Usually, assigning genres to a book is not a difficult task. I’m a librarian; we categorize things all the time. But there’s one kind of book that I have a hard time putting a book in a category because it might 1) spoil the book because it flavors how another reader might approach a book, and 2) because I could be entirely wrong. The books in this weird little sub-genre are difficult to classify because, depending on how you read them, they might be magical realism/fantasy or they might be a psychological portrait of a character descending into madness. If the character is mad, nothing magical happens. If magic is real in a book’s setting, the character is perfectly sane, but misunderstood.
There are a few books that got me thinking about this. The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell, is a book that could go either way—right through the ending, I think. Sometimes, the author pushes things towards the magical (again, I think), as in Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s The Hawkman. There’s also Joy Williams’ The Changeling, although I still haven’t quite made up my mind about this one. Depending on who the reader sympathizes or how deeply they examine things, the book could fall into either genre.
The reason all this matters (apart from working out which tag to apply just before I hit publish) is because I don’t want to push a reader to one side or the other before they even star. The point of these books is that decision: is the character mad? Similar to the way that telling people that a book contains a twist, clueing a reader into the fact that this decision has to be made puts the reader on their guard before page one. Telling someone that a book is fantasy/magical reality or a psychological thriller right off the bat means that a reader will have certain expectations; they will interpret events, dialogue, etc., according to genre expectations.
I think that the experience of reading these puzzling stories should feel like following a character along on their journey into their reality. Not knowing about that a choice has to be made, I think, generates a more honest, sympathetic read. It also means that, when the decision is made, the reader gets a metaphorical punch in the gut. Because it makes a bigger emotional impact, these stories can help us be more sympathetic to people who have mental illnesses. Following a character on their journey into an episode of mental illness (or not, as the case may be) means that we have an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of someone who sees reality differently from others. That’s the power of story, after all.
As for point 2 (above), I really hate to be wrong.