Dismissing Whole Genres

A few days ago I tweeted this:

I am sick of people who’ve never read a romance or a YA novel casually dismissing the entire genres. Do some research, you tedious people.

It was in response to yet another casual dismissal of YA in the middle of a discussion about something else entirely. So often does this happen, particularly in regard to romance, that I scarcely even register it anymore.

I’m happy for people to hate whatever they want to hate. Go, for it. I mean, yes, I think it’s kind of silly to dismiss an entire genre. All genres have good and bad and mediocre examples. Yes, including, Ye Mighty Literachure. I could give you a long list of literary writers I think are awful and/or overrated. Living and dead.

I can give you the same list for every genre with which I am familiar. Yes, including YA and romance.

What bugs me is when the people doing the dismissing have no idea what they’re talking about. Such as this ancient op ed by Maureen Down where she dismisses chicklit on the basis of a handful of books and the only one she actually quotes from, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, isn’t even chicklit.

What Dowd and her ilk are really saying is:

I only read good books. Because I am endowed (pun absolutely intended) with a superior mind, which those poor pea-brained readers and writers of chicklit/romance/YA/fantasy etc will never understand. I pity them. And must do so as publicly and often as I can. Or how will everyone know of my vast superiority?

And, yes, the go-to genres for dismissal to prove superiority are almost always ones tainted by girl germs.

Though science fiction also has a long history of being in this category. I would argue, however, it has started the journey towards respectability. That path upon which crime fiction is much further along. Yes, there are still people ignorantly dismissing both these genres but not as much as they used to.

Lots of people don’t read particular genres because they don’t like them. Well and good. I don’t like cosy mysteries at all. I’ve bounced off several highly recommended, gorgeously written ones. They just don’t do it for me. I don’t like their neatly wrapped endings. I don’t like, well, their coziness. I like my crime fiction gritty and disturbing.

I know people who don’t like romance because of the happy endings. I’ve heard them complain that it’s like the whole genre is a spoiler. If it’s published as a romance the two protags will get together by the end of the book. Whereas if they read a book that has a romance in it but within the context of another genre there’s the possibility that it will end miserably. Narrative tension!1

I know heaps of people who really only like realism and non-fiction. They don’t have the reading protocols for fantasy or science fiction. They can’t get past the whole zombies, dragons etc are real thing. I feel sad for them, but I get it. They don’t judge me for loving fantasy. They’re just kind of bewildered.

I have said more than once that I hate science fiction. Most recently on Twitter:

See, I get to hate science fiction because I spent a billion years of my life reading it: the good, the bad & the mediocre. #stupidPhd

Yes, writing my PhD on science fiction and particularly focussing on excruciatingly bad examples of the genre turned me off the whole genre. Even though when I started Ursula LeGuin was one of my favourite writers. She still is. But the book of hers I wrote about for my PhD, Left Hand of Darkness, I haven’t read it since and it is one of the best books the genre has ever produced. One I used to reread regularly. I still highly recommend it. She’s a genius.

So even though Scott writes science fiction, as do many of my closest friends, and even though I myself have written a science fiction-ish novel. Yes, even though I love many sf books and films and tv shows, I react with dread and trembling to those two words together: Science + Fiction. GET IT AWAY FROM ME. The flashbacks! They burn!

No, it’s not rational at all. But at least I know what I’m talking about. Science fiction, oh I has read it. More to the point I do not think less of those who love sf best of all.

I wish people like Maureen Dowd would look at their motivations for dismissing a whole genre. That they would actually think before they open their mouths, ask themselves some pertinent questions:

Am I dismissing this genre of which I have read few examples, and those culled randomly from a bookshelf, without getting recommendations from people who know and love that genre, because I want to feel superior?

If the answer is yes then perhaps that says more about me than it does about the genre in question. Perhaps I am cooking the results before beginning the research? Perhaps I should shut my mouth on this subject in future?

I don’t care if they cling to their ignorance and prejudice. All I ask is that they stop blathering their nonsense in places where I can hear them or read them.

Bored now.

  1. I would argue that good romance has loads of narrative tension but it’s generated by the “how” not by the “if”. []


  1. Jeanne on #

    As more of us with terminal degrees speak out in terms of marginalized genres (and not the way Margaret Atwood has) the snottiness is improving a little. I’m reading Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion and how he used to feel that way about her music until he made a study of it (Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste).

  2. Justine on #

    Jeanne: Yes, indeed. It has improved hugely. Back in the day I was the only one in my department working on a marginalised genre. My supervisors knew nothing about science fiction.

    I think the vast improvement is why it’s especially tiresome when people keep up these creaky old attitudes.

  3. Tim Keating on #

    There’s a world of difference between “I hate ” and “that is nothing but crap.” One is an expression of your opinion, and the other is an announcement to the world that you are a numbskull.

  4. Justine on #

    Tim Keating: Way to reduce my lengthy post to two sentences!

  5. Kaethe on #

    “I know people who don’t like romance because of the happy endings. I’ve heard them complain that it’s like the whole genre is a spoiler.”

    That’s why the truly discerning don’t bother with Shakespeare’s comedies. We know everyone gets happily paired off at the end. What’s the point?

  6. Kirsten on #

    I won’t read Dowd again as she brings the same calibre of writing to all her topics: she’s only fun if one doesn’t know anything about them. So without knowing why she holds the opinion, I’m not sure if I share it; but I do find chick-lit virtually unreadable. I began with a favorite of the genre (The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing) and have read others since, for Readers’ Advisory purposes. And there’s a certain resentment that trickles in when one has to read a book.

    With that caveat, I find that Chick-lit shares the same problem that many YA contemporaries have: Too many of the protagonists suffer from First World Syndrome.

    Still, I can dive into, say, Dessen’s Along for the Ride happily enough, despite the lack of ninjas, zombies or zombie-ninjas, without having to stifle an overwhelming desire to hand Auden a full cup with a lid. After all, the heroine is a teenager. I remember those days, and expecting a (yes) privaleged middle-class kid to have a wise–or wiser–perspective about their problems is unfair. Grown career women, though? You betcha.

    So it’s a flaw, or at least a weakness, if you will. I’d argue that every genre has them, as well as strengths. The best of them manage to transcend both and get considered (probably deservedly) as great literature and become part of the Grand Conversation. One can get a fair bit of mileage from discussing a real or observed genre flaw (or challenging a strength) as respects a given work in it.

    The Dowds of this world make that a lot harder, though; dividing us into either unfair haters or judgment-free gushers. Oh for a wise medium…

  7. Justine on #

    Kaethe: Shakespeare was SUCH a hack!

    But, yes, show me the genre that doesn’t have a formula of some kind.

    Kirsten: There is a happy medium: on your blog, on mine, all over the intramanets. Most of the people we discuss genres with are really knowledgeable about those genres and not ignorant blowhards.

    Sadly, though in mainstream reporting the Dowds still have too loud a voice. But they are becoming less and less relevant in no small part because of this kind of crappy reporting.

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