A Passionate Defense of Genre Fiction

by Shelby Hallenbeck
This short essay was cross-posted from The Voracious Reader, the author’s literature blog. To find this piece and other works of hers, please visit http://voraciousreadersite.wordpress.com
My boyfriend is a creative writing major at the same university as myself, and like me he’s preparing to wrap up his degree by taking a senior seminar course. The final project for the creative writing bachelor’s degree is, as one would expect, to write a long-form poetry or prose piece of your choice that reflects your own interests and style. There were, however, three limitations to what could be written:
1. No fantasy or sci-fi stories
2. No horror stories
3. No children’s literature
Naturally I have plenty to say about rule number three as a children’s literature major, but I’ll save that rant for another day. Now, I suppose that there could be a reason for these rules that makes sense logically (the professor isn’t familiar enough with certain genres, they’re harder to grade, etc.) but I can’t help but consider these limitations to be a reflection of the fact that we just don’t take certain genres of literature seriously. Despite the fact that some of our most brilliant social commentary comes from science fiction novels (the most famous examples being the ubiquitous 1984 and Fahrenheit 451) and that fantasy epics (Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, for instance) build a dense fan theory culture of their own, fantasy and science fiction novels are put in a separate space from “serious” works (science fiction is only taught as a 200-level intro course here at Eastern Michigan University, with no space for horror and fantasy novels), a few select classics aside. This isn’t to say that all genre fiction has something important to say; like all other types of novels there’s plenty of drivel to sort through, but by no means should we push certain genres aside due to a belief that they’re inherently cheesy. Or too popular. Or too shallow.
And yet despite numerous examples that yes, genre fiction can prove to have literary value while being massively popular, these novels are relegated to “guilty pleasure” status. In 2007, for instance, horror master Stephen King was named top guilty pleasure writer. In second place? J.K. Rowling, the author of a fantasy series so dense with biblical and literary references that entire books are dedicated to unpacking it. Another article asks “Should You Feel Bad About Reading Stephen King?”. I’ll tell you, dear reader, that as a literature major who just finished binge-reading IT and absolutely loving it, my answer is a resounding no. I will never feel guilty for reading Stephen King. Aside from the value of fun (which is sadly ignored by many), these horror novels, typically regarded as pulp, deal with more than one would think. IT, for instance, which follows a group of six adults who return to their childhood town to fight a monster that lurks in the sewers, asks whether or not you really can connect with your inner child and if imagination can be recaptured (there’s quite a bit more going on in the novel, but for the sake of brevity I highly recommend Mike Pace’s article “6 Reasons Why You Should Read Stephen King’s IT” to any interested readers), although more informed literary sources like Dwight Allen turn up their noses at these sorts of books.
Is there any solution to this relentless genre-fiction scorn, both in pop culture and the classroom? I have been lucky enough to watch my senior seminar class vote to read Ira Levin’s feminist sci-fi classic The Stepford Wives, and I’ll admit I’m pretty excited to see it picked apart in the college classroom. I can only dream that this is the start of a new trend, a slow shift into seeing some of my favorite novels being taken seriously.

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