SciFi, Theme

On Genre

One of the biggest things that bothered me about studying creative writing at a university was the insistence that we had to write “Literature,” because for-profit writing like genre fiction wasn’t worth studying. This bothered me because I view myself as primarily a science fiction kind of writer, and I can also appreciate a good piece of young adult, chick lit, fantasy, mystery–just about anything that’s well written. For me, “literature” is not a certain type of fiction–it’s a quality rating. To set “Literature” aside as a genre unto itself is to deny the genius of writers like Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut (although he often makes the jump to “Literature” on bookstore shelves, I still maintain that he is largely a scifi author), and Arthur C. Clarke just because they follow certain tropes, and unnecessarily elevate lesser writers arbitrarily categorized as “literary” because they followed others. The whole thing doesn’t make any sense to me.

There are many advantages to writing genre fiction, both in terms of story and audience. The latter is the more financially significant; when you have a set type of story to write, you also have a specific audience to direct it at–people who can be relied upon to read it, so long as you stay within certain conventions. Basically, you have a market before you even begin, and assuming you understand your genre, it’s much easier to find success. Genre sells. This is why it is so often associated with “dime novels”–and also why academics hate it.

But they shouldn’t. The fact that genre fiction has set tropes doesn’t limit it. In fact, quite the opposite–it offers more opportunities to surprise and delight readers, while also playing on their expectations to reveal things about them. For example: mystery stories are expected to provide all of the clues necessary to solve the crime before offering the explanation, so that the readers could potentially figure it all out before the detective does. Knowing this, a writer could put in red flags that resembled the sort of clues usually seen, while burying the real ones. When the reader falls for the obvious flags, the writer can help them to learn to look beyond the obvious–or even help illustrate weaknesses in the genre, and teach readers not to rely too heavily on rules when it comes to critical thinking.

But a genre story doesn’t have to strive for intellectual genius to be brilliant. The fact is that people don’t always read because they want to be challenged. Sometimes, they read because they want to be entertained–or scared, or turned on (no judging), or whatever else their particular favorite genre offers. Genre fiction (and genre movies) are refreshing in that they don’t seek to be anything more than they are. There’s no striving for Great Truths–just a great read, that makes readers happy.

And that’s something Literature fanatics would do well to keep in mind.

Snobbishly yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“Sure, I knew the differences between a space opera and a hard-boiled detective story and a historical novel…but I never cared about such differences. It seemed to me, then as now, that there are good stories and bad stories, and that was the only distinction that truly mattered.” -George R.R. Martin

4 thoughts on “On Genre”

  1. Could not agree more! Often it felt like the line between literary fiction and genre fiction was just what the teacher didn’t like. It often felt like a semantical argument on writing philosophy which had no bearing on success or quality. Does it really matter which category a book falls into if it’s generally considered to be well written and holds wide appeal? Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy may be Scifi, but that classification means very little when you consider it’s been read by thousands and thousands (millions?) of people and the writing is widely considered phenomenal. As you note, genre fiction has plenty of ways to expand, play with, and, in some cases, even bypass its tropes. Good genre fiction does not still have to be a formulaic novel.

    The thing that should be judged first and foremost is quality. Every time I got feedback that was something akin to, “this is a great story, but it feels too much like genre fiction” I couldn’t help but sigh.

    Thanks for writing this post! It’s certainly something I think many students of our era can sympathize with. :)

  2. Mmmmmm, intelligently laid out opinions on the internet? Me gusta. While I tend to agree in principle that genre should not be a barrier to a piece attaining the level of literature, and that academia tends to apply this stricture with the blind faith of a religion, I must also admit that I tend to side on the Lit side of the debate.

    I believe a lot of the argument over the status of genre fiction derives from the fact that, in academia, literature is synonymous with art. This is a distinction I happen to agree with. Literature should be art. Then, I suppose the question boils down to, what makes it art? As you mentioned, quality should certainly be a pert of it. But more than that, art should challenge its audience’s perceptions, or at the very least, it should make some sort of statement. It should serve some sort of higher mental, spiritual or philosophical function beyond that of merely being a pretty thing. Does this mean genre fiction can’t accomplish this? Of course not. That would be akin to claiming that period paintings can’t be considered art because they employ similar techniques, themes and subject matters. Conversely, does this mean that everything painted during that period is art? Of course not.

    Frankly, this is much closer to the current situation as I see it. Upwards of 90% of all genre fiction serves no higher function then mere entertainment. Even for the good ones, is merely being well crafted enough to promote them to the level of literature? Does the size of the audience truly have anything to do with its qualifications as art? This is where the rift in academia has arisen.

    Neither reading nor writing for entertainment is a bad thing. Not being literature is not an insult. But there is a distinction.

    1. I think where you draw the line is where academia ought to draw it; writing as art is very different from writing as entertainment (though they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and in fact the best stories are both), and high-brow academics are welcome to focus on the art aspect and leave the entertainment aspect to those seeking to actually make a living by writing. What I object to is where they draw the line.

      As you said, not everything painted during the renaissance period is Art. On the same note, I would argue that not all Literature has literary merit, while plenty of genre fiction does. Academics are always cooing over the works of long-dead authors and technically correct “rising stars,” most of whose work has left me cold and uninterested. For example, and at the risk of bringing the wrath of generations of fans down on my head, I find the works of Jane Austen far less inspiring and thought-provoking than the works of Isaac Asimov, and yet I’ve been assigned two of her books in university classes and not a single Asimov text. By the same token, I have had story proposals rejected in class purely because they had an element of science fiction in them, while other ideas that I kind of thought were shit got promoted to the top of the list purely because they fit the tropes of Literature.

      And that’s what makes the whole thing even more obnoxious. What academics describe as “Literature” is absolutely a genre. I’m not talking about the classics here. I mean up-and-coming, modern stories that seek to gain academic approval. They all have the same bleak outlook; the same sorts of central themes (oppression and vague existentialism); the same wishy-washy, wandering-about-and-whining main character who never states anything directly; and, worst of all, a whole host of side characters who exist solely to push one philosophical idea, repeatedly, in long monologues disguised as “scenes” until the protagonist decides that they’re wrong and writes off the friendship. In short, they’re all trying to be Crime & Punishment (a mistake, I think, as that book could have used a heavy round of editing). It’s genre fiction. It has its hits and misses, just like any other genre. It does not deserve privilege.

      The fact that a book belongs to a particularly popular genre, and the fact that it sold well, does not mean it isn’t literary. There are tons of brilliant, thought-provoking, intellectually challenging and stimulating texts that slot into “genre fiction,” and to toss them all out on account of commercial success is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

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