Wednesday, February 6, 2008

NYT on Genre fiction

As seen on Charlie Huston's site, the New York Times has an article up on genre fiction, with this gem:

The distinction between highbrow and lowbrow — between genre writing and literary writing — is actually fairly recent. Dickens, as we’re always being reminded, wrote mysteries and horror stories, only no one thought to call them that. Jane Austen wrote chick lit. A whiff of shamefulness probably began attaching itself to certain kinds of fiction — and to mysteries and thrillers especially — at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the “penny dreadful,” or cheaply printed serial. The market and public appetite for this stuff became even larger in the early years of the 20th century with the tremendous growth of pulp magazines, which specialized in the genres and eventually even added a new one: science fiction.

The idea that if something is easy to read it must have been easy to write is so much crap. As if running a thesaurus through a tree shredder to generate dialog makes a better book than continually writing and editing your work so that it's accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Both require work, but in the second case the product has half a chance of being read.

Not that one should dumb down or PC one's writing so that the average five year old can find it mildly amusing. However, if you presume your reader has dual PhDs in English literature and Russian history, you've got to realize you've limited the appeal of your work.

It strikes me that those who most rail against genre fiction are those who are unable to publish books most people would like. University professors and their ilk. I can understand their frustration; they devote years of their lives to furthering their academic career, kissing ass and changing their writing style to match the expectations of those higher on the ladder only to find their books never see the light of day outside of classes they teach.

Must be hell.

Obviously, they've worked hard, so it must also be the readers fault. Silly plebs; they just don't know what's good for them.


If genre fiction is what sells, it's because people like it. Full stop. Now, you can say that the average person buys crap, and from a quick browse through the romance section I'd be hard pressed to argue.

Thing is, that's a matter of taste. Everyone has different likes and dislikes; choosing to like one doesn't invalidate other choices.

So sure, if you prefer your prose blessed by an ivory tower, go for it. Just keep your mouth shut when the rest of us decide a blood soaked pulp novel is more the thing. Once our favorite authors have been dead long enough, we'll see which ones history remembers.

Until then, it's just a matter of taste.

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