The Real Issue with Genre Fiction

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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119 Responses

  1. Mike Schilling says:

    Hey, Tod. can I borrow a book?Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      The other half of the joke is that there may be no sex in that book at all, not necessarily even any female characters. I own a book that’s a retelling of part of the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh legends from the 11th and 12th centuries. It has nothing in it that would make a maiden aunt blush. Here’s the cover.Report

      • Rtod in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        I have a soft spot in my heart for pulp fiction covers from the 40s, 50s and early 60s. To me they always seem like they want you to take away a message of wanton and wild sex, but instead they seem to give away the sexual repression of the era.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    I’m one of those people who might read 2 or 3 (fiction) books a year. I read more non-fiction and thumb through god knows how many reference books (or Great Books) that have been referenced in the databanks.

    If I read a fiction book, it better goddam well come well recommended and be something worth diving into.

    I know somebody who reads 200-300 books a year.

    If this person happens to include a “Sexy Werewolf Vampire Hunter In Love With A Mummy” title or three in her pile of books, there isn’t a whole lot of opportunity cost lost.Report

  3. Well, since I’m not really a Franzen fan I probably don’t count, but I detested “The Corrections.”

    In my family, the big “genre fiction” reader is my Dad. He was such a frequent customer at the fantasy/sci-fi store that his collection of frequent buyer cards got to be inches thick, and was kind of legendary. He had, at his peak, about 3,000 titles in his library in my house growing up. He consumed them voraciously.

    Every so often I’d pull a title off the shelf. Some of them were amazing. I remember really liking “Grass,” by Sheri S Tepper, and of course “Ender’s Game.” But many, many, many of them were awwwwwwful. Just awful. It would be overstating things to say that Dad didn’t care, but he didn’t care enough to stop reading them (or, apparently, keeping them on his shelf). And he’s the most proximate example I can find of a hard-core fan.

    Which is my long-ass way of saying “I think you might be onto something.”

    However, he’s never forced himself to try reading Pynchon, either. (He’s never been particularly sympathetic when I’ve groused about some tome I’m slogging through.) So maybe he’s onto something.Report

    • Have just been informed that I have misrepresented things, and in fact he had shelves of books that he couldn’t read past page 25. (He did, it should be noted, keep them. But then again I still have “Against the Day.”) So I guess that means you must be full of crap after all.Report

      • So let me clarify, being he with that library, and with some 300 odd books on my iPad (though about 10% are non-fiction, and you can get some amazing deals on old classics such that I have, for example all the G.A. Henty stories that I read as a youth for pennies or nothing). When you buy a large number of books and get a little ancient in years it is sometimes hard to remember what you have and have not bought. Thus by keeping the bad ones I could be a little further ahead in remembering what I found awful. (And last year when our Rotary Club donated books to restart a library knocked out by Katrina guess where they and a few hundred others ended up – after all not everyone shares my taste). Also when a new book in a series came out I could go back and re-read the earlier ones (I read for pleasure and escape and thus do not consciously remember much of the plots of the lighter fare I consume for more than a couple of weeks).

        And to revert to the recommendations (though I should probably cross-post to Russell’s post) there are some very good books out there – depending on taste. For sheer escapism there is the The Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. Or, in the middle of the alphabet there is the The Recluse Series by L.E. Modesitt Jr and towards the end of the alphabet there is anything that David Weber has written – since he writes in many genres. And there are many good writers in between that I could, but won’t get into.

        But it is interesting, in a more philosophical vein, and apropos the recent article about e-books in the New Yorker, to comment that there are many more (usually bad but with the occasional pearl) books now available under the self-publishing mode that Amazon seems to be encouraging, which may be a rebuttal to the criticism that they are shutting down creativity – though it does nothing to strengthen the book publishing industry in the country.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Heading Out says:

          For sheer escapism there is the The Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold.

          I’d give you an argument on that one. There’s a lot in those about love, relationships, and families and the effect of technology on society.Report

          • While that is true, after all most novels deal at some point with personal relationships, the hilarity of “A Civil Campaign” could be translated into many different genres and still bring me to tears of laughter.

            The better novels of the genre bring in themes that are adapted from the relatively few basic plots around which the majority of novels are written, but by changing the context and venue to bring unanticipated complexity to the basic plots they make the fundamental plots more interesting and with novel twists due to that change in technology/magic. The brilliance of Bujold, Modesitt and Weber, inter alia, are that they can make readers accept these technologies, and their impacts, and still focus on the underlying story.

            It is in that accepting of these otherwise dramatic changes in society that I view the novels as “escapist” in that I don’t have to work through the logic of how supra-light speed transport works (I accept the brief explanations that most authors provide without question) and just read them for the entertaining inter-relationships and actions that unfold.Report

            • Mike Schilling in reply to Heading Out says:

              Have you also read “A Game of Thrones? If so, I have a story you might like.Report

              • Remember the books that I sent down to NOLA? Well at that time I had three of the series, but found it hard to get into the first, and so hadn’t read any – this was just before the series took off – and so I put them in the pile with others and someone down there has the benefit.

