Genre Fiction: The Plight of the Escapist

Why Some Literary Fiction Writers Turn Their Nose up to Genre Fiction

Genre Fiction: The Plight of the Escapist

I criticized,

“Your story is well-written but bland. The characters are not engaging because they lack characteristics or problems I can relate to. There’s no jealousy, treachery, self-destructive behaviors, passion, beauty, love, etc. Instead, everyone is fighting for some grand cause to save a kingdom, and your lead character, the savior, reads like a biblical Mr. Rodgers on downers who drives a sword through the evil archenemy who reads like Sesame Street’s Oscar wielding a rapier. Your characters don’t act human. Shouldn’t the main character lose his mind a bit or enrage over his village being destroyed? No one, not even the antagonist, has character flaws (beyond stealing the kingdom and being called evil) and there is no character arc. I’m sorry, but I can’t relate to this story.”

I was rebuked,

“This is a fantasy novel, and in my world, they don’t have problems like jealousy and treachery because people are more evolved in their sensibilities, so characters don’t curse or as you say, ‘lose his mind.’ I don’t think that fantasy is your genre to beta read. People don’t want to read about other people’s shortcomings.”

For those who don’t know, beta-reading is the reading of unpublished works to provide writers with basic feedback including likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses among other elements. The prior passages came from an email discussion about an unpublished fantasy novel. The messages are modified to remove personalization and maintain privacy. (Yes, my criticism was harsh because the person angered me in prior messages, and yes, it was small of me to be so mean.)

A little over a year ago, a mental debate over the merits of genre and literary fiction began after joining a Facebook fiction writing group. Happy to expand connections with fellow writers, I started reading manuscripts but received no offers to read my work (even in exchange for reading). This inability to procure readers should’ve provided the first clue to the problem, but instead, a shrug of the shoulders caused the joining of more groups which yielded a small number of readers who either failed to read the book or offered obviously rushed feedback. Is it me? Did my writing fall to such poor quality it turns away readers? The notes from beta readers caused much debate,

“Nobody is going to read this because homosexuality is not normal behavior.”
“The internet didn’t exist in 1998.”
“You used the f-word 177 times.”
“You can’t use present participle in past tense.”
“I think you’re just playing the rape card.”

Ending the use of beta readers brought relief, but not desiring to be a selfish, pompous ass, I continued reading for others in the belief of serving some greater good to literature. A noble, unpretentious aspiration if ever there was! Tormented for some time with mostly fantasy and crime fiction novels, the realization of reading only genre fiction* finally struck.

Somehow, beta reading evolved into an endless tour of Middle-earth accompanied by Mickey Spillane acolytes, and when looking back, the genre writer title also extended to all my beta-readers. Studying this trend revealed an even more disturbing pattern of strange standards held by genre fiction writers swelling the online groups,

“I don’t read books written in first person because I don’t want to read about someone’s life.”
“I don’t write with diversity — at all.”
“Writing is more about creating a brand than writing.”

In one group with over 110,000 people, the majority (not all) of the authors spoke of writing books the way kids speak of coloring with crayons. Months of frustrating discussions with Tolkien clones and R.R. Martin wannabees led to a withdraw from all groups save one. Frustrated having wasted time and effort with these groups, the attempt to move on from the bad experience failed as comments, group posts, and beta reader notes rang like Poe’s bells,

“Don’t write prologues nobody reads them.”
“You always italicize inner dialogue.”
“Only use, “said,” for dialogue tags.”
“Do I really need to read to be able to write a book?”

