Sunday, September 19, 2010

One more thing that I don't like about big box bookstores

Christopher Isherwood
Yesterday, after picking up a new pair of adultish shoes in which I can look sufficiently professional—and as if I were born into the prep-school-attending class, as it happens—when lecturing on the vagaries of anomalous monism, I dragged my other half into Borders because I wanted to see if they had a copy of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man. We recently rented Tom Ford's movie of the book and were both bowled over not only by the style and acting of the film but also by the story. So, because I have enjoyed Isherwood in the past, I wanted to pick up a copy as well as see if they had any of the later volumes of The Escapist, since I am currently running through Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
Generally, I buy most of my books from Amazon or at one of the local secondhand bookstores or I pick them up from piles of discarded books that find themselves in my pathways. And, I have a fair number of books; there are just over six hundred in the latest update of my home library catalogue. But, I thought I should check the Borders since I was there. First, I looked through the Literature section, but there was no Isherwood to be found; not only was A Single Man not there, but there were no Berlin Stories, nor Christopher and His Kind. Nothing.
To the in-store computer I trod and found that the only book of Isherwood's they did have—it was said to be "Likely in Store", an unhelpful bit of help if ever there was—was in fact the book I was looking for. All of Isherwood's other work could be ordered but wasn't in the store. But, it wasn't to be found in Literature; if it was there, it would be in Gay/Lesbian Literature. 
Now, I know that there might be good reasons for divvying up literary genres. There might, in fact, be books that are primarily of interest to African Americans, so maybe it makes sense from a marketing perspective to have a section, as Borders does, labeled African American Literature. And, the same might be said for books of primary interest to gays and lesbians, to Asian Americans, to Hispanic Americans, etc., although not all these groups get their own areas. But, once we start down this road, where do we stop in the increasing ghettoization of literature and interests? (Perhaps, on another day, I will rant about how the same thing often happens in the Academy.) Is Maya Angelou of interest only to African Americans? Should Kazuo Ishiguro be in a section aimed at Asian readers? He gets to be in Literature. Should Thomas Mann go in Literature or Gay/Lesbian Literature or European Literature or Bisexual European Who Also Lived in America but Always Wrote in German Literature? And, if we are dividing Literature this way, why not think there is something essentially foreign about different philosophers? Why not Gay Philosophers, too? And why think gays and lesbians belong together? 
It's literature or its not. I read and enjoy Jane Austen—thank you Alasdair MacIntyre—but I will never be a Regency period Englishwoman looking for a husband. How can I enjoy it? Because good literature speaks to universal themes about the human condition. It places them in specific contexts, but it needn't speak only to those who are themselves in those contexts. The fact that we have come to assume that this is the case is sad. It's no social progress or victory if only African Americans read novels in which African American characters appear, nor if only gays and lesbians—again, why should they be together under such a categorization of the genres?—read novels with gay and lesbian characters. I surely do not read only novels with gay characters or with white, gay characters from the Midwest, who teach college. 
So, at least, when I'm buying from the behemoth that is Amazon, I don't have to feel that I reading something that only the gays like, even the suggestions aren't that segregated.

3 comments:

DK said...

Back in the day, when I was working at the B&N, I fielded many complaints about not having an African American section, about having a Women's Studies section, etc. Personally, I generally felt that when it came to fiction the fewer subdivisions the better, and I much preferred explaining that "we" felt that Literature was Literature no matter what the ethnicity of the author to explaining that there were so few women in the History, Military History, and Biography sections that "we" felt women deserved their own section.

One complaint that surprised me was an employee who complained about the Gay & Lesbian section being a mix of erotica and sociology. I thought he was going to complain about pornography distracting from the serious issues discussed in the more scholarly works. But no, he was complaining to me, his boss, about having to wade through all that academic crap when he just wanted hot sex books.

Tyler said...

As almost always, I agree with you, dearest D, but I suppose I can feel some sort of sympathy for your subordinate. Perhaps an "erotica" section? And, of course, moving "metaphysics" far away from philosophy.

DK said...

I think he had a valid complaint, I was just a little taken aback at his frankness. I always tried to maintain a certain distance from people I was supervising, a distance that generally precluded discussions involving phrases like "hot sex."
And don't get me started about Metaphysics.