Genre Don’t Want No Respect

August 4th, 2006

When we last saw our chimerical Literary Personage, she was protesting that her novel, despite its future setting and its sciencefictional subject matter, was not science fiction, not a genre work; that genre is crap. I demonstrated a schema to make it clear what sort of thing genre fiction really is, that genre does not in fact imply a low quality of writing, that it is even entirely possible a given work could be described as both science fiction and as literature, whatever that is.

But the Literary Personage still isn’t having any. She continues to protest that her book is not science fiction, even if her book is science fiction. At last it becomes clear that the L P is not thinking of genre in terms of the book’s content. The reason for her protest is quite simple: she doesn’t want her book on the Science Fiction shelf. Next to All That Crap. Her concern is not with reality, but with perception, with appearances. In short, our author considers genre solely as a marketing category.

Thus, for her it does not matter that many genre works can not, in fact, be considered crap, that good writing and genre subject matter are not incompatible. For her, all that matters is that people think of genre books as crap, so that if her book is labeled science fiction and placed on the science fiction shelf at the bookstore, people – prospective buyers and readers — will conclude it must be crap. If, on the other hand, her work finds its way to the shelf labeled “literature” those same prospective buyers and readers will assume it must be a good book.

Now where did the notion come from that genre is crap? Why does genre fiction have a reputation for crappiness, and is this reputation deserved? We are all acquainted with Sturgeon’s Law, which states that 90% of everything is [crap], so why should genre fiction, in particular, be so stigmatized?

It would seem that genre fiction is known by its worst examples. Or if not exactly the worst, then what is often called the lowest common denominator. Now, this reputation is not distributed equally among the genres. Mystery is often elevated to the ranks of the literary, whatever that might mean, whereas romance don’t get no respect from nobody outside the genre. It is not, as I have suggested previously, that there is anything in the content of the romance genre that implies its works are necessarily of low quality. I have argued that Jane Austen’s works fit into this genre, and this author occupies one of the loftiest literary peaks. No, the problem stems from the genre as a marketing category. Indeed, works written in any genre before this genre became a marketing category are quite often esteemed for their quality and given a high place within the literary ranks.

But once marketing rears its evil head, matters are different. Marketing is all about sales, and sales are all about numbers, not quality. If marketing thinks that quality will produce the highest sales numbers, they’ll push for quality. If marketing thinks that crap will produce the highest sales numbers, they’ll push for crap. And when marketing drives acquisition, we get crap.

But we can not simply blame marketing if genre publishers print a lot of crap. Because it wouldn’t sell unless someone is buying it. Do readers of genre fiction actually prefer crap? I went to and took a look at their Top 100 sellers in the category of Literature and Fiction, as they interestingly put it. Of these 100, I found two works of generic fantasy: one from Terry Goodkind’s series and one from Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake series – both egregious examples of crap, the sort of stuff that make our genre look bad, which make authors of respectable fiction object to having their own books near them on the shelves. [Note: if you disagree with this claim, you might not want to read further, as you will probably not like the rest of what I have to say.] Interestingly, the Top 100 also listed Audrey Niffenegger’s definitely non-crap The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was published not as genre fiction but as fiction fiction – Not That Sci-Fi Crap.

What is there about fantasy as a marketing genre that attracts buyers who prefer crap? I have noted with a great deal of misgiving, here on this blog, the reasons that people give for enjoying fantasy: for “comfort”, for “entertainment”, for “escape”. I have seen people describing the preferred fantasy reading process as “falling into the story”, not engaging consciously with the prose, not wanting it to be too difficult, too much work. In short, the consensus of these remarks suggest that fantasy readers want to read passively, without doing any work to dig below the surface of the story, without thinking. They almost want to read with their brains turned off – or rather to read with the limbic system instead of the cerebral cortex.

This preference for the mindless is, I believe, why there is so much crap in fantasy. [It also suggests why the sales of science fiction have declined while fantasy has risen, because often in science fiction there comes a point where the reader is required to think, perhaps even to do math, while it is apparently possible to read fantasy without thinking at all.] If not an actual preference for crap, it implies at least a tolerance for it. It enables the existence of the crap, and far worse, it makes it harder for authors to sell the good stuff.

In the June 2006 issue of Locus, Christopher Priest, who is definitely not an author of crap nor an author whose work can be read without thinking, says:

I strongly believe that reading isn’t a passive activity. To somebody who doesn’t like books, just sitting around and reading looks as if you’re doing nothing, but actually you’re active. Readers should be made to work a bit and they shouldn’t take anything for granted. For me, the unreliable narrator keeps people alert. Some people get fed up with it and can’t be bothered, but the people I think of as serious readers very much like it.

