Genre Fiction = Trash?

Have you ever met someone who insisted, “I just don’t like to read”? This kind of thing blows my mind. Who doesn’t enjoy a good story once in a while?

In my opinion there is probably at least one of two problems at hand when someone says that reading isn’t fun:

  1. That person has only been introduced to school reading, which they believe must be boring on principle, and is often more “literary” than “genre.”
  2. That person may have difficulty visualizing what he or she sees in printed words.

I’ll probably address problem #2 another time. Today I’m thinking more about #1.

There are plenty of literary classics and short stories that have lots to offer in the way of entertainment and education. Some are happy, some are sad, some are serious, etc. I teach a handful of these, and I appreciate them. A few are even my favorites of all time.

For many of these titles, though, the Genre Factor is left a little cold. By this I mean that a non-reader who loves science fiction – eats up any movie about the future, watches every TV episode involving space, and has a wall covered in art depicting androids – often finds little to pique his or her interest in literature while taking a standard survey lit. class. The same goes for a fantasy fan or a mystery nut. There are a few stories here and there that break the mold, but they aren’t often the majority, and many professors choose to leave them out altogether. After all, “genre” fiction is just “trash” fiction, right?

I disagree. While I appreciate and enjoy the literary classics or mainstream stories that sometimes don’t fit into a specific genre, I also believe that they should be taught alongside quality genre fiction. This practice, I believe, may begin to dispel the incorrect assumption that all reading is dull.

In my own studies right now I’m taking two genre courses: Horror and Science Fiction. For one we’re starting with Matheson’s I Am Legend, and for the other we’re starting with Robinson’s Red Mars. Both are great reads for someone with my literary tastes.

Instead of wading through story after story that doesn’t appeal to me, I’m going to spend most of my time having fun. And, in addition to that, I’ll learn about the genres and how they have evolved over time due to various historical factors. I’ll analyze specific tropes (why do I hate this word?) that contribute to our fiction and our culture.

And, most importantly, I’ll be reading, and I’ll feel energized to read more because I enjoyed myself.

Now, I’m already a reader, so there’s no work required to persuade me to keep reading. But isn’t this exactly what many parents and educators say they want to do? Persuade kids and young adults to read more?

I say keep the literary fiction. A lot of it is great, and some readers will enjoy it most of all. But perhaps it’s a good idea to think beyond those titles as well. Throw in a little fantasy here, a little mystery there. Or perhaps give students a general sampling of everything and then let them choose which genre (or non-genre) to pursue for future readings.

My question here is this: what significant differences in quality do you see between genre fiction and literary fiction? Are those differences enough to discount the best sellers that students may love — and leave them out of general literature studies altogether?

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6 responses to “Genre Fiction = Trash?

  1. My main gripe when it comes to “genre” is when a normally non-“genre” reader picks up a sci-fi book or watches a sci-fi movie and is impressed but then claims, “well this isn’t really sci-fi”…. So ,any have misguided preconceptions that sci-fi is always shallow, or entirely based on science of pseudo-science, or completely lacking in characters — yes, the majority is like that but the gems are real gems…. Science fiction, as a form of literature, explores similar themes as non-genre lit in extrapolated settings…. Just because it’s science fiction doesn’t mean that it somehow is lacking in archetypal themes.

    For example, my friend watched the film Inception and claimed that it wasn’t sci-fi but rather, “a story of man dealing with grief.” All science fiction can be reduced to such terms. yes, Inception has little to do with the “dream technology” but the technology facilitates NEW avenues to explore that common theme, “a story of a man dealing with grief.” Hence, Inception is most definitely science fiction….

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. Joachim, this is an excellent point! I’m glad you mentioned the misconception that often comes about genre fiction — that it’s simply not as “deep” as other literature, and, that if it somehow manages to be, then it ceases to be part of any genre.

    I’m actually trying to think of my favorite genre books to see if any of them lacked depth, and I can’t come up with one. All good stories, as you pointed out, need to explore archetypes and important themes, as is the case with Inception. I wonder if students will forget that Tolkien wrote fantasy when they study his work in school.

  3. I think this is such an interesting topic. In the end, I think it comes down to Tolstoy snobbery. Yes, Tolstoy. 🙂 Isn’t he the one who said that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? I think the happy ending is the kiss of death for literary respect. If the “real” book, the “valuable” book, is one that helps us learn to live, then it obviously has to be the tragic book. Who needs to be taught how to be happy? We’re all the same…drooling, grinning clones of brainless cookie-cutter bliss. LOL. I love your “trash” bag of books! I’d hold them up against most literary fiction I know!

    • Yes! It’s pretty important to point out that, while sadness may be different and intense for everyone, so is happiness. Frankly, I know tons of people who need to be taught to be happy. In fact, I might even argue that it’s easier to sit back and cry about how frustrating life is than to stand up on an early Monday morning, take a deep breath, and say, I declare that today will be GOOD! 🙂

  4. Absolutely right! And I, for one, welcome any book that gives me some workable tips on how to make that happen!

  5. irene: thanks!

    My favorite fantasy novel happens to be one of my favorite piece of literature in general — it has a post-modern tilt (definitely inspired by Borges, Calvino, and others of their ilk)…. Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword. Have you read it?

    Festivals occur when the giant squid swims into harbor of the city of Ambergris, there’s a Borges Book store, strange fungal growths sprout from buildings and people, another sort of creature/fungus — perhaps sentient — roams through burrows and rooms and chambers of previous layers of the decomposing city, publishing houses wage war on each other, etc etc etc. Absolutely stunning…. I was blown away.

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