Speaking about The Sparrow, which is one of my favourite books of all time, I’m often reminded of how set in their ways people are about ‘genre fiction.’ People sometimes tell me it’s the book that made them get into science fiction, because it’s literary and not like those ‘other’ science fiction books, or that they don’t read any science fiction except for, you know, the ‘good’ books. It’s like there’s something shameful about science fiction so they need to excuse their love of The Sparrow in order to be seen as mature, responsible readers who would never be so foolish as to read genre fiction.
I see the same thing with mystery, romance, and fantasy; all much-maligned genres that people like to sneer at. They’ll finger books as outstanding ‘for their genre,’ as though an entire collective genre of books is just generally bad. I often find these ‘outstanding’ books shelved with literary fiction, like booksellers want to make sure they don’t end up in purgatory where no one will ever find them. And I totally understand the motivations behind that and the impulse to keep a copy of, say, The Sparrow on the fiction shelf so a reader might be introduced to science fiction.
But at the same time, it makes me really sad. Because we create these divides and a lot of them are slippery and artificial. Magical realism is, after all, a form of fantasy, but it’s shelved with literary fiction because it’s ‘fancier,’ so readers with ‘taste’ may want to read it. Unlike those people who just read trashy mass paperbacks, you know, the ones with lurid covers decorated with dripping fangs and swooning heroines. They are obviously too unsophisticated to enjoy the finer points of good fiction, which would be wasted on them.
Whether I like a book is a matter of personal taste, although I can make some objective statements. I can see it appears poorly crafted, that it needed more editing, that some common grammar and spelling mistakes were made. But I assess books ultimately on whether I think they are good, period, not just good for their genre. I don’t need to qualify a review of, say, a fantasy book, because the question is how it stands up against other good books, not just other fantasy books.
I definitely consider the legacy, history, and impact of a genre when thinking about how I look at a book, but it’s not the only thing I look at. When I’m reading science fiction, I want to think about trendsetters in the genre and the people who laid the groundwork for what we read today, and how a work references, or doesn’t reference, these legacies. But I don’t make the mistake of only viewing something as a genre book. That’s an important part of assessing a book honestly and fairly for me. It’s something that a lot of genre snobs seem to miss; when they talk about these genres being pointless and without history, depth, or complexity, they’re ignoring facts that don’t meet their narrative desires.
People have been writing speculative fiction for a very long time, for example, and it played a key role in the development of, yes, some literary fiction. The mid-20th century may have been the height of literary fiction, but it also marked a huge flowering of science fiction, and the production of some amazing works that were also social commentaries. 1984, much lauded and claimed by literary fiction fans, is speculative fiction. It involves futuristic technology, events, and society; it’s also a complex social commentary, and it’s a book that is very widely read in the English language. Likewise with The Handmaid’s Tale, which is becoming highly relevant this year. Tell me in the face of these books that speculative fiction is trashy. Please.
The thing about genre snobbery is that people often use it to conceal their own ignorance. People who claim that romance is worthless and stupid probably haven’t read very much romance at all, and they certainly haven’t studied the genre and its history at any length. They’re speaking judgmentally about something they’re not very familiar with, but because their statements support popular attitudes, they go unchallenged. After all, everyone knows romance is trashy, so they’re just stating a fact.
Meanwhile, the works of Jane Austen continue to be widely sold, discussed, and analysed, because they’re considered key works in English fiction. Numerous adaptations and homages to her work have been produced, signaling its importance to the collective heritage of English-language writers, and those works along with their inspirations are almost always shelved in literary fiction. Even though they are romances. Regency romance playing with that era and original storylines is, of course, stuck over on the romance shelves, or stocked only by request because it’s genre fiction.
Obviously, creating loose categories and divides for books helps us organise our thoughts about them, and is immensely useful for laying out bookstores. I’m not opposed in the least to creating some categories and definitions in order to process literature more effectively, and to help us talk about what literature means, and what has been involved in its history. Genre snobbery, however, is entirely unnecessary, and it’s tiring to encounter it over and over again, particularly among people who should know better.
If you like The Sparrow, or Jane Austen, or Umberto Eco, or Wilkie Collins, don’t tell me you don’t like science fiction, or romance, or fantasy, or mystery. Feel free, however, to tell me that you don’t like bad science fiction, or romance, or fantasy, or mystery. Because I don’t like bad books either, and that includes bad literary fiction.