More serious readers, that’s what I think genre fiction needs: readers who don’t mind doing some work, readers who can appreciate the stuff that a writer puts into her work below the surface story, the stuff like symbol and metaphor and allusions, complex sentence structure, or techniques like Priest’s unreliable narrator.

But instead of actively seeking out such readers, it sometimes seems that genre publishing is taking the opposite direction. I see a significant increase recently in romantic fantasy, in kinky sex fantasy, the kind of stuff clearly intended to engage the limbic system rather than the brain’s critical and analytical faculties. And in so-called science fiction, there is the sort of military SF that is meant to engage the reader’s primitive hindbrain in identifying with the good guys and vicariously pounding the shit out of the bad guys/evil aliens. It is not that I believe every work has to be serious or difficult to read. I, too, will often read for escape and mere entertainment. But when readers’ preference for the mindless stuff overwhelms their appreciation for more serious genre works, when the serious stuff doesn’t sell while the mindless stuff gets snatched up off the shelf, the consequence is the dumbing-down of the genre, creating a marketplace in which books for serious readers can not survive.

There is in economics a principle known as Gresham’s Law, which states that bad money drives out good. But Gresham’s Law is applicable to a much broader range of activities, such as publishing, in which we can say that bad fiction drives out good. This is what I see happening in fantasy as a marketing genre: more crap, less good stuff. Sales of the crap go up, sales of the good stuff go down, and eventually the authors of the good stuff are never heard from again, or they start publishing crap under a pseudonym.

And if this dumbing-down of genre fiction occurs, or if I am correct in saying that this has already been occurring for some time, then we can not just blame the publishers for rejecting the good stuff and deciding with malice aforethought to bring out nothing but crap. I have frequently noted attempts by publishers to bring out more ambitious, more serious fiction, only to have them discontinue the effort when sales figures make it clear that the buyers are not interested, that they prefer the crap.

Yet we can see, from the example of the Niffenegger book, that good SF can sometimes sell very well indeed. Particularly when it is segregated from the generic fantasy and placed on a different shelf where it can appeal to a different set of readers, to readers who do not mind thinking when they pick up a book. To readers some of whom may be readers of generic fantasy but who also include those who normally avoid that section of the bookstore, people who consider themselves serious readers.

So I begin to realize that our Literary Personage is right, after all, when she says she doesn’t want her serious novel on the science fiction shelves. She is looking for a better class of reader, and she isn’t likely to find it there.

77 Responses to “Genre Don’t Want No Respect”

  1. Constance Ashon 04 Aug 2006 at 5:56 pm

    The unreliable narrator poses no problems for yours truly, but — the unreliable reader is the bete noir of writers.

    In the meantime not even my ‘escape’ ‘entertainment’ reading can be mindless. Mindlessness is not entertaining a whit. Mindless leaves me feeling more trapped in the hell of life than ever. Reading a biography of Simon de Beauvoir is entertainment.

    Still, I dunno … how much is really the reader’s fault, especially with the U.S. education system? Shoot, a 30 year-old man from Omaha informed me last night that he’d never heard of Egypt. NPR first had itself and all its ‘experts’ declaring that Fidel’s brother’s name was Raul Ruiz.

    Love, C.

  2. Lois Tiltonon 04 Aug 2006 at 6:09 pm

    As we have seen here recently, the US educational system afflicts would-be writers, as well.

    But I am more concerned with readers who are able and willing to read stuff that takes some work, but when it comes to genre fiction, in particular fantasy, pass by those works on the bookstore shelf and reach for the fluff.

  3. MLRon 04 Aug 2006 at 7:38 pm

    You make me think of all those librarians of yore telling children not to read that SF crap. Read the edifying books instead.

    Anytime someone draws that crap line in the sand it makes my knee start jerking, whether I dislike the books on their crap list or not. Someone may love that book, someone may become a lifelong reader because of it.

    But I am more concerned with readers who are able and willing to read stuff that takes some work, but when it comes to genre fiction, in particular fantasy, pass by those works on the bookstore shelf and reach for the fluff.

    It could equally be argued that the reader has found more “serious” work to be unsatisfying. Something may indeed be wrong, but I don’t buy the premise that it’s usually a lazy reader.

    Your post was food for thought. I’m trying to identify why I might choose not to read books considered to be deeper examples of the genre. The thought that keeps popping in my head is it just didn’t sound interesting. It doesn’t matter how deep and complex the below surface stuff is, nor how good the writing, if the story as described doesn’t appeal, I won’t read it.

  4. Lois Tiltonon 04 Aug 2006 at 9:38 pm

    I’m not sure I’d call the problem a lazy reader.

