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.
“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