Monday, April 11, 2011

That Hateful Term

Dear readers, please accept my apologies for being largely AWOL last week from this blog. Between a business trip and a big school project, most everything writing-related got pushed to the side. (A note to professors everywhere: Please put all assignment requirements in your syllabi before your students have completed them as it will prevent much wailing and gnashing of teeth.) Yet it wasn't far from my mind. Chats with other professionals invariably revolved around familiar topics, such as hometowns -- and hobbies. You can guess where conversations with me went.

You know what I discovered? People don't have a clue what "genre fiction" is.

On Neil Gaiman's blog almost two years ago, a fan mentioned that he thought genre fiction was a "hateful" term. I didn't understand his objections at the time, but I think I do now. People who dress in suits and ties often don't comprehend the meaning of the first word in that definitional dyad. And should you try to explain it using easier to comprehend examples (e.g. science fiction, fantasy, horror), their eyes glaze over like a day-old donut. It's just so difficult to not make it sound stupid.

Tell me, readers, how do you describe what you love to read and write?

(Picture: CC 2006 by Cristian Ghe.)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I guess it's easy for me. I'm blessed with a large number of friends (and colleagues) who are nerdy enough to read and embrace genre fiction. And towards the layman, I refer to my writing as "fantasy," or "retelling medieval stories," and am willing to leap into a (probably excessive) lengthy exposition on what makes Fantasy unique and wonderful. Or I just say "more like The Lord of the Rings than Harry Potter," and leave it at that.

Perhaps you should try a similar tack, and tell people you write "crime fiction"? Most everyone knows what The Godfather is, many people recognize Pulp Fiction, and there's generally a recent movie or two about some heist or crime. That way, you don't have to worry about confusions between "genre" and "formula," and if you don't encompass everything you write, at least you get at one central concern.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Also, thanks for giving me the chance to say that my writing is "more like the Lord of the Rings than Harry Potter." I love dramatic litotes [wiki it for fun!], and that is a particularly dramatic instance.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m not sure I would go so far as to call genre fiction “hateful” but it is restrictive and it’s damaging in that it sets up a reader’s expectations. My first novel is essentially a fantasy novel in that the protagonist’s foil is the personification of truth but it every other respect the book is realistic. There’s also a lot of humour in the book but I wouldn’t call it a funny book; its message is very serious in fact. It mentions the existence of extraterrestrials – not simply in passing but names and places – but it’s not science fiction. I set out to write a literary novel but it’s not Beckett. When I was first promoting it I said it was a cross between Douglas Adams and Franz Kafka which I’m not sure is helpful but I still think it’s the most accurate description so far. There was a time, a simpler time, when you knew what you were getting, broadly speaking, in the science fiction, the horror and the romance aisles. Those categories are far broader than they used to be and we’re becoming more and more comfortable with hybrid forms – e.g. Cowboys and Aliens.

My own preference for reading matter is literary which I define, albeit simplistically, as writing where how something is said is more important that what is being said. I’m not big on plots or elaborate descriptions. Hence my love of Beckett.

Todd Mason said...

No fiction escapes genre. That's why the term "genre fiction" is pretty nearly useless.

pattinase (abbott) said...


Loren Eaton said...


I like the idea of comparing what I write to movies. That's easy for people to grasp. I started using "genre fiction" to explain because people recoiled like a vampire from the sun when I said, "Horror." Of course, I am doing as much crime fiction today as horror, so that could work, too.

Loren Eaton said...


I wouldn't call it "hateful" either. "Unhelpful," maybe, to anyone but a small number of folks.

Although most of Beckett is a bit grim for me, I did enjoy Endgame quite a bit. Did you notice that it seems to take place after a nuclear apocalypse?

Loren Eaton said...


Absolutely, although I know a lot of highfalutin folks who like to think their work resides above the genre plain. Which is, of course, silly.

Loren Eaton said...


That, madam, is quite an elegant way to put it!

Scattercat said...

All I remember (and what I suspect would be the source of the angst about it being hateful) is being told by my high school teacher and college Creative Writing professors that I was "such a talented writer" but that I was "wasting my time on that genre fiction." You have to say it with that note to your voice, too. Genre fiction.

Jim Murdoch said...

It can also be said to take place inside a human skull. Endgame is hard work. You should try Krapp's Last Tape if you've not seen it. It's probably his most accessible play.

Loren Eaton said...


Your instructors are making my blood pressure go up even now.

A few months ago I was listening to a lecture from a sociologist who argued that the pedigree of a book's publisher matters more than how many people read it. Which is as backward as trying to drive by looking solely in the rear view mirror.

Loren Eaton said...


Interesting. I'd never heard of that interpretation. From the little I know of Beckett, it seems that he intentionally left his works open to multiple interpretations, which can be a little frustrating for a reader.