    I think it’s more that many readers who claim to love fantasy don’t really respect it. They prefer the fluff. When they want to read a serious or challenging work, they go outside the genre for it.

    In consequence, the serious and challenging work in the genre is ignored, sells badly, and eventually begins to disappear.

    There is another, contrary movement going on at the same time, however, which I didn’t discuss. It is the migration of many serious writers away from the core, towards the periphery, even crossing into “interstitial” territory [which I would call “intersecting” territory]. And the growth of the serious small press, which publishes them. The root cause of both movements, I believe, is the same. But the number of readers involved is far smaller than the number targeted by the large publishers, and only in a few cases will authors nurtured in the small press be picked up by the mainline SF publishing houses. Even less often do the large houses pick up and nurture these authors from the beginning of their careers. Instead, these authors have to demonstrate their sales record in the small press, besides winning awards etc, before the large publishers will take a chance on them.

  5. Wenamunon 04 Aug 2006 at 9:40 pm

    I’m probably stating the obvious, but: fiction is greatly segregated these days, with each genre in its own section, even in some libraries. If — and this is a great, big IF because I also am not entirely convinced of the Lazy Reader Hypothesis, if only because Sturgeon’s Law probably applies to them too! — the More Discerning Readers are largely found standing outside the genre aisles, then the marketers must place the g/o/o/d/s books aimed at such beyond the genre aisles. It would be very difficult to tempt the MDR into the stigmatized ghetto to come looking for them. What especially interests me in this general discussion iis the causes of the stigma.

    My mind is awash in things to say, almost none of them organized! I’ll see if I can muster something this weekend. But meanwhile I’lll say that there is a difference between sf&f as a marketing category and sf&f as a category of literature [broad definition of literature]. Works that are not marketed as sf&f can and should be discussed as sf&f — as well as any other category under which they fit, regardless of what their authors say. (What their authors say actually speaks to what I consider to be the interesting topic of why sf&f has, well, cooties. Gets no respect. Wants, as Lois says, no respect — reverse snobbery, as it were.)

    Let me throw this at you, too:

    I have just asked my mother what, if she remembered, was the cause of her own dismissal of the genre. It was, in part, the grade B sci-fi movies, but she had simply absorbed the idea that it was “beneath [her] intellectually.” (NB my mother does not have a college education, but is one of the most intelligent and well-read women I know.) It was something that she “just knew was not for” her. This, without having experienced any of it — though she did like the Twilight Zone. For her this wasn’t SF, it was its own thing, “all right for a TV program,” but not, perhaps, for a book. If you did want to read something sort of like that, you were supposed to go to, say, The Picture of Dorian Gray, works by Poe, etc. These were “classics”, not genre.

    For her, the whole genre was “junk, like the love story magazines that were popular at the time only it was something that guys would read; it was junk.” It was nothing women read, although she admits that none of her friends were readers so she didn’t have any direct exposure to what women were reading. And sf&f was not in the house when she was growing up.

    Her first and only exposure to written SF, until I started writing it, was the books my father had on hand. She didn’t actually read them but did look at them. To her the writing seemed “juvenile,” which she clarified as meaning not “childish” but”ech.” (Writers of children’s novels get even less respect in some quarters than do sf&f authors…)

    The books she saw were very likely: Again, Dangerous Visions; Laumer & Brown’s Earthblood; Simak’s The Werewolf Principle; Damon’s collection Far Out; and Boucher’s A Treasury of Great Science Fiction.

  6. Laurel Amberdineon 04 Aug 2006 at 10:27 pm

    As an avid reader, with both (I think) good taste and a high tolerance for crap, I’m going to blame the writers.

    Yes, reading SF/F is primarily for entertainment. The crap-writers know this, and avoid all the non-entertaining stuff. They may also fail to fully realize their worlds, and be a bit simplistic, and make a lot of dumb mistakes… but for a typical reader, it’s still fun to read.

    More, ah, ambitious writers however, often forget that the purpose of that book in my hand is to entertain me. I’m quite open to sophistication — Gene Wolfe is my favorite author — but there are a lot of things that can ruin any chance of entertainment:

    -gross or icky stuff
    -mean, nasty, excessively gory stuff
    -depressing stuff
    -despicable characters
    -boring plot

    I have found so many ambitious, critically acclaimed writers have so much in their novels that is not fun that I hardly want to try. Give me a freakin’ dragon on the cover and let me enjoy myself.

    That said, there is no reason that the escapist novels have to be sooooo crappy. Lawrence Watt-Evans is a great example of someone who writes novels both entertaining and smart.

    I think many writers who want to be serious don’t want to grubby themselves with entertaining. I think many writers who want to entertain don’t much respect their audience. I’d like to see more of both quality and fun.

