Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Prejudice Against Genre Fiction

“You eat what you like, and I'll eat what I like!”—Yukon Cornelius
Genre is a four letter word in some literary circles. It's tossed about with derision. Those works unfortunate enough to fall under the label are condemned as inferior, the playthings of lesser minds and lower sensibility. Not such a grave sentence, maybe. Some of us are not the least ashamed to relieve the burden of our sensibility by dragging them along in a sack. But the word is tragically misapplied when used this way.

In the first place, everything is a genre. “Genre” is simply any collection of works that share enough of a family resemblance for them to be reasonably grouped together.

For instance, stories with a central character who navigates challenges, gains allies, learns skills, and acquires knowledge on the way to overcoming a final obstacle are a genre. We refer to them as Fantasy, especially if they trade in magic and archaic landscapes. But contemplative, closely interpersonal stories guided largely by themes rather than action or plot that line the Literature shelves are a genre as well. Maybe you couldn't pick them out straight away by their covers, but that does not somehow set them apart.

But literary fiction is broader than that, they say. You can't just wrap it up in one so-called genre, that's what makes it exciting. Yes, the Literature section can have a great deal of variety, notably because it so often robs the nests of other genres. Magical Realism, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery; Literature drops down with its heavy talons and plucks its choice from each. What is The Road (2007 Pulitzer prize winner) but a sci-fi horror—the struggle for survival in a burned out world where cannibals and blood cultists are the only visible survivors.

So when anyone snidely says “genre,” what they really mean is “those other genres.” Those few genre books that enjoy an elevated literary status are the exceptions. But this sort of thinking begs the question while ignoring its own conclusion. There is not one kind of fantasy novel, just as there is not one kind of literary novel—clearly, or there would be no fantasy novels in the Literature section.

Yes, there are plenty of cliché, one dimensional fantasy novels. Go to the appropriate aisle in your bookstore, pull a book off the shelf at random, and there's a good chance you'll have selected one of these books. They're popcorn fiction. One piece tastes like the other, and after you've had a handful you probably can't remember much about any of them, or which was which. But the same can be said of books shelved in the Literature section. Slow, run-of-the-mill, “my mundane/tragic life makes it hard to be happy” novels are published every year—books that try very hard to be big serious stories, and throwing their weight around, fall all over themselves and land in a heap.

If our literary regents bent their astounding linguistic potential to the task for a moment they might say “plot fiction” is the real offender. But since when is there anything wrong with a story that's headed somewhere? Where the story goes and how it gets there is only part of the thrill, though. A good plot is a mode of conveyance, and there are all sorts. Bullet trains cover more ground than roller skates; maybe one is more direct than the other, and the scenery goes by faster, but it's who's inside them that makes all the difference.

I suppose there is little sense trying to talk the literary faithful out of their prejudice, sad though it is to see. But they like what they like, and only what they like, and if you like something else, you simply have poor taste. For my part, there are too many fantastic novels across every genre to think of excluding any of them from consideration. And anyway, who the hell doesn't like popcorn now and then?

1 comment:

  1. Well said.

    "Literary" fiction is like classical music -- establishment, passive, pedantic group-think; "genre" fiction is like folk and pop music. The 'literati" need to get over it and stop being M-F-A snobs. Typically, "literary" doesn't make it better, just boring. IMHO. Mind you, there are notable exceptions.