This is a bit different from my usual fare, but it’s something I feel needs to be said.
I’ve wanted to angrily write a long post about things that happen in my Victorian Action Heroes class for a while now. Yes, this is long. No, I am not sorry. And no, it’s not going under a Read More. This needs to be said.
My professor is a well-read, erudite man who very accepting of everyone’s reading background. That’s very refreshing for a literature professor, especially because I often encounter writing and/or literature professors who have a very elitist view of literature. I can’t say, however, that I feel refreshed regarding the views of my classmates. Most of them are seniors, like me, and some of them speak as if they’ve been tenured professors for decades. But it’s not their elevated speech patterns that get on my nerves. It’s their extreme prejudice against forms of literature.
The literature we’ve read so far includes The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, some Conan Doyle (both Sherlock Holmes short stories and The Lost World), and H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. On the first day of class, my professor informed us that we would also be exploring some genre fiction, including steampunk, which he admitted was a genre that he was only beginning to explore. He asked if any of us were familiar with the genre, and I found that I was the only one in the room nodding. I could tell that this immediately marked me in my classmates’ minds as that girl–the one who reads subpar literature. I could tell it would be a long semester.
In class, people are constantly talking about how they “don’t like science fiction.” Someone also said that they “only read old science fiction.” There’s this inherent bias against science fiction because it’s considered somehow less worthy of praise than literary fiction. But it seems no one, no matter who I ask, can tell me just what, exactly, constitutes literary fiction. When they do come up with an answer, they never jive with one another, and I’m no closer to understanding than I was before. There’s this inherent bias against genre fiction, like it’s the enemy. As if it’s something disgusting to be scraped off the bottom of our shoes.
I understand not particularly liking genre fiction. There are certainly genres that I’m not a big fan of reading, but that’s my personal opinion. What happens, however, is that people who think that genre fiction deserves to have us bite our thumbs at it also think that it’s acceptable to mock or debase the author of genre fiction just because it’s genre fiction. I saw a comic the other day, on Tumblr, that had “proper fiction” snarking about science fiction, which was wearing a jetpack. The comic was clearly meant to place science fiction in an elevated light–literally, for the person who represented science fiction was hovering above the “proper fiction” people, thanks to aforementioned jetpack. But this comic made me incredibly angry, because all it did was reinforce the stereotype that science fiction isn’t “proper fiction.” What does that even mean? What constitutes “proper fiction?”
Sometimes, when I’m so exhausted with their elitism and their blatant prejudice against anything they consider isn’t “good” fiction, I ask them to explain themselves. Most of the time, I get answers like I do when I ask them to explain what makes literary fiction. Other times, I get answers like, “The classics,” or, my favorite, “Well, this [brandishing a book we're reading for class].”
They’ll tell me that Dracula and Frankenstein are proper fiction. But Dracula and Frankenstein and Jekyll & Hyde are all examples of genre fiction–of science fiction. It’s offensive, especially because they hold these writers up to the pinnacle of literary greatness, but then when authors now like Cherie Priest or George R. R. Martin are writing fiction in the same genre (I’m including fantasy in the science fiction umbrella here because most people do), it immediately becomes something worth turning up your nose at. They’ll watch Game of Thrones obsessively, but the second you mention the possibility of actually reading A Song of Ice and Fire, they balk and say, “Oh, no, I would never read fantasy,” in a way that makes it clear that the science fiction or fantasy genre is beneath them. I don’t understand.
I do understand not enjoying science fiction or fantasy, and I would never speak out against someone for not reading a genre if they don’t like it. But I am galled by the amount of times a science fiction or fantasy author’s work is put down simply for the fact that it is science fiction or fantasy. The writer is immediately written off–for being unoriginal, for being lazy, for being somehow less intellectual than a writer of literary fiction. I think this is extremely offensive.
When did science fiction become a genre at which to turn up your nose? What happened from Mary Shelley to now? Mary Shelley was a science fiction author. Frankenstein is a work of science fiction. Why is that acceptable, but science fiction of today is not? There are good and bad books in every genre. Just because something falls under the umbrella of “literary fiction” doesn’t make it a great book. There are plenty of literary fiction books that I don’t enjoy because I find the writing to be not quite as good as, say, something written by Patrick Rothfuss. I’m tired of this elitism permeating my classroom.
To round off my diatribe, we were discussing dystopian fiction re: H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man. We were talking about the dystopian genre as a whole, how it came to be, and how books like 1984 and The Hunger Games handle dystopia. And then a girl raised her hand and said something that was so repulsive to me I had to restrain myself from leaping across the table and strangling her. She said:
“Yeah, I think that past dystopian fiction like 1984 was definitely all about the social commentary and the situation, but I think that more modern dystopian fiction, which is pretty much written for a young adult audience, is simply a mise-en-scene within which to situate a romance plot.”
She was so clearly talking about The Hunger Games, and it made me so angry. God forbid a writer–especially a woman writer–include a romance narrative within the context of her novel, because that’s all it will be boiled down to. Forget the fact that in 1984, Julia and Winston engage in a sexual relationship–fall in love–in order to overthrow the corrupt government. Then, it’s okay, but when Suzanne Collins shows the romance in The Hunger Games as the only way these poor kids can cope with the horror of what they’re going through in these Games. I was so angry that I couldn’t bring it upon myself to answer her, but I stewed silently for the rest of the class, and I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive her that comment. This is what people think of science fiction and/or fantasy literature these days. They see it not as a critique or as anything else other than a different landscape in which to situation a romance narrative. I could rip my hair out. I want to fling Cherie Priest at her, who writes wonderful novels that could, yes, be considered somewhat dystopian. The Clockwork Century series itself may or may not be a dystopia, but the Seattle featured in the novels after the Boneshaker attack is definitely a dystopia. And her novels aren’t romance narratives. In fact, the one time I can distinctly point to a romance, it happens between two tangential characters. Even when the novel is narrated through the eyes of Cly, the romance he has going on with Briar Wilkes doesn’t intrude on the plot at all.
The elitism surrounding literature needs to stop. Stop making people feel bad for what they read. Stop making extremely intelligent and intellectual people feel as if they’ve had their brains wiped clean and like they know nothing. Stop claiming some kind of high ground because you think Junot Diaz is better than John Green or because you don’t like reading science fiction and fantasy. You’re not better than me, and I’m not better than you. Stop positing yourself as better than someone else simply based on the books they enjoy reading. You’re not being intellectual, you’re being offensive.