  7. Wenamunon 04 Aug 2006 at 10:53 pm

    What a reader finds entertaining is highly subjective, so it’s not necessarily that the writer has forgotten to be entertaining.

    I found Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley to be vastly entertaining. Ripley, a sociopath, is thoroughly despicable, but he’s interesting. For me, interesting = entertaining. Others’ mileage may vary.

  8. Lois Tiltonon 04 Aug 2006 at 11:07 pm

    I distinguish between crap and fluff.

    Crap is so badly done I can’t read it, the infelicities trip up my brain. Fluff isn’t badly done, but there’s no there there for my brain to take hold of. I swallow it whole, and a moment later I’m hungry again.

  9. Leah Bobeton 04 Aug 2006 at 11:11 pm

    I have several points I’d argue here, primarily from my experience in bookselling, but the main one would be that it’s impossible to alter or enforce a standard on people’s reading protocols. People will read how they read. People think differently, and that’s why one man’s crap is another man’s cream. Different ideas are news to different people. Any arbitrary, external standard of quality will fail because we all are looking for different answers to different questions.

    Even if they’re caked in Laurell K. Hamilton sex scenes.

    If that book finds value with enough readers, it’s done its job.

  10. Lois Tiltonon 05 Aug 2006 at 12:24 am

    Ah, literary subjectivism!

    I will certainly agree that people will read what they like and like what they read, and of course this is fine for them. It would be wrong to drag people to the altar of the Improving Literature and order them, You will read this, and like it!

    And some people like to read crap. And they will sometimes say, This is isn’t crap, this is Good Stuff, because I like it. That’s what Good Stuff means, stuff that I like.

    To which I will always reply, No, it’s crap. You like crap. It’s all very well for you if you like it, carry on reading. But it’s still crap.

  11. Harry Connollyon 05 Aug 2006 at 3:27 am

    Kudos to the writers at Deep Genre for taking such a bold stand against their own readers. I commend your efforts to broom out the Bad Readers who are ruining the genre and lure in the Good Readers (all educated outside the U.S., I’m sure) who will bring respectability to the genre. Someday, we hope, conditions will improve to the point that Margaret Atwood will be willing to call her novels “science fiction.”

    And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?

  12. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 05 Aug 2006 at 4:32 am

    Well, what it’s all about is not about getting rid of “bad readers” but getting better writing and setting up things such that readers have more options in terms of “good stuff” that they might actually like.

    I’m not going to name authors, since I’ve met some of them, and many are nice people, but I know clunky prose when I read it. Years back at World Fantasy, I introduced Kit to what was dubbed “The Kevin Test.” Basically, flip open a novel to three random places. Not the start, not the finish, not the middle, and none of the chapter heads. Those are the places that even poor stylists may have bothered to polish. No, just three spots in the middle of the text. Read them aloud as a dramatic monologue.

    Hideous word choice, bad dialogue, awful descriptions and the like will leap straight to the fore. Some passages may be lackluster, however, so try three different samples.

    This of course does not give you plotting or many other saving graces, especially for readers (and writers) who are oblivious to style, but it serves for me to find writers to read and books to skip.

    Why is good style better than bad style, apart from the obvious designation of “good” and “bad”? Well, to readers who find style important (myself being one of them), it’s a necessity. Readers who are oblivious to it? Well, they don’t know what they’re missing so it won’t get in the way for them.

    As for “fluff” versus “weighty meaning,” I’m more on the fence. I’ve read too many “literary” novels where I was repeatedly beaten with the Message Brick or hit my head on the over-obvious foreshadowing. Or both. Besides which, I think it’s a false dichotomy. A good story should both entertain and elucidate, if just because the reader reading purely for entertainment may have the elucidation whiz straight over his head and neither know nor care what he missed, whereas the rarer reader who wants elucidation but doesn’t give a fig for entertainment won’t much care that they got their epiphany served up in an entertaining fashion. And then there are the readers who want both, and they’ll be doubly pleased that you hit both mark, having something that both means something and is fun to read.

  13. Jellyn Andrewson 05 Aug 2006 at 6:30 am

    This discussion made me think of The DaVinci Code. To the general reader, this was entertaining — standard action-adventure sort of story — and thought-provoking. The reader gets to puzzle over the cryptic messages and enjoys the unravelling of the various conspiracies and mysteries. Many of these readers continue to think about the book and its ideas long after they’ve put it down.

    The ideas aren’t new. The puzzles aren’t new, and are relatively easy to solve. This book doesn’t involve heavy-thinking to the minds of most sf/f readers. In terms of plot, it’s relatively facile. Yet lots of people, many of whom aren’t even regular readers, greatly enjoyed it and kept thinking about it.

