It's impossible to discuss genre fiction without also discussing that to which it is diametrically opposed: literary fiction. One is praised by critics, tends to win the bigger, more prestigious awards, and will never, ever be referred to as a "guilty pleasure" read. Did you realize I was referring to literary fiction there rather than genre fiction? Both types of writing have been around for quite a while, but because genre fiction started out more as pure entertainment, it has consistently been relegated to an inferior position.
I'm sure many of us have been there. Preferring to hide a book's cover as we read (or, even better, reading it via an e-reader). Being reluctant to answer what book we're currently reading, or even what our favorite books are. Wary of the constant judgement that seems to come with admitting that we love reading romances or mysteries or horror or science fiction or fantasies.
The divide between literary fiction and genre fiction is one that's garnered lots of attention recently. Are the two types of fiction really all that different? How many works of literary fiction don't have a little romance, a bit of a mystery, perhaps some action? And if it's so easy for works of literary fiction to have bits of genres mixed in, then isn't the opposite true? Can't genre fiction have literary merit? Can't genre fiction explore the same deep, philosophical questions, merit the same critical praise? Are they really so different after all?
I try to read books of all sorts of genres myself. I enjoy works of literary fiction. I also enjoy works of genre fiction. I attribute my reading choices primarily to my current mood; I like to know what type of story I'm about to start. How boring would it be if we had to confine our reading habits to solely literary fiction or solely genre fiction (or even solely to a certain type of genre fiction).
To better understand the power and significance of genre fiction, I want to focus on my favorite type of genre fiction: the fantasy novel.
I have a very long history with the fantasy genre, and it's a relationship I plan on continuing to foster throughout my life. I've heard all the arguments dismissing the fantasy genre before: it's not realistic, it's not profound, it can't teach me to become a better reader or writer, it's plain silly. And I've come to believe that the people who make those arguments haven't read much fantasy. Either that, or they've read a few fantasies with a very closed-minded approach.
For how could they have really read fantasies and not understood that the focus shouldn't be on the success of the author's imagination, but on the aspects that hit much closer to home. Fantasies may take place in alternate worlds and realities; at their cores, however, they tackle many of the same issues and questions present in any work of literary fiction. Authors who choose to write genre fictions like fantasies still live within our world. They experience many of the same fears, sadness, love, and dreams that we do. The mark of a good fantasy isn't how fantastical the world is, or what magical powers a protagonist possesses; rather, the mark of a good fantasy is how we can relate to the story. To the lives and struggles that people face within this alternate world. To the desire to better understand oneself and life.
Because of their distance from the real world, fantasies also offer the perfect way to discuss political issues, societal conflicts, and personal issues without explicitly referencing things. A fantasy novel that deals with genocide may bring to mind the Holocaust or the fairly recent events in Darfur. But it also doesn't have to. The beauty of writing something removed from our world is that connections are there for us to take, if we choose to. After all, reading is both an intensely personal experience and also one that connects us to others in ways that nothing else can. This general rule applies to both genre fiction and literary fiction, I think.
Simply because authors choose to write books that can easily fall into a genre fiction category does not mean that their words are any less important than those written in a work of literary fiction, or that their thoughts are less profound. Already the barriers separating genre fiction and literary fiction are starting to crumble, and I hope they continue to do so. It's nice to be able to categorize things a certain way (I do it all the time), but if categorizing something attaches it with a stigma, then that's something worth questioning. After all, isn't all literature ostensibly for entertainment? For an author to share his/her thoughts with others? Good stories should teach us to reflect, which genre fiction and literary fiction are both capable of doing.
We should never be ashamed of our reading choices. I love fantasy more than any other genre and I never want to feel apologetic for my reading choices. Neither should anyone else. Literary fiction and genre fiction both have their places within our reading culture, and, if we must continue to try to enforce divisions within literature, I think it's still important to recognize that neither is truly inferior to the other. Just imagine how much less enjoyable reading would be if we didn't have genre/type options.