In defense of genre fiction

23 Apr

Although it's a few years old, Finanical Times' "The Information: Genre fiction sales" does a good job explaining how genre fits into the wider world of book sales.

Recently, the BBC featured a program that covered the place of fiction in contemporary society, focusing largely on “contemporary fiction” or “literately fiction” – you know, fancy fiction, what you read in high school English classes and what book snobs read forever, the books that you’re happy to display on your shelves so that someone might mistake you for cultured.  And, this rubbed authors of “genre” or “popular” fiction (the people who write all the other fiction: sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc.) the wrong way.  They felt that the omission of their books (which constitute a very large percentage of books sold and read every year) was purposeful.  Because something as auspicious as the BBC wouldn’t talk about the fact that people like to read books with spaceships and elves and other cool stuff…  (For more on this, read Genre authors attack “sneering” WBN coverage.)

Author Stephen Hunt organized 89 genre authors to sign a letter in protest of this omission.  On his blog, he explained the importance of genre fiction.

Imagine a world where those in charge of broadcast programming have decided that polo, show jumping and grouse shooting are the only sports considered decent to be aired on TV and radio. You open the sports pages of newspapers to find page-after-page of coverage of how many birds a group of investment bankers have blasted into feathers over the glorious twelfth. No football. No cricket. No car racing. No rugby.

Imagine a world where those in charge of broadcast programming have decided that popular music is no more, only chamber ensembles and other improving music forms are to be permitted. No more Kylie. No more U2. And Take That? Okay, stop laughing. Just the likes of Shostakovich’s Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, or Beethoven’s Septet for Wind and Strings are to be found on the radio. You turn to the music recommendations in your weekend newspaper and all you discover there are interviews with two hundred hopeful Tuvan throat singers short-listed for the new X-Factor.

Imagine a world where you turn up to the cinema hoping to watch Tom Cruise’s latest Mission Impossible feature, maybe switch on the goggle-box to catch up with a little Coronation Street, and all you find playing are twelve screens and seventy channels of Freeview showing François Truffaut’s L’Histoire d’Adèle H. and Ingmar Bergman’s Sommarnattens leende.

This was a beautiful description and generally I agree.  I like fancy fiction, too, but genre is what I go to when I really want to get caught up in something.  Right now I’m on my own sort of spring break (two weeks off between quitting one job and starting another) and I’m reading one sci-fi book (Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake – I try to be a good feminist and convince myself that Margaret Atwood is an important author with something to say, unfortunately her books are kind of boring and depressing) and one fantasy book (George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones – I saw the TV show and it was awesome, but confusing as it was definitely lacking in exposition.  So, I went straight to the source and now it makes much more sense.  I’m only a little way into it, but I’m thinking that the gender politics aren’t quite as palatable as Margaret Atwood’s.  Still, dragons!)

But, this whole conflict between the BBC and the genre authors ignores that fact that some genre books are great fiction and some literary fiction books are trash.  I regularly listen to contemporary fiction audiobooks while I drive; sometimes they blend one into the next with their sense of ennui and holier than though preachiness.  (Admittedly, I don’t always finish them.)  I’ve read some great sci-fi that’s challenged me to think and stuck with me for years.  (I highly recommend Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.)  In responding to the BBC’s slight of genre fiction by setting up a dichotomy between smart, boring contemporary fiction and fun, escapist genre fiction, Mr. Hunt inadvertently implies that genre fiction can’t be smart.  He implies that literary fiction is high culture and genre low, not realizing that he’s encouraging the perceived value difference between the two.

So reader, what do you think?  Can genre be considered high culture?  Will a book with zombies ever win the Pulitzer Prize?  (Or, as someone I know once called it, “The Pull It Surprise”.)  Will there be dragons in the next National Book Award winner?

MaggieCakes is a blog about culture, social media, and what’s new in the world of Internet culture. Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. MaggieCakes is hosted by WordPress and often draws upon Slate, Jezebel, The Hair Pin, and SocialTimes for links and inspiration. My post Social Media and the Art of Storytelling was featured on Freshly Pressed, bringing a while new readership to my blog. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at

5 Responses to “In defense of genre fiction”

  1. Margie April 23, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    I don’t think it matters what kinds of books people read. I think it just matters that they read books.
    Prizes – worthy to strive for, but in the end they are just another popularity contest judged by a group of people with a particular bias.

    • Maggie April 23, 2011 at 10:55 am #

      Generally, I agree. But, I worry that if we devalue books that people really enjoy (you know, consider them “trash” and such), then a lot of people who like genre books will just stop reading altogether.

  2. Damien April 23, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    While I agree that there are a lot of fun to read but don’t really add anything genre books, I can’t help thinking about titles such as Dune, 2001 or The Lord of the Rings.

    These books are supposed to be some of the classics of science fiction and fantasy. Influential and intelligently written, they should have been included.

    • Maggie May 7, 2011 at 10:37 am #

      I tried to like Dune, I really did, but I just couldn’t get through it. It felt a little like Waiting for Godot with a lot of sand. I haven’t read 2001. But, I love LOTR. My Dad read my brother and me The Hobbit and LOTR as bedtime stories when we were around 6. (Really, I can’t believe that my Mom let him. I’m sure she was just happy that he was putting us to bed.) That was my introduction to epic fantasy and I’ve loved it ever since.

  3. Gypsy Queen April 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

    Narrow minds are no fun. Something done well has merit, regardless of the subject matter.

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