What’s wrong with genre fiction?

June 17, 2010

Hey guys,

So I’ve been thinking lately. Why is there such a huge chasm between “genre” fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.) and “literary” fiction? And why is it genre fiction that gets the short end of the legitimacy stick, relegated to being a guilty pleasure, and without “real” literary merit?

I think I first copped onto this dichotomy about three years ago. I was visiting a university renowned for their creative writing program. A few years too young to enrol, but nevertheless. Anyway, I asked a prof whether they taught any courses on genre fiction, or if it was all literary.

She looked at me as though I’d asked whether they had courses on sadistic torture. “Oh no,” she snapped. “We only teach literary fiction.”

And up to that point, this woman had been dead as wood.

Let’s get something clear.  All fiction has a place. All fiction has an audience, large or small. Sometimes that audience is limited to the person that wrote the thing, but as long as they’re happy, it was worthing writing, and it was worth reading.

So why disparage an enormous section of fiction?

Yes, I know there is an awful lot of bad genre fiction out there. There are hack writers, and there is some truly appalling sci-fi, fantasy (lots of appalling fantasy for some reason), horror, and of course, terrible romances. But guess what? There is literary pulp as well! I’ve read some of it- the one book I’ve read that irked me so much I almost pitched it across the room was “literary.” Only for some reason, literary pulp writers don’t get called hacks. They get called daring, or provocative, or unconventional. Double standard, much?

Maybe it’s a guilt thing. Maybe in our Type-A-go-go-go, be-productive-or-die, holier-than-thou world, we don’t feel comfortable reading unless it does something for our morals. You know, unless it teaches us stuff and makes us better people. And books about starships and wizards, they don’t do that, right? They’re kids’ books, that’s it. Ghost stories- they’re pure entertainment, nothing deeper to them. Clearly, those who like them are of low moral and intellectual standing, don’t want to better themselves, and we must prevent them from contaminating the rest of society by heaping scorn on their choice of reading material.

So explain Harry Potter to me. Explain how those books taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life: “There is a difference between doing what is easy, and what is right.” Explain Arthur C. Clarke, and his books that are of such monumental beauty and power they help me reconcile physics and metaphysics. Explain Stephen King’s It, which contains some of the best examples of characterization I’ve come across (ie, those kids seem real) and speaks volumes about courage, commitment, and friendship.

Commercial. “Low” art. Pulp.

I don’t get it.

Then again, I want to write this stuff. Project W is obstensibly fantasy, though it might be more accurate to call it “science fiction pretending to be fantasy.” I’m horribly biased on this issue. I will admit that.

But I still don’t get it.




  1. I have gotten that reaction from some teachers, but more from students. As in it’s low culture and not really worth much. Really, a guy said that to me. But he was an English lit major looking into law school.

  2. Hi there, thanks for stopping by!

    Sigh… yes, I’ve found it with students as well. I guess what really bugs me is the snap judgement, the “Oh, well, it’s fantasy, so it has no intrinsic value,” or “She’s an SF writer, so she’s just a hack.”

    Never judge a book by its cover, right? 😉

  3. Yeah, me too. And I just think, obviously you know nothing about fantasy.

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