Monday, March 28, 2011

Is Genre a Dirty Word?

I've got something to say about the much maligned term 'genre'. Stephen King has talked about it. Michael Chabon has talked about it, and dollars to donuts they are both smarter than me. What I want to add is my personal story about how I stopped worrying and learned to love genre.

My parents are immigrants so the whole concept of Advanced Placement in High School was foreign (pun intended) to them. If they'd cottoned on to the fact that I could get college credit (as in $$ they didn't have to fork out) by attending harder classes in high school, they would have marched me in to those cauldrons of geek tout de suite.

But instead, I geeked myself out and, especially in English Literature and Art, put myself in AP. I loved it and it opened my mind to works of literature I wouldn't have found on my own. I still remember reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and my mouth dropping open because I felt just like Stephen Dedalus. But AP also set the bar too high for me, making me suddenly ashamed of reading anything that wasn't high art.

The summer of Junior year I sat in summer school after failing religion (at an all girl's catholic school - idiot!) and tried to read and understand The Stranger. My teacher commented on how advanced my reading choices were and I  was smugly pleased. I mean, come on! I was in summer school for failing religion. I was reading Camus. How cool was I?

Not that cool at all. If you'd gone into  my army supply store satchel (the one with the Joy Division pins all over it) and dug around the debris and the black nail polish, you would have found the forbidden library books. Mostly by Jude Deveraux, but maybe a Catherine Coulter or Laura Kinsale thrown in there. The Stranger I was reading because I had to prove to myself I could. The romance novels I was reading because I wanted too.

I learned all about the taboo of being a smart girl and reading genre books pretty damn early in life. I knew that being caught reading some things would make me a laughing stock but being caught reading other things would make me look intelligent, interesting. Ugh. Politicized reading sucks. I would tuck romance, horror, fantasy and comic books within the pages of some worthy tome as I rode the Path train to college at School of Visual Arts, like it was my version of a tatty Playboy. I wouldn't let friends into my car if an offending genre title was going to be visible. I had a  reading double life.

Eventually I stopped caring. I started reading what I wanted to read, which is what I've been doing in the last ten years or so since I've gravitated to Young Adult. Now, this trend started with the Harry Potter books (though I never outgrew Narnia, and never will) and kept going with His Dark Materials and the Garth Nix Abhorsen and Keys to the Kingdom books. I like fantasy, and I like adventure stories. For some reasons, it's always the Young Adults who are having adventures (and when I say adventure stories, I don't mean finding love. Different kind of adventure.)

I'd been reading YA for years and had already written an (adult) novel when, this past November, I started writing a book for NaNoWriMo. It was about a boy. A teenager. It never occurred to me that this was a YA book, until it was half way finished. So I started poking around the YA communities online, looking to educate myself. And there it was again. Shame and scandal if an adult reads a YA book. And some YA books are more loaded down with scorn and judgement than others - I'm looking at you, Team Edward.

There's an interesting piece on YA Book Shelf about the Devaluation of the YA Genre. I don't know why I was surprised to see that this existed. I hadn't experienced it in so long. There's a lovely benefit of getting past your 20's (and most of your 30's) -  shame over stupid things is harder to muster. Still, I guess I thought that with 'literary' writer's coming out on the side of genre that this kind of squabbly nonsense was mostly over. But no.

So, what do you think? Is there a genuine quality divide between genre and literary work? Is there such a thing as high and low art? Or is there just good and bad writing? I know what I think, but I'd love to hear what you think, especially a (non sneering) opposing view. Is YA (or any genre) somehow substandard by definition?


  1. Negativity. Elitism. Audacity to contend with stuck up know-it-alls. Yes, certain genres are substandard by definition. Es verdad? Depends on what criteria the reader is using or should I say, the reviewer. There will always be people who look down on a book because it avoids the prim and proper route. It doesn't make the book bad, just different. I employ earmuffs when these so-called high brow readers start talking. It's usually just to hear themselves talk and intimidate people with their knowledge to hide some insecurity or fault anyway.

    When it comes down to it, a reader will pick up a book regardless of positive or negative reviews. Many books find their fans through their characters and the story, others through reflection and analysis, and others through their use of vocabulary. So many different people with a wide range of interests fill up this world, and they obviously don't all enjoy the same books. The reader alone decides if the book is good or bad.

    Thanks for the post. It's reassuring to know I'm not the only one who's afraid to reveal my reading selection for fear of judgement and ridicule. Too bad they aren't characters we can send to Aunt Hero for revision.

  2. Laura - are some genres really fundamentally substandard by definition? Which ones? People used to say that about comic books until they became graphic novels and Art Spiegelman changed the landscape forever. What about Manga? I don't read it because it's hard for me to read 'backwards' but I know lots of people who love it. Mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? I'm asking seriously, what genre is substandard?

  3. Thanks for letting me know that you wrote this post,Alex. I hadn't seen it last week, and I'm glad that I have now.

    I think it's really sad as well that anyone would try to shame someone else for reading YA as an adult, too. I'm certainly not ashamed of it and quite frequently read my teen fiction in public places without batting an eye. I don't think this type of genre fiction - or any other - is shameful. If I want to read it, I will. I don't read all genres, but it's just personal preference.

    @anvil - I don't read manga or graphic novels, but I don't think the term substandard is the right one to use. I've heard that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies uses fart jokes and other similar writing decisions, so it doesn't appeal to me. However, I've read a few mashups, like Jane Slayre and Romeo & Juliet & Vampires and I really enjoyed them - (the former more than the latter). I've argued time and again that no author is above a mashup book since Shakespeare himself, for example, only wrote one original story. All the others were re-imaginings of plays and stories told by his contemporaries or literary ancestors. He just did it better, and was canonized.

    Does it make R&J&Z better or equal? Not necessarily, but I don't think the latter is unworthy of one's time.


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