Essay: On the Intellectual Merits of Genre Fiction

Regan Farnsworth, BFR Staff

We all know genre fiction. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are the most well-known examples, but most any fantasy (Eragon, A Song of Ice and Fire) or science fiction (Ender’s Game, Dune) counts. These kinds of stories, while many are popular, are rarely if ever touted in academia, and often lack credibility in terms of intellectual merit. “Literary fiction” books such as Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby take their place, in literal classrooms and in discussions of academic nature. I posit that works of genre fiction—written well, of course—have no less a capacity for meaningful intellectual contribution than any work of literary fiction.

The simplest way to distinguish between genre fiction and literary fiction is the focus on plot versus thought, respectively. Literary fiction is often introverted and reflective, while genre fiction focuses on actions and reactions. This makes the idolization of literary fiction for academic and intellectual study seem obvious: any work that goes into the thoughts of a character and the ideas of a theory is surely going to be more worthy of thoughtful discussion and consideration. This seems only natural—events do not provide insight into mentality or philosophy.

Yet to take this stance fails to heed some of the most fundamental advice given to writers of all fiction: “Show, don’t tell.”

This is the crux of my argument. Anyone who picks up one of the literary fiction examples listed above, or even books a bit more ambiguous such as Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, recognizes immediately and inevitably that the author is trying to tell you something. There simply isn’t enough plot, enough “story,” for the intent to be anything else. A message or allegory or symbolism so blatant that, while the message may be entirely valid and important, the book or story becomes immediately less about the characters within and more about the ideas and thoughts it discusses, dissects, or encapsulates.

This is not true for those books of genre fiction that focus on events and happenings. We get wrapped up in what happens next, in the characters and relationships and developments. We are not being told, we are experiencing. This is how humans learn—not through the raw consumption of knowledge but through the experience and test of that knowledge. Thus, in genre fiction we are granted the opportunity to learn from the experiences of our characters, and derive lessons and concepts that are personal and more real than the metaphorical lecture of literary fiction.

This is not to say literary fiction is inferior, either, and certainly these two categories are arguable and occasionally ambiguous. I mean only to say that we should not discount a work’s intellectual merit solely because it has ogres or lasers, because it may be that laser-toting ogre will face hardships that mirror your own, and in doing so indirectly provide insight into your own life, rather than tutor you directly on matters of lost innocence or obsession and affluent debauchery.

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