Tuesday, March 25

Genre Fiction

I've been meaning to write a post about why I like genre fiction. I much prefer it to, well, non-genre fiction. I'm not terribly fussy about what genre, either; scifi and fantasy, horror, romance etc. Genre fiction is, it's true, formulaic; you know roughly what's going to happen. This means, to write it well and keep it gripping, you have to be really good. And it's so satisfying when it's done right; more so, I find, than more avant garde fiction.

Genres split into two kinds: plot, and situation. On the one hand you have Romance, Adventure, Mystery and Horror; on the other you have Westerns, SciFi and Fantasy. The latter three, in terms of plot, all fit the same formula: difficulties are overcome, sacrifices are made, and good triumphs over evil.

Horror: evil arises, people die, evil may or may not be overcome.
Romance: flirtation, source of confusion, resolution.
Adventure: cool people go somewhere interesting, danger happens, they overcome.
...And so on.

The above may give you a hint as to which genre I'm currently enamoured with. Pulp. Science Fiction pulp, or Boys Own Adventure Pulp. Not the big in-space stuff or the technical computer-y stuff, but finding dinosaurs and huge predators in unexpected places, new species on earth, homemade rockets to the moon. Wyndham, Wells and Verne. Pulp.

1850-1950, for preference.

I blame a book I remember having before I could read: Reptiles and Amphibians. It had 10p written in wax crayon on the cover. I don't know where the shark love came from, to be honest, but they quickly joined the reptiles and cephalopods (the Amphibians of the books title didn't grip me in the way that the snakes and crocodiles did) on the list of coolest animals ever. I mean, I loved the big cats and wolves and various land predators, but they don't quite compare. For a start, they were all too similar to animals I encountered day-to-day, and I was scared of pretty much all animals I encountered (I still have a mild phobia of dogs, and I'm nervous of every farm animal I've encountered so far). But something like a Vampire Squid? Coolest. Thing. Ever. Instead of ink, it squirts bioluminescence. Who cares about dogs? Do they squirt light when threatened? No, they bite. Much less cool.

Aside: I think Dirk Miles, from The Dark (my current pulp fiction project), might need to go and study some marine biology, so that I can have sea creatures. Not!Morlocks is rather limited to freshwater, being set in the mountains of a landlocked country.

Nearly all the fiction I write is genre fiction. In fact, it's all Good vs Evil genre fiction: Children's Fantasy, 50s SciFi Pulp, High Fantasy. I'm tempted to try my hand at a bit of romance (though it'll probably be Paranormal Romance). I certainly read predominantly genre fiction, though due to my tendency to absorb ideas I tend to avoid reading fantasy any more; I've pretty much already hit the two books that could heavily influence The Dark, so I've got no problem plowing through the rest of Wells's short stories, and I don't tend to buy children's fiction I've not read before any more.

A lot of people look down on genre fiction. I find it... weird. The New York Times points out that just because genre fiction tends to be easy to read, it doesn't mean it's easy to write (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is where I picked up the link, and adds its own thoughts. Despite not reading Romance novels, the SBTB appeals to me because so much of it applies to other genre fiction too). In fact, this is my problem with modernist, post-modernist and various forms of avant-garde fiction; the fact it's meant to be hard to read means that it can be easy to write. You can fake it, and even if the critics and academics can tell the difference, most people can't (hell, you can think you're faking it, as the Ern Malley poets did, but the critics and academics will tell you otherwise). I've written the pretentious kind of stuff, and it's probably not very good by pretentious people's standards, but I can tell you that it was a hell of a lot easier to write than the genre stuff, which has a hell of a lot more constraints. Maybe if I wanted to write it well, it would be hard, but I honestly wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the good pretention and the bad. I admit, I like it when I write something that only makes sense to a few people, but they are all people I respect, so it becomes an inclusion thing, rather than the distinctly exclusionist vibe I get from a lot of non-genre fiction. Hey, no reader likes to be informed that they're not smart enough or informed enough to Get It.

[I am using 'pretentious' here to mean 'deliberately obscure with unusual literary techniques', and not really as I let H2G2 define it later (which is mostly a Rushdie thing), but hopefully you'll get the jist]

I don't set out to read as an academic, and I don't write for academics; I write for the people who want something easy to read, because I'm one of them. It's not that I don't enjoy challenging books, the weird and wonderful and strangely written, but I couldn't read them all of the time, and I don't think anyone could. I wouldn't want to marathon Salmon Rushdie's pretentious Literature, but I could read Wyndham for hours on end. I'd rather read a book that I can't put down than a book I need to put down on a regular basis to find out what the hell it's referencing now. I react badly to Self-acknowledged Pretentious Fiction, usually written by people who think writing genre fiction is like covering yourself in cow dung as a weird fetish thing and running through the streets shouting about it.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to write avant garde fiction, with wanting to wite books that people will remember for the rest of their lives and display prominently on their shelves and make them think and change their lives and generally improve the world. It's an honourable goal. But it's not mine, and I don't like being dismissed for it. I do object to people who write fiction because they think being obscure and confusing people makes them look smart.

The thing about genre fiction is that more genres are huge. You're competing against millions of other books, similar to your own. You need to be really good to do well. Write something avant-garde, and the only thing you're competing against is the fact that most people would rather be reading genre fiction (which, okay, means it has to be good too, to persuade those readers onto your side. Or it would, if most of those kind of authors thought those people were worth persuading). Really Good genre fiction is deeply satisfying. It's enjoyable to read. It's hard to put down. It's gripping despite running to a formula.

Really Good genre novels don't 'transcend' their genre; just because they're popular doesn't mean they suddenly cease to be genre fiction. 'Transcend' suggests they're not part of that genre; they might have something in common with it, but they're not genre fiction. They might be mainstream (whatever that means once you extract it from genre), they might be avant garde, but if they've trascended genre they're clearly not genre fiction. 1984 has a scifi setting, but it's not scifi genre fiction, for example. It didn't transcend the genre; it was never part of it to start with. If genre fiction is particularly good and well known outside of the genre (say, Day of the Triffids, to squee about my favourite author, or Frankenstein for Gothic fiction, or Pride and Prejudice for Romantic) then it's a good writing within the genre. It's still genre fiction; it still fits the formulas (genre fiction can play with the formulas a little, and completely flipping the formulas gives a sort of sub-genre fiction, but significant alterations to the formula expel it from the genre and back into that category the 'transcending' fiction lives in).

So, genre fiction. It's hard work to write. It's great to read. Don't be hard on it just to look smart*. It doesn't work.

*You can be hard on it for other reasons, but you better be able to support them. I'll just drown you in reccomendations in response, to be honest; most people who are hard on genre fiction haven't read much, but if you have then I'd love to discuss.

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