Should Genre Fiction be Considered Lowbrow?

Wikipedia defines genre fiction as “a term used in the book-trade for fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.” One might imagine a writer of genre fiction to already be familiar with the genre that they are writing in, having knowledge of its literary tropes, archetypes, and clichés—and choosing which of these elements to implement in their work, or not. A genre writer of fantasy might choose to implement the “chosen one” trope, but might not include the overly-common setting of a medieval Europe-esque kingdom. Regardless, that writer’s work would be considered genre fiction—a work that was constructed to fit a pre-existent literary category.

But does this make a work of genre fiction on a lower tier when compared to other works of literature? The opposition to genre fiction is commonly cited as literary fiction, or a work that is generally regarded as having more literary merit than genre fiction. But why is this? And what dictates literary merit? First, I wish to address what the definition of literary merit is. As I understand it, literary merit is meant to clarify the quality of a work of literature. If a work is said to have high literary merit, then that piece of work is most likely high in value. It might have a stronger narrative, pose and grapple with more philosophical ideas, and can be viewed as “highbrow.” Conversely, if a work is said to have low literary merit, then that piece of work is most likely low in value. Think of works such as Twilight by Stephenie Meyer or Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which by a majority of the readerly population are seen as objectively “bad” books.

But how can one accurately say that a book can be objectively bad, when the word “bad,” in itself, is a very subjective term and is almost always tied to one’s opinion? What is “bad” and “good” concerning the quality of a literary work? I realize that I am raising more questions here than answers, so I will return to the idea of literary merit—which is different from the broader terms of “good” and “bad.” Literary merit is the literary critic’s word for defining whether or not a piece of literature is good, but it is also more than that. The goal in defining a work’s literary merit is not in deciding how good a book is, but instead the value and quality of that work—how strong is its prose, how real is its dialogue, how sound is its narrative?

So, genre fiction can be defined as work that has less literary merit because it was written with a pre-existing literary category in mind, right? Well, no, not exactly. Just because a work was written using pre-existing fabricated tools (such as fantasy or sci-fi tropes, which have transferred from writer to writer since the creator of that trope first used it in their story) doesn’t mean it has less literary merit than a contemporary novel of literary fiction. For a popular example of a work of genre fiction, let’s look at J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—a young adult fantasy series, this is a textbook example of what one might consider “genre fiction.” It is a book that is meant to be read for escapism and pleasure, not provoke philosophical questioning and debates, right? Once again, this is not necessarily true. Philosophical ideas are questioned in the Harry Potter series—though those who deem it a simple work of genre fiction might dismiss them. Ideas about love, death, and growth are implemented heavily throughout the story. Because of Harry Potter’s fame, there have been articles and research done on these ideas—but I feel that other great works of genre fiction don’t receive this treatment, because they are commonly dismissed by some literary scholars as “lesser” because they might be fantasy, science fiction, or other non-contemporary genre.

There is also the discord surrounding the science fiction genre. Usually labeled as a variant of genre fiction, science fiction usually garners more attention from literary critics when compared to fantasy or romance because of the way it can address philosophical questions that our society hasn’t arrived at yet—questions surrounding artificial intelligence, what it means to be human, and so on. This discord has even showed up in my ENGL 201: Foundations of Creative Writing course. In this course, we only address works of contemporary and historical fiction and cannot submit works of genre fiction (including works of sci-fi), however, one of the example short stories we analyzed in one of our discussions was a work of science fiction called “Zimmer Land,” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Clearly a work of sci-fi, “Zimmer Land” displays use of virtual reality to pose questions about justice how violence should be represented in a future society. Many, including my professor in that course, would label this as literary fiction, while others, who were simply told that this short story had sci-fi components, would have simply labeled it as genre fiction without a second glance, preventing an in depth analysis from being made.

This blog post stemmed from an idea I came across during our class time spent researching the definition of genre in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Unfortunately, I could not find the definitions for genre fiction, literary fiction, or literary merit, though I do have the definition for genre, which we found in class: “from the French for “kind” or “type,” the classification of literary works on the basis of their content, form, or technique.” I would like to clarify that it is not the classifications themselves that has resulted in the demotion of genre fiction such as fantasy, sci-fi, romance, and others. Instead, it is the literary critics who have refused to dissect works in those genres because of the way they perceive them as lowbrow. If my opinion was asked, and I would have to answer the question “should genre fiction be considered lowbrow?” my answer would be no. Genre fiction, just like any other fiction, literary or otherwise, should not be classified as lesser simply because of a pre-existing stigma surrounding works resembling other works.

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