Today, we dip into our Bookish News file and pull up an editorial written by author Glen Duncan for The New York Times in October of 2011. The piece is, from its first sentence, a study in “nerd-baiting”, to borrow a phrase, though we should not ignore the charming threads of misogyny woven throughout the piece, beginning with the very first, sucker-punch of an opening line: “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.”
When I first read this article, it took about eight hours for my eyes to stop involuntarily rolling in reaction (this article sums up my thoughts beautifully), but I managed to shake it off. Because the truth is that no one who loves “genre fiction” is going to stop reading because “the sad man who isn’t making as much money as the guy writing about zombies” said it was lame. And hopefully, that same sad man isn’t going to stop readers from trying “genre fiction”, either.
…Actually, “Genre Fiction” is actually like a porn star, but not in the way that Duncan meant. Just like the word “porn star” describes what someone does, and not who someone is fundamentally, “genre fiction” describes where a book is shelved, not what it is, fundamentally. Neither should be seen as less than their peers, and neither should be discriminated against for the title given to their position. Instead, we should get to know them, rather than standing back and judging them arbitrarily.
In the case of genre fiction, this means realizing that the little stickers on the spine doesn’t tell you what the book is truly about–for example, as we’ve noted before, Salem’s Lot might be about vampires, but it’s also about human love, and human fear, and human loss, and about a deep-seated need to find a home. The Maltese Falcon may be about a private eye and a femme fatale, but it is also about the quest for truth, the vagaries of the human heart, and the need to make wrong things right. Any of the romance novels we’ve discussed may have handsome men and lovely ladies and kissy-faces in them, but they are also about the search for personal validation, recognition, and self-fulfillment. These novels do exactly what “literary fiction” claims to do…it just goes about it in a slightly different way.
And different is great; because genre fiction also tends to be more inclusive, and enjoy a more diverse readership–Ursula K. LeGuin, for example, used the science fiction to explore feminism, arguing that writers have a duty “to spark the imagination of their readers and to help them envision alternatives to how we live.” In so doing, she opened the whole genre to female readers, as well as female characters. Octavia Butler has used her genre fiction to explore not only feminism, but race, and racial relations, as well, giving perspective to issues that are all too real and present. Genre Fiction provides the tools not only to evaluate our world, and our place in it, it also provides the tools to imagine a better world.
So here are a few ideas to help you get past the labels and the signs, and explore some genre fiction for yourself. As you feel your imagination–and your heart–expanding, know that this is why those books are here, and why it is so necessary for us to explore them!
Embassytown: China Miéville was one of the first modern writers to tackle ‘Weird Fiction’–that magical genre that exists somewhere in between science fiction and fantasy. The world he creates have some of the unsettling oddities of Lovecraft, the strange inventions and scientific possibilities of H.G. Wells, but the way he spins these tales out is something wonderfully unique. Though it might be difficult to relate to the alien/human hostilities and deep-space travel featured in this book, the heroine’s struggles to speak a language that has developed while she was in space, and her divided loyalties between two cultures that can’t quite accept her feels remarkably, painfully familiar.
Making History: Speaking superficially, this book is a work of speculative history–a ‘what if’ that explores what the world might be like if one man was able to travel back into the past and ensure that Hitler was never born. But beneath this premise is a shattering commentary on human nature, an against-all-odds love story, and a well-researched bit of historical analysis. Honestly, there is nothing that Stephen Fry do that he doesn’t do magnificently, but this book…this book. Funny, gripping, cynical and yet somehow hopeful, this is one book that is just too much to pass up.
A Drink Before the War: Dennis Lehane’s series of detective novels featuring PI Patrick Kenzie and his secretary/Girl Friday Angie Gennaro harken back to the pulp novels of the 1950’s, with their focus on the gritty underside of urban areas (in this case, Dorchester and Boston), and the struggle for survival that drives every schemer, con man, and mobster. But Lehane, a former social worker, uses the genre to bring to light some of the true evils in our society–ignorance, jealousy, and cruelty to the defenseless, and that makes them incredible important. Somehow, he is also talented enough to make these books utterly addictive and simply unforgettable, and his sense of place is spot on.
Already Dead: Like the best noir author, Charlie Huston has the ability to put pages-worth of angst, fear, and emotional impact into a few short words or phrases. His dialogue is rapid-fire and pitch-perfect, and, like, Lehane, he is able to craft compelling investigations that gradually build to a fundamentally shattering conclusion…the fact that his hero is a vampire, paid by several factions of vampires to carry out their bidding among the Boroughs of New York City only add to the fun of this series. Things only get weirder from here, trust me, but Huston is so perceptive, and so fiendishly clever in his plotting and characterization that you’ll be only too willing to follow him into the shadows.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: Oh hey, we haven’t mentioned this book in a while!