                Don’t think I missed much, though the popularity may lead me to revisit them sometime.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Heading Out says:

                I think they’re excellent (the books, that is, though the TV show is good too), thought they require a significant amount of time and attention. And if you avoid series that are being added to painfully slowly and may never be completed, this is one of them.

                Anyway,.one of their main characters is very short and somewhat misshapen, and lives in a culture where that makes him generally despised. Sound familiar? 🙂Report

        • Wardsmith in reply to Heading Out says:

          Are you the same Headingout from theoildrum? I know you virtually speaking. You’re related to the good doctor? Wow. Small WorldReport

        • Rtod in reply to Heading Out says:

          Heading Out – if I’m reading this correctly and you are Dr. Saunders father, I cannot welcome you to this site enough. A true honor.Report

  4. greginak says:

    I enjoy some ST extended uni books, they are great for long flights. They are only servicable because they exisist in the larger ST uni and aren’t typically all that well done on their own. But they are fun enough. Some are pretty poorly written. Poorly written serious fiction is usually published in small quantities and you have to search it out. Badly written mass market fiction is easy to find and to see how poorly its done. A lot of big name authors, like tom clancy, don’t even write their own books at some point. Ghost writers do them to a formula or if a writer wants to change their formula the publisher will say they can’t.

    I have to admit i havn’t read any of the popular books (hunger games, HP, those sweedish mystery novel things, Div Code) so i have no idea how good they areReport

    • Maribou in reply to greginak says:

      I think greginak is on to something, or at least your post made me think similarly to his comment, Tod. I understand where you’re coming from, but I think you have a case of confirmation bias.

      I work in a college, and thus encounter a Great Deal of the “literary fiction” genre as I go about my day to day business. There are just as many poorly written, wooden, leaden, appalling deliberately-literary fiction titles as poorly written anything else… there are just fewer *copies* of said appalling litfic floating around, because they lack the redeeming features of plot, inventiveness, excitement, satisfying relatable characters, psychological hooks, big marketing departments, or whatever else makes poorly written mass market / genre novels sell like crazy. There’s also a lot of decent selling, dull as dishwater and unimpressively written realistic mass-market fiction out there (eg Nicholas Sparks or Robert James Waller) which I suppose you *could* class as one genre or another…. but doing so, as opposed to seeing it as the downmarket variant of Lipsyte or Perotta or Irving or de Bernières in the same way that Feintuch is the downmarket variant of Asaro or Le Guin or Sturgeon or Tiptree, seems inconsistent as heck to me, and almost certainly a case of question-begging.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Maribou says:

        This is my thought as well – a good idea or exciting plot, a fantastic setpiece or iconic/archetypal characters, can and do survive bad (or merely adequate) prose (Edgar Rice Burroughs; PKD). Hence genre stuff often has various inbuilt hooks that can compensate for flaws of bad prose or repetition of certain elements.

        But if you don’t have any of those things, you’ve just got bad prose about someone washing the dishes one day and realizing his dad never loved him.

        Why would anyone remember that, or recommend it, or re-read it, or seek out any more like it?Report

      • Rtod in reply to Maribou says:

        You may be right, Maribou. But doesn’t it say something that those poorly written lit books more often then not crash and burn before anyone reads them, and Star Trek books ghost penned for Mr Shatner become big hits?Report

      • MaxL in reply to Maribou says:

        Maybe CS Lewis was on to something regarding genre fiction when he said – from “An Experiment in Criticism” – about people enjoying bad writing in general:

        “… because it is immediately recognizable. ‘My blood ran cold’ is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.”Report

  5. wardsmith says:

    For the most part I don’t often think of “science fiction” and “dumbed down” in the same category, although they’ve expanded the definition of “scifi” to include a lot of trash that doesn’t merit the title. Some of the best philosophy, art, prose and yes actual science I’ve ever consumed has been in “scifi”. I used to read at least 300 books a year, but now my eyes just can’t take it anymore. I don’t consider reading online and newspapers and magazines to be “reading”. It isn’t the same unless I can curl up with a cup of coffee (or stronger) and immerse myself.Report

    • Simon K in reply to wardsmith says:

      There’s always been terrible science fiction – it was Theodore Sturgeon who said that 90% of everything is crap, while defending SF from its detractors. The crap is quickly forgotten, though, and good SF is remembered by generations of nerds.

      SF is probably unique among genre fiction in that it has a sub-genre that’s best described as Idea Porn, where the point of the story isn’t the plot or the writing but the ideas behind them. Greg Egan is probably the best contemporary exponent. Historically, of course, Philip K Dick was the master of this (but not of litertary writing, I think we have to admit). For most genre fiction – vampire stories, lawyer stories, those thrillers with pictures of flags and swastikas on the front, and a lot of scifi – the point is the events described.Report

    • One of the reasons I don’t read a lot of science fiction is that it’s too hard, not dumbed down. I don’t have the……gumption?…. to teach myself whatever world the author has created. This is, I submit, a failure on my part, and not on the part of sci-fi.Report

  6. Kimmi says:

    Neuromancer and the rest of the spec fic crowd is hard as hell to read. I don’t think that one must have large bodies of knowledge about Rastafarians in order to understand a book about San Francisco’s future.

