“How my Lit. Teacher stole my T.A.R.D.I.S.” or How the establishment co-opts genre fiction to make it “respectable”.

Greetings again True Believers,

‘Tis I, your friend and humble narrator returned at last from last minute revisions on my novel. You see, a couple of weeks ago, my novel “Grave Shift” won 2nd place at the Pike’s Peak Writer’s Conference in the category for Speculative Fiction. I also got to pitch it and the pitch was well received. So I decided to give it one more quick read through before sending it in (always a good idea I think). I found a lot of things to change. Change for the better though, so it’s all good.  But it derailed my plans for the other writing I’ve been doing.

At last night’s PPW meeting, I got to talking to another member about the genre of my second novel (“Grave Shift” is textbook Urban Fantasy).  My second novel is not so easy to pin down.  It is undoubtedly Speculative Fiction and I would say it is undeniably Fantasy.  But beyond that, I have no idea what sub-genre it falls into.  I’ll worry more about that when the first draft is complete.  But all this thought about genre led me to think about how genre fiction is treated.   Not very well.

Take for instance the BBC’s program ‘The Books We Really Read” which covered offerings of World Book Night.  According to fantasy author Stephen Hunt, not a single entry covered belonged to fantasy, horror, or science fiction (Read his article.  It’s excellent!).  Those genres are simply not ‘respectable’ according to the establishment.

It’s pretty sad.  But it brought up memories of walking around in high school with my Star Trek novels, DragonLance, and Shanarra books with their colorful covers facing to the inside or sandwiched between other books so that I wouldn’t get made fun of.  (I found myself doing that the other day out of force of habit with a 40K novel.  Thank you all ‘respectable’- looking Horus Heresy covers!)  Arguably, I was a huge nerd/geek in high school and was going to make fun of anyway.  Why was I ashamed of reading?

It also conjured up memories of the writing club I attended during ‘college’ (I attended a small exclusive engineering/vocational  school nestled in the front range of the Rockies).  Every once in a blue moon, or so it seemed, the English department would offer up a course in Creative Writing.  Given my penchant for writing fiction, I asked the faculty advisor of the writing club what she knew about the instructor.   She immediately talked me out of taking the class.  Why?  Because I wrote genre fiction and that simply wasn’t an acceptable form of creative writing.   I was shocked.  Her argument was that anyone could throw together a genre fiction story because they all followed a formula, A+B+C = novel.   I asked her if she’d ever even tried to read any genre fiction.  Her answer was that there was no point, because genre fiction wasn’t very good.

Not good?  I mean, sure there’s crap sci-fi and fantasy and horror out there.  But you can say that about any literature.   I broke out the obvious examples.  Tolkien, Asimov, Clarke.  She hadn’t read them.  No point.  Okay, we’ll go a little further back, she was an English instructor after all.   Conan-Doyle, Verne, Stevenson, Poe.    She admitted to having read Conan-Doyle and Poe, but didn’t like Sherlock Holmes and thought Poe was too melodramatic in his prose.  Fair enough.   So I asked her what authors she thought were acceptable and good.  She came back with Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Okay, I read Sula only because I had to.  Same with Faulkner (in fact, one of his novels has the distinction of being one of only five ‘throwers’ in my lexicon of books I’ve read.  A thrower is a book I violently throw away from me because I think it is that bad.  Before you ask, the other four ARE genre fiction titles).  But Vonnegut, I read Vonnegut because I liked him.   “Aha!” I said, “Kurt Vonnegut is a science fiction writer!”

She argued he wasn’t.  According to her, Vonnegut wrote literary fiction with a satirical bent and social commentary.   Okay, so apparently, when a man tells you that his main character has become unstuck in time, or about alien Tralfamadorians, or about time-quakes,   that’s all metaphor for something else.  My argument was that it wasn’t.  What about in Alice in Wonderland?  Social Commentary.  I agree, but could also be firmly Fantasy, could it not?  Her answer, “No.”  Fahrenheit 451 Science Fiction – Her answer, “Nope”.  1984? Nope.   A Brave New World – nope.   And that’s when the trend was revealed to me.  Every genre fiction story that was good and could have a lasting effect on literature, the academics could co-opt into the realm of literary fiction.  The ones they couldn’t because the genre elements were too undeniable, (Tolkien, Asimov etc…) they ignored.

The trend continues, that’s why you’ll most likely find Stephen King novels on the mainstream fiction bookshelf at your local bookstore.   It’s why my friends who claimed they didn’t like science fiction and fantasy could say that they loved “LOST” in the same sentence and not feel any conflict with their statement, despite time travel and smoke monsters being regular plot devices on the show.   Think of all the famous and beloved stories that have been stolen out of their genres for the sake of becoming “respectable”!

Le Morte D’Arthur (Historical Fantasy), Beowulf (Historical Fantasy), A Christmas Carol (Urban Fantasy), Slaughterhouse Five (Science Fiction), The Silence of the Lambs (Horror). The list goes on and on.  We genre fiction lovers shouldn’t let them get away with this!  I’m obviously biased, but I can’t help but feel that I would enjoy The Help much more if Skeeter was really Sam Beckett and there was some quantum leaping involved.   I’d rather read about my dragons and robots, my wizards and spaceships, than about a mentally dim character musing upon whether or not his mother is a fish (and yes, that was a crack at Faulkner).   I just wish that when other non-genre readers discover and love the same genre works I do, they don’t try and strip away the genre so they won’t get made fun of.

So here is the T.A.R.D.I.S.  Love it for what it is.   Don’t try to tell me it’s something it isn’t.

It is bigger on the inside.  Deal with it.

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