Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gripes: Genre Fiction

All right, apparently I'm feeling grumpy today and it's time to get it off my chest and out of my system. Also instead of writing this morning I've spent at least an hour reading book review blogs and getting alternately angry that I currently do not have a published book that one might review and frightened that someday when I do have a published book to review it will be scorned and belittled by people all over the internet.

I suppose I should be so lucky.

But that's not even what I'm going to gripe about! I'm going to complain about something near but not dear to my heart and that is the term "genre fiction."

I don't understand this at all. I grew up coveting my sci fi and fantasy-loving dad's books so of course I have gorged myself on those books (my tastes lean way over on the fantasy side, fyi) for most of my life. Then there's the anglophile in me who can't get enough pre 1800's Brit Lit...and basically any Brit Lit between then and Austen's time, more or less, though please keep in mind that I'm friendly with letters and not numbers, people.

Anyway, what really gets under my skin is when people I previously considered friends who also majored in English and who write, draw themselves up and announce, "I don't read genre fiction." Then they look at me in a sort of sad, condescending way as though I'll never quite reach their echelon of Literature--in writing or reading.

Even my beloved Publisher's Weekly, which is the only magazine I read on a zealous, weekly basis separates their reviews by Fiction (silently understood to be literary fiction, perhaps), Nonfiction, and then Genre Fiction (broken out by Mystery,Sci Fi/Fantasy, and...lowest of the low it seems, Mass Market). Umm, correct me if I'm wrong here, but isn't a fantasy novel technically fiction? The implication here is that genre fiction is a lesser form of fiction that must be quarantined for the safety of such literary darlings (with appropriately bloated titles) as "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" and "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." (And yes, I do appreciate the irony that Diaz's book is in fact about a person who reads genre fiction!)

I of course have my own fiction prejudices. To me, contemporary or literary fiction tends to be depressing, often about failed relationships, the inability for people to connect, etc. In my opinion that's the drudgery of life--I live it every day. I don't need to read about it, too. But that's where I make my own assumptions about what a genre (I consider literary fiction to be a sort of unspoken genre) entails. I'm sure, for example, plenty of crime novels are ultimately about loneliness.

Sometimes notice a "genre fiction" book placed in the "fiction" section of PW's reviews. So there seems to be an unspoken acknowledgement that genre fiction is of lower quality, perhaps fulfilling certain expectations of plot and character.

The problem occurs when people judge the quality of the writing by the genre. You just can't judge a book by where it's shelved in the bookstore.

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