    And these, you’ll recall, are the science fiction that the literati like.

    I love an allusion as much as the next bloke, but give me Evangelion — the allusions aren’t meant to be understood, they’re just there.

    Or Digger, where half the allusions are the author ego-stroking himself. But that’s fine, because you don’t get lost in them, like you do Gibson’s.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Kimmi says:

      dude you have trouble with Neuromancer?

      On the other hand there’s people who still don’t understand what was going on in “The Matrix”, so I guess there you are.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to DensityDuck says:

        It’s… dense. And not dense the way Martin’s books are dense, with interconnections between events. It’s dense in the way that completely obscure references are supposed to be completely obvious.

        many books I read in one sitting. that one took days.Report

  7. Karl says:

    I totally agree. Read enough genre best-sellers (and Hugo winners) and it’s clear that many genre readers have eyeballs that are polarized the wrong way for detecting the presence or absence of quality writing. And it’s not just a “character-driven vs. plot-driven” issue either. Much that’s awful in genre fiction is awful because of plots that make no sense. But awful stuff can still be successful with genre readers if it pushes the right buttons.Report

  8. Morat20 says:

    Genre readers also READ A LOT. Bluntly put, how many truly good books come out a year? A genre reader will read dozens of books a year, and setting aside non-fiction entirely, are there dozens of must read books a year that would fall into an average person’s literary circle of interest? (I mean, let’s face it — certain types of stories or settings just aren’t going to be big draws, or even turnoffs, to some people — regardless of plot or characterization).

    There’s also the fact that genre readers tend to use it as light entertainment: I can name, oh, half a dozen genre authors whose work is repititive and not terribly good that I faithfully read simply because they are light, simple reading — perfect for sitting around at the dentists, waiting on my kid, or passing an idle moment.

    There’s also a much, much, MUCH smaller number of genre authors I faithfully read because they are always just ridiculously good writers. (Or at least, it’s a good bet based on their past history).

    In the end, if you end up reading 40+ books a year — and most of them are about sexy vampires, people who have sexy sex with vampires, or people who kill vampires, it’s a pretty good deal if 2 of those books are “Excellent” and the rest are just middling beach-read crap. Odds are you’ll recommend the two books to everyone, and the middling crap to people who want…beach read entertainment. 🙂

    Fantasy doesn’t churn out books suitable for braining burglars because it’s 800 pages of good writing so much as it is the fact that fantasy fans tend to not only read a lot, but fast. (Although the kvetching about Martin’s two latest does indicate even the most jaded genre fan dislikes it when an author replaces GOOD genre writing with lengthy crap.).

    yeah — I think, charitably, I follow at least 5 mid-rate writers and 2 crap-but-entertaining writers for every first-rate one (by my own opinion). But to me a slow year means I read less than 50 or 60 works of fiction (non fiction I tally seperately. That’s more random. Really depends on what catches my fancy).

    I do try to look back — been working through past award winners I might have missed, that sort of thing. 🙂Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Morat20 says:

      Who’s first rate to you?Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Kimmi says:

        Depends on the genre. 🙂

        Sci-Fi? Iain Bank’s stuff gets up there (not all of it, but he’s pretty solid). LeGuin — Lathe of Heaven is just fabulous, and everything she’s written that I’ve read is solid. Vernor Vinge’s work ranges from excellent to just “readable”.

        I’d say LeGuin’s definitely first rate all around. Banks and Vinge trend back and forth from solid to first-rate.

        David Weber’s pretty predictable but good if you like war porn or “plucky society levels up in technology” — but defintely beach reader. Modesitt tells the same story over and over and over, but I like him despite that. A few of his works are good, the rest are just acceptable.

        Fantasy? PC Hodgell is innovative, at least compared to the current popularity of either door-stopper series or urban fantasy, and her writing is solid. Not sure she’s first rate, but she’s close. Jim Butcher isn’t first rate — although his books are thoroughly enjoyable.

        Pratchett is first rate, at least anything after Reaper Man. It took him a bit to find his legs, but absolutely worth it. The Watch books are good, but his YA series (the Tiffany Aching books) are probably the best fantasy out there right now. Pity about his illness. 🙁

        I’d put Hat Full of Sky up against books like Lathe of Heaven or A Canticle for Leibowitz in terms of just absolutely GOOD in all respects.

        Simon Green’s stuff is just bad, but in a decently cheesy good beach way. 🙂 Also very repititive.

        All told, I’m a lot more likely to ask someone who they like and what they like, and recommend specific books or authors from there. I’m honestly really bad at trying to compile “Top Ten” or “Top 100” lists — I just don’t organize like that.

        But genre wise — Pratchett and Banks are two I tend to buy because their writing is top-notch or close to it. Weber I routinely buy because it’s perfect for lazy entertainment. Butcher because, well, I love the awesome and Butcher wrote a book about a man riding a zombie dinosaur to polka. And it was awesome.

