Reading books with dragons on the cover says something about a guy.
In high school, the fact that I elected to read novels in my spare time sent a message of its own, never mind the cover art. Other than a debate with another student over which books were better sellers, those that comprised the DragonLance series or the works of John Saul, I didn’t get much guff from my peers for reading fantasy fiction.
No, it wasn’t until college that I got my first real taste of genre bias. As an English major, I earned college credits for writing a sword-and-sorcery short story and the opening chapters of my first fantasy novel. However, in my sophomore year, I took a writing workshop where one rule not so much rained on my parade as washed it away in a deluge of biblical proportions: no genre fiction.
For my first assignment, I churned out a quasi-autobiographic “campus life” short that was an interesting exercise inasmuch as I found myself—for the first time in a very long time—writing scenes that took place in modern-day Earth. At the same time, it was a dull plot that satisfied the letter of the law, if not the spirit of it. My classmates gave it passable reviews.
Weeks later, I critiqued a classmate’s short story that followed an arguably familiar path: a college student dealing with relationship problems. Blah blah blah. When the professor questioned my criticism on the basis that my own story suffered from similar problems, my retort went something like this:
“My story was boring because I wasn’t able to write what I wanted to due to the ‘no genre fiction’ rule.”
To my delight, the professor repealed that unjust decree, and I was able to submit more chapters from The Renegade Chronicles, which got better feedback than my obligatory stab at writing a more realistic (and more mundane) story. And I would argue that the rest of the class’s offerings were richer and more enjoyable—to me, at least—once the restriction was lifted.
Nevertheless, I never rid myself of the feeling that academic types—including most professors and a good many of the students—looked down on my interest in (gasp!) genre fiction. Whether science fiction, romance, mystery or Western, true artistes don’t dabble in anything as juvenile as genre fiction. Real literature is about realistic people in realistic situations doing perfectly normal things.
I was wont to tell the anti-genre contingent that modern (non-genre) literature didn’t generally interest me because I get enough real-life troubles in real life without willingly submitting myself to stories about people whose problems come woefully close to the mark. In many cases, I find these books lacking in creativity because of that fact.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s a reason why various genres get a bad name—namely, clichés. Some writers use genre tropes as a paint-by-number template for storytelling. Those who don’t “get” fantasy fiction, for example, dismiss it because it can be very formulaic: Chosen One + motley companions + two-dimensional evil guy = every fantasy novel you’ve never read. Multiply by the square root of “magical sword,” and you might get a movie deal out of it.
Clearly, “speculative fiction” isn’t inherently more creative than its non-genre cousins.
So here’s the thing: there are well-written Westerns and poorly written ones, brilliant non-genre novels and agonizingly uninspired ones. Genre—or lack thereof—doesn’t determine the merit of fiction.
While most genres provide no shortage of shortcuts for writers to take and a plethora of stereotypes for them to try to pass off as interesting and fresh, it’s no more fair to say all genre fiction favors whimsy over substance than it is to declare all non-genre fiction is dull.
It still rankles me when someone—and fellow writers, no less—dismisses fantasy and science fiction as a waste of time because it couldn’t possibly be relatable to readers. The existence of magic or advanced technology in a tale does not preempt the inclusion of the themes we humans have grappled with since time immemorial.
The good news is that discerning readers don’t need to choose between high-quality genre fiction and fantastic non-genre fiction because examples from both categories contain no shortage of pathos and creativity. With so many talented genre and non-genre writers out there, we can have the best of both worlds.
And sometimes those worlds just happen to have dragons.