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1.19.2010

Genre Fiction as Good Fiction

I always feel really bad when I'm reading genre fiction. It's what they teach us in school: paperback fiction is bad. They're likely to have titles like Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper, or The Millionaire's Rebellious Mistress. Okay, these are from Harlequin's monthly catalog, but we get the point: genre fiction is trash fiction.

So I feel really bad lugging a 900-page Mercedes Lackey novel in my backpack. This after a couple of month of reading nothing but short story collections the likes of Raymond Carver and Grace Paley and Amy Hempel--the undisputed masters of the form. Then I read Joyce Carol Oates's Dear Husband, I told myself I needed a break from literari undergrad professor who can never be taken "seriously" enough. I went to Mercedes Lackey, who I swear uses "green things" (that exact phrase) in every book. And I know if literary professor (for example JCO, because that's what she likes being called be her back) ever caught me with this 900-paperback, it would be a death sentence: me, trying to be a serious writer can never admit to this fact.

But I like reading. I like finding works that people just pass off as nothing, and reading it and finding out how wonderful it is and then it's like a secret between me and that book. Like that time I read More of This World Or Another by Barb Johnson. Or when I read Marek Van Der Jagt's Story of My Baldness, by far only good writer from Europe in a long while). I can go on with book recommendations, but that's another post.

I do the same to genre fiction. It's my way of telling the literary world to fuck off you classist, racists, sexist, etc-ist. I think Mary Bly, daughter of short story writer Carol Bly, made a point when she "came out" as the romance novelist Eloisa James, when she said that people usually looked down at the romance genre because of very sexist attitudes towards woman's sexuality. I think the same would apply to many other genre wherein sex can easily be replaced with class (you can so tell I studied Marx in college!). The literary community seems to like drawing a line between the respectable (usually people with MFAs and those who teach) and the paperback, works published in mass market editions for, well, the mass market--the masses. Anything for the masses is not anything for the literary community. Thus it is declared trash. But then of course when a rich person does it, it's art: for example Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, both rather rich men, who were professors, and who used their works as as mouthpieces for their religious beliefs.

Not that other genre work does not do this, take for example Robert Heinlein's work or mostly a lot of other sci-fi and fantasy writers, but these writers usually write of alternative point of views, not the status quo.

Take the work of my beloved Mercedes Lackey. Tutored by two extremely (lesbian?-) feminist writers, Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley (whose pseudonymous titles include works like I Am A Lesbian), Lackey's work can be described as feminist fantasies (lite: i.e. she doesn't pull a Gael Baudino and kill all the guys of AIDS)

(Here I kinda really get specific with some works...you might get bored, I don't know, nor care)

Again and again (I've been reading her since freshman year because I liked her cover), her characters are women who do not fit the mold. They're smart women, who take control of the situation. One series that come to mind immediately is her Elemental Master series which take known fairy tales (of course patriarchal fairy tales) and retells them through a feminist lense. These stories are filled with powerful women who use magic as a way to navigate a world of prejudices. Similarly, her Five Hundred Kingdom series takes the entire fairy tale genre and flips it on its head, for in this series, the women take control of the "tradition" (a force that can decide the fates of these women, quite literally) and re-write society, thus forming new ways of being women. We go into her other stories, which are known to be filled with gender changers and fine looking gay knights, but we can conclude that Lackey is a fantasy writer, yes, but a socially conscious one.

Stylistically, she's not Raymond Carver, but genre fictions like this are more about the social than about the style. Using genre fiction--using the form of fantasy, science fiction, thriller, romances, etc--is an effective way to talk about society. Heinlein wrote libertarian fictions. Philip K. Dick wrote about the postmodern society. Douglas Adams talked about the absurd meaninglessness of life. Carver never talked about any of this. Hempel kinda did, but you gotta read into it. Other writers are commentators, but they comment, not idealize. As Mercedes Lackey pointed out people "who read fantasy are idealists..." I think the true can be said of any genre and of any writer of genre.

What differs genre writers from "serious" writers is that "literary" writers (I hate that term) focus more on the personal--the feeling side of being human--while genre writers focus on the larger issues of social systems and human society.

By all means, I am not condoning you to go out and read James Patterson (he is perhaps the worst fake writer I have ever met). But it does mean that genre fiction does offer us something, and not just entertainment. I personally can learn more about the way the world works by reading Lackey or Norton or McCaffery than I would through someone like Carver (and I love Carver, I really do; there should be National Raymond Carver Day!!!), who focuses on the emotional aspect of living. Yet these two aspects are both very important parts of our world (thus the importance of literature, but that's another rant).

1 comment:

  1. FYI, JCO has written extensively in "genre" fiction, especially mystery and horror. Her advice to writers: "Read widely, read what you *want* rather than what you think you should, and read everything written by writers you ‘love’. Read their early efforts, when they too were once ‘groping for a way, fumbling to acquire a voice.’"

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