        Plus, the man successfully crossed Roman Lost Legion, Pokemon, and Starcraft into an entertaining series, on basically a dare. Got to respect that. 🙂Report

        • Murali in reply to Morat20 says:

          Simon Green’s Nightside series is actually good. Of course Butcher is awesome! Why the hell is cld days taking so fishing long to come out?Report

          • Morat20 in reply to Murali says:

            Eh, Nightside’s first book was okay — especially given that he pretty much wrote the book so he could make a joke on “Private Eye”.

            It’s just, if you’ve read enough Green you realize he recycles a LOT of material. Jokes, characters, mannerisms — I enjoy that he’s sorta tied everything together, but, well, 90% of his stuff isn’t good.

            I’ve READ it all, so I guess it’s good in the sense that I keep buying it (just not in hard back!) and enjoy it, but it’s definitely beach read. There’s only one or two I’d absolutely recommend.

            Although, FYI, I’d be absolutely THRILLED to see an MMORPG set in the Deathstalker universe. I mean, good lord, it’s begging for it.Report

    • Rtod in reply to Morat20 says:

      I’m not sure that I agree about there being few good books published in any given year. I think there are tons; and that’s just if you’re limiting yourself to the New Arrivals section.

      But I think you may have hit on something that might be a factor in what I argued in the OP. Most people that I know that are genre readers don’t cross pollinate. People I have known who call themselves sci-fi fans often read nothing but sci-fi. People (ok, women) I know that read romance novels read only romance novels. Etc.

      Is part of the reason genre readers are (I beleive) seeming to be non-discerning because if you limit your choices you only have so much to choose from, and you take what you can get?

      I used to have a good friend who decided in her early 20’s that, for reasons of making a politcal statement, she would never read a novel that was not written by a woman of color, and that books by self-described lesbians or transgendered writers would get first read. I always assumed that if you read a lot, you would eventually find yourself being forced to read not very good books at the expense of great books like Wolf Hall, because if your criteria was not set up to reflect quality than that would be the obvious outcome.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Rtod says:

        Ever read Barbara Hambly? She writes a damn fine romance. Mostly fantasy, some science fiction. But it’s really romance, a lot of the time — and solid, good characterization.

        Tons of fun.

        Read a Niven mystery once — still sci fi.Report

        • Morat20 in reply to Kimmi says:

          Hambly has excellent characters, strong female leads (save their distressing habit of falling for the old, wise wizard character — but Hambly’s enthusiasm for May/December romances (that’s the term, right?) isn’t that bad, especially since her female characters remain strong — and are often the protaganist, which was a real rarity in fatnasy, especially when she started writing.

          I’m particularly fond, genre-wise, of the way she tends to both utilize and describe magic. It’s…believable (for lack of a better term) and vivid, a living thing, rather than being a deus ex machina or the spellslinging equivilant of a good weapon or tool.Report

  9. Tom Van Dyke says:

    Genre fiction is necessarily derivative, no? A huge artistic strike.

    Thinking of music as well, it seems a writer-musician-artist puts his popular success on the line should he stray from his own accepted boundaries of genre. Perhaps permanently.

    This isn’t to say a gifted writer can’t transcend genre, Orwell comes immediately to mind. Steely Dan mebbe; but although they created their own genre or genre-straddle, they too are/were prisoners of it.

    Stephen King has been testing his tethers; many say he’s just a downright good writer. I’m not very familiar, but I sure like the Shawshank Redemption movie.

    Good and provocative post, Tod. I too have tremendously enjoyed some genre fiction, esp SF, as much as any “legitimate” literature. And music, my own chosen medium, is far more genre-constricted than literature—it’s hard to describe most music without a genre box. Much food for thought here. Props.Report

    • Glyph in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      I actually haven’t read any S. King in a long time (I lost track of him up after Tommyknockers, boy howdy was he coked out of his ever-lovin’ mind when he wrote that one, and it shows) but it has been very gratifying to see his critical reputation overall get reassessed over the years.

      I had basically this argument with one of my creative writing profs, and also another good friend, in college back in the day (early 90’s) – genre fiction was not ‘real’ writing in their eyes, only the ‘literary’ stuff counted.

      I disagreed strongly, and used King and (RIP) Ray Bradbury as my primary counterexamples.

      By ’03 King had gotten the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, had a piece published in the New Yorker etc. (to my friend’s credit, she called me up when it was published and generously ate her crow – publication in the New Yorker actually being a ‘respectability’ criteria she had argued for), we laughed about it, and I felt vindicated.

      When people of the future want to know how 20th-century Americans spoke and thought and lived, they could do a lot worse than reading early King.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Glyph says:

        I love the sneers that Stephen King wasn’t literature, because he wrote for the masses.

