WHY GENRE MATTERS – and not just to me.
By Evelyn Archer
DISCLAIMER: This is certainly not the only reason, and I am certainly aware that this is not news to anyone. It’s just something I’m thinking about.
Firstly, I love an underdog.
Romance and SF/F literature are some of the most widely read and widely criticized kind of books around. I love sticking up for both of them, but I read more SF/F, so that’s what I’m talking about today.
I work in a very small library, and if you only knew how often I have seen great SF/F books put in the Children’s Section. And I’m not talking about Terry Pratchett, who sometimes rides the line between them. I mean Anansi Boys, shelved with Harry Potter. And here’s the thing. Adults don’t often go looking for something new to read in the Children’s Room. And Anansi Boys is utterly uninteresting to 9-year-olds. So what this meant was that these great books never went out. But it meant something else, too. It meant that whenever the library found a book with dragons or magic or spaceships, it was automatically shelved in the Children’s Room.
Because of course, Fantasy is Only for Children.
Because of course Grown Ups couldn’t possibly be interested in that. Smart adults don’t read Heinlein. Or Scalzi. Or Octavia Butler. Or anything with elves or broadswords. No, no. Intelligent adults read … well, Intelligent Adult Books. Which, in my experience, consist largely of People Having Problems, Getting Divorced and Being Sad, and sitting at the Thanksgiving Table Not Telling Their Dad How They REALLY Feel. For 300+ pages these people do this. They wear blue jeans and they drive cars and they talk on cell phones and they look for parking. These are all things I can see every day looking out the window of the bus. Not what I want to see when I’m reading.
I need not Not Be Here when I read. I want to NOT see my own fat ass handed back to me in a mirror. I want to see something else, something Other. This is how I connect to the world.
This is why Genre Matters.
Another reason why I love it – and this one is personal – is that I’m not supposed to. Not as someone with an MFA in Fiction Writing and Literature. Not someone who was brought up as a writer in the Culture of Workshop. I remember, with great shame, how a million years ago I was really nice about the guy who brought in a chapter of his epic fantasy novel to workshop. I wonder now if it was any good, because I certainly didn’t pay attention to it then. I know of several Creative Writing Professors who say in their syllabus that they will accept “No genre fiction of any kind”. This is powerful hoodoo to overcome. So the under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight aspect of SF/F novels lasted longer than it should have with me.
My love for it is tinged with the relief I feel at being able to let it loose after holding my breath about it for so long. It is the love of the long-term convent girl for clove cigarettes and rock and roll. This may account for my occasional bouts of Evangelicism.
But what matters, especially about SF/F, is this: I truly believe that a story set in a built world can say more about our own world than a Realistic Story.
There’s this thing I always remembered from a Film Studies Class about black and white movies. You see, in a color movie, you see someone having a drink at the bar and your mind registers: Scotch. Vodka. You see the color. You identify the drink, whether consciously or not. The drink the character is holding becomes a specific drink (Gin and tonic, whiskey sour, Appletini), all of which have specific connotations (especially the Appletini). But when characters in a black and white movie have a drink at the bar, because it can never get specific, it remains forever a kind of “Ideal Cocktail” with all those Platonic Connotations, instead of the specific ones.
Stay with me. I really am going somewhere.
If I read a contemporary novel that addresses, say the problems of intimacy and commitment between men and women, it’s very…specific. We see them have problems, and we those problems resolved, or left unresolved depending on what kind of novel we’re reading. On the other hand, we have Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth Series, and the Plight of the Confessors.
In Goodkind’s world, Confessors are women charged with keeping law and justice, who can at will, and with physical touch, make you confess anything you have ever done. It is physically impossible to lie to a Confessor. Sadly, they are doomed never to marry, as their sexual encounters cause the person in question to be “Confessed”, their minds never their own again. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a more pointed example of problems of intimacy and connection. I’ll quote my (long suffering) Husband on this one. “Yup! That’s it. That’s what we’re really afraid of. That one night in the sack with the right girl? We lose fucking minds.”
This only happens in Fantasy, in built worlds. Okay, maybe not only in Fantasy, but it sure is efficient. And elegant. And it the fantasy and the horror and the worlds beyond the all-too-often dreadful one that I inhabit every day that calls to the Monster in me.
Jonathan Franzen does not call to the Monster in me. (Yes the suburbs are a nightmare. Sorry your life is a disappointment. Can you please grow some wings or pick up a battleaxe or turn into a flying monkey or something so I can identify with you?)
It can be seen as a kind of weakness, “escapism” used as a derogatory term. Like I’m too scared to look the Real World in the eye. (But anyone who thinks that should read China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. Look into the eye of that dystopia, and then tell me who’s weak?) My response to this is to paraphrase Tolkein: The ones most opposed to Escapism are often Jailers.
But I don’t just want to escape. I want to transcend. And I think, at its best, this is what good fiction – Fantasy or Not – can do for us. There is a moment, where escapism becomes transcendence.
Evelyn Archer is the nom de guerre of a library clerk living in a haunted part of New England. She smokes black cigarettes and tells outrageous lies. Her lipstick is red enough to stop a Barcelona bull in his tracks.
She is the author of THE NIGHT TRAIN, the first in the series of THE STRANGE FILES OF MODESTY BROWN, available on Amazon:
She Tweets as @Evelynarches, or you can find her at: https://askevelynarcher.com