“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” – Lloyd Alexander
I met a writer the other day and we got to talking about our works in progress. When I told him I was currently writing a young adult fantasy novel, he gave me this condescending look and said, “Oh. So you’re writing the next Twilight now are you?” You see, he was writing a literary fiction novel and proceeded to explain how he was tired of all of the “brain-numbing teen books” that have been filling bookstores lately. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Twilight, but quite honestly I’ve had enough with people using that tired joke to insult all young adult novels and their authors. In fact, I’m tired of people looking down on genre fiction in general.
This wasn’t the first time I had been judged for my choice of reading or writing material. I’ve heard and been told on many occasions that the only “real” writers are those who write literary (or realistic) fiction.
For your reference, literary fiction is often defined as a book that reflects our world (i.e. no magic, or fictional/supernatural creatures or events etc.) and is a manifest commentary on society and its social, political and economic issues.
Criticism of genre fiction
Some people, like the previously mentioned writer, think that genre fiction’s only purpose is to entertain; it is plot driven and escapism and is generally poorly written prose. People belittle its significance to literature saying that, unlike literary fiction, it does not examine society but merely imitates it. Another argument thrown around is that because these genres can cater to a younger audience (especially Young Adult), writers of these genres and their stories are thus immature.
Not only is this insulting to genre writers, but it is simply not true. Genre writers are every bit as real as literary ones. It requires talent, craft and imagination just like any other kind of fiction. It can even be reasonably argued, when speaking of genres like fantasy and science fiction, that it requires more skill or imagination to invent an entirely new world with new rules and made-up beings. Just because these narratives are focused on teenagers, have magic, dragons, and/or are set in the future or space do not make them any less valid. This goes for all genres: Horror, Mystery, Romance, Crime etc. (However, I will mostly be speaking about fantasy and science fiction since I am more familiar with these genres.)
For the record, genre novels do deal with social, political and economic issues. They are used to scrutinize society just as literary novels are. As famous, award-winning fantasy author Lloyd Alexander says, fantasy is used to understand reality. Although he may be referring to fantasy in general, this quote can still contend that fantasy fiction is just as self-aware as literary fiction. It’s not just written or read to escape our world, but also to understand it.
Examples of modern, highly successful genre novels:
The Harry Potter saga is of course one of the most famous fantasy series and has had a global impact. Not only is the story of Harry Potter and his struggle against The Dark Lord a wonderful, magical tale, but the series also analyzes key aspects of society. Throughout the seven books, there are themes of love, loyalty, bravery, (represented by Harry and his family and friends), the corruption of power, fear of death, (Voldemort and his Death Eaters) and classism (the discrimination of house elves and muggles) to name a few. These themes are recognizable in our own society and can be related to by many, as has been proven by its success around the world. A recent study even shows that young people who read Harry Potter develop empathy and are not as prejudiced toward minority groups.
Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings series is another well-known fantasy tale that has had so much influence as to have embedded itself into pop culture. The trilogy, as well as the prequel The Hobbit, touch on themes of good vs evil (the fellowship of the ring vs Sauron, Saruman and his evil creatures), death and immortality (Sauron), temptation (the ring), loss of innocence (the hobbits leaving the Shire), fate, free will, inner conflict (Gollum/Smeagol) and grief (the losses the characters face along the way). Despite the narrative being based in a fictional Middle-Earth with mythical creatures like dwarves, elves, orcs, hobbits and more, this fantasy series deals with social issues that can be easily related and compared to in our own world.
The Hunger Games series is one example of the various modern science fiction dystopian narratives that have reached fame within the past decade. The root of the series’ plot is based on an analysis of a corrupt government and a society that only favors the elite—dare I say, the one percent? The descriptions of the Capitol and its people markedly resemble parts of our own society, particularly, in my opinion, the glamour and superficiality that can be said about Hollywood.
I don’t know about the genre critics, but these novels sure sound like social commentary to me.
Genre novels are equal contenders for critical acclaim
Furthermore, there are countless award-winning novels and authors of science fiction and fantasy. That’s right. Award-winning. Ray Bradbury’s critically acclaimed Fahrenheit 451 (a science fiction dystopian novel warning against state-based censorship and the burning of literature) received The American Academy of Arts and Letter Award in Literature in 1954 along with the Commonwealth Club of California Gold Medal and a “Retro” Hugo Award. It has withstood the test of time and is continued to be taught in schools and universities across the country.
But we don’t have to look so far back. Just yesterday, Sept. 9, it was announced that Ursula K. Le Guin, the widely celebrated science fiction and fantasy writer best known for The Left Hand of Darkness (a science fictional exploration of a society without men or women where individuals share the biological and emotional makeup of both genders), is receiving an honorary National Book Award: the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This is not her only award by any means for her works of fantasy and science fiction.
These are but two fantasy and sci-fi authors from a multitude of others who have won awards for their fiction. All of these examples serve as proof that genre fiction is valid and can have as much depth and impact on literature and the world as realist fiction.
So I ask, can we please stop bashing genre fiction?
These are perfectly respectable genres—and highly successful, I might add. The writing community should be supportive and positive, not trying to tear down other writers’ material to feel superior.
For all of the genre writers out there: don’t let those negative people get to you! You should never be ashamed of what you love writing or reading. You should never have to apologize for being yourself.
In the end, we are all writers and should respect each other as such. Each of us struggles to create meaningful stories that will resonate with our readers. So let’s be supportive. After all, we’re all on this crazy journey together.
What do you think of genre bashing? Have you come across such negativity about your own work? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.