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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.