Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Is The Most Despised Literary Genre?

In a wide ranging interview in the New York Times Kazuo Ishiguro talked about his new book and how he hoped it wouldn't be "considered as a fantasy novel" because it's set an England populated by elves, ogres and pixies. He mentioned David Mitchell's recent fictions which are all largely fantasy novels cunningly embedded within literary fiction tropes and he hoped that his new book would be considered the same way. This raised the hackles of Ursula Le Guin who, in her typically polite but firm way took Ishiguro to task in a blogpost devoted to this interview. An angry Le Guin wondered why being associated with "fantasy" fiction was so awful that serious writers needed to distance themselves from it. You can read her full argument by jumping on the link above. It's a decent enough piece but the lady doth protest a little too much and because she lives in Portland the dimension she completely misses out on is class. Much institutional English cultural snobbery is class based and fantasy and science fiction are considered to be "low" genres because they are popular. (David Mitchell was so concerned about the critics attacking his new novel as a "fantasy" book that he spent a paragraph in the novel sort of breaking the fourth wall and premptively going after these critics.) As I said Mitchell gets name checked favourably in Ishiguro's NYT interview and to add another incestuous level here Mitchell's book was favourably reviewed by Ursula Le Guin in the Guardian when it came out last autumn. The Guardian comments on the whole Mitchell, Ishiguro, Le Guin mallarkey, here.
I'm not going to step into that minefield. I like well written fantasy, just as I like well written books of any other genre. If you despise fantasy without actually reading any of the books you're just cheating yourself of some fun writing. China Mieville, for example, has done really good things in the fantasy genre and we've all seen how popular George RR Martin has become in recent years. Of course there are a lot of bad fantasy novels floating around, as Ted Sturgeon famously said 90% of everything is crap and with fantasy novels its closer to 95%. What I'm more interested in however is the question of why some genres are more despised than others and which genres are the most hated. It was Margaret Atwood, I think, who bristled at the notion that she wrote science fiction "isn't that just giant squids zapping lasers at each other in space?" she said, horrified. No, it isn't. It hasn't been giant squids zapping lasers at each other in space since the 1930s, but clearly among the literary elite science fiction is still a horrible genre from which they must distance themselves. In a revealing interview in the 1980's Patrick O'Brian said that he had no idea that "sea stories" were the most despised literary genre, and other people think that crime fiction is the genre most looked down upon (I was at a reading just after Christmas where a woman said to me that before she retired "she would never have allowed herself to read a crime or mystery novel.") So what are the most hated genres? I think it goes a bit like this (in increasing order of hate):
10. Literary fiction: Even though most English literary fiction is largely written by posh privileged people about other posh privileged people, it is not considered to be a genre, but the correct literary form. Ergo it's low down on the hate list. I fucking hate most of it though. 
9. Crime fiction: crime fiction used to be despised but now it has largely become respectable, possibly because you get courses on it at university or possibly because the best crime writers have elevated the genre. 
8. Horror. Stephen King has raised the visibility of the genre so its not as loathed as it was in, say, the 1970s. 
7. Sea Stories. Patrick O'Brian has done the same for sea stories. 
6. Science Fiction. Science Fiction is now respectable. The really good sci-fi books are really good. 
5. Fantasy. Fantasy is increasingly respectable, but there's still something whiffy about it. It's the covers I think that let the genre down. Too many unicorns and scantily clad princesses on the covers. John Norman I'm looking at you.
4. Airport thrillers/war books. People love reading these but literary critics almost universally despise them but secretly read them. (Le Carre's spy stories don't make my top 10 hate list at all because they are now completely respectable, as is historical fiction thanks to Hillary Mantel.)
3. Funny novels. You know the type of thing, some dude has comic misadventures that aren't remotely funny or interesting. I've got to admit I hate these bloody books.
2. Chick lit. Chick lit has more or less saved published in the last 15 years but chick lit books don't get much respect from metropolitan male literary critics. And what goes for chick lit goes double for:
1. Romance/erotica. The most despised literary genres are romance and erotica (although not by me). Misogyny is the reason for this because most buyers of these books are women. Actually most romance novels aren't bad and if you've only read EL James in the erotic realm you should try and find some of Angela Carter's stuff from the 1970s.