Few concepts in the book world inspire bursts of sarcastic laughter and outright scorn like those brought to mind by the phrase, “genre fiction.”
I knew nothing of this scorn when I started out in the publishing racket and wrote 2 books-worth of genre fiction before I even knew what it was.
Not wishing to look like a confused tourist among my fellow writers, I snooped around on the internet and tried to figure out what it was.
It turns out that “genre fiction” pertains to fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.”
Well, that clears it up. I guess (?)
Chances are if your book is blighted by the name, “genre fiction,” it means your book has marketing potential among the masses as opposed to “literary fiction,” which the same internet defines as “novels regarded as having more literary merit than most commercial or ‘genre fiction’.”
You’re telling me genre fiction is anything not good enough to be literary fiction, and literary fiction is anything too good to be genre fiction?
You are, as ever, a font of endless wisdom.
The point is, a writer who creates a successful piece of genre fiction is likely to be taken less seriously than the one who creates a commercially unsuccessful piece of literary fiction or even contemporary fiction.
Some well-known books that are widely accepted as examples of literary fiction include The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm, The Handmaid’s Tale, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse 5, and Lolita.
In contrast, some well-known genre fiction titles of lesser acclaim include The Hobbit, The Time Machine, Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Dracula, The Horse and his Boy, and Dune.
And the moral of the story boys and girls?
And critics like it that way (?)
I think some of them must like it that way, or there wouldn’t be such a pervasive misconception in certain sectors of the book community that
Now, I freely concede I am bias as a writer of genre fiction, and I’m glad literary fiction such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Flowers for Algernon are on the planet, but anyone in the book biz who tells you a novel lacks merit because it achieved commercial success is being a little disingenuous.
Every work of fiction the publisher signs is sent to print with the hope it will make money.
Granted, if they had their choice, most publishers would pick a prestige magnet like The Hate U Give over a tawdry cash grab like Fifty Shades of Gray, but at the end of the day, money achieves a resounding victory over art 10 times out of 9.
Long-time readers will often get to a point when they realize life is too short for bad books.
When that happens, they DNF more frequently and leave the Lolitas, and the Great Gatsbys to the masochists who read insufferable books of critical acclaim purely for the bragging rights of having read them.
Now, in all fairness to snobby book critics and their darlings, sometimes the book snobs have a point. Many titles beloved of the masses are truly bad… and I can’t believe my life and times are those in which Twilight is the new Gone with the Wind.
Meanwhile, in a similar vein of dismissive attitudes toward genre fiction, there are some intellectual purists who dismiss fictional narratives of any kind in saying, “But why fiction? If you’re a good writer who something important to say, shouldn’t you be able to say it plainly in essays, documentaries, or any number of excellent non-fiction outlets?”
There’s a reason Aesop’s fictional fables are still taught in schools while the instructional proverbs of King Solomon are not.
The fables of Aesop give context to the signature lessons he wished to impart. King Solomon’s dreary list of 9 or so hundred random sayings that are lofty and artistic but they kinda blur together and are not readily accessibly to the reader.
Also, like the skilled photographer who uses different lenses to get the effect he desires, a lens of fiction, non-fiction, or genre fiction can color one story any number of ways in order to make it appealing to a variety of audiences.
Say you’re a kid in school and your teacher wants to impress on you the importance of the civil rights movement.
There is no single right way to do this because each student is different.
Megan might respond to a biography on Martin Luther King whereas Lucus might jive better with a dramatic reading of To Kill A Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn.
The civil rights paradigm that hit me hardest in my formative years was Marvel Comics’ X-Men because it was an ongoing, action-packed saga about oppression and bigotry complete with a house divided and feuding factions among the oppressed.
I’m kinda dense sometimes, so it didn’t click with me how closely the fight for human equality in 60s era America mirrored the X-Men’s fight for mutant equality in the 80s and 90s until I saw this shot of Professor X and Magneto side by side in X3.
It was at that point, the sleepy little man who sits at the controls of my hippocampus woke up enough to flip the appropriate switch, and I heard my brain go,
“Hey, this isn’t just a couple old white dudes in colorful costumes. It’s Dr. King and Malcom X.”
For those of who want to fight me on this and say, “It’s not a civil rights metaphor, Stupid. It’s a coming out metaphor,” to you I say, “Para no dos?”
Well-done genre fiction has endless avenues of interpretation. Civil rights and coming out narratives are only 2 of them.
While we’re more ore less on the subject, one virtue that is somewhat unique to genre fiction is how easily it lends itself to adaptation and coding. Before freedom of speech / the written word was a thing (like for most of human existence), writers of what we would now consider “genre fiction” could criticize their government without facing prison time or a traitor’s death on the gallows.
For a couple quick examples, let’s take a look at the work of Jonathon Swift Virginia Woolf.
Fun Fact: Did you know Virginia Woolfe’s full married name was “Adeline Virginia Stephen-Woolf”?
Kinda gets your motor runnin,’ no?
Anyway, either Swift or Woolf could have easily been killed or imprisoned, if Swift had plainly said “The monarchy is a bunch of oversexed lunatics,” or Woolfe had plainly said “I’m not unambiguously heterosexual.”
Instead, they filtered their worldviews through the fish-eye lens of satire, setting Orlando in the distant, enchanted past and giving Gulliver foreign lands like “Lilliput,” and “Bromdingnag” to criticize instead of “England.” The parallels to real life absurdities from the world they knew were apparent enough that readers could “Tee-hee” with the author but different enough the ruling class wouldn’t assume they got dissed and start killin’ fools.
So I guess to sum up,
1) Genre fiction has a long, proud history.
2) Critical acclaim isn’t everything. If it was, we wouldn’t know who Jules Vern is, but we wouldn’t know who Stephanie Meyer is, either. So if you prefer a world with no sparkly, emo vampires that also has no submarines and helicopters…too bad. This is the one we got. Sorry.
3) If feminist fore-runner, Virginia Stephan-Woolf never in her life liked to dream – yes, yes– right between the saw machine… I believe life as we know it would be still more unfair than it is.
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