To the Nay Sayers

In which I look at the denigration of genre fiction.

I met a woman once who asked me why romances could be so popular when they all told the same story. Oh, sure, some elements are the same–a man, a woman and a happy ending (and even that’s not necessarily true any more. The popularity of LGBTQ books is growing and welcome, as are erotica books)–but the journey is different in each. It’s what the characters learn on that journey and how they grow that make every story unique. She scoffed at my explanation and dismissed my notions as uninformed. I listened to her politely with a smile set on my face, then changed the subject. After all there’s no use arguing with someone who clearly had never read romance, had no intention of reading romance, yet has strong opinions on it.

All genre fiction tends to suffer from its reputation (although I would argue romance suffers more than its fair share). Maybe because all genre fiction follows formulae and for some reason people think a formula means no creativity. Heck, Joseph Campbell broke all stories down to one formula (the Hero’s Journey), which then Chirstopher Vogler laid out for writers in his best selling and fascinating book The Writer’s Journey. So it’s easy for pretentious people to dismiss entire genres of books as unoriginal or written by hacks. Those people are wrong. Yes, not all genres will appeal to everyone. I, for example, don’t like to read horror or police procedurals, but that’s a matter of taste, not a reflection of quality. I can look at the trailers for a film and know if I want to see it. A lot of times those are the films that end up winning the awards. I just don’t like that type, but as I said, that’s taste, not quality. I also don’t like red wine, black coffee, brandy, or much chocolate.

The more I think about why genre fiction is popular and why the some or the populace regards it as less than literary, the more I realize it’s about how the books make you feel and the messages they send. Even within genre fiction there is some I don’t like to read. I dislike the heavy, angsty, emotional story. I love a good romp. I love a lighter tone. Even with a high body count, I love a lighter tone (Yes, such books exist. Death and destruction with a light tone. My favorite.). It doesn’t mean that serious events don’t occur in the story; it just means I don’t need to take Xanax when I’ve finished the story. I have read some of what is called literary fiction that has made me want to gauge my eyes out after slitting my wrists. I like the romps, the adventures, the humor, the uplifting endings (doesn’t mean not sad; that means that the human spirit wins at the end. Heck, I cried at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. And Toy Story 3. Sobbed at that one.). It’s about how I felt as I read the story.cute-super-hero-clip-art-superhero-boy

And the message. Stephen King once said that genre fiction was the place where values are tested for society to ponder (Or something like that. I tried to find the real quote with no success.). I agree with him. Genre fiction is where the protagonists face circumstances that test their beliefs. If they choose rightly, they are heroes. If not, they become tragic victims. This idea is pervasive in our modern culture: “You underestimate the power of the Dark Side”; “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”;“The thing about a hero, is even when it doesn’t look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, he’s going to keep digging, he’s going to keep trying to do right and make up for what’s gone before, just because that’s who he is.”  (That last one is Joss Whedon, in case you didn’t recognize it)

I like heroes. And villains for those heroes to fight against. Because I want to leave a story cheering, even if I’m crying. And in real life I like the heroes who do the right thing daily without fanfare or capes or parades or even fighting.


Books I’m reading now:

How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove

Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Azkaban by JK Rowling


7 thoughts on “To the Nay Sayers

  1. Kathryn Barrett

    Great comments! (And I just copied and pasted your quotes about heroes at the top of the scene I’m working on, where my hero needs to learn what the meaning of heroism is–great catch!) I do like an angsty read, with lots of emotional drama. And lots of laughs, but a light tone sometimes is a turn off for me. I think a lot of writers are doing that these post-chick lit days but it just feels so breezy to me, you know what I mean? I like clever and humorous but not ho hum humor. Oh well, back to my poor hero who doesn’t believe he’s heroic.

  2. MonaKarel

    Love that you’re reading Harry Potter in German…sometimes I have trouble with English. That might have more to do with a nice bottle of wine. Harry does require some concentration after all.
    Romance does seem to be the favorite whipping child of those who want to think they are ever so sophisticated. Three times in the last week I read the barely concealed sneers of those mocking Romance readers or publishers. As if most genre books were the pillars of literary writing (good thing, I prefer something well written and fun!)

    • Gabi Stevens

      I’ve heard every genre disparaged (except mystery, but that might just be me), but I do believe romance gets the most. I’ve heard a lot of people dismissing sci fi out of hand, but it comes down to the characters as it does in every genre. It’s a story about people. That’s where you grab them.
      And it’s as if there are no stinkers in literary fiction.(LOL)

  3. Hana Samek Norton

    Excellent points raised. I’d add that historical fiction is historically regarded as the stepchild of romances, both written by what someone described as “lesser lady novelists.” And then Hilary Mantel came along. Ouch. 🙂

  4. Gabi Stevens

    Genre fiction is so maligned. I would argue that Stephen King will still be read in 150 years (maybe not all his stuff, but defintely a lot) more so than the critically acclaimed literary books of today.

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