The Trouble with Genres
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The Trouble with Genres

Why is literary fiction supposedly better then genre fiction?

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Mercy Home for Boys and Girls

I am a lover of books. While initially obsessed with encyclopedias and atlases(honestly, in my earliest years I would read anything), what introduced me to the wonderful world of fiction was Eragon. Afterwards I was hooked, devouring volume after volume of The Mortal Instruments, Isaac Asimov's Foundation, Discworld, and, with only mild regret, Twilight. These stories capture my mind and inspire my creative spirit, and I hope I can one day write a novel that inspires others in the same way. Unfortunately, to some, this means I will never be a real writer.

One major divide in the writing community is between "literary fiction" and "genre fiction", where genre is often considered to be more "vulgar" or "worse" than literary. Genre fiction encapsulates all the stories and novels that share particular groups of concepts or trappings, e.g. science fiction, fantasy, westerns, thrillers, romances, etc. Literary fiction is...well, it's hard to generalize. For instance, I just read this one book, Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson on my creative writing professor and major advisor's recommendation. It's about this girl, Ann, and her mother Adele who move from Wisconsin to California to become famous and marry up because...I'm not entirely certain. Don't get me wrong, it is quite well written, I can get a strong sense of character and setting and how the different narrators are feeling, but it's hard for me to follow what's happening. The multiple points-of-view and nonlinearity don't help. (Ultimately this is a compliment; this book is so socially realistic, my autism makes it hard to understand.)

I guess if I had to condense what makes literary fiction "literary", it's that emotional depth and focus on the craft of writing. Which, apparently, is mutually exclusive from any sort of definable genre: I doubt mine is the only writing class that levied a ban on "genre fiction" in assignments (which in my writing professor's eyes is science fiction/fantasy, and supernatural horror, judging from comments and what I submitted without complaint). Whose to say that genre can't be skillfully written? Things like Brave New World and 1984, dystopian fiction, Slaughterhouse-Five, about a World War 2 veteran who supposedly time-travels and lives in an alien zoo, and fable-like allegories like Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm are all held as literary classics. One thing that genre certainly does better than literary fiction is tell a good story. Take for instance, Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Sure, Heinlein is sexist as hell(but, surprisingly sexually liberal), and you don't really get to understand the characters like in a literary book , but it tells a well-paced, thrilling tale of revolution on the Moon. Honestly, the stories are why I read books in the first place.

Why can't you do both; write a good, well-plotted story and explore the characters at the same time? For instance, take Margaret Atwood. I first discovered her as one of the few names I recognized on a list of approved poets in my high school creative writing class. While the author presentations we were supposed to use the list for never materialized, I read a lot of her that semester. While her poems were very well written, producing images and feelings with a scant selection of words, the more memorable work of hers I read, and the one that should be most familiar to most, was The Handmaid's Tale. For those of you who haven't been binge-watching the Hulu series, the book is about Offred, a woman forced into sexual slavery in a dystopic, fundamentalist United States. Atwood uses her skill with language to paint a horrific yet enthralling image of this world, although coming to a strange conclusion. While most dystopian novels are often lumped under the science fiction genre, Atwood considers The Handmaid's Tale and her other similar books as "speculative fiction", as science fiction is full of "talking squids in outer space". Of course, not everyone uses these labels; The Handmaid's Tale won the first ever Arthur C. Clarke Award, a prestigious award in the field of science fiction.

I want to write the way Atwood writes. Call it speculative fiction, call it magical realism, call it whatever you like: I want to explore the relationship between a boy and his immortal wizard father. I want to show the slow realization by the executives that their company is secretly run by an eldritch monster slowly killing the planet, and the effect that has on day-to-day operations. I want to write about a gay AI who has to persuade an mentally-damaged hacker to destroy his fascist videogame. Sure, it's not realistic fiction. But honestly, reality is boring.

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