Monday, July 27, 2015

Meta Monday: In Defense of Genre Fiction

I know I've been absent a few days. I stalled at the end of my trip to Michigan and now I'm in Denver, which delights in giving me headaches. Altitude's a bitch. Anyway, I'm back now, and I'm going to talk about something that's very near and dear to my heart.

Today an agent I follow on Twitter posted a link to this HuffPost article asking if people agree with it. To summarize the article, it claims that literary fiction is more successful than genre fiction because success in novel writing is defined not by money, but by influence and "importance." Let's take this apart piece by piece.

1. Success in writing is not defined by money.

There are two problems with this. First of all, there is more than one kind of success. It is disingenuous to suggest that there is only one kind. Honestly I could throw out the entire argument on the basis that success can be defined in numerous ways. Monetary success is different from emotional success and both are different from prestige.

Second, I want to make something very clear here. If you are a professional writer, then writing is your business. And people get into business to make money. It's that simple. So yes, at least one kind of success in writing is defined by money.

2. Genre fiction is not successful because it is not influential.

Look, I'll agree that people mostly don't want to think very hard while they're reading. Let's get that out of the way. But that doesn't mean genre fiction isn't influential. It in fact can mean the exact opposite.

There's a phenomenon that can be observed when comedians are telling offensive jokes. People laugh. They laugh because when we're being entertained we turn off the part of our brains that would normally go "Dude not funny." The same thing happens in genre fiction. When we're being entertained, we're not examining the ideas that are entertaining us. We're just taking them in. Which in turn means that entertaining fiction can bypass the parts of our brains that would normally think an idea to death. Authors of genre fiction can suggest ideas that we'll just accept. This can be good or bad. I for one learned that suicide was a common thought because of how it's treated in New Moon. On the other hand, I learned that people really do understand the feeling because of how it's treated in Heroes of Olympus.

In fact, I'm going to go on record as saying that Percy Jackson influenced me more than Gentlemen of the Road (the author of the piece cites Michael Chabon as a "successful" writer because he is "influential"). I don't remember anything about Gentlemen of the Road except that I didn't like the ending and I thought what's-his-face traded down by going with the girl instead of his partner. Percy Jackson taught me things and made me feel. I learned about Greek myths, I learned about possibilities, I learned how to write an ensemble cast, and for the solid week it took me to read both series I was happy. Literary fiction doesn't give me any of that.

3. Literary fiction is influential, therefore it is successful.

I've already dismantled the part of this argument that equates influence with the only kind of success. But let's look at this for a minute.

If a literary book is read by a hundred people, and those people walk away with deeper ideas about life, then yes, it was influential. But its sphere of influence is very small. If a genre book is read by a thousand people, and those thousand people have good days because they read a good book, then that book's sphere of influence is much greater. Further, that happy feeling can be replicated by reading another good book. Literary fiction might be chewy, it might make you think for a while; but how will you replicate that feeling? More to the point, how long will you hold onto it before you go back to your normal way of thinking?

Never forget that the Potterheads grew up to believe more in equality. That's millions and millions of people whose worldviews were fundamentally and permanently changed by reading a genre series. How many literary books can say that?

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