There is a meme going about. You may have heard it. You may have bumped into it as you hovered outside frankfurter roasts, picnics or parties, or marshmallow toasts. The meme is, we “genre fiction” authors are without stars on our bellies. We’re not the best Sneetches on beaches.
Sitting at their table, sharing a glass of what someone has assured them is thousand-dollar-a-bottle wine, the mainstreamers smile at the star on their bellies. They gesture at the barred windows of their establishment and at the faces beyond–genre fiction authors, and gathered readers, all peering in on the strange scene.
“Those stories,” the mainstreamers assure each other, careful to show not the least bit of irony, “are escapist.”
I’ve been meaning to address this idea for some time, ever since I read a post by Misty Massey over on magicalwords.net, where she vents her frustration at the treatment a couple of radio personalities give genre fiction in general and HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” in specific. She does a fine job capturing the latent prejudice that underlies the conversation, correctly casting it in colors of high school conformity, right down to the fear that drives the in- versus out-crowd designation. Her self-empowering conclusion is that she’s just fine with escapism, thank you.
In looking for Misty’s post again, I came upon a defense of the dark arts genre fiction from David B. Coe from 2008. It, too, bears reading. In abstract, David makes the point that be detaching the story from the world we’re all familiar with, we gain new tools to fashion view-ports onto the problems of this world. We can examine those problems unfettered by expectation or preconception. “Escapism,” then, is a mislabeling of the work, born of a misunderstanding of the point of genre fiction. “This isn’t escapism,” David writes. “This is life.”
I agree with both Misty and David, but I think there is a third leg of this argument that bears mentioning, and that is that the whole conversation is something of a red herring. Let’s be clear about what is under debate. Let’s be clear about what ground we’re fighting for, and just where the trench lines are.
The Star-Bellies would have us believe that we Plain-Bellied, genre fiction writers (and readers) are at the bottom of Literary Hill, and that the Star-Bellies, may they ever be exalted, hold the high ground. They’ve even been so good as to provide us a map of the battlefield that shows that exact relationship.
The problem? “Literary Fiction” is a meaningless tautology. All fiction is literary. Is Gulliver’s Travels any less of a classic because of its fantastical elements? What about Poe’s stories? The line between “mainstream” and “genre” fiction is, at least as regards quality, a distinction without a difference. And if the only difference between “accepted” and “unaccepted” pieces of fiction is the passage of time, then that says more about the Star-Bellies sitting around, sipping their thousand-dollar wine, than it does the work they reject.
Yes, genre fiction can be escapist… exactly like every other piece of fiction, mainstream or not. If you are not transported to another world, to the world described by the writer, be that Middle Earth or Middlebury, Conn., Westeros or West Lafayette Avenue, then the writer hasn’t done his or her job. For that space of time that you spend reading good fiction, you are escaping your real world life, no matter if the story is about a house-wife from Hoboken, or a wizarding apprentice from Hogwarts.
So, what of the very fine establishment with the barred windows, impeccable wine list, and exclusive clientele? Let the camera pull back just a bit, out the door, until we’re viewing that scene from another angle. From the street, outside. No more do we see faces at the window, desiring above all just to be admitted into the club. Instead, we now see those faces as people passing by, the wideness of the world–the universe–all their’s to explore, who only just now stopped to view the sadness of this small, confined place with the barred windows. For this place isn’t barred to keep the riff-raff out. It’s a prison–all of the Star-Bellies’ own making–designed to keep them in.