December 12, 2012

Who’s Afraid of Genre Fiction?

*today’s post comes to us from Nathan Elwood*

In a recent blog post, my fellow intern Anna Stout discussed the value of genre fiction in the classroom. In the end, she begrudgingly admitted that certain lessons could be had in reading Harry Potter or The Hunger Games as literature, but that such lessons should be taken with a grain of salt, that these types of books are no exchange for real literature.

I’m here to tell her she’s wrong.

Sorry, Anna.

The truth is, we need popular fiction in our lives as accepted parts of the literary world. In one of my first creative writing workshops, the professor urged us to avoid “genre” fiction, claiming it was lazy writing. Over the course of the semester, many stories were shared, the majority of them lackluster, and, to be frank, boring (mine were no exception). The class was inundated with dysfunctional relationships and the daily tribulations of young urbanites.

One day a student turned in a piece that showed real promise. It was a children’s story, for around the same age as Bailey School Kids or Boxcar Children. It concerned a school for supervillain children, and one student who didn’t want to grow up into the next Lex Luthor, but instead wanted to become a tailor.

The story was, in a word, delightful. It was fun, clever, well constructed; I could see it selling well as a series or being the talk of the Scholastic Book Club. The entire class loved it, and told the writer so.

The professor tore it apart. Called it “juvenile” and said that it “wasn’t really literature, which is what we’re trying to write here.”

I was shocked. Even on a purely technical level, this was one of the better written pieces we had seen so far, and yet here the professor was, decrying it, with all of the knowledge accumulated from his three or four published stories.

And therein is the lesson. When we start coming down on everything that we can attach the words “fun” or “popular” to, we lose people. We make ourselves insular, cutoff, and people stop listening. We lose readers, and writers (good writers at that) who become afraid to submit their pieces to the big, scary “literary” world. We keep asking ourselves why people keep making bad fiction, why people keep reading it. Perhaps it is, in some small part, our own fault.

Bear with me here, people.

It’s no wonder my sister won’t listen to me if I tell her that Twilight is bad if I tell her everything she reads is bad. By dismissing everything we don’t qualify as high art, by rejecting the value of the stories that people love, the literary community alienates itself. It morphs us into an image, a group of stodgy, joyless intellectuals, dismayed at the world around us.

                                                              This gentleman.

We need to keep in mind that being fun doesn’t make something bad, no matter how vehemently Harold Bloom makes his claim that Stephen King is dumbing down our culture.

Pictured: Stephen King’s reaction to Harold Bloom’s insults

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote ghost stories, and we don’t excise him from the literary canon. Philip Roth recently wrote an alternative history novel, and even Harold Bloom still loves the guy. We can get away with this kind of thing, dear readers!

Another professor summed up my point far more succinctly than I can. He explained “for years now, the creative writing programs of our various English departments have taught you how to write for other English majors. I’m going to teach you to write what you can sell.”

And there isn’t anything wrong with that. Poe made his living off writing. Jack London made his fortune. Both are integral parts of the American literary tradition, as well as masters of what we now call “genre.”

Their fiction has endured in its popularity, and from this we need to start recognizing that much of popular fiction is popular for a very simple reason; it is enjoyable to read. When students are taught otherwise, that the enjoyable lacks value, then we get the influx of petty human drama and relationship stories that make up the bulk of the submissions I have read, and I’m just about sick of the navel-gazing. Look up, people, and see the world around you!

In the class with that same professor, I remember one of the assigned books that we read and discussed was L.A. Confidential, which is nothing short of pure pulp. Nonetheless, I probably learned more about writing from studying that book than I ever did from reading Tolstoy. The writers of popular fiction are very often masters of things that every writer should aspire to: unique and interesting characters, narrative rhythm and punch, a compelling opening line… these are things I want out of stories that I write, and stories that I read. Harry Potter makes people laugh, makes them cry, makes them stay up through the night, bleary-eyed and entranced. As a writer, I’ll take that over a harrumph of praise from Harold Bloom any day. As a reader, I’ll be that much more excited to push it up to the editor.

I’m not saying to make everything about teen vampires or spunky young wizards, but don’t be afraid to send something different, something with plot, something you enjoyed writing as much as you hope I’ll enjoy reading. And above all else, keep on writing.

Enjoy your holiday season, and don’t be afraid to curl up with a New York Times Bestseller and some hot cocoa. You may just learn something. And if you don’t, at least you have cocoa.

6 Responses to Who’s Afraid of Genre Fiction?

  1. Scott Morgan says:

    You forgot to mention, how much genre fiction can encourage original thought; how much actual science was encouraged by Star Trek? Genre Fiction is not just about selling something “popular”, it’s a place to imagine what could be but isn’t yet.

  2. Paul says:

    Geez, in the end it’s about storytelling, and sometimes the genre writers have a much better story to tell. I’m certainly not going to disdain a genre writer who’s still putting fingers to keyboard and slugging it out.

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  4. Shelley says:

    Popular lit as a gateway drug to the real thing?

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  6. Pingback: Who’s Afraid of Genre Fiction? | Nathan Elwood | Missouri Review « narrativeblog