    I don’t think people are averse to thinking. “Lost” requires more thought than your average drama. I think people actually enjoy thinking, as long as they’re also being entertained in other ways at the same time. If the characters on “Lost” weren’t as interesting as they were, then it wouldn’t be successful at all. Look at the numerous shows that came out after it trying to follow the pattern. “Windfall” is trying, but not a single character in it interests me, so I stopped watching very quickly. I think “Eureka” is also trying to follow the pattern in some ways.. so much so that they introduced something like 20+ characters in the first episode!

    For me, if you haven’t given me a character or a situation or even just a general theme that interests me, then I don’t care how smart your book is, I’m probably not even going to buy it, let alone read it. It’d feel too much like being back in English classes and being forced to read books with absolutely no appeal.

    On a slightly different note:

    Crap is anything I think I can write better. Anita Blake definitely qualifies.

    I don’t have a word for books that are supposed to be ‘good’ or ‘great’ that I just don’t like. Tolkein’s stuff for example. I know it’s not crap, but I couldn’t get into it. Can anyone suggest a word for that?

  14. Wenamunon 05 Aug 2006 at 7:17 am

    I cross-posted with Lois up there at August 4, 2006 at 9:40 pm.

    Lois, but do we really know the buying habits of the “genre fluff”-readers and the “genre crap”-readers? Do we know that they look outside the genre for their more sophisticated reading? Do they — and I mean as a group, not on the individual level — look for other kinds of reading in the first place? Because I wonder if the sophisticated works in any other genre (including “non-genre”) truly sell any better, propotionally. Bestseller lists don’t overall exactly reveal a discerning palette (or do they?).

    Or are you looking for standing within the genre, rather than in the publishing world at large?

    As someone whose work can’t be considered “fluff,” and I hope can’t be considered “crap,” I tend to find the state of the market in any of its aspects to be a concern.

  15. Lois Tiltonon 05 Aug 2006 at 8:11 am

    I sometimes like to say that the quality of a work is inversely proportional to its position on the bestseller list. But this is because I’m cranky and crotchety, and besides I know it’s not entirely true. Sometimes, inexplicably, perfectly good stuff sells quite well. I think someone up the thread mentioned Eco’s The Name of the Rose. A medieval mystery. You can find them all over the place these days. But it was full of extra chewy stuff to think on, besides the whodunit aspects. And this made it more enjoyable. For me. Enjoyability being a subjective propery. But a necessary one.

  16. MLRon 05 Aug 2006 at 9:17 am

    So we are asking ourselves why are the books I like and think are worthy not finding a larger audience? Is it a result of the literary vs SF genre label marketing?

    Well, labeling must be somewhat involved in a book finding its audience otherwise publishers wouldn’t bother with it, but clearly publishers don’t agree which is the most valuable label. I’m not sure it matters that much.

    As a reader looking for books I regret that the industry:
    1) has a general standard of not reviewing MM paperbacks,
    2) gives works so little time to catch on before removing them from bookshelves,
    3) and lets modest sellers go out-of-print so quickly.

    Yet those appear to be economic results of the business, and I’m not so naive that I would suggest to publishers that they should consistently lose money.

    My feeling is that many worthy books and authors lack the opportunity to find an audience because they suffer from a shortage of time to do so. I’m hoping that POD can at least change an author’s ability to keep their backlist in print. I’m grateful for the internet, because it offers reviews and helps me find works I probably would not have heard of otherwise.

  17. Lois Tiltonon 05 Aug 2006 at 9:41 am

    Very true. I like to prowl around the used-book shelves at a con, searching for out-of-print Good Stuff I missed first time around.

    But alas, while such venues help the reader, those sales don’t do the author any good – until they inspire the reader to buy more of her next when it comes out. If there is a next, if it ever does come out.

  18. MLRon 05 Aug 2006 at 11:39 am

    those sales don’t do the author any good – until they inspire the reader to buy more of her next when it comes out. If there is a next, if it ever does come out.

    It is rather bleak, isn’t it? So is BookScan the real culprit here? The cynical writer might start their career under a pseudonym, anticipating changing names (and track records) as needed. Too bad for anyone fond of their current name.

  19. Vivian Francison 05 Aug 2006 at 12:25 pm

    In your post you listed two options for the process of reading. The preferred process was to be consciously engaged in the prose. The other option was passive; reading just for entertainment, escape or comfort. Neither of these options allow for a reading that gives the reader the essence of the story.

    Greek tragedies have survived because of the emotional catharsis they invoke, not because people are consciously aware of their plot structure. We study their symbolism because of the power they have over us. George Eliot didn’t overcome the prejudice of her society against a woman living with a married man because people admired her use of rhythm. Thousands of people wrote to her because they felt she understood the emotional, spiritual and intellectual issues in their lives.