The enjoyment once felt for King, Lovecraft, Barker, Herbert, and others turned to agitation from a specter whispering evils of genre fiction. As a literary fiction writer, the debate over the merits of genre fiction held no interest and seemed a bit snooty, but now, something about genre fiction became too disturbing to ignore. Certainly, there is a difference between genre and literary fiction in the very basic way literary fiction deals with the human or social condition in a meaningful way while genre fiction tends to entertain. Other differences exist such as genre being plot over style-driven along with other elements, but regardless of differences, crossover into literary fiction occurs. Frank Herbert, Stephen King, and Kurt Vonnegut among others have earned their place in literary fiction (based on themes not sales). This fact shows some genre fiction fits the mold of literary fiction if it meets the minimum of dealing with the human or social condition in a meaningful way. So, what’s the problem? What causes this distress when thinking of genre fiction?

Being so biased as to feel payment deserved for lost time reading and listening to the genre fiction writer’s nonsense does not sway my belief that (AND I TRULY DON’T KNOW HOW TO SAY THIS IN A NICE WAY), it’s not the genre — it is the writer. Most genre writers are too escapist to write anything original much less cross into literary fiction. Don’t believe me? Go join an online writing group and learn firsthand,

“I only read fantasy.”
“I’m writing a story about a vampire.”
“I only read science fiction.”
“Nobody wants to read about people’s problems.”
“Nobody reads literary fiction.”

Genre fiction writing is inherently escapist since, generally, it is meant to entertain and rarely deals with social or cultural elements in a meaningful manner. This diversion from life or problems is awesome until some of those readers desire to write the next Harry Potter or Dune and unwittingly embark on a fantasy of authorship exclusive of meaning or uniqueness. These writers are driven by the higher cause to live in a Harry Potter House or on some world with no badness, and this dream overrides everything including basic grammar and mechanics, leaving them sorely unprepared for the challenge of genre fiction.

Writing original genre fiction is a challenge for the competent author since genre fiction is formulaic and idiomatic. There can be no doubt about these characteristics since romance novels follow specific themes such as best friend turned lover, reunited in love, fake relationship turned real, barf, barf, barf… Don’t believe me? See the Harlequin website.

Genre writing also carries many idiomatic motifs such as science fiction’s computers becoming sentient, skyscrapers with video screens blaring broadcasts, or planets sprawled with enormous cities. Fantasy fiction is no better with its dark, shadowy castles, dwarves, and elves: all generally characterized from one book to the next by different authors.

“But my dwarves are tall and lean, not short!”

Yes, but they’re still dwarves, and still must carry some traits of the dwarf scribed into literature’s memory; otherwise, they’re not dwarves and will likely turn away the ardent fantasy readers.

Overcoming a genre’s formulaic and idiomatic nature is a tall order for the seasoned fiction writer, but for the escapist, an impossibility born from counterproductive fiction reverie. Most of these authors read exclusively the genre they write and maybe one other which leads to a contrived method of writing with this idiomatic effect,

“Her ears felt the piercing scream, and for a moment, she didn’t know it was her own.”
“She heard a scream realizing it was her voice.”
“The screaming sent a shock through her body worsened in the acute awareness she was the person screaming.”

Line after line of description is rewritten from book to book and author to author not to plagiarize but in a genuine belief of originality. Reading only genre fiction retards writing ability in mimicry of style and phraseology that even if written better than the first author, each subsequent iteration becomes a poor imitation. Not only does exclusive genre reading reinforce idiomatic and formulaic writing, but in the worst case, it prohibits writing literary fiction since little or nothing read deals with real human or social issues. The evidence of this problem abounds in online writing forums overflowing with armchair philosophers and zealots spouting derivative plots and themes,

“I’m writing a Christian science fiction novel with the theme of forgiveness.”
“My book is a time travel story that discusses fate vs free-will.”
“My character is a hero who knows he must die to save everyone, and it’s set in the distant future on a different planet.”
“My protagonist gets lost in space, and his journey home is a test of faith.”
“My plot is a self-discovery of positive thinking.”

