S1/ E5: A Short Digression

This column primarily concerns itself with Fan Studies, however this month I thought I’d look at a question that often occurs within circles of Fan Studies as well as on a grander academic scale. This is the question of Genre and its place within the realm of Literature. This is an issue I’ll admit to having a large bias in: I’m a writer, currently in an MFA program, and I write what is considered Genre-fiction (primarily horror and science-fiction). Maybe because I’m zeroed in on this topic, I tend to hear a lot of debate about genre’s place in academia. Should it be considered literature? Is there a difference between small “l” literature and large “L” Literature? Should there be?

As I said, I have a firm bias in this, but I definitely believe that there shouldn’t be this distinction. What should matter is a.) if something is good (and this is subjective entirely to personal taste) and b.) if it gets someone reading.  I know many people who got into books through Harry Potter ( a series I love and a series which often gets criticism thrown at it because it’s considered “children’s literature”) and I think that makes it an important work to study alongside other works of great literature. As much as I am not a fan of the Twilight series, for example, I still think it’s something important to talk about because it does speak to some people.

This also overlooks that many works taught as part of the literary canon have come from writers who use genre elements: a lot of Shakespeare has its roots in folklore, Dickens has ghosts and mayhem aplenty, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a work of dread-filled horror if there ever was one, and I could go on and on.

As I decided to begin to tackle this subject (one I hope to return to for future columns), I thought I’d get some opinions on the matter. The first person I turned to was Dr. Marc Seals, a literature professor (and, all around amazing person since he continues to let one of his former students bug him with odd questions about genre and such). His thoughts on genre: “Genre (as a concept) is a mixed bag. It’s convenient shorthand and helps bookstores sell books. It also (obviously) is used by the Harold Blooms of the world to dismiss great writing. I’ve been guilty of just that. I am sure that I’ve told you that, when I was a graduate student at University College London, I challenged a professor who lumped Raymond Chandler in with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Faulkner. ‘Come on, professor– you can’t seriously include Chandler with those authors,’ I said. ‘Didn’t he write detective fiction?’ Dr. Rennie replied tersely, ‘What difference does it make what genre he wrote if the writing was any good. Besides, have you read any Chandler?’ When I admitted that I had not, he said, ‘Then who are you to judge?’ As you know, I ended up writing my doctoral dissertation on Chandler. I wrongly assumed that other academics would say, ‘Ah, yes! Chandler! Great stuff!’ Instead, I found myself pigeon-holed as a popular culture scholar– a designation not wholly unlike the genre boxes into which we shove Chandler and Gaiman and the rest. I’ve had students drop my Contemporary Literature class when they saw that I include Alan Moore’s Watchmen. (‘A comic book, Dr. Seals? You can’t be serious….’)”

Dr. Seals comments point to both a need for conveniently breaking literature into categorizations which works for bookstores and also works for recommendations. If I have a friend who loves Neil Gaiman, I might tell them to also read China Mièville. But that’s not making a judgment on their tastes, but rather selecting based on what they might find appealing in the work of Gaiman that crosses over into other “new weird” writers. I, for one, happily take recommendations for ghost stories across a wide-spectrum of literature-areas.

A fellow writer, Peter V, answered the question, when I posed it, in a way that also addressed the idea of genre as a marketing strategy: “People read for different reasons. Some people don’t read; I try not to judge them for that unless they are implausibly self-satisfied with such a declaration. Personally, I read because I like reading. So I never really ‘got’ the need to distinguish this from that. I’ll read a memoir after a ghost story after a history of basketball after a short story collection. But I get why people need these distinctions. I think the challenge is considering whether we should weigh these illusory distinctions as anything other than a marketing tool. And I question anyone who lords one particular genre or type of literature over another. After all, in my experience, the context the reader brings into everything he or she reads has a larger effect than the material itself. So, when someone dismisses a writer for being fantasy or Sci-fi or horror or literary for that matter, I kind of can’t comprehend the point. I mean, to draw an analogy, I completely agree that The Wire is the best television show of all time and I think it’s better than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But I watch one of them more and it has very little to do with which one I find better. But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.”

Finally, I decided to ask a fellow MFA student as well. And here, I should first note that I’m lucky enough to be in a Creative Writing program that has supported my writerly infatuation with monsters, space exploration, and ghosts. I have heard of many Creative Writing programs who either frown heavily upon genre-writing or, in some professor’s cases, outright ban genre within the confines of the writing in their classrooms. Here is what fellow writer and MFA student Michelle D said: “I think the distinction between Genre vs. Literature is not a useful clarification to make, because I think when we categorize or divide things, it creates an inevitable hierarchy. For some people genre will be better; for others Lit. And that’s fine, but what that does is lump ALL genre together and ALL ‘literature’ together (whatever that means). And I think that does a grave disservice to both genres. It lumps Harry Potter with Twilight, for instance. Sure there are works that cross the two genres in the public’s eye (The Giver, Oyrx and Crake, etc.) but that’s not super common. So I like to think of texts as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ A genre work can have intense merit and be just as deep and thoughtful as any literary classic. Likewise anything that’s not genre-based, can be light and fluffy and empty. Genre works set out to do very different things, and though there may be certain conventions, it doesn’t mean they don’t have just as much literary value as any other work. And I do just want to make clear, that books I would call ‘fluffy and empty,’ doesn’t make those books bad. I think books written primarily for enjoyment (I’m thinking of someone like Nicholas Sparks or Dan Brown) just have different goals than something written by Alice Munro or Toni Morrison.”

So, now, with three responses to Genre Vs. Literature (and my own opinions), I’d like to pose a question to my readers: where do you fall in this debate? Do you think it’s even an important debate to be having? Let me know on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes or @lunaquarterly with hashtag #ghostsandfandoms. And, dear readers, look forward to next month when I have an amazing interview lined up!