Stop the genre snobbery

Rumaan Alam, author of Leave the World Behind, is interviewed a the Paris Review and lays out some very reasonable boundaries on what he’s willing to tolerate when it comes to genre snobbery: not much. I feel the same way. As a kid, I spent many years reading garbage, but among the dross were studded moments of brilliance. For every dumbass Dragonlance novel I read, there was a McCaffrey; for every physics-fetishism Niven there was a Le Guin; for every schlocky Batman there was a The Watchmen. And when I stopped reading spec and fantasy, the author names changed, but the ratio of self-indulgent-trash/mediocre-phoned-in-prose to brilliant storytelling did not. Over the years I’ve been advised by several industry professionals and established writers to distance myself from genre and humour (back in 2009 or so, I was in fact told Bookninja was the reason my poems hadn’t been nominated for any national awards thus far: because no one could take that saucy doofus seriously… Or, you know, maybe they just didn’t sit right with the juries?), but I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. I just want to like the stuff I like, and I want to write the stuff I write. My poet’s mind is separate from my reader’s mind, though they do get together for coffee now and then. Get over it, haters!

It’s not a genre I read very much in my current life, but I certainly did when I was young. I read a lot of mysteries, a lot of thrillers—closer to horror than to science fiction. And it made a big impression on me. I really admire the genre. When well practiced, it’s an extremely efficient narrative tool. I guess that’s a dumb thing to say, because the same is true no matter what form you’re talking about. A sonnet or a short story can be incredibly efficient, too, of course. But I think there is a prevailing snobbery about writing horror or thriller, “genre fiction,” that it’s fundamentally less serious. I don’t think that’s true. Because, in the end, it’s really about building a very efficient machine in order to achieve a very specific goal. The author wants to make you quake. He wants to make you shiver. He wants to terrify you. Literary fiction is a genre all it’s own, with its own expectations and conventions, and the aim is less often to elicit that emotional response. It’s more often about doing something compelling on the level of language or style—it’s a different kind of endeavor. But I don’t think that means one is better than the other.

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