In Defense of Genre Fiction

There’s a pervasive feeling of insecurity for me as a genre fiction reader. Despite knowing that I’m in the majority when it comes to my reading choices, I still get flashes of embarrassment when someone asks me what I’m reading. I have to force myself not to be uncomfortable because I like to read romances and mysteries.

As if reading something light-hearted and conversationally written is somehow “bad.”

Why do we have this double standard with books? It’s okay to like popular music. It’s okay to like popcorn movies. Romantic comedy movies are not denigrated or made fun of except by the most snobby film critics. There’s no sneer in the voices of movie goers when they say romantic comedy. Sure, popular movies rarely win an Oscar, but most aren’t treated as garbage, either. I don’t feel silly telling someone how much I enjoyed a murder mystery or romantic comedy that I watched in the theater.

Yet when someone is reading a book, it suddenly becomes an object of ridicule. "Trashy" is probably the most common adjective I hear for romances from non-romance readers.

Is it the sex? Is it the notion that “there’s going to be a happy ending?” Is it the fact that this is a genre written for women by women, whereas most romantic comedies are still directed by men?

I’m not really sure, but I am sick to death of it.

Reading the literary equivalent of a popcorn movie shouldn’t be frowned upon. Entertainment is entertainment. And, lest we forget, much of our ‘classics’ were, when published, popular literature, too. Just because something is old, does not make it good. I’ve read plenty of literature that I felt was poorly written. Bleak House by Charles Dickens being a primary example. Two narrators? 1200 pages? Really?

Along with this attitude of superiority comes the notion that lighthearted romances and mysteries are somehow disposable. That they have no lasting value. But I find the opposite to be true. Most serious literary fiction fails to move me. I am unaffected by it emotionally, and, as a result, consider it worth ‘less’ than potentially easier to read, but more emotionally charged genre fiction.

Some books touch me more than others, true, but it generally has nothing whatsoever to do with the difficulty of the prose. I am a character reader. I don’t read primarily for plot, for message, for the mystery. I read to follow along as characters in a book experience life. And I’ve found that literary fiction tends to stray from that sharp focus on characters. It’s often more about setting, about historical detail, about some high minded message than about the characters being portrayed.

Perhaps it’s because I have actually read  a lot of “literature” that I feel compelled to defend my reading choices. I’ve read Beowulf. I’ve read Canterbury Tales , the Faerie Queene, and the Decameron. I’ve read plenty of Austen, Bronte (Charlotte, Emily and Anne) and Eliot. And I’ve read Crime and Punishment three (yes three) times. I’m capable of reading “literature.”  But, in general, I tend to only “enjoy” those books that do not have body counts or leave me feeling the need for an anti-depressant. It’s why I prefer Anne to Emily Bronte. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to Wuthering Heights.

Part of the reason I dislike the classics (and literary fiction as well) is the still pervasive attitude that a story must be a tragedy, must be sad, to qualify as ‘good’ literature. In this respect, it is similar to the attitude of film critics: comedies and love stories just aren’t as artistic as dramas. Blech.

I think comedies and romances, in all media, are much harder to do successfully. And they can be just as moving as a drama. Just as profound. I just think we’re all conditioned to believe that happy endings are somehow less valid, less worthy of praise, than tragic ones. That the need to show man’s inhumanity to man is a more worthy goal than to show happier relationships and outcomes.

I continue to find that attitude more than little bit disturbing. Far more disturbing than my sometimes vague embarrassment over my reading choices.

What about you? Do you ever feel self conscious about the books you read? Does your local bookstore carry romance or mystery? Your library?


  1. I love this post! When I started writing chick-lit, I got tired of people scoffing at my genre and decided I would never apologize for it again. I loved Jennifer Weiner's essay on "Gray Ladies" and I think you might, after reading this! http://www.beatrice.com/archives/001240.html

    And I'm totally bookmarking this post. :)

  2. @Connie,

    That is a good article. As annoying as the attitude is for readers, it has to so much worse for authors.