The Foul Genre Aftertaste

I’ve been having a lot of the same conversation recently.

Me: “Oh, you read (insert genre fiction title, most often Hunger Games or the like) too? What did you think?”

Them: “It was good… you know, for the type of book it is.”

or: “I enjoyed it. Not, you know, deep, but fun.”

Why, why, why do people feel they have to qualify these statements? So you read a book for pure enjoyment. So you didn’t have to parse a Rushdie-esque paragraph, searching for subtext and historical parallels to figure out what’s going on. So your mind wasn’t totally expanded (though, personally, the conversations I’ve had based on Hunger Games certainly introduced more debate and civic rumination than, say, A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering you-know-what).

Let’s talk history here, folks, ignoring our greek and eastern literary heritage, and focusing solely on the novel as it exploded in popularity after the invention of moveable type. Whether you call Aphra Behn, Defoe, or Richardson the first novelist, they were all pretty well considered to be, if not lowbrow, certainly not writing for the upper classes. The novel was designed to entertain, and to entertain the middle class, specifically. The very best novels did make you think about what was happening, be it slavery, colonialism, or economic reform, but first, they entertained. They were designed to go down easier than greek histories and philosophical tracts. They were written to be the easy, fun reads of the time.

I have no problem with literary fiction; some of my best friends are literary novels. I just think there’s a more important distinction to make than the one between literary and genre fiction, especially with the meteoric rise of self-pubbed books: Bad, and Good.

I have no problem with you looking down your nose at 50 Shades of Grey. But not because of the niche it fills – please, please, call a spade a spade and admit that it’s bad writing. She obviously struck a chord, and more power to her, but it makes me cringe to see people reading her book and then broadly dismissing all erotic fiction (and their talented, savvy authors).

The process of writing, of constructing a compelling novel with complex, interesting characters and pitch-perfect pacing, is not easy. It is an art. And the artists that do it well deserve respect, regardless of the genre they happen to be writing in. So please, the next time you ‘admit’ to liking something, consider why you like it, and if it’s because the author skillfully caught your interest and held it, please rephrase your statement. Or you may get a bop in the nose from me.


5 thoughts on “The Foul Genre Aftertaste

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  1. Very good points. I, as a rule, stay away from literary fiction. I am proud to be a genre girl!! 🙂

  2. I love this post! Among genre lit’s other virtues: It gets people reading. YA is a great example. I’ve been a literature snob myself, before, but I’m over it. The genre books I buy get read, unlike the literary ones I keep passing over on my kindle and night stand for something that is simply more fun. And, fun should not to be underrated. I am CERTAIN I know more history from reading historical romance and mysteries than I learned in college and grad school combined!

    1. Right? You pick up more educational facts and nuggets of wisdom from well-crafted, well-researched genre books than you do from many Big Deal Books. And I’m a recovering lit snob too – Don DeLillo is still on my shelf, but he shares his prime spot with Elizabeth George now.

      1. Yeah! And not just nuggets, but immersion in a context/worldview, which allows you think contextually about history and culture, which is an important 21st century skill. I’m pretty sure I understand calculus from reading Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and not from math class! If only my teachers had used the story of Newton and Leibniz as rivalrous gay alchemist geniuses to make it more interesting, I’m sure I’d have been calculating the area under a curve in no time.

        OK. I’ll stop preaching to the choir. Thanks for letting me riff on this a bit!

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