As a childhood fan of genre fiction—from Science Fiction and Fantasy, through to spy thrillers, murder mysteries, and a dash of horror for good measure—the discovery of non-genre fiction came late to me as I fell out of my teenage years.
Having spent my youth in the wilderness, I took to reading historical and contemporary classics with a vengeance. With little to guide me apart from the dogged maxim that genre was wrong, I ploughed through endless books, desperate to make up for my wasted youth. I’m not sure where the thought came from, but in the back of my mind I knew there was something wrong with genre fiction. Something debased about it that marked it as a lesser form of writing, to be shunned by civilized folk and, at best, to be read solely for the amusement of minors.
However, as I matured, I slowly rediscovered genre fiction. Like a dirty secret, I kept the rediscovery to myself, but gradually my desire to read magical realism and speculative fiction grew stronger, until I could no longer keep my reading habits to myself, and finally had to come out as a through-and-through fan of genre fiction.
Although I’m now comfortable with my literary inclinations and I’m well-adjusted enough to read whatever I want, I still can’t help but wonder if there’s a fundamental reason why so many dislike genre so much? Is there some intrinsic property that separates genre fiction from real literature, or is the separation nothing more than the bias of cultural elitism? After all, one generation’s genre fiction can become another’s classics, and in practice genre is little more than a categorization of literary style. Indeed where would some of our most compelling authors be without genre? Where would Margret Atwood be without speculative fiction, or Salman Rushdie without magical realism?
For some genre might be the price of making reading accessible to the masses, for others it’s the stench of cultural elitism, but for the rest of us it’s a compass that helps us navigate through the literary landscape. Just because a book is written according to the informal rules of a particular genre it doesn’t, by any means, stop it from being an original or significant work, or, indeed, a cultural masterpiece. While the debate over genre and literature is unlikely to die out soon, given the significant number of books that willingly shun the shackles of genre, who’s to say that Genre-less fiction hasn’t become a genre in it’s very own right?