genre and prejudice

There’s been a discussion on a writing list I’m on regarding definitions: what is fantasy, what is horror, what is SF, and this started from a discussion on what makes writing “art”.

I stayed out of the arguments, which got heated at times. Ultimately, I think the discussion is self-defeating.

Labels are only useful when they are used to promote discussion, and celebrate diversity, but often they are used to exclude, and inherently, to reinforce prejudice. Look at how we label people: black, white, straight, gay, working-class, etc. These terms are often (not always) used when people want to put distance between “us” and “them”.

In literature there are many distinctions, starting with is what termed “mainstream”, and then branching out into what is termed “genre” fiction: such as crime, horror, sf, fantasy, romance, westerns, etc.

Once you get off the literary beaten track, and onto the dirt road that is known as genre, a certain level of hostility and/or prejudice is attached from certain quarters. The interesting question to ask is why is there prejudice of genre fiction?

The simple fact is that people like to stigmatise certain difference so they can feel superior. The reader of literature looks down on the sf reader, the sf reader looks down on the fantasy reader, and everyone looks down on the romance reader.

For writers, being corralled into a certain genre can affect their market, and ultimately their income, so some authors can become rather protective of how their work is classified. But, these are publishing, and ultimately marketing decisions, which have nothing to do with literary merit.

In the end it comes down to personal taste, which is hard to defend in any meticulous, logical fashion. Why do some people like travel fiction, and others adore mysteries? In all likelihood they’d be hard-pressed to explain it sensibly if you really dig deep into it.

As I’ve said before, I like to read good writing. My tastes in fiction run towards sf and horror, but I’ll read just about anything as long as it’s well-written. I’m unlikely to ever pick up a romance novel as that’s not to my personal taste, but I’m hardly going to sneer at the millions of people who read them, or the writers who produce them. Why would I do that? Just to make myself feel better for reading sf? They are plenty of people who would discount my opinion immediately as soon as I admitted I enjoyed that genre.

According to Sturgeon’s Law 90% of published literature is crap. Or, to put it positively: 10% of any fiction, no matter what its classification, is worthy of reading.

There is a notion that writing in certain kinds of genres is “easy” because the writer is just “making it all up”. A rather ridiculous notion because all fiction is “made up”; unless you’re talking about biography, and to be honest, that’s not necessarily “real” either. (Sorry for the abundance of quotation marks!)

From my experience writing is hard. I doubt it matters if you’re writing romance, mainstream, horror or sf. My prejudice is against bad writing, especially if it has any of the following qualities: pretentious prose, clichéd characters, formulaic plots, or tedious pacing.

I’d prefer to have fewer examples of bad writing in the world irrespective of the genre in which they are written.

And yes, I’m aware that my distinctions between good and bad fiction (which really is a sliding scale from hideous, through mediocre, all the way to amazing) is arbitrary as well.

None of us are without our bias, eh? 😉