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 .



Great, thoughtful post. My name is David and my genre is crime fiction.

David de Beer said...

Exellent article,Lady T. Fully agree with what you say, and am glad you mentioned both graphic novels and SF.

As far as chick-lit is concerned, I have to admit that I was not even aware of a "debate" surrounding it. When I worked in a bookstore, all I cared about was:
1) Chick-lit sells. Really well.
2) The fans were all female, often quite pretty
3)These were some of the easiest and most pleasant customers to deal with.
What more did I need to approve of the genre?

I'm wary of "literary" authors, and the fuss they sometimes make. Yes, there are some truly excellent authors in that field (in all fields, actually), but the literary writers and fans often seem to be the most self-impressed and touchiest (in my experience, anyways)
If you want to make your market grow, go out there and find fans. Be nice, be friendly. Find a way to show them the beauty of your genre.
Just my opinion.
Bottom line - chick-lit is funny, and puts people in a good mood. Now, in what world can that be wrong?

Book Nerd said...

This reminds me of an installment of the librarian comic UNSHELVED that I read the other day: the young hipster librarian is scoffing at the taste of the older, romance novel-loving librarian, until she starts reading out loud some of the dialogue from his rare, collector's edition "Hulk" comic book. "Hulk will smash" is a reality check for those of us who think "our" genre is intellectually superior to "those" genre. =)

So I'm curious, Lady T -- what chicklit books/authors would you recommend to those who are willing to go in with an open mind?

lady t said...

First off,I'd like to thank BN for lending me her forum for this subject(I love Unshelved,too! Have to find that strip,tho-didn't see it yet.).

As to recommendations,here's a few:

Anna Maxted-she's gotten quite a few cartoony covers but her newest one,Tale of Two Sisters,is more restrained. One of her best books is Behaving Like Adults,which deals with date rape but the first one I read was Getting Over It,which was about coping with the death of a parent. Her topics may sound depressing but the books are not-Maxted blends in humor and pathos nicely.

Jane Green-Many know her from Jemina J but she has other good books like To Have and Hold,The Other Woman(about competing with a mother-in-law)and most recently,Life Swap. My favorite is Bookends,mainly due to the main characters opening up a small bookstore!

Marian Keyes-Rachel's Holiday has it's leading lady in rehab and her other sisters go thru quite a few traumas such as a new mother whose husband dumps her when the baby is born(Watermelon) and the "good girl" of the family takes off for freedom in L.A.(Angels). Her stand alone books are good fun,too-Sushi For Beginners,Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married and The Other Side of the Story.

Jennifer Weiner-Good in Bed was the first book of hers I read and took to her right away. In Her Shoes and Little Earthquakes are excellant as well.

To wrap this up,here's a few other names I'll drop: Johanna Edwards,Sonia Singh,Sharon Owens and Lorna Landvik.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Lady T! I agree--snobbery has no place among readers. Reading is supposed to be FUN, remember? With TV and cable shows being as smart and engaging as they are these days, it takes an equally smart and entertaining book to lure people away. If you make people feel like what they're reading isn't "important enough," then why should they even try?

Anonymous said...

As a confirmed genrephile, and a rabid reader of SF&F, one of the most often pointed to but least read genres, I'd like to go ahead and extend to Lady T a hearty "No thank you." I agree that it's nice to see genre mentioned at all. But from the start you posited yourself as outside and above genred writing, not excepting your horrific proclivities which are cast as the peculiar folly of adolescence. The titles you've chosen as redemptive examples from each genre are precisely those works which have received enough critical attention to, in the eyes of mainstream publishers and critics, escape their particular ghettoes. I love all of the titles you mentioned (with the exception of the film adaptations of Alan Moore's work), but your use of them in fact amounts to an argument in favor of these few, and the publishing Consensus by which they have been allowed to escape, at the expense of the genres themselves. Even your extensive defense of chick-lit, which sadly I've never had the pleasure of reading, amounts to nothing more than a tepid "they're not so bad". You're not a genre snob, Lady T, you are a genre apologist, and in my eyes that's worse. You are right to say that the "genre wars", by which I assume you mean the debate over the actual worth of genred writing, are as old (and I might add as tired) as publishing itself. It is, however, a debate taking place solely at the border between the genre and mainstream cultures. For those of us within the ghetto, worth has never been a question anyway.

lady t said...

Well,Gursky-to each his/her own. I was being honest about my former attitude towards romance and for those who have never doubted their cultural choices,my hat off to you. Not many folks are that confident which is why the term "guilty pleasure" exists.

Also,I don't mean to apologize for any of my tastes-I don't read horror as much as I use to,mainly due to my interests in the genre leaning more towards paranormal romance. Some interests change over time and reform themselves in different ways.

Noelle said...

I was completely guilty of judging my customer's tastes when I worked at a bookstore. In hindsight, that kind of attitude drives customers to the internet where they don't have to face a person and his or her opinion. There is a line where "not my taste" becomes "that is crap," and that's a bad place to be when you want to get more people reading books.

Diana Peterfreund said...

Great post, lady T. I was blithely finding the whole chick lit debate laughable... until I realized that the claims of "hurting America" were being spoken in all seriousness. (One author, Megan Crane, has a hoodie proclaiming her traitorous ways).

Now it's still funny, but I can't laugh at it. Are the detractors saying we SHOULDN'T write funny, uplifting stories that people like to read? Slamming the covers or a couple of fashion-centric chick lits reveals little more than what the detractors don't know about the genre. And the either/or mentality is disappointing. It's saying that having an ice cream sundae on Friday night will keep you from wanting to eat casserole on Monday. It's saying that people aren't responsible enough to be able to choose the manner in which they are entertained.

Other chick lits I love: Do Me, Do My Roots, by Eileen Rendahl, Hit Reply by Rocki St. Claire, Spanish Disco by Erica Orloff, Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin, and Pink Slip Party by Cara Lockwood.