    The essence of a story is in this weird, frequently not conscious connection we make with it. The reader is actively, passionately involved in the story, even if it is not a conscious involvement. Indeed, I doubt there is a passive reader. If I picked up a book and was unable to give the characters voices, or fill in what wasn’t described about their appearance, and more, then I wouldn’t be reading it for very long.

    Vladimir Nabokov said “the longer I live, the more I become convinced that the only thing that matters in literature is the shamanstvo of a book, i.e., that the good writer is first of all an enchanter. But one must not let things tumble out of ones sleeve as Malraux does.”

    I don’t know what trick Malraux is guilty of letting slip, but illusions are an important part of an author’s bag of tricks in creating an enchantment. A reader’s ability to believe in the story, to temporarily “suspend their disbelief” and be transported into another world is one of the biggest tricks in that bag. If the preferred way to read is to keep noticing the tricks, the reader is continually stepping out from under this spell.

    Thinking about the nuts and bolts of how an artist creates their magic is essentially shop-talk. The thrill of discovering how something is done, especially when done well, is common to all people who enjoy their jobs. If anything differentiates art, it is the enchanted connection we make with the story. Its spell works on the heart, spirit, intellect, and yes, the limbic system.

    Thanks for the great discussion.

  20. Ryk E. Spooron 05 Aug 2006 at 12:58 pm

    A lot depends on one’s goal as a writer. “literature” isn’t monolithic either, but genre is the moneymaker, in general. King is Horror, Clancy is Mystery/Action thriller, Rowling is Kids/Fantasy.

    If your goal is to have a small clique of people tell you how wonderful your writing is in comparison to, oh, Tom Wolfe, then you want to be shelved in Literature. And, hopefully, actually be lucky/skilled enough to be judged good, rather than panned and forgotten after a week.

    If your goal is to sell a lot of copies, you want to either choose the appropriate genre, or just pray for lightning to strike. The latter you actually have to do anyway, since there’s often no telling what will or won’t sell.

    In my case, my goal is to actually get my stories, that I think are cool, in print so that other people who think they’re cool can access them, and for me to get paid for the privilege. If I’m writing stuff that involves spaceships (that aren’t real, anyway) then I belong in the SF area. If it’s dragons, magic, elves, or related material, Fantasy. If it’s monsters in the modern world, it could be Horror or SF or Fantasy, but it certainly shouldn’t be on the literature shelves…

    … because most of the people who’ll want to read it aren’t looking there. To *ME*, “literature” is a genre which says “crap”. Most of it’s boring drivel. Often boring, DEPRESSING drivel. School taught me that well. All of it? Of course not. But Sturgeon’s Law applies even to the published material, and if “Literature” includes ALL genres potentially, this means that it includes all the genres I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, PLUS a bit of the genres I DO like… but that means that first I eliminate 90% of it as stuff I don’t even look at, and THEN eliminate 90% of the rest as “in my ballpark, but not for me”.

  21. Lois Tiltonon 05 Aug 2006 at 1:45 pm

    [reply to VIvian Francis]

    Reading is certainly a complex process. And an active one, even when it may seem to be passive. I think we are always, if we are readers, learning to read, learning to get more out of a text.

    I have always been by nature a very unconscious reader. I had to learn how to pull myself out of a story, to make a deliberate effort to engage my conscious attention to what the author was doing, to see the things I had never realized were there. The way the author creates the illusion, as you put it. But after a while, with practice, it no longer takes an effort. Somehow the mind is capable of both succumbing to the illusion and recognizing it at the same time.

    What this means is that now I have two ways to enjoy a well-done story – that I can get twice as much enjoyment from it.

    The other side of the equation is a lessening tolerance for badly-done writing. I’m more aware of the clanks and clunks, the errors and infelicities – the magician dropping his hat and fumbling his cards. And these things make it impossible for me to succumb to his spell.

  22. James Engeon 05 Aug 2006 at 1:58 pm

    Ms. Tilton, I can sympathize with your dislike of mere subjectivism (e.g. The latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man is better than anything Shakespeare ever wrote! aut sim). But I see things in a less Manichaean way than you do (a fluffy line separating crap and the Good Stuff). For me, good art (including popular and high art: from grafitti to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, from Bach to the Pipettes) exists in a state of tension between the serious and the playful. Encouraging people (readers or writers) to be more serious isn’t necessarily going to result in more Good Stuff. It may simply result in more Pretentious Stuff by leeching the playfulness out of the art.


  23. Lois Tiltonon 05 Aug 2006 at 2:04 pm

    You are so right to point out this danger!