Still don’t believe me? Go read some Christian fantasy literature. I’m a little biased lacking belief in religion or a deity, but this aside, Christian fantasy novels all center on a Christian worldview that dictates the morality of the characters as well as the narration, otherwise they’re not Christian novels. Hmm, how would one write an original fantasy novel that overcomes the idiomatic motifs and formula of fantasy while adhering to the formula and idiomatic motifs dictated by the Christian worldview? The best one can do is write some ironic plot twist since everything about the character arc is known unless somehow the word of Jesus doesn’t prevail or the Devil wins. Sadly, these writers believe they’re original,

“Cursing sounds bad in writing.”
“I write clean romance.”
“There’s no sex in my books.”
“I’m writing about a man who finds Christ after a personal tragedy.”

Caught in the genre storm, the writer swirls in the whirlwind of the unimaginative.

“My vampire is driven by a good soul.”
“Do you think “Bladepunk” is a good name for a character?”
“My story is about a magic school for kids.”
“My robots think they are real people.”

One cannot be an original fiction writer without being a student of the human condition, but even more important, one cannot be a writer without learning to write. So escapist is the genre writer, he brings ruin to his writing in an unwillingness to learn anything beyond what is qualified by fellow escapists. No offense to Stephen King (love the books), but his “On Writing” is touted by the genre fiction writer as one of the quintessential writing guides with no consideration for textbooks, journal articles, or any literary theory rooted in thousands of years of philosophy. When any seemingly new idea is presented, even a true one, it is admonished because that’s not what is done in genre fiction or Stephen King or some website didn’t say so, and they will argue completely unaware of how stupid they sound,

“You have to use italics for internal dialogue.”
“Fantasy novels need to be between 50,000 and 150,000 words.”
“Being a good storyteller is more important than knowing how to write.”

If any of these aspiring authors read a modicum of literary fiction or literary theory, they would realize the blueprint of arbitrary rules leading to the derivative novel. Oh, I hear the bells! The clamoring of the genre writer,

“Don’t use adverbs.”
“First person POV is lazy writing.”
“Never switch POV.”
“Don’t use idioms.”
“Never use anything other than ‘said’ for a dialogue tag.”
“Don’t use dialogue tags, use only action beats.”
“Never start a book with the weather.”
“Never write a prologue because people watch TV and their minds need less detail than in the past.” (This is my favorite.)
“Show don’t tell.”
“A book chapter should be between 2000 and 2500 words.”
“You need to write three to six hours a day.”
“Only curse once in a while.”
“Don’t use exclamation points.”
“Stephen King says…”

Most don’t even consider what is said or asked,

“How do you make the necessary narration enjoyable?”

Which garners answers like,

“You just put in the parts necessary to the story and try to make it as brief as possible.”

Because that’s the way books are written,

If you’re shaking your head and wondering how any writer could think this way, you need only ask one of them to read some literary fiction and they readily provide the answer,

“I only read fantasy.”
“I only read science fiction.”
“I only read romance.”
“I don’t read anything with curse words.”
“I don’t read nonfiction.”

Or join them in online forums where they spend their days asking the truly important questions,

“How many words should a subchapter be?”
“How many words should a science fiction book be?”
“I wrote 1500 words today; is that good?”
“I’m up to two hundred pages; is that good?”

They’re not worried about narrative distance, mimesis, continuity of theme, or making sure they’re not heavy-handed with the symbolism; no, it’s all about word counts and commas. Needing only the arbitrary rules made by fellow escapists, famous writers, or some person claiming expertise, the genre writer forges ahead producing banal literature in complete confidence of originality because his elves are blue instead of silver.

Sadly, the genre writers are unlikely to consider these issues since they don’t read anything other than their favorite genre — if that. But if you happen to be a genre writer who accidentally stumbled onto this article, and your blood is boiling, just remember, I like good genre fiction, and it was you who led us to this place.

~~~

*For those unfamiliar, genre fiction is any fiction specific to a genre such as science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. Most fiction not fitting a genre is considered literary fiction.

Photo by Camila Quintero Franco on Unsplash