Genre fiction and intellectual snobbery

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Well, here we are again… As you can probably tell from the lack of posting, November is proving to be a month full of incident. Or, at least, full of work. I’ve handed in one essay and got a mark back for it, so I can stop quietly panicking about it – and start quietly panicking about the next thing.

Anyway, a proper post today.

This one is about genre fiction, which you probably figured out from the title. Now, I love genre fiction. Fantasy, science fiction, detective stories, thrillers, romances… This is mostly what I read. Very rarely do I venture into ‘literary’ fiction.

Many people seem to have a very sniffy, contemptuous attitude to genre fiction – and to fantasy, sci-fi and romance in particular. Fantasy and sci-fi are seen as the province of spotty seventeen-year-old boys with no social skills, and romances are for silly women without the brains to read Real Books.

I find myself wondering whether any of these critics have ever read any examples of the genre they criticise. While I would be the first to admit that there is some appalling trash published in the genre fiction market, I hardly think that the ‘literary’ fiction section is without its embarrassing volumes.

Take romances, which are possibly the most derided (especially with the mainstream popularity of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings which have made fantasy slightly more respectable). For a start, look at Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Both famous, both classics which have stood the test of time – and both of them are archetypal romances. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get together again. Happy ending. So what is it that makes Jane Eyre a classic that it’s acceptable to give to school children as a set book in literature class, but the output of the Mills and Boon publishing house into worthless trash that you can’t be seen reading in public without risking ridicule?

If we move into science fiction, Jane Eyre has been re-done as a science fiction story (Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn). So where do we go from there?

Well, one could say that genre fiction is easy to write. After all, the plan for romances is pretty simple: as above, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get together again. This covers nearly all romance novels. Therefore, a romance can’t possibly be as good as a literary novel, can it, because the author doesn’t even have to come up with a plot!

But wait…

There’s a certain circularity to this. If one sets out to write a romance, then knowing the common plan is useful… but on the other hand, if you set out to write a book and it just happens to conform to the plan – then it’s still a romance!

And this leads us back to Jane Eyre, which, although it’s certainly a romance, gets filed with the classics and literary fiction. So clearly, it can’t be just about plot.

So it must be about characterisation and writing style, since those are the other elements to a book. Yet if characterisation and writing style, rather than plot, makes a novel literary rather than genre, it must be therefore inappropriate to classify a particular work as genre fiction rather than literary merely because it refers to magic (file it under ‘fantasy’) or it’s about boy-meets-girl (romance) or includes space-ships (sci-fi).

And yes, I have to admit that many romances I’ve read could never be described as great literature. They’re mind candy. I like romances because they’re intellectually undemanding, and they’re fun. But some of them are more than that. Look at Georgette Heyer, who’s been dead since 1974 but whose books are still in print. Personally, I think her novels are as well-written as Jane Austen’s, and Heyer certainly did her research. Do books which survive so long after their original publication and show such evidence of research deserve to be dismissed as mere ‘genre fiction’?

Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective fiction (mostly featuring Lord Peter Wimsey) is what made her name, but she also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. Her detective stories show her scholarship, in such widely divergent areas as chemistry, modern languages, and campanology. Sayers is credited with at least partial responsibility for making detective fiction ‘respectable’ – yet she still gets dismissed as ‘genre fiction’.

I would conclude, therefore, that the term ‘genre fiction’ is only useful for describing the basic premise of a book, and the assumption that genre fiction is less worthy of attention or praise than ‘literary’ fiction is quite without logical support. The literary worth of a book should be judged on the quality of the writing within, rather than on its not falling into a certain genre category.

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3 thoughts on “Genre fiction and intellectual snobbery

    1. Theophania Elliott

      You are obviously a much nicer and more charitable person than I am!

      I can appreciate the work and constancy of purpose that went into writing a book (especially since I do not appear to possess a sufficient quantity of the latter) while still thinking that the end product is suitable for ‘the most menial use to which paper can be put’ as someone once said.

      You’re writing a book? (Other than the serialised Fifty Shades of Grey sequel to which you have alluded?)

      If so, I bet it will have to be kept on ice and handled only with tongs. And nobody under the age of seventy-five will be allowed within ten metres of it…

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