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Defending Genre

So, I made a decision to go back to school–finish what I started all those years ago and all that. There is a long list of convoluted reasons for my actions, but the why isn’t the important thing here. The important thing is the what.  English is the what.  I decided to major in English. It made sense since most of my credits were already allotted to that discipline. I started the endeavor feeling particularly excited to enter this world  of likeminded individuals–until I realized that they weren’t all as likeminded as I’d imagined.

I’m a fiction writer. Apparently I imagine too much.

I needed a few days off class so I could speak at a science fiction and fantasy symposium and took the opportunity to discuss my class absence with my professor. It was the first time I’d mentioned anything about being a professional author. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but usually when people find out what I do for my day job, they are usually excited about it. Okay fine, I do mean to sound arrogant. I make books, and it’s freaking awesome. I make a living doing what I love. And not that I expected her to bow or ask for my autograph or anything, but she acted like I’d opened up a can of lutefisk on her desk. She gave me “permission” to go, which is hilarious. I am 42 years old (the meaning of life the universe and everything thank-you-very-much). I am a professional writer and public speaker. And college is something I PAID to do, which technically makes me my professor’s boss. Permission or not, I was going. I’d already committed to speak at this conference, and my word means something. But as I was gathering up my laptop, my professor said, “There’s a place for science fiction and fantasy in literature, I suppose. It’s a safe environment for a person to escape reality.”

Yeah, I wish I was making that up. She really said that. To my face. After I’d already told her I WROTE science fiction and fantasy. She probably would have slapped my forehead and screamed, “Demons be gone!” if she found out I wrote fractured fairytales and romance as well.

Science fiction and fantasy are somehow supposed to be the equivalent of safe?

Totally ticked off, I SEETHED over her flippancy throughout my entire conference and then, in par with the idea of the writer always getting the last word, I wrote my research paper on why genre fiction is as important, if not MORE important, to society as literary fiction. Of course my paper started off with examples of so-called literary fiction that started as genre fiction. The Bard wrote about witches, romance, fairies, and ghosts. Charles Dickens wrote about time travel and ghosts. Mary Shelley created the Frankenstein who created the monster (an interesting aside, Mary Shelley was married to Percy Shelley. Who had better staying power? The novelist who wrote about monsters, or the poet who wrote self-inflated literature?). Don’t get me wrong. I actually love a great many literary works. I’m a fairly eclectic reader: from Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare and all the stuff in between. I just don’t buy into the star-bellied-sneetches approach of one discipline or genre being better than another.

Interestingly, genre fiction is important to society because when children enjoy reading they put out the effort to learn how to be good at it. Did you know they can predict how many prisons they will need in the future based on how many ten and eleven year olds can’t read? Kids who are not given the freedom to choose their own literary tastes are far less motivated to practice reading and are more likely to drop out of school than kids who developed an early love of reading FOR FUN. Kids who read for fun grow up learning greater empathy and have better relationships than those who don’t.

Much of today’s technology began in science fiction books and movies. Kids who stayed up late reading “nerdy” books are now driving the world into the future, making their favorite fictional stories a working reality.

But forgetting even the importance of literacy and technology and overcrowded prisons and all of THAT.

She called science fiction and fantasy safe?

Right. Characters dealing with apocalyptic environments, wars, betrayal, death, loss of innocence, fighting for humanity–and not just the life of humanity, but the inside parts that make us human, the honor, love, respect, joy of being a person. I said I was defending genre fiction, but really, genre fiction is the defender of our humanity. Neil Gaiman quoted GK Chesterman in his book Coraline: “Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Part of being human is being afraid of the shadows lurking beneath the bed, the clawed fingers slipping through the cracked-open door, and the dragons–both real and imaginary–casting shadows on our lives. But the greatest part of being human is shedding light on those shadows, closing the doors on those clawed fingers, and slaying those dragons.

Genre fiction is not safe. But because it empowers us to face our real lives, it makes the real world a safer place to live.

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6 Responses
  1. Lisa Sledge says:

    Ack! I can’t believe your professor said that! As a former remedial reading teacher working with 15 year-olds struggling to read at a 3rd grade level, I can tell you just how much they NEED good, exciting genre fiction to motivate them to keep trying and continue reading. I seriously want to hug every author who’s ever written a book that one of my struggling readers found interesting enough to push through to the end of the story. And what’s more, while I myself also love beautifully worded literary masterpieces, I have to say that I enjoy genre fiction just as much. And I would never attempt to write a single story if I thought everything I wrote had to be on par with Harper Lee (though wouldn’t that be a dream?). What a sad and empty place the world would be if all the fantastical adventures, impossible romances, and wild possibilities of popular fiction were silenced. Everyone needs to read stories written for them. Stories that they can love, relate to, and hold onto– whether it is Shakespeare, Victoria’s Promise (which I loved, btw), or Captain Underpants.

  2. Jeanna says:

    Sing it, sister! Genre fiction for the win! Also, I admit I am dying to know how your professor responded to your paper.

  3. Oh wow. Yeah genre fiction is such a joke (despite teaching more people about love, courage, and endurance through Harry Potter alone, to say nothing of everything else), whereas being a college professor of English has such a profound () impact on the hearts and minds of society.

    Next time tell her yes, you would like fries with that.

  4. Janci says:

    My personal favorite snobby English professor quote was, “you have to decide. Do you want to write for the best readers, or do you want to write for a general audience?”

    Teen girls are the best readers. Thanks.

  5. Hey, Jules! I love how you said what you did about genre fiction. Good fiction, any kind in my opinion, is something that speaks to the soul. It shows that we can slay our own dragons. It connects with what makes us human.

    For me, anything that is only fluff, or wish fulfillment, breaks its own rules, or doesn’t require its characters to truly work for what they get, is completely useless to me, because such stories do not help me learn anything about how to be a better human being.

    Genre fiction authors like Rowling, Tolkien, Lewis, and um, you, 😉 however, don’t create fluff. What such authors write isn’t ‘safe’ entertainment. It has substance. Deep substance. It serves a vital purpose in the lives of people who read it, (whether readers are conscious of this or not) in that it can teach us things about how to be better human beings. It makes us more humane, more tolerant, more brave. It makes us realize that we need to work for what we get. It can stretch our minds and help us think in ways we didn’t before.

    Tolkien and Lewis in particular, wrote stories that are, at their core, true stories. Not because they actually happened, but because despite being peopled with hobbits, elves, dragons etc., they convey basic human truths. They teach me that I can do more than I thought I could. They teach me that worthwhile things are worth fighting for, and sacrificing for. They help me to be kinder and yet also braver. If Bilbo can face a terrifying dragon, or if Frodo and Sam can get an evil ring all the way to Mount Doom, well, just maybe, I can face the dragons and the mountains in my life, too.

  6. jcwright says:

    Thanks for the commiseration and kind words guys. And Janci, teen girls are definitely the best readers! I love genre fiction so completely that to have a teacher dress me down for writing genre fiction was a bit of a shock.

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