Appreciating Genre Fiction

*Today’s guest post comes via Anne Stout. She, and TMR, would like to remind you to vote today.*

The first day of class is always the most exciting for me.  I’m that nerd who looks at the syllabus and thinks “Yay! We’re reading all of War and Peace instead of just skimming it!” Those dense, over-wordy books that could be legally considered blunt murder weapons? Those are my boys. In the academic world, this means I’m a classicist—Pre-modern and Romantic. And normally during classes this works out fine. Professors pick books that I love to reread, or ones I’ve been meaning to pick up anyway. Except this year. This year, my Advanced Fiction Writing syllabus contained a surprising entry. 

Now, Hunger Games was a cute book when I read it in high school. When I first picked it up, I thought it would be a nice quick read and wasn’t disappointed when the language targeted a middle school to high school reading level. The dystopian concept and gladiatorial-like games were interesting themes after reading 1984 and A Brave New World. Of course, these themes felt more like the setting and background for Katniss’ transformation to badass and newfound belief in girl power (Tell it to ‘em straight, girlfriend!). Even the dictatorial society set up and the rebellion that was spelled out for readers wasn’t anything new or a reinvention of famous apocalyptic narratives. It was a book meant primarily to entertain young readers.

 I’m not saying it was bad by any means, but it certainly wasn’t challenging for an avid teen reader. So why was it listed on my college syllabus? Was this a different book of the same name? A more complex and rhetorically written re-telling? Nope, it was the popular teen fiction book, angst ridden love triangle included with purchase. It didn’t help my horror that the movie Hunger Games had just come out and I was dealing with the new fangirls.

These are not the werewolf and vampire from the other series

 Safe to say, I was dreading the discussion of that book and (loudly) mentioning the degradation of the higher education system due to the “new wave” of thought and the free-lovin’ literature hippies that seemed to have taken over the English Department. And then my friends—all science majors—got tired of hearing me on a book rant and shot back. “ What about that Harry Potter class?”

 They were referring to a course offered at the University that looks at the Religion in Rowling’s series. Students in the class read the series in a semester along with other academic books, and discuss a variety of religions and mythology from Celtic to Roman to Christianity. Somehow, this course never bothered me. The instructor makes sure to keep the class academic and the subject matter is more than just “Ron and Hermoine need to just get together already” or “At first I hated Snape, but now he’s so sad I think I love him”. Easier to do when the class is based on lecture and enrollment capacity is about 200. My fiction is 17 students and completely based on discussion and back and forth engagement with text. But so, the day of reckoning came.

Reckoning

The five minutes before class started were dedicated to the movie. Hotness ratings of the actors average a solid 8, which was a nice change in the male dominated class. People had just started to reminiscence “their first time” with the book, when our instructor thankfully walked in and ended conversation. The following 30 minutes were a journey to relief, albeit a bumpy one. Superficial topics did happen. We had to discuss at least briefly the audience question. There had to be indignant defense of Collins’ cultural and societal relevance. Which is fine and I agree that this book has its place in the world.

 But then we talked about the book’s place in the classroom. Indirectly, my instructor answered my qualms and concerns one by one. She brought in other work, citing articles and academic research to prove Hunger Games could be interpreted as both anti-big government and anti socialism. She pointed out the foundations that built the book: the system of rules being used in society and Katniss’ own morality as a competing set of rules. This is what really caught me. The class could talk about something traditionally written and pretty mundane (there, I said it) in a way that was literary and interesting. Do I think Collins meant to include a conflict of primal urges versus civil advancement? I have an answer to that and my classmates had different answers, but the answer is not the point of the discussion. As an exercise in literary debating, analyzing text and subtext, relating written structure to societal mores and social games, the class accomplished its goal.

So here’s the part where I come to the clichéd realization that I might have been wrong the whole time. Except I refuse to go skipping happily down the road hand in hand with popular fiction in the classroom. This classicist still demands a challenging course schedule and reading list. Let’s not throw out the Tolstoy and Dickens out the window just yet (it might kill someone). But now I’m not opposed to open-mindedness and a little variety. If the book can be taught as literature and if the instructor has that finesse of experience and passion, then I will read any book assigned. After all, college is about the education, not the textbook.