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“Downmarket Genre Fiction” Is It?

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The astute Mr. Gemmell earlier today made note of a rather elitist-sounding article over at paidContent:UK. The author of that piece rather laments the fact that eBook consumption is led by ‘genre fiction’. You know– everything that most people read; something — shudderclassifiable. Science fiction. Romance. Crime. Horror. Fantasy. Historical.

So, is it just me, or does that sound an awful lot like regular books? What else could we call them……… Ah yes– stories.

This all smacks of the same sort of book-snobbery we see in some literary awards' shortlists, or in programmes about books on the BBC. This has prompted a number of authors to call out the organizers and producers of such fare for their low view of so-called 'genre fiction'. In March 2011, author Stephen Hunt wrote:

In my world there is only one genre permitted access to the oxygen of publicity in the mainstream media, and that genre is contemporary fiction. It is also called literary fiction by its supporters, just to underscore the point that anything that isn’t written in their genre can never be classed as literature or improving or worthy.

The end result of all this snobbery, he points out, is the loss of the joy of reading in the youth of today. In amidst the many other ways of finding entertainment, the elevation of ‘contemporary fiction’ as the only thing worth reading has turned off many of our youth from reading altogether:

And that conflict, dear reader, between what we read and what is actually covered by the media has sadly begot a much greater one. People, especially younger readers, have given up on fiction on dead trees. They were happy to play the 'literary fiction' game in a gentler age, when it was the only game in town. Hell, some crazy old dudes even read short fiction in the pulps back in the day. But it's a more packed playlist now: MMOGs, IM, BitTorrents, RSS feeds, happy slapping, texting, DS, Xbox, Twitter, FaceBook, iPods, iPads, YouTube, blogging, Tumblr, Angry Birds – you know the drill, right?

I suppose I was lucky in high school that my English teacher didn't hold to such things– we were specifically encouraged to read fantasy and science fiction; I remember reading Howard Fast's The First Men there, and many people's marks took a good boost when writing up that one (we were tasked with writing a newspaper editorial about the experiment in the story).

When reading the article which provoked today's discussion, I initially thought that perhaps the inflammatory title (*downmarket* genre fiction) was an addition by the editor, and that perhaps the writer herself had a more nuanced view. However, down towards the bottom were a couple of gems which rather cut short that hope:

The reading public in private is lazy and smutty. E-readers hide the material. Erotica sells well.

I’m not so sure it is wise to underestimate the boundless idiocy of the unobserved reading public. They may intend to go to the Economist website to read the latest in the euro crisis, but oops! they’ve ended up on Mail Online reading about the Kardashians.

…ok. That's one way of putting it. Another might be: we read for entertainment, not self-betterment. Most people spend long days working, then most of their evenings working in another fashion: food, cleaning, caring for family. If we choose to spend our leisure time reading, we are more likely to read something entertaining than improving; simple fatigue will dictate that as the norm, if nothing else. Don't think that it's all slush, though. Of everything I've read in my life, no book has made me reach for the (conveniently built-in) dictionary than Gregory Macguire's Wicked series. Damn that guy has some vocabulary. And how many other 'genre fiction' books – and genre fiction in a fantasy setting, based upon a line of children's books, no less – would come with study notes included?

The establishment might choose to look down its nose at writing for the sake of story, but its nature does not make it automatically sub-standard.

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