        So did Shakespeare and Hugo, both of them esteemed ‘artists’ now that they’re safely dead and understanding their work requires a lot more work (since you have to know about the history, venacular, and problems of the times). Apparently “art” must be endured, not entertain. 🙂

        In a purely libertarian sense, Stephen King is considerably BETTER an artist and writer than Bill or Victor, since King had a heck of a lot more competition. Shakespeare wasn’t competing with a dozen other forms of entertainment (just other plays), and neither was Hugo.

        Speaking of — ever wonder why Victor Hugo is in such a dire need of an editor? He was paid by the word. 🙂 After my first experience with an ‘unabriged’ Victor Hugo novel, I swore off it.

        The difference between today’s “mass entertainment” and tomorrow’s “classic literature” is just a death and a century or so. I guess “writing as art”, like fine wine, must be aged to perfection.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Morat20 says:

          Mark Twain also wrote for the masses, and most of the writers who were considered serious at the time are long forgotten (William Dean Howells, anyone? If he’s remembered at all, it’s for being a friend of Twain’s.)Report

          • Kolohe in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            (US) American literature, iirc from English classes 20 years ago, became distinguished from Brit/Euro literature as some many writers were also newspaper guys when the genre was coming of age. It’s also why the short story became more of an American thing than a Brit/Euro thing.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Morat20 says:

          it wasn’t the wordcount that I minded, it was the 40 page dissertation on architecture of 200 years before he was writing!Report

    • Chris in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      Of course all fiction, all art, is derivative (anxiety of influence and all that). I see no reason to assume genre fiction is necessarily more so, even if it does rely on a set of common tropes.Report

    • LarryM in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      I wouldn’t say necessarily derivative; often derivative, yes. And I suppose some genres more than others. Romance I don’t read, but my understanding is that it is incredibly formulaic. Mystery also to a large degree, though less so. Probably 80% of fantasy is warmed over Tolkein, but the range and inventiveness of the other 20% is substantial. Science fiction, given the scope of the possible, should be our least derivative fiction. It often isn’t, but that’s not an inherent quality of the genre.Report

  10. Tod,

    Have you read C. S. Lewis’s “An Experiment in Criticism”? It seems to correspond with your ideas of looking at literary merit by looking at how the reader approaches the work.Report

  11. I recently finished Stephen King’s 1963. It was a good book while I was reading it, but I had a lot of “hey!….wait a minute!” moments after I finished it, and don’t particularly recommend it.Report

  12. Morat20 says:

    Also, there’s this:

    Not everything can be Mozart. Not everything SHOULD be Mozart. Sometimes people just want to listen to Madonna. Or P!nk. Or Katy Perry.

    Not everyone wants to be deeply challenged by books, or music, or film all the time. Most just want to be entertained, if not all the time then some of the time.

    I don’t see the point on ragging on genre fiction — it’d be like complaining about how Bare Naked Ladies aren’t the Beatles aren’t Schubert.

    I like going to the Opera — that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy Cats. That I’ve read a Brief History of Time doesn’t mean I can’t happily watch The Big Bang Theory.

    It’s one of my biggest peeves about the “Arts” in general — the notion that if it’s entertainment, it’s probably not Art. Not unless it tries really, really, really hard. Only if it’s entertaining despite itself. Transcending mere mortal ‘entertainment’ to rise to some platonic ideal.

    Pshaww. I never read Tom Clancy thinking it was gonna be Hemingway, and if it was — I’d have read something else at the time. Because sometimes I want Hemingway, and sometimes I just want to read about stuff blowing up without having to wade through symbolism.

    I want that blown up rocket to be a rocket, not a metaphor for man’s struggle against the darkness. Or a penis.Report

  13. A Teacher says:

    I think I sense a rebuttal brewing.

    But let me toss this out to be gnawed on by fellow leaguers as both a fellow intellectual and a striving producer of genre fiction.

    What does a given kind of fiction offer beyond simply watching the news?

    Think about a good sci fi novel. You see alien races and politics nothing like Earth. You are treated to speculations of where mankind will be in 100, 200, 400 years. Perhaps this is good, or perhaps this is dark. But that’s one of the things going for it.

    What about a good mystery? It’s in the twists, the clues, the suspects, the keeping us guessing until the final reveal just whodunnit. We read those for the challenge of seeing if we’re as smart as the author/ characters.

    But with true non-genre prose, what can it offer us? It may have a story that is unfamilar to us, a tale we’ve not heard told before. But more often than not it’s the richness of language that it provides as it’s “better than reality”.

    This is also why I am very understanding of writer workshops and creative writing professors who discourage genre fiction during the learning phases. So much of “genre” is “the genre”. A good sci fi may have great literary value, and wonderful turn of phrase, but it garnishes fans among sci fi for other attributes. Thus it’s easy for someone who says “I want to write the next great space opera” to feel that learning about character, sentence patterning and chapter formats is “beneath them.”

