This tweet from Joanne Harris was being circulated a couple of days ago:
Book Terms I Wish We’d Stop Using: 9. “Genre fiction.” (Commonly used by people who don’t tell actual stories to disparage those who do.)
I’ve read some of Joanne Harris’ books, and I love them. And I’m an admirer of her politics. I’m a fan. But this tweet got up my nose a bit. Or – well, not the tweet itself, but some of the discussion that went along with it, and the old genre vs. litfic position it brings to mind, to wit: don’t dismiss genre fiction, because actually genre fiction is better. (Now I understand Harris isn’t saying that exactly, but what she does say is close enough to get me thinking about it). But to me, if we can’t decry cultural snobbery without fomenting further false divisions then I’m not sure there’s much point in doing so.
Aristotle believed that story was the most important element in drama, as does Stephen King. I like a good story as much as the next person, and I’m not disagreeing with Harris, King and Aristotle that story is important, but why should all novels be written to the same purpose, or judged by the same criteria? Implicit in Harris’ tweet is the idea that all writers should be telling stories above all else. (It’s that word ‘actual’, I think). Yes, let’s get away from arbitrary and unhelpful genre definitions, but let’s also get away from generalisations re. the intent and ideal effect of fiction. This eighty thousand words and that eighty thousand words should not be assumed to share a motive or a goal just because they’ve both been sequenced, printed and bound. Language is too big for that.
And then there’s the writer. No, the original intention of the writer is of no consequence once a book is in the hand of its readers. But if we accept that, then we should also accept that the intention of the writer cannot be assumed, and, subsequently, that the book cannot be judged against it. To deride a fiction (or a swathe of fiction) for not telling a good enough story is to assume a particular authorial intent, and the assumption that all writers are first and foremost trying to tell a good story – or write a book that depends on a good story to work – is a) huge, given the vast scope of artistic effect that can be achieved by ordering and re-ordering words on a page, and (inevitably) b) reductive. To dismiss books on the basis that they’re not telling a great story is not much more enlightened (if at all) than dismissing books because they’ve got dragons or aliens in, or whatever.
I write fiction full of monsters and, increasingly, magic. Some set in this world, my newer stuff in another. And I hope the stories in my work are compelling. I’m what many would call a genre writer, and I don’t mind the phrase because it helps me to convey what I do. But I, like Harris, would prefer the term ‘genre fiction’ to fade from usage. That’s because I want fewer tribal divisions in literature. The sticking point is that many don’t seem to want fewer divisions – they just want to redefine them in such a way as to cast their own tribe in the better light. And in trying to do so, they perpetuate them.