    But I’m not really trying to drum up a movement to have writers produce more dry, improving tomes. All I want is for readers to try the Good Stuff that’s already out there, so it won’t dry up and blow away.

  24. Constance Ashon 05 Aug 2006 at 3:46 pm

    Still and all, people like Lois aren’t always the best judge of the reading experience. I say this because of what my own experience is when reading anything, fiction or non-fiction, listening to music live or recorded, watching movies and television.

    I know how it is done. I am watching the money go across the scene, playing / dancing on the stage, what wasn’t done to the detriment of the writer’s health and home and community while meeting that deadline. I see decisions of every kind taking place before me, and I know what was decided and have a very good idea why this was the decision and that wasn’t the decision. In many ways, for most of us who aren’t provided the gift of not worrying about making a living, taking care of family, being a part of the community, our primary decisions involved in the creative process are often not even decisions that are involved with the process of the making itself, for we don’t have the luxury of taking all that time to think it through.

    And that affects the final result enormously.

    Most of us on Deep Genre know all this first hand because we do it ourselves, and our friends and families do it themselves too.

    Love, C.

  25. Constance Ashon 05 Aug 2006 at 3:47 pm

    So in the end, I kinda just don’t find much value in such a discussion.

    Because it all comes down to economics and other factors over which none of us has any control or influence.

    One just keeps on doing, or you quit, or whatever combination works out.

  26. Constance Ashon 05 Aug 2006 at 4:15 pm

    This is an endless loop sort of thing.

    Our field so often wants to bash a Margaret Atwood because her definition of what SF is is different than ours, and she said at one point that she didn’t think she wrote SF (and after that sillyness on our part re The Handmaid’s Tale, to partly show what she thought SF was, she wrote The Blind Assassin, which includes a novel within the novel, which is Science Fiction. But none of the Atwood bashers ever mention this.

    She also wrote Oryx and Crake, which is at least a dystopian novel as was The Handmaid’s Tale, and was roundly condemned for getting her sf wrong. Outside the field, most reviewers seemed to agree that it wasn’t her best novel by a long shot. Those are two different value systems here, but both systems found that this novel didn’t work for the readers of both systems. So in that sense, the critical viewpoints coincided, though the arrivals were via different criteria, perhaps.

    But — then you have Doris Lessing, who proudly stated she was writing Science Fiction, and our field rejected her out-of-hand, as again, not really understanding what Science Fiction is.

    So — what do we want, really, in terms of Us and Them, since we are persisting in such divisions, whether due to marketing, or, other factors.

    Love, C.

  27. Laurieon 05 Aug 2006 at 4:29 pm

    Crap is anything I think I can write better. Anita Blake definitely qualifies.

    I believe you could write it better, but what makes me sad is that I also believe that Laurell K. Hamilton could write it better, too. She just chooses not to.

    The first 4 or 5 books of the Anita Blake stuff were interesting, fun, and sometimes kind of scary. Once the sex was introduced, however, the series went right to hell, but, as near as I can tell, that’s around the time the sales really took off, because the books started coming out in hardcover when before they’d been only in paperback.

    Out of habit, and a hope that we’d get to see more pre-porno Anita, I kept buying the books. With the latest Anita book, I thought perhaps my persistence had paid off, but, alas, the interesting bits of plot were just the framework for more frequent (and more deviant) sex. I’m officially done with that series now, and I can’t imagine buying anything else with her name on it. But for every one person like me who puts her work down in disgust, ten more fluffs pick it up.

    I truly believe Laurell K. Hamilton can write better books than the ones she turns out now – she did in the past, after all. But that’s not what her readers want. “Better” is not what sells. So, she turns out mindless fluff for mindless fluffs to read, and cashes in thereby. I won’t be purchasing any more of her stuff, but tons of others will.

    Where’s her incentive to do quality work?

  28. […] Over at Deep Genre there’s been some discussion of why genre readers apparently love “crap”, and some names are even named. I’m not a “literary subjectivist” but when somebody starts trying to define “literature” versus “crap” I’m put on the defensive, if only because I think that sort of thing is an insult to readers. […]

  29. Annaon 05 Aug 2006 at 10:12 pm

    Lois wrote,

    All I want is for readers to try the Good Stuff that’s already out there, so it won’t dry up and blow away.

    Despite being a product of the American education system, I consider myself a discerning reader of mostly Good Stuff, and I always recommend the authors and works that I think are exceptional to fellow readers (genre or otherwise), because I also don’t want them to dry up and blow away. My motives are partly selfish, since I want more from those authors for myself, but I also take pleasure in sharing with others something I’ve read and loved.