    So I think to say that genre fans aren’t as discerning as non-genre fans isn’t really accurate. It’s more that they’re discerning, perhaps even more so, of different qualities. They have high standards, but just in different categories.Report

    • karl in reply to A Teacher says:

      Just got home and saw this, from a professor who teaches a course on TV’s “The Wire:
      “Joseph Conrad famously proclaimed his goal as “above all, to make you see.” […] Indeed, the quality of seeing—how rich and contradictory this is with respect to characters’ motives and the implications of their actions—becomes an index for how good the work is, regardless of the medium.”

      It’s the richness of the seeing.Report

      • karl in reply to karl says:

        Crap, deleted the last phrase:
        It’s the richness of the seeing, both the author’s and the reader’s.Report

        • Glyph in reply to karl says:

          Teacher/Karl: after I had posted my own comments above, I also thought of this sort of ‘rebuttal’ and I think you are onto something.

          This may be the basic impetus to prize ‘non-genre’ ‘literary’ fiction over genre. This is going to sound like damning with faint praise, but it’s not meant to: if an author can render the mundane/everyday (read: normally seen as boring or unremarkable or depressing) into something transcendent/fantastic by sheer force of observation, prose and craft, well, maybe that *is* more impressive than someone who starts out with elements that are already transcendent (vampires! spaceships! dragons!) and goes from there.

          IOW, if you can make boring depressing old ‘real life’ (or some facsimile thereof) interesting and meaningful, well, that is a harder job, and so you might be a ‘better’ writer.Report

          • A Teacher in reply to Glyph says:

            Harder than creating a world/ situtation/ condition that forces reflection on a modern issue (say suicide bombers or economic uncertainty) in a totally non-realistic world? To make a reader stop and revisit their own modern everyday views because of ideas inspired by a totally speculative story?Report

            • Glyph in reply to A Teacher says:

              Didn’t say I agreed with the rebuttal, just that it sort of makes sense, though your rebuttal’s rebuttal ably… well, rebuts it. The main thrust of the OP speculated on the reason for the relative perceived hierarchy btw genre and non-, I was just providing a view some people might hold that accounts for it. I think my earlier comments made my own view clear, or just read Kuznicki’s comments and pretend I was that eloquent & pithy.Report

          • Kimmi in reply to Glyph says:

            I’ve seen some really, really boring genre settings. A man sitting and watching the news.Report

  14. George Turner says:

    The problem is that nobody is writing cheap sci-fi series in Shakespearean English. I once corrected that oversight:

    Admiral Adama:
    Because authority, though it err like others,
    Hath yet a kind of innocence in itself,
    That sends the ruse o’ the top, straight to their bosom.
    Sent I a squadron with Starbuck at point
    The Cylons would prick alert to the threat,
    Whilst a high praised and honoured admiral
    They’d judge as above such insanity.

    etc, etc, ad infinitum. A spoof longer than Hamlet, with a target audience of probably a dozen, but it is fun to write in the style. Homer is also a fun one to ape, though not as technically complicated.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to George Turner says:

      Steven Brust did write fantasy pastiches of Dumas’s Musketeer novels [1], written in classic Dumas style.

      1. All three, including a three-volume version of The Vicomte D’Bragellone.Report

      • And those were fucking fantastic.

        Paarfi will be writing all of my novels from now on.Report

      • George Turner in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        There was also the Jane Austen “Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies” which, as far as men are concerned, is an improvement on the original because it has zombies. 🙂

        I think an English language Dumas pastiche would’ve shown the same problems as any English Homer pastiche, as influenced by the quirks of the translator as the original author. If you go for Homer, should you sound like Pope or Fagles? If you go for Pope everyone will just be confused, whereas Fagles resonates in modern English “Rage, goddess sing the rage of Peleus’s son, Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Acheans countless losses, hurling upon the house of death so many sturdy souls.” (Years ago I memorized the first 45 minutes or so of his translation out of unimaginable boredom.)

        But Shakespeare’s later works teaches a great deal about timing and pacing. His early works were pure iambic pentameter, and he later broke the out of the classical rhythm to profound effect. Unfortunately, he also worked in a period shortly prior to everyone getting hung up on consistency and linearity, so some of his plots would leave sci-fi geeks screaming all over the message boards. (As a quick example, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy:

        “who would fardels bear,
        To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
        But that the dread of something after death,
        The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
        No traveller returns, puzzles the will
        And makes us rather bear those ills we have
        Than fly to others that we know not of?”

        Most sci-fi fans would be screaming “Yo, Hamlet! If we don’t return from the undiscovered country, then explain how you were talking to a freakin’ ghost in act I!” They are an odd lot. The scream that each epic falls short of Shakespeare, yet they would eviscerate Shakespeare for inconsistency as if he’d written the 1970’s reset of Battlestar Galactica. He had the great fortune to write when a work of art would present multiple but mutually impossible storylines, like a diagram of a theme park that shows the same smiling cartoon family in ten different places. His audience understood that a play is not a documentary, just as they understood that a painting is not a snapshot of an actual scene (the same person could appear a dozen times in one painting to illustrate what he does during the year).

