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Last week, I wrote about Culture, something that has an almost unique ability to make most of the population very nervous, as though it were a test they were bound to fail. It’s an understandable position but a very unfortunate one; people should be able to read, or look at, whatever they want, regardless of who they are. And if there’s a mistaken belief that there are certain kinds of art that can only really belong to people who speak like the Queen and have souls shaped like David Cameron, there’s an equally silly and almost as prevalent idea that there are certain sorts of book that are not for “real” readers.
This, as a position, drives me completely crazy. It’s also something that I come up against repeatedly on my university literature course. Although academia is beginning to wake up to the fact that books are still being written today, and that some of them are even quite good, there’s still an enormous amount of infuriating snobbery about genre fiction.
Genre fiction, of course, literally means books about romance, crime, horror, science fiction and fantasy. If I was feeling prickly—as I do when I’m repeatedly told that many of the books I enjoy are somehow invalid as fiction—I’d define it as any book in which the characters do more interesting things than just stand in a room and cry.
The key word here is interesting. I’ve noticed that often, when a book is accused of being “genre”, what its accuser really means (but doesn’t want to come out and say) is that it seems suspiciously like it might be fun to read. Many critics and academics suspect fun. There’s an invisible rule in their heads that all good books have to be difficult, and so all books that don’t tie your brain in knots of uncomprehending agony must therefore be bad.
In one of my seminars last week, another student brought up Terry Pratchett. It was a valid reference and a relevant comment, and he could have left it at that, but the moment the words were out of his mouth he got a look on his face as though he’d just come to his senses to find himself desecrating his mother’s grave. He backtracked frantically—he’d read one book! Once! When he was a child! It meant nothing! It was just one time!—and then he started talking about Derrida, to prove that he was a serious academic who knew large texts and had important, grown-up, un-fun thoughts about them.
Personally, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why can’t you bring up Terry Pratchett in an academic setting? He’s a writer, isn’t he? He puts down words on a page in exactly the same way as Alan Hollinghurst or A. S. Byatt, and those words get published and read just the same as theirs do. After all, there isn’t an approved list of topics about which you can intelligently write. A passage about an elf, or a pair of shoes, or a bloodstained corpse, has just as much chance of being good as does a passage about sex, or loss, or the unbearable trauma of being. It all depends on the person who’s written it.
In fact, if we take Terry Pratchett as an example, a lot of what he’s doing when he writes about trolls and swords and magic carpets is using them to make extremely subtle and embarrassingly spot-on comments about the society we live in, which also happens to be exactly what Jonathan Swift, who now appears on almost every English literature course anywhere, was doing three hundred years ago. But of course he’s not genre, because he’s from history, and therefore all the funny parts of his books are probably just mistakes.
Actually, as soon as you do look at older texts, the genre-as-worth argument begins to totally break down. Many books that we now think of as classics would probably, if they had been published today, have been shoved on the Genre Shelves of Shame, where only nerds and children can get at them. Dickens and Hardy, for example, wrote specifically for the mass-market and most of their novels were first published in instalments, in popular magazines. Their analogues in terms of sales today would probably be writers like Stephen King or Alexander McCall Smith. Frankenstein? Well, that’s a science fiction horror novel. Dracula? The same. The Odyssey? Fantasy. The Three Musketeers? Historical fantasy. The more you think about it like that, the less literary snobbery makes any sense at all.
As you might be able to tell by now, I think the boxing-in concept of genre is incredibly stupid. It prevents a lot of people from feeling able to try authors they’d probably love, and it prevents a lot of really great authors from getting the recognition they deserve. China Mieville is one of the most creative and intelligent writers working today, but he would probably have to crawl on his knees to the country he’s named after to stand any chance of getting mainstream prizes for his work. It’s a sad state of affairs, because what should matter is the quality of someone’s writing, not what that writing is about. Against all those idiotic people who think that fun is a dirty word, I defend my right to read Zola and Diana Wynne Jones, Nabokov and Meg Cabot, and enjoy them all in very different, but equally valid, ways. And so should you.