't stupid ... but it helps to think past them sometimes.