Wednesday, July 01, 2009

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog for awhile that I am a fan of genre fiction. ("Genre" fiction being novels which fall into one of the genres--science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, etc-- as opposed to "literary" fiction, which I am in no position to define, but is generally regarding as being of higher quality and greater literary value than genre fiction.) I love all of it. In spite of being impossibly geeky, I survived junior high relatively unscathed because what was happening between the covers of the books I was reading was more important to me than what was happening at school. And the books I was reading were science fiction--Asimov, Bradbury, Andre Norton, Ben Bova. I devoured them, sometimes reading a new one every day. And I've had a lifelong fascination with fantasy, starting with the fairy tales of childhood and continuing on with Narnia, Ursula LeGuin and Edward Eager in grade school, Stephen Donaldson in college, and Guy Gavriel Kay and Tolkein in grad school. I spent nearly two years after the birth of my son reading nothing but mystery novels, in spite of having read barely a handful of mysteries before. And I've already confessed to my sudden obsession with romance novels last summer.

I like to think it's because I enjoy stories, and genre fiction tends to have good stories. Of course I've read dozens of literary novels that were terrifically good, but I've also read more than a few where nothing ever happens. Those books tend to be all about the writing, the Art, the construction of beautiful prose, but I keep waiting for a plot. At its best, literary fiction gives you that moment of recognition, that feeling of "I've had exactly that experience" but here it is so beautifully worded that it is both uplifting and appeals to one's inner sense of beauty, of things done/said exactly right. (And might I add that my own power of words --such as it is-- is escaping me as I'm trying to describe the experience.) But at its worst, it's downright boring.

Sometimes I just want to escape from my own boring life, or to be entertained, and if escape is what I'm after, I want a really good story in which to lose myself. One where you're turning the pages to find out what happens. I don't necessarily think that having a good story precludes good writing, or realism in the details of character development and experience. But the tidy endings and neat resolutions of most genre fiction are perhaps something that not many of us experience in real life, and maybe that's exactly what I enjoy, especially when I'm just reading for fun.

The book I read on our last vacation-- Maps and Legends, which is non-fiction-- has a number of essays in it that amount to a defense of genre fiction, so I've been thinking about this a fair amount recently. It seems to me that there are two levels of really good genre fiction: books that are the "best of" their genre but that probably still wouldn't appeal to anyone who isn't a fan of the genre, and then a very few that transcend their genre, that are just flat out good novels. In the "best of" category, it's easy to just list my favorite authors. In mysteries, P.D. James, Rick Riordan and Martha Grimes come to mind; in science fiction, the authors mentioned above plus Dan Simmons and Neal Stephenson; in romance, Jennifer Crusie, Loretta Chase, Elizabeth Hoyt and her alter ego Julia Harper. I should say here by way of apology that though I love genre fiction, I haven't read it very widely, and there are almost certainly other authors that should be on this list that I've never tried (particularly in mysteries).

But the list of genre novels that "transcend" their genre is really short, if you ask me. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, Dan Simmons' masterpiece (published as two separate novels but really one book), would absolutely be in that category. I remember thinking at the end of one of Grimes' Richard Jury novels, "wow, that was just a good book," although I can't remember which one it was at the moment-- probably the fourth or fifth in the series (which seems to be where all series peak and where nearly all of them begin to fall off, if you ask me, although maybe that should be a separate post). And after months of reading romance novels, I've read only one that comes anywhere close to that level, Crusie's Fast Women, which reads like one of the British comedies of manners (Oliver Goldsmith, maybe? or even Oscar Wilde? It's been so long since I've read any of them I'm not sure which one is apt) with its witty dialogue, elements of farce, and snide, complex commentary on the manners and mores of the age. Though based on the reviews on Amazon, I'm not certain many other readers would agree--it has one of the least likable heroines of any romance novel I've read.

I've also started to think that young adult fiction (YA) is really its own genre, which brings me around to what prompted me to write out all these ideas after having them knock around in my head for several months now. I've been re-reading the 6th Harry Potter book before the movie comes out in a couple of weeks, and finding it somewhat disappointing. Of course, I'm only about a hundred pages into it at the moment, and it is well over 600 pages long, so maybe I'm just being impatient. But previously I would have included the Harry Potter novels in the list of books that transcend their genre-- books that could be read and enjoyed by anyone with enough of an open mind to give them a try. But now I'm not so sure. Maybe they are just good examples of the genre, but still unlikely to be appreciated by someone who isn't already a fan of YA lit. When we were reading and re-reading the series as they came out, I think I was at least partly enthralled by the ongoing mystery of what was going to happen, how all the little details were going to work out. Now that the 7th book is out and has been for some time, that bit of magic is no longer part of the equation, and I'm finding the series is a little flat. Partly because I found the 7th book to be a little disappointing-- it did a more than adequate job of tying up all the loose ends, but what can you say about a seven-novel denouement where the two main participants spend several pages circling each other and explaining in detail the magical theory behind what is happening? shouldn't we already know that? (I should definitely save this for another post, after I've read the 7th one more recently, which should be later in the summer.)

So what would I consider to be YA books that transcend the genre? "Best of" but not transcend is easy-- Tiffany Aching, Percy Jackson, and Harry, among recently published books. Of course there are dozens if you're going back over the years. Transcend?? I'll have to think about it, but I'm not sure Harry makes it.



  1. Here I am commenting on my own post again. But I don't think this topic interests many, so this way it will be more out of the way.

    It has to be said: one of the main reasons literary types look down on genre fiction is because most of it is so BAD. I mean really, really awful. I've found some good authors (most of whom are listed in the main post) and I've occupied myself by reading through all of their books. But in between, while I'm looking around for a new favorite author, I've slogged my way through literally dozens of mediocre-to-poor novels that I can hardly believe were published.

    Last summer when I was in the throes of my trashy novel obsession, I thought I would just get a bunch of romance novels cheap by buying a lot of 40 on e-bay. I guess it was the remnants of my literary snobbery: since (I thought) no romance novels have any literary value, they must all be equal.

    Well, of course, this is not true. And out of that box of 40 books-- some of which were by very famous authors-- I'd say three of them were worth reading. The rest, I'd read 20-40 pages and then toss.

  2. Here is an excellent overview of the argument:

    read the comments, too. Of course I agree with some of the comments more than the original post by the author (esp Timothy), but one suspects she was starting to regret her sweeping generalizations, anyway. She makes some really good points, of course, about what we might call the "dumbing down" of popular ficion, but it seems pretty obvious that she's never actually read a good genre novel, so it's hard to take her seriously. But of course "good genre novel" is open to (acrimonious) debate, because many of the ones cited in the comments as examples of "good" genre novels I thought were awful (Da Vinci Code, Diana Gabaldon, Twilight). (although I also have to confess that I read them all the way through, with a great deal of absorption, while deciding how awful they were). (can I just say for the record here how much I dislike Diana Gabaldon's series? uck. and full disclosure: that's based only on having read the first two.) For that reason, it's a tough issue to discuss with any degree of intelligence-- I guess the bottom line is that the jury is still out. presumably posterity will tell. The lines blur more and more every day anyway.

    For the record, Dickens wrote murder mysteries. Austen wrote love stories. Trollope wrote what one could call soap operas. And one more thing. Are there NO happy endings in real life? Is a happy ending necessarily an illusion? For literary snobs, apparently the answer is yes. I don't agree, but I do think you have to earn it, and I don't think most genre writers do. The founding principle of literary fiction seems to be that it must reflect a sort bleak, black despair. I'm not buying it.