        Since sci-fi tends to be escapist literature, many of the fans demand that the world depicted make absolute literal sense to them, which precludes a lot of potential story telling unless you burn pages on explaining an alternate reality or possible futures. Sci-fi movies are even worse in this regard, since the critics (which is all of us at times) can’t make the mental leaps that a peasant would four hundred years ago.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to George Turner says:

          to take arms against a sea of troubles

          You’d probably just drown.Report

          • George Turner in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            Water wings! ^_^

            If London had been a coffee culture Hamlet wouldn’t have been so freakin’ gloomy and he’d have said:

            To brew, or not to brew: that is the question:
            Whether ’tis nobler in the morn to suffer
            The yawns and harrows of a bleary waking,
            Or to make urns a’black to shake the slumbers,
            And by imbibing end them? To sip: to sleep
            No more; and by a sleep to say we end
            The heartache and the thousand nighttime shocks
            That sleep is known for, ’tis a stimulation
            Devoutly to be wish’d. To brew, to steep;
            To steep: perchance to steam: ay, where’s my mug;
            For aft’ that cup of joe what dream remains
            When we have stirred and slurped the coffee oil,
            Cupped in our paws: there’s the respect
            That makes a frothing cup of Café au lait;
            For who could spare the whip’t and airy cream,
            The Espresso’s song, the scent of Arabica,
            The grounds of spent wet love, the brew’s delay.
            The insolence of instant and the burn
            That patient merit makes of too hurried taste,
            So he himself might his craving forsake
            Lest a burnt piehole? Who would waking bear,
            With grumbled breath under a drowsy eye,
            But that the dread of dozing at the wheel,
            The commuter’s mortuary from whose urns
            No coffee mug refills, strengthens the will
            And makes us rather brew those beans we have
            Than drive to others that we know not of?
            Thus caffeine does make addicts of us all;
            And thus the doctor’s urge of abnegation
            Is sipped o’er with a pale afterthought,
            And resolutions of great sincerity
            With this first cup their firmness goes away,
            And lose the name of action.–Perc you now!
            The rare Arabica! Drip! For thy piquancy
            Be in my dreams remembered.

            For good or ill, our culture has shortened such overwrought breakfast soliloquys to Homer Simpson saying “Mmmm… Donuts.” It’s shorter, direct to the point, and doesn’t conjure up images of Mel Gibson in a bathrobe ranting at his coffee pot with his crazy-eyes.Report

            • wardsmith in reply to George Turner says:

              George, you just gotta do an OP like this! Excellent! 🙂Report

            • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

              I doubt it deserves a real post, as I wrote it late one sleepless night, but it would be cute on the back of a coffee-house menu instead of the usual fluff about how the place was founded by a couple of college kids from Topeka or Boca Raton, especially since coffee houses are so pretentious anyway. Maybe it would ease some of the sting of realizing you just paid $4.50 for fancy beans that taste suspiciously like dirt.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to George Turner says:

          shakespeare is overrated. quite good, but overrated.Report

  15. DensityDuck says:

    The problem, I figure, is that people think “sci-fi? Oh, you mean like Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus.” SF fans say “no, SF has stuff like Left Hand Of Darkness and Ender’s Game and Book Of The New Sun!” So the first person goes to the store, looks in the “Sci-Fi and Fantasy” section, sees a lot of Star Wars tie-ins and David Weber stuff, and thinks “oh hey, Giant Octopus after all”.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to DensityDuck says:

      DD – I don’t think so. Partly because I do browse the SF section for good books and can always find them.

      But also because I don’t think there’s an equivalency there. If you go to the lit section, where are the equivalents to countless Star Wars mechanizing books? Which best selling authors in lit would be the writing equalialent to a Nora Roberts, or a Douglas Preston, or a Dan Brown? I can’t think of any; there must be some I cant think of, obviously, but they’d be more the exception than the rule, yes?Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        ” If you go to the lit section, where are the equivalents to countless Star Wars [merchandising] books? ”

        But that’s exactly my point; that you won’t find Nora Roberts in the “literary fiction” section, but you’ll find Star Wars tie-in novels right next to “The Stars My Destination”.Report

  16. Nob Akimoto says:

    In defense of Star Trek novels…

    Pocket Books has put a lot of effort into getting good, hard sci-fi writers into the setting, and they’ve done a really, really good job of building on it. Christopher Bennet is one who comes to mind of someone who does a fantastic job. The current crop of “franchise’ writers is much better than it was back in the day.Report

    • A Teacher in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Also the process for getting published as one is not short. If I recall correctly, from a friend who wrote The Nanotech War, you start with a full outline, and the first 3-5 chapters before you apply to have your story considered as a Star Trek novel. If they approve it then you get to move on and write the rest of it, and after that they still have the right to pull the liscence (and with it I believe most if not all your paycheck).

      I had thought about doing the Queen’s Fury novels as Trek novels but frankly would rather build my own world then deal with that.Report

      • Rod in reply to A Teacher says:

        Trek is big on “canon”. As in the books have to be consistent with the series’ and movies. But books don’t have to be consistent with other books and of course TV and movies completely ignore the books.

        I sorta liked and sorta hated what they did with the latest Trek movie. Seemed like sort of a cheat but it was still darned good!Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      Star Trek novels brought us “How Much for Just the Planet” and “The Final Reflection”.

      Admittedly, both were by the same guy.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Morat20 says:

        A guy who, for all his talent, never became well-known or especially successful because he didn’t play the genre fiction game well. He didn’t create a series or a style that announced to readers “This is a John M. Ford book. If you liked the last dozen, you’ll like this one too.”Report

        • Morat20 in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          Having read both those ST novels, both written in entirely different styles yet both fantastic (one funny and light hearted, the other — well the other single-handedly turned Klingons from “black bad guys” into “proud warrior race”) I will and have happily read anything of his I could get my hands on. 🙂Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      I read a star trek novel once.
      The Kobayashi Maru.Report

  17. BlaiseP says:

    Isn’t Egghead Fiction such as Pynchon’s last few novels Genre Fiction, too?

    I used to frequent a bookstore in St. Charles, IL. A lovely old woman once worked there, whose judgement I trusted completely. I’d come in the store, I’d ask her to put a book in my hand and I’d buy it. She’d watched me buy books for a decade: she knew what I really wanted and needed and she gave me books I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen.

    Everyone needs such a person in their book-buying lives. I’ll always remain grateful to her. Now I’m weeping again, remembering her.Report

  18. Chris says:

    Judging by the image accompanying this post, I’m going to assume that the reason genre fiction is inferior is its tendency to blatantly objectify women.

    If not, dude, try harder.Report

  19. smarx says:

    I always likes to read, but while at university my reading habits divided into what I must read and what I read for fun. What I had to read for my graduate classes was always non-fiction and what I read for fun was quick and entertaining to help my mind unwind. I rarely took classes that required me to read literary fiction. So, I’d read something like John Dower’s “Embracing Defeat” of Herbert Bix’s “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” (something I recommend to help cure insomnia) on the week days and then genre fiction or comic books on the weekend. The fiction I read for classes wasn’t something to be admired for its craft, but for its historical significance like “Around the World in Eighty Days” or Soseki’s “I am Cat.”

    I’ve never cared about reading “big kids” fiction because reading has always been a means to an end. I either read to learn about history and theory or I read for fun.

    After graduating this has stayed the same. While I lived in Japan I did a lot of reading for fun to kill the hour to and from work. I plowed through books by Neal Stephenson, Terry Pratchett, John Le Carre, Jim Butcher, Umberto Eco, and Haruki Murakami. It was only later that I realized that some of what I read might be considered “big kid” fiction.Report

  20. LarryM says:

    There’s a lot of truth to what you are saying, but I think you are missing something.

    What do we mean when we talk about “good writing” when dealing with fiction? Is it simply fiction which partakes of certain “literary values?” I think the answer is, obviously not, though there seems to sometimes be an unspoken assumption that they are the same. But a writer can have no literary ambitions at all, yet still write readable, literate prose. This is, or should be, obvious but often doesn’t seem to be.

    There is a fair amount of science fiction with some literary ambition (realized or not). Once you get past that – and let’s face it, we’re talking about maybe 5% of the genre – there seems to be an assumption that what divides the rest is merely how well traditional genres virtues are executed. But there is also a matter of simple good prose versus bad prose. There are plenty of guys like Greg Bear, Dan Simmons, and David Brin who don’t have any real literary ambitions, but who write solid, if unspectacular prose. On a higher level (in terms of popularity at least), maybe a Stephen King. But then there are plenty of genre authors who can’t write their way out of a paper bag. I don’t want to pick on a teenager (well, he isn’t now), but … Christopher Paolini anyone? My daughter loves him, and I suppose that he executes traditional genre virtues well enough (though even more derivatively than most), but I couldn’t get past the first 50 pages.Report

    • LarryM in reply to LarryM says:

      And 5% may be low, I realize. Looking at my own shelves, more than 50% of my genre fiction has at least some pretension to literary values. (With some edge cases – is Tim Powers just someone who combines an excellant prose style with originality and well realized genre virtues?)

      Part of the reason it is so high is that a lot of the … less ambitious … novels of my youth were lost in a move 15 years ago, but even so, there is plenty of good stuff out there.Report

  21. J R in WV says:

    I consume lots of “genre” fiction, several different ones too.

    Dave Weber, Miles Vorkosigian, (author, character) Tom Clancy (on a trip where I need lots of pages in a single volume) Vampires but NOT zombies (yuck!), some mysteries, much SciFi, a little fantasy, I enjoyed the thread about which is which.

    By the way, Cordwainer Smith and James Tiptree, both award-winning SciFi authors, were I think both women writing under a pseudonym. Tiptree was with the CIA, I think, and perhaps did her fiction psuedonymously on that account. Not taking the time to look that up, tho, got things to read. Tear me up if I’m wrong.

    Glad I found this blog, lots here to read!Report

  22. Chris says:

    When I saw the title, I first thought of this, not soccer (football, sorry Murali). Apparently history repeats itself in myriad ways.Report