How useful are genre labels? Book categories? Age-range banding of books for children or adults?

Affixing “labels” to writers, living or dead, is an inept procedure . . . a childish amusement of small minds. . . . at best it overemphasizes what is common to a selected group of writers, and distracts attention from what is individual (and not classifiable) in each of them, and is the element that gives them life. . . .

– J.R.R. Tolkien, in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, 1981

Some writers do follow literary forms and genre conventions closely. Others bend the rules and break the frame with glee.

I myself have on occasion looked at labels for fantasy works (sorry, J.R.R., but it’s still a useful thought process). In my 2009 book A Guide to Fantasy, I use a paradigm of five golden rings: looking at story approaches I call high fantasy, adventure fantasy, fairy tales, magical realism, and dark fantasy.

But I see these rings of tradition as interlinked – yes, feel free to compare them to the Olympic logo! They are elastic, flexible, not exclusive.

My new book, The Purpose of Fantasy, examines the question of age-banding. Are children’s books only for children?

Certainly not. Many great authors have written books as stories to be enjoyed by anyone of any age whose heart is open to the story’s path and purpose.

As Richard Adams noted in his introduction for the 2001 edition of Watership Down:

I went from publisher to publisher and literary agent to agent. . . . They all said, in effect, the same thing: “Older children wouldn’t like it because it’s about rabbits, which they consider babyish; and younger children wouldn’t like it because it’s written in an adult style. . . .”

I thought, “Who’s talking about children? This is a book for readers of all ages.”

Watership Down, first published in 1972, became an immensely popular book for adult readers. It placed 42nd on a list of 100 of the UK’s “best-loved novels” in a 2003 survey by the BBC’s Big Read, logging in between Anne of Green Gables and The Great Gatsby. The list intelligently does not segregate children’s books from adult books.

And the grand winner, after three quarters of a million votes . . . voted the UK’s “Best-Loved Novel”:

None other than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings.

(Pride and Prejudice bustles in at number 2).

Hmmm . . . I suspect the UK’s “Best-Loved Novel” is one label Tolkien probably wouldn’t have complained too much about!