By some calculations, I’ve spent about a billion years arguing for the legitimacy of genre fiction in a world that sometimes feels entirely dominated by literary fic.
By other, far more reasonable calculations, I’ve spent a handful of years in my youth (read: long, long ago) studying literary and cultural theory, and a few more recent years studying professional writing and editing, and a lifetime spent reading anything that grabbed my interest without paying much attention to its provenance, literary status or inclusion/exclusion in any kind of arbitrary ‘canon’. None of which makes me an expert in anything except my own reading taste, which changes over time anyway, so maybe I’m not even an expert in that.
Genre means different things to different people. It’s a marketing category. It’s a way of understanding meaning within texts. It’s a context-dependent cultural signifier which cannot exist independent of its socio-historical framework. It’s a strictly defined set of boundaries that are commonly agreed and somehow immutable. (Yeah, I’m dodgy on how that last one works, myself).
I believe some of those things and not others. I have friends who believe in them all in one way or another. I personally have an interest in genre theory of the more academic variety (please note – an interest, not an expertise), genre as a way to understand meaning of texts within socio-historical contexts. But as a judge on a recent set of horror writing awards, I’ve also been involved in heated debates about the strict defining lines between horror, dark fantasy and magical realism as immutable categories.
I guess, like any lover of genre fiction (whatever the genre), I’ve encountered the arbitrary hierarchy of “high literature” down to “genre trash” far too many times not to have a chip on my shoulder about it. Literary hierarchies are used to exclude those who don’t ‘fit’ the mainstream, and anyway, wasn’t the whole concept of the western canon exploded as a vehicle for the dead white male sometime in the postmodern 90s? (Also, can you tell when I last studied literary theory? Believe me when I say I’ve an interest here, but in no way claim an expertise.)
In short: ranking quality in literary works by genre is stupid. Quality in a literary work (however that’s defined) is not determined by the genre of a work (however that’s defined). But somehow every now and then something will hit the book pages in the usual literary broadsheets and the ‘genre wars’ will become a thing again – is lit fic more important than genre? Is genre just as good as lit fic? Are these questions not inherently idiotic by their very nature, because bloody hell people, can we stop trying to define ourselves by what we are not?
Anyway, all this is a rather long preamble to my relating a conversation I had recently. I was talking with a chap who is a lover of SFF, as am I, and a defender of SFF against some arbitrary literary canon, as am I, when he decided to pay out on another traditionally disparaged genre – romance – because he decreed romance as “formulaic and escapist trash”, and that dear reader is where all commonality between us ended.
I was most perturbed because SFF – science fiction and fantasy – genres have traditionally been disparaged as formulaic and escapist trash by those who believe in a literary hierarchy that puts Lit Fic above Genre Fic. This chap fought hard against that perceived hierarchy, because he knew his favourite genres should not be unfairly disparaged in such a way. But in throwing Romance as a genre under-the-literary-bus, so to speak, all he was doing was reinforcing the very concept of a quality-literature-hierarchy and clambering to be on it himself, when what he really should have been doing was exploding the very notion of hierarchy in literature to begin with.
Once upon a time, I used to get into debates about what defines ‘quality’ literature, and how genre meets that. These days, I don’t bother. I don’t have a working definition of “high literature” and I’m not that interested in developing one. But there are some truths I believe strongly in:
- the quality of a literary work cannot be determined by its genre, that’s like judging the present by the wrapping on the box (or judging the book by its cover, if you will)
- genre is not immutable or isolated, and definition requires context (take that, those of you who believe any genre is firmly defined and definite and never changes)
- and most important of all: fuck what anybody says is “high literature”, “worthy” or “quality” reading – read whatever the hell you find pleasure in
As a writer, I try to read broadly, because reading is the most essential tool in the writer’s toolbox. But as a reader, I simply want to read what I enjoy most. Sometimes that’s romance. Sometimes that’s SFF. Sometimes it’s crime, or political drama, or weird post-modern urban decay anti-cyber-punk dark fantasy with a touch of magic realism.
What I don’t enjoy is poor quality writing. I’m too old to waste my time on clunky AF prose these days. On books which don’t know how to develop character, or build tension, or present a coherent paragraph. Or worst of all, books that don’t know how to spin a story and keep me turning the page.
I’ll leave the definitions of ‘quality literature’ to those who still have a stake in such matters. I just want to read well written stories with characters I care about in genres I love. And maybe even write a few while I am it…