Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Oh God! No More Elves!" Or, An Argument for Genre Fiction

Being an English major and working in a bookshop is an interesting combination.
If I had to make a comparison, I'd say it's like visiting Disney world, applying for a job there on the off chance that they'll hire you, and then being handed a mop and a bucket with the instructions, "Wait at the bottom of Space Mountain."

What I mean is, in being instructed how to write, you learn all of the dirty little secrets that plague the literary world. Like working at Disney World and learning that Mickey is just a guy in a suit. The most distressing secret to me, I would have to say, is the advice "If you want to be taken seriously, you won't write genre fiction."

It's not just advice, either: in the creative writing department, it is strictly forbidden to write anything 'genre' for a class. Professors tell us specifically that genre fiction has no place in their English department.

When I first learned this, I was crushed.

For background: I grew up with genre fiction. My Dad read me Hubbard's Battlefield Earth when I was four. My favorite books when I was learning to read were Star Wars offshoots and the Chronicles of Narnia. When I discovered Dungeons and Dragons, I read nothing but the Forgotten Realms books. When I was in High School, there was a period where all I read was H.P. Lovecraft. My favorite author is still Neil Gaiman.

I love genre fiction.

But here is my Professor, telling me that I can't write anything that even comes close. Apparently, the realism fixation that started with Hemingway hasn't quite left us. So I learned to like Raymond Carver and Jack Kerouac, finding solace in the arms of Cormac McCarthy and nonfiction comic authors like Alison Beschedel. They're all fantastic authors; I could easily recommend any of them to most anybody.

Slowly, I came to resign myself to the fact that the Top Fifteen Bestseller lists had an average of three books concerning either the Holocaust or Post-Colonialism at any given time. With authors like Nicholas Sparks and Kathryn Stockett dominating the charts, it seemed like there was no hope for genre fiction. My professors were right. And it seemed I was all right with that. Maybe literary realism wasn't so bad, after all.

But there was something missing.

After a while, I began to crave spaceships. I wanted sword-fights. I wanted a good ol' zombie invasion.

Which brings me to my point: I can appreciate realism. I really can. But there are some things it just doesn't do for us, like post-apocalyptic wastelands and dragons. It's my opinion that the strength of so-called 'genre' fiction lies with the theoretical: there are some things that Hemingway just can't get across with drunken expats and crippled ambulance drivers.

Genre fiction allows for speculation into things that just couldn't happen, otherwise. In doing so, authors of genre fiction can explore the symbolism of a particular fantastical aspect to its fullest extent; using things that don't exist, genre fiction can shine a brighter light on the things that do.

I believe it is folly to state that you won't be taken seriously if you write genre fiction. I mean, look at Kurt Vonnegut or Haruki Murakami: their books aren't exactly "true to life," but Sirens of Titan and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are two of the most poignant and emotionally charged books that I've ever read. One of them has space-ships. The other has unicorns.

In other words, genre fiction is like getting a job at Disney World and realizing that, even though you have to clean up little kid spew, Space Mountain is still a pretty rad ride. Every so often, it's worth riding even though all of the serious Disney World employees are standing back with their arms folded saying "I can't take you seriously. You ride Space Mountain."

Guys. Come on. You work at Disney World.


1 comment:

  1. Yes yes yes. I'll ride Space Mountain anytime with ya. So long as I'm not the one with the mop that afternoon. -t