Friday, December 01, 2006

Domestic Fiction

Domestic fiction is a subject category in my library's catalog. Not surprisingly, many of the books I read fall under this label. A quick search yielded 5,455 titles in the South Central Library System, which is a group of about 75 small and medium sized libraries who share an online catalog.

Yet a Google search for "domestic fiction" reveals it to be a specific type of women's fiction published in the 19th century, characterized by plots that focus on home and family life, written by and for women, and featuring a certain set of literary devices such as triumph over adversity, and marriage as the ultimate goal of women. I can find lots of articles about this type of fiction all over the Web, but no discussion of what sort of book qualifies as contemporary domestic fiction.

What criteria are my library using to decide whether a book is domestic fiction? Authorship by women? No, books by Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen are listed under domestic fiction. Books about families? Three Women, by Marge Piercy, the story of a mother, daughter, and grandmother, is not listed as domestic fiction. I think the answer may just be that it's an individual decision by the librarian who is doing the cataloging. Another answer may be that you "know it when you see it."

The Waterboro (Maine) Public Library has a good Web site that divides its domestic fiction into subcategories and provides a collection of links to other libraries' lists of books that they consider to be domestic fiction. Alternative category titles include "family sagas" and (I love this one) “village fiction.”

Do any librarians care to weigh in here? Is there a specific list of traits that identify a contemporary novel as domestic fiction? I love both the contemporary kind, and the 19th century ones too (Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton). I'm thinking about it now because I just finished reading Leeway Cottage, by Beth Gutcheon, whom I consider to be a queen of contemporary domestic fiction, but who has taken an unexpected path in this, her newest book. (More about this book soon.)

3 comments:

Dave Lull said...

The subject heading "Domestic fiction" is probably the Library of Congress's subject heading, for which LC provides this scope note, which may be guiding to some extent the catalogers' assigning of the heading (though LC's catalogers and, from what you write, I'd say, the catalogers in the library system you use, ignore the limiting of this heading to "collections," i.e., they are assigning it to novels, i.e. non-collections):


"Here are entered collections of fiction that focus on home and family life."

Maxine said...

Hi again Becky -- I left a comment on this post, I forget all I said now, but it definitely involved a Dave Lull alert; I see Dave has delivered!
When I pressed "post", I did get the message that my comment was awaiting moderator approval, so it got that far, at least.

Becky said...

Maxine, somehow I managed to reject your original comment. Here is the text of it:

My suspicion is that they (librarians) don't have a standard rule for categorisation that is this granular, but I could be wrong. I have sent out an alert to Dave Lull to see if he'll comment. (OWL, or Omnipresent Wisconsin Librarian.)

Indexing by subject keyword must be a lot easier to standardise than indexing a whole book. The choice of categories for a book must be quite daunting! Think of the unique ways you described those books just in one post.
Google book search tries to do this kind of thing automatically, and there are lots of semantic matching programmes, but how you get from an analysis of the words to the many meanings of a whole book -- ah, well, you do need people after all!

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