    I haven’t had much success with the non-genre readers (although most of them are DaVinci Code–and the like–devotees), but I have convinced a good number of genre readers to at least try certain authors outside of their experience. Sometimes it’s a rousing success, and other times not so much, usually because the author’s style just doesn’t appeal to them (too wordy, too strange or uncomfortable, etc.).

    Since I also like getting recommendations for new worthwhile authors, maybe someone could post (or start) a list of Good Stuff that some of us readers might have missed?

  30. […] 5 – Genre Don’t Want No Respect Lois Tilton completes her tirade on the problems of genre labelling and the decline of quality therein. Basically, publishers put out crap in genres because that’s what sells. (tags: marketing sales quality publishing books literature writing fantasy fiction science genre) […]

  31. Marie Brennanon 05 Aug 2006 at 11:13 pm

    I’ve been chewing on this essay for a while now, trying to figure out where it was rubbing me wrong, and I finally figured out that it was in my anthropological training. I think I have a problem with making these assertions based on sales patterns and anecdotal reader comments. We don’t know whether readers deliberately bypass the hard stuff to go for the fluff or the crap, or whether they’re simply not aware of its existence. We don’t know why those who have tried the hard stuff (however you’re defining it) and then quit didn’t keep reading it — whether it was too challenging for them, or just failed to do its job engaging them. We don’t know if in-genre readers go looking outside the genre for thoughtful material, or if out-genre readers go looking inside it for fluff reading. Etc.

    It’s one of the things I want to study, actually, but I haven’t yet figured out any practical way to conduct an ethnography of the SF/F reading public. But I’m hesitant to ascribe motivations to these Faceless Hordes of readers without really digging beneath the surface about why they read what they do.

  32. Lois Tiltonon 06 Aug 2006 at 11:32 am

    The discussion about reading is interesting, but really peripheral to my main concern: the reader as buyer.

    It seems that no one in the publishing industry really knows what makes people buy books. If they did, they’d employ the knowledge in their marketing departments. But we have the hard evidence of the sales figures to tell us what they do buy and what they don’t.

    But what I mostly have are my own experiences, and those of the people I’ve spoken wtih. I think most editors are in the publishing business because they like good books. But Marketing has their jobs in its hands. I’ve seen editors pay a 7-figure advance for a first novel, knowing it was the kind of thing that would sell, but it wasn’t the book they were proud of. The author of that book had to take a day job to pay the bills.

    It’s like Charlie the Tuna: Sorry, Charlie, genre don’t want good books, genre wants books that sell good.

  33. k1on 06 Aug 2006 at 8:51 pm

    So many thoughts on this subject….the primary one being the irony of what is being said.

    On one hand we have authors moaning about the fact that their genre is not taken seriously by critics and others, that its not given the time of day by people, that its assumed to be fluff.

    Then at the same time, these very same authors, are categorising other books as “fluff”…by their own standards without defining those standards.

    These authors who are claiming the stuff sold is fluff on this blog, don’t set out any “measurable standards” by which we can judge writing. Which is fine with me….its not just people on this blog. Its everywhere….many things at the Modern Tate gallery make me laugh in amusement…..critics raving about a ruffled bed as art.

    So am I a ignorant yokel from the UK? Perhaps I am….perhaps I have no idea about class/taste/art.


    Or maybe, just maybe, art is about perception. Everyone is different in what makes them smile, laugh or makes them think. If I don’t laugh at the same things that make you laugh, does that make me stupid? Does that make what I am laughing at any less funny?

    And without there being defined standards, we have two choices as people.

    We can either categorise work into various “class of works” eg fluff, crap, good etc, or we can accept people are different and what makes them think/gets their brain going is different and therefore not try to put a name to various literary styles.

    If you want to live in the world of the first option, then you must accept the word of the literary critics. If they think your book is crap, its crap. Does not matter how many sales you make, how much entertainment/joy or how much it makes people think. If they say its crap, yep its crap. You probably won’t know why its been dismissed as crap….because like most authors on this blog, they have “style” definitions which cannot be defined or put into anything more than vague subjective words. In this world, the words of the critics are the most important thing….there could never be a “Star Wars” (dismissed as crap by critics when it came out, went on to become the best selling movie ever).

    I personally, would not want what I am reading determined by what “Others” think is good or bad. Would you really want your reading list determined by a few people who seem to think to know what everyone else should be reading by their own standards? That is what the initial post advocates…go out and buy the hard fantasy stuff, read what I tell you to read…its good…if you cannot see/understand it then your dumb/stupid/idiotic/lazy reader.

    Anyone hear Emperor’s New Clothes in the air?

    But when readers’ preference for the mindless stuff overwhelms their appreciation for more serious genre works