In regards to the question in the title: maybe the right category, perhaps?
Oftentimes I read books that are advertised as one genre, and are actually another. Or maybe they’re supposed to overlap in genres, yet don’t. I understand that books are marketed to capture the best audience, but I don’t think people realize just how detrimental placing it in the wrong category is. I know that “genre” can be a broad term and in a way, no two genres for one reader are the same for another, but there’s definitely a divisive line that can be seen. And I as a reader am influenced by which categories these books are placed in, and my reading can also be affected by it.
The other day MC from Blame it on the Books wrote a splendidly honest review on Ivory and Bone. However, in it she mentions the fact that it was advertised as a historical fantasy, and yet… isn’t. From a discussion on Twitter, many agreed that it was purely a historical read and didn’t contain elements of fantasy. The publisher marketed it as such to probably draw in a large audience. But here’s the thing: when I see the words “historical fantasy,” I think of a historical read that has magic or make-believe… something that adds history with fantastical elements. A book that has pure research on a time period or culture, sans fantastical elements shouldn’t be categorized as such.
For one, I as a reader go into it with preconceived notions of what kind of book I will be reading. And if I am prone to fantasy reads, I will be sorely disappointed at the lack of fantasy in it. If I am a historical reader, I would maybe even stay away from the book because of what seems like an infusion of fantasy, even if there isn’t. And you know what? That can really affect ratings of a book. If I were to be unpleasantly surprised by a lack of fantasy in a “historical fantasy” book, I would definitely be giving a lower rating. This goes across other genres as well, because it can just cause disappointment to readers who came in with those misconceptions.
Two words: false advertising.
But my main, MAIN problem with this particular situation is that it’s not uncommon. Ivory and Bone is supposedly a historical fantasy, yet is encompassed of a thoroughly-researched Ice Age setting that from all accounts does not have fantastical elements in any way. I see this with another book: Forbidden by Kimberley Griffiths Little. Despite being a book set in Mesopotamian setting and has no traces of magic (the closest thing being mentions of religious zealots and their religion), is also categorized as “fantasy” as well as “historical” under Goodreads.
The funny thing is, it seems like it’s a pattern happening with non-Eurocentric historical reads.
I don’t see this addition of “fantasy” as a genre in books that feature European historical time periods. It seems like since the time period and culture is not Eurocentric, it is “exotic” and considered a “fantasy.” Because wow! Mammoths are definitely fantasy creatures right? And a desert setting is only reserved as a fantasy setting. This is extremely disappointing because now readers come in with a preconceived notion on what they’ll expect, and their reading experience will be affected because of it. Someone looking for a unique fantasy will get no traces of fantasy and might be sorely disappointed. Or someone else looking for solely a historical read will gloss over the book because it’s also marketed as a fantasy.
And I see it as a bit of a disservice to authors as well. We see them spending so much time, energy, and dedication researching for whatever time period or culture they’re exploring, and in the end undermining all that by essentially calling it a “fantasy.” I know if I were an author, I would’ve been like, “Okay since they’re marketing it as fantasy, why don’t I make up like half this stuff?” Instead, we see them faithfully standing by actual history. I just feel like not only is this inaccurate labeling affecting readers’ enjoyment of a book, but also undermining an author’s dedication and research towards this particular time period. And again, I just want to stress the fact that from the way I see it, it’s because these unique settings and cultures are so different than the Eurocentric ones we see every day. Because a book purely set in 1600’s England won’t need an additional “fantasy!” to sell it, while one set in 1600’s Egypt may.
In the end, I get that it’s about advertising. I get that marketing probably wants to attract more attention by inserting “fantasy” (because why the heck not? It’s fiction, after all) instead of just a placid label of “historical.” They want the sales and the publicity. But I also think that they need to give readers more credit. We’re attracted by much more than a set of genres and labels, even though they’re important aspects of picking our reads. With an attractive blurb, good writing, and fantastic plot, the genre would be the last thing in our mind. However, if we come in with these misconceptions based on how the book is advertised, that’s when it starts affecting ratings and enjoyment of a book.
Genres and categories are a way for readers to identify what they’re looking for, and reading one thing while expecting another isn’t a pleasant experience all the time. (In fact it might be serendipitous at times while completely the opposite at others.) I just really feel like we should give books a chance to advertise its worth without adding on inaccurate descriptions just to draw an audience.
But then again, sales over enjoyment right? (This line is engulfed in sarcasm.)
What do you think of misdirecting readers this way? Should it continue or do you think books have enough to sell without having to add such labels? What are your thoughts on the fact that such labeling would not have happened if it were set in a European setting? I’d love to know.