Thoughts on “genre fiction”

Here is a thing that bothers me: why does quote-unquote “genre” fiction get a bad rap?  It’s not just among literature snobs (I’m sure such dastardly people exist, though even as an English major I’m not sure I’ve met any); even in the general population, people seem to turn up their noses at genre fiction.  Unless, of course, it’s genre fiction they personally read, in which case they feel the need to defend it.

This bothers me for a couple reasons.  One is that I like some genre fiction, and I don’t want to feel as if I ought to be ashamed or embarrassed somehow or as if I have to defend my hobbies.  Plus, I don’t like having irrational prejudices in my head.  And they are in my head – whenever romance novels come up I cringe mentally.  Then I feel bad and tell myself not to think that way, because it’s unfair and wrong.  I don’t like doing either of those mental dances.

And I shouldn’t have to do these mental dances because treating broad categories of stories as second-class citizens in the book world is nonsensical.  For one thing, what constitutes “genre fiction” has been historically changeable.  Two centuries ago, gothic novels were the rubbish that rotted minds, but today Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is celebrated.  Three centuries ago, all novels were suspect, clearly a degrading influence on morals.  Needless to say, we’ve tossed that idea and aren’t looking back.  If ideas about what constitutes good or bad genres changes that much over time, it’s probably not the genres that are actually the problem.

Not only that, “genre” books can and do ascend to literary canon.  Brave New World is a dystopian science fiction story and Pride and Prejudice is a romance, but few people would deny either their place in the canon.  Instead, when genre fiction is elevated to literary status, its essential icky genre-ness tends to get elided.  People don’t discuss it in those terms, as if somehow it can’t really be genre fiction – because it’s good.  Of course, that’s patently absurd, and infuriating to boot.

So why do these ideas persist?  I’ve run across a couple of explanations, but they seem to agree that genre fiction at least partly deserves its bad reputation.  The most common is that there are just more bad writers and bad writing in genre fiction.  Aspiring authors believe that they can turn out formulaic, poorly-written stories and still profit.  This strikes me as possible, but unfair and incomplete.  First of all, becoming a published author is difficult, so anyone who actually makes it there really wants to do it and is probably writing stories that they really want to write.  It’s unfair to suggest they’re simply lazy and look for the easiest road.  And second of all, formulaic, poorly-written stories that still profit are hardly limited to genre fiction.  Any story can be formulaic and poorly-written.

It is possible that there are more bad writers and bad writing in genre fiction.  It’s not as if I can do a scientific survey to determine it for certain.  But if there are, there are also other possible explanations for it than writers believing they can get away with it.  For example, it could be a self-perpetuating cycle in which people who read a lot of bad genre writing absorb those standards and go on to create bad genre writing because those are the exemplars they encountered.  However, this doesn’t explain how genre writing would have become bad to begin with.  There are possible explanations for that, too, but finding explanations is a rabbit hole that just keeps going.  I’m not convinced that genre fiction does get its trashy reputation because it’s actually worse than anything else, and if I’m going to go down a rabbit hole, I’d rather ask why it gets that reputation if it doesn’t deserve it.

So I will.  Why does genre fiction have a reputation for being bad if it hasn’t actually earned it?  I think one possible contributing factor is that, like I said earlier, the best examples of genre fiction tend to get lifted out of their genre and claimed by the canon.  Because of that, it seems likely genres aren’t judged by the full range of quality they’re capable of.  They’re judged by the middle-of-the-road examples and the bad examples, which would skew the overall perception of quality unfairly downward.

Wuthering Heights is an interesting contrast to the phenomenon of ascended genre fiction and a potentially illustrative example.  Emily Bronte published it under a male pseudonym in the 1800s.  It was hailed as a great book when it came out, and critics said it was a story about the nature of evil.  When the fact that the author was female became publicly known, however, they backpedaled and called it a romance story.  The book experienced something like the reverse of uplifted genre fiction: it was demoted from the highest echelons of literature (at the time) because a woman wrote it.

So maybe some genres get undeserved bad reputations because they’re associated with marginalized populations.  (A well-known circumstance for some aspects of culture.  See: rap music.)  That’s a plausible explanation for why romance and urban fiction are looked down on.  Romance is strongly associated with women and urban fiction with racial minorities, particularly blacks.  It’s not as obviously a good explanation for why speculative fiction like science fiction or fantasy is belittled.  On the other hand, sci-fi and fantasy are primarily associated with geeks, who, while certainly not marginalized to the extent of other groups, have traditionally been viewed as low-prestige.*  Also, it seems like genres that aren’t closely associated with marginalized groups are less likely to be undervalued.  For example, mystery and historical fiction don’t provoke the same negative reactions that romance does.

Obviously, none of this is a complete explanation.  It’s a few pieces of the puzzle.  Still, I think it’s important to consider alternate reasons why “genre” fiction is so consistently belittled – especially because I don’t think it ought to be.

* General scorn for geeks does seem to have been decreasing lately, though I can’t be sure about long-term trends – I haven’t been around long enough to (intelligently) observe them unfold, and I’m not a sociologist or a historian.  If it is decreasing, though, one would expect to see science fiction and fantasy stories becoming more widely accepted.  That seems to have been happening, too, but again, I can’t tell for sure.  It’d be interesting to know whether they have or not.  Among other things, it would provide a more concrete data point for the theory that sci-fi and fantasy have been scorned by association, and by extension, whether that might have happened to other genres, as well.


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