The Real Issue with Genre Fiction
Over at the fabulous Blinded Trials, a post by Russell on post-apocalyptic post-reads led to a discussion on genre fiction. Genre fiction, as most everyone knows, has a reputation of being “dumbed down” fiction among literary snobs. At different times I find that I slightly agree or strongly disagree with this stereotype, and the threads over at Russell & Rose’s joint made me wonder why this might be.
On the one hand, some of the best written and most compelling fiction I have read falls squarely into the genre category. Kazou Ishiguro might well be my favorite writer of the current generation; his most recent novel, Never Let Me Go, is unabashedly a science fiction novel. I’ve never sat down to do a My Top 100 Novels list, but if I ever did it’s hard to think that 1984, Lathe of Heaven, The Caves of Steel, Small Gods, American Gods and The Once & Future King wouldn’t make that list; some of these would be in my top 25. Snow Crash might not make the list, but would be a book I’d choose to reread before a lot of books that did. The City & The City strikes me as a book that might make the list, but that needs little time to see if it holds up. Louis de Bernieres’s Latin American Trilogy, as well as the Gabrielle Garcia Marquez books that inspired them, are the books I most often give as gifts to people looking for something new to read.
So very clearly I am onboard with reading genre fiction.
And yet when I read this quote of Ryan quoting Jason,
“non-genre” mostly means “we like you, so come sit at the big kids’ table,”
it feels just as wrong to me as the casual dismissal of all genre fiction. I took some time this morning to puzzle out why this might be the case, and have come up with a working theory that is sure to irritate fans of genre fiction even more than my Sci-Fi vs. Fantasy hypothesis did. My theory is this:
Genre fiction doesn’t get an undeserved bad rap because genre fiction is itself is bad; rather, genre fiction has gotten an undeserved bad rap because genre fiction fans are so often undiscerning readers.
Let me explain:
Readers of what is commonly referred to as “literary fiction” (or as Ryan and Jason might call it, the Big Kids’ Table) by and large read books with a critical eye toward quality of writing. Experiencing the writing itself is a large part of the reading experience. This is of course a generalization, and be no means is a universal one. Further more, they aren’t necessarily good at it, and there is great disagreement among them as to which works succeed and which fall flat. But I would argue that for the most part, Hillary Mantel readers read Wolf Hall in part to see the way Mantel plays with language, and the way she drills down to confront the various and often conflicting human parts of the major characters that drive their motivations and development alike. Fans of Ishiguro do the same when reading The Remains of the Day, as do the readers of Bellow, Roth and Austen.
Do genre fiction readers engage in the same type of critical reading? Many do, obviously. (I am one of them; Ryan and Jason are as well.) And yet I when I look at the genre sections at Barnes & Noble or Amazon, it seems that for every Never Let Me Go, there are a hundred poorly written and better selling novels about sexy Werewolf hunters, Illuminati-chasing professors, or lawyers being chased by the Mafia. In genre fiction you are certainly allowed to have quality writing, but its fans seem more interested in gimmicks, plot devices, and Big Climaxes. Sometimes those concepts are terrific in and of themselves, but without quality writing they do take a suspension – not of disbelief, but of demands for quality.
Genre reading, as a fan, is a different experience than literary fiction reading. To give a personal example using two well known mega-bestsellers: I am probably the only Jonathan Franzen fan in the world that did not care for The Corrections. I found the plot strained and cliched, and I read the entire book, cover to cover, waiting for it to go someplace other than where it did. I would not read it again, and I would not recommend it. Despite that, Franzen’s use of language and writing style in and of itself is compelling, and because of that I did finish it. To take a best seller on the other end of the spectrum, I wanted to like The DaVinci Code. I really, really did. The basic plot devices were compelling, and the thought of having a protagonist working on puzzles embedded in historic works of art and architecture was (at the time) delightfully fresh and fun. I never finished the book, because for me the poor writing was simply too much to overcome. I have had similar experiences with books recommended by genre readers: Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Clive Cussler, Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts, and many more I know I’m forgetting who are adored by legions of various genre readers despite being terrible writers.
Genre readers also put a premium on merchandising that literary fiction readers don’t. Browse through genre sections on line or at a retailer, and books with movie and TV show tie-ins are legion. (The Star Wars and Star Trek books alone take up about a quarter of our local B&N sci-fi section.) I don’t read merchandised novels, so I’m not prepared to go out on a limb and say they are poorly written – but if I’m being honest I strongly suspect this.
I should point out that I don’t think there is anything wrong with reading genre fiction, even when it’s shallow or poorly written. I do it myself. I think Michael Crichton is a perfect example of a writer who wrote genre fiction with cliched and cardboard characters, but did so with such attention to his craft that I found it hard to put his books down. And if someone tells me they don’t really have the desire to take the time and bandwidth to plow through Pynchon or Proust, I’m not unsympathetic. But I disagree with this notion that the only thing that separates literary fiction readers and genre readers is an elongated nose to look down.
I anxiously await the obligatory Sam Wilkinson rebuttal.