ON GENRE FICTION: An Opinion Thing


Last semester, I wrote a detective story. The central characters, who are detectives, are a duck and a bear. Their names are Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland, respectively. In other words, I guess you could say I have an imagination. It’s a very strange imagination, but it’s an imagination.

Not long ago, I heard the kind of thing that makes strangely imaginative people like me cringe. Someone, and I’m not going to say who, expressed the view that genre fiction is not art. That detective stories, zombie stories, and other such works of genre fiction aren’t artistically valid because they are too formulaic. As the kind of person who reads and writes genre fiction, I was quite seriously offended, frustrated, and just a little amused by this. I was particularly amused by the admission that some writers can work within genre and elevate it to literary standards.

To be really frank, a little hyperbolic, and maybe even rude, I think that’s all a load of crap. It’s elitist, it’s puritanical, and it’s anti-imaginative.

As Ursula K Le Guin put it in a recent interview, “when the characteristics of a genre are controlled, systematized, and insisted upon by publishers, or editors, or critics, they become limitations rather than possibilities.” Indeed, this insistence that there’s a boundary between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction can only create just that: a boundary. A limitation. A wall. Writers and critics may put fences up in their minds, thinking they’ll protect their minds from “genre” influences, but in the end these fences only confine their imaginations.

Of course, some writers of “literary” fiction don’t confine themselves this way. Author Glen Duncan is generally recognized as an author of “literary” fiction, but this didn’t stop him from releasing a trilogy of werewolf novels. Cormac McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road, is a bleak post-apocalyptic adventure story.

However, authors of such “literary genre” fiction will often refuse to acknowledge that they’d done anything “genre” at all. Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant features ogres, dragons, a mythic quest, and an Arthurian setting, and yet he hesitates to call it fantasy. He can call his book whatever he wants, obviously, but this introduces a little clarity to the situation: authors of “literary” fiction don’t want to isolate themselves from elements of fantasy or “genre” fiction. They just don’t want the labels attached to them. Mainstream criticism tends to associate these labels with the lowest common denominator.

“But I don’t want my novel to be associated with THOSE books,” says the hypothetical literary author, “because MINE are actually good!”

Sure, that may be paraphrased hyperbole. It’s certainly nothing any of the above authors had to say on the subject, don’t get the wrong idea. Still, the sentiment is the same, and it’s total snobbery. A fantasy novel that’s “actually good” is still a fantasy novel. Maybe those labels wouldn’t have such negative connotations among mainstream criticism if authors and critics weren’t so afraid of them in the first place. If more authors of fiction that’s “actually good” didn’t turn their noses at detectives or zombies or space operas, maybe “genre” wouldn’t be the dirty word that it is.

To me, art isn’t something we have any right to put limitations on. An artist is simply a man or woman who is passionate about their craft. Whether it’s that lovely table set you rented from Ethan Allen or the car you drove to work today, at some point, an artist is responsible at some level.

Recently I became a fan of a podcast called The Horror Show, hosted by Brian Keene, a celebrated author of the most maligned genre (second only to pornography), horror fiction. In recent episodes he revealed the deep personal connections to some of his more popular works. The Rising, his first and most popular novel, he wrote to deal with the pain of a difficult divorce and the subsequent loss of contact with his son, who was taken across the country away from him. The Rising is not only a work of art that moved me deeply and profoundly, but it’s a zombie novel. It’s actually good, too.

— Jamey Garrant

Jamey Garrant is a senior at Plattsburgh State University. He was raised by leopard people from the planet Venus, and he is a proud author and reader of genre fiction.

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