Friday, September 22, 2006

Guest Blogger: Confessions Of A Former Genre Snob

Today's guest blogger is Lady T: reader, former bookseller and author of the blog living read girl. The opinions expressed here are hers. Register your agreement, disagreement or further thoughts on this subject in the comments. Let's get a conversation going.

Confessions of a Former Genre Snob

Before I begin this talk about literary genres and how they're perceived, marketed, etc, I should tell you right up front that yes, I used to look down my nose at certain ones and feel superior to those who openly bought and read such "trashy" books. The Romance section of any bookstore I treated like the part of a magazine rack where Playboys and Penthouses leered up for all to see. Even in my early bookselling days, I made the occasional joke about the Nora Roberts "book-of-the-month" club and insisted on the theory that she had an army of ghost writers at her beck and call.

What changed me? Well, for one thing, I was being hypocritical. In my teens, horror films and books were my genre jones that later on lead me to start reading paranormal romances. Also, several romance fan websites such as "Smart Bitches Love Trashy Novels" and "It's Not Chick Porn, I Swear!" (which later combined with it's sister site, "It's Not Porn, I Swear! ' under one banner, showed me that there was nothing wrong with liking a good or not so good but fun book and still have a laugh about the cliches and bad cover art that never seems to totally fade away. As for Nora Roberts, my apologies to her. After reading a few articles and seeing her speak directly to fans at the Smart Bitches forum (How many top best-selling authors would take the time to do that?), I have some new found respect for the lady.

The genre wars are as old as publishing, it seems. Novels themselves were perceived as being only mere entertainment (For ladies,no less!) for decades and many of the traditionally scorned genres have slowly over time gained some praise and respectability of sorts. Horror, romance, science fiction/fantasy and mystery were the Top Four for the longest time but lately, a new player has been getting quite a bit of the attention from those who seek to protect what they perceive to be an assault upon their boundaries.

Chick Lit is the current whipping boy of the literary set and much of the ire comes from other women writers who insist (literally in one case) that the whole genre is "hurting America". I'm sure that this line is all too familiar to the folks that published comic books during the Communist witch hunting days of the 1950s, but what are the real merits of this debate and are they any different from the flack given to other types of popular writing? Let's look at some of the issues raised here:

1) Chick Lit novels have pink,cartoony cover art.

This has been a major complaint of the anti-Chick Lit crowd and many of those who cattily sneer at this know very well that most authors don't have a say in what gets put on the jacket or winds up on the front of the paperback. Also, lurid cover art has dogged the heels of many genres, from the pulp fiction of detective stories to the Fabio male models that heave over barely dressed ladies looking for love, and my beloved horror titles that were bathed in black backgrounds, with sinister silver lettering that demanded your attention. Not to mention the irony of judging a book by its cover.

2) Chick Lit takes away attention and shelf space from "literary" women writers.

It is true that Chick Lit has gotten a wider share of the market for awhile but on the other hand it hasn't received as much coverage or reviews in many of the prominent critical book media like the New York Times Sunday Book Review or The New Yorker. Also, the prevalence of Chick Lit doesn't seem to have affected the careers of Amy Tan, Zadie Smith, Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier and most recently Sara Gruen, whose brilliant novel, "Water For Elephants", has become one of the sleeper hits of the summer, gaining praise and climbing best seller lists across the country. Perhaps some folks doth protest too much.

Many other authors have been accused of hogging the spotlight (the NYT had to create a children's best seller list due to protests that the Harry Potter series was keeping adult titles from being featured on the Sunday lists) but why should anyone who has worked just as hard as the next person to write and get their work published be at fault for doing well and/or better, saleswise? The whole idea seems like something out of an Ayn Rand novel.

3) Chick Lit is nothing but bad writing and cliches, plus it promotes negative stereotypes.

Bad writing is like acne, it can pop up whenever and where ever it pleases. No genre is excluded from the obvious plotline, black hat villain or last minute resolution to the hero's dilemma. As to the "shoes and shopping" claim, I think if some of the detractors actually read a bit more widely in the field, they'll find some smart, independent lead characters that may like to look good but face many of the same traumas as their more seriously taken sisters such as date rape, abusive relationships, raising troubled kids and death in the family. Science fiction has taken the lead for years in dealing with social issues such as racism, sexism and oppression in entertaining and metaphorical ways. As Mary Poppins once sang, it sometimes takes a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

Writing off a whole genre due to your own personal bias is a mistake in the long run. You could be ignoring the next great masterpiece that's coming around the bend. Just look at the rise of the graphic novel and comic strip art. If you had told someone twenty years ago that some of the best fiction and non fiction would come from and be inspired by comics, the response you'd receive would be along the lines of "Yeah,right and we'll all be living on the moon too!" Today, some of the best memoirs are in graphic novel form, from Art Spiegelman's "Maus" to Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" and most recently, "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel. The works of Alan Moore have become thought provoking and exciting films such as "V for Vendetta" and "From Hell". Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay", which looked at the early world of comic books, not only won the Pulitzer Prize but created a market for a series of comics based on the fictional hero, The Escapist, that was in turn created by the fictional leads in his novel. How meta is that?

I'm not saying that we should all like the same types of books – taste is part of what makes a person who they are – but just because a certain genre is not your cup of tea, it doesn't mean it's not worth drinking in the first place. Art and Entertainment don't have to stand on opposite ends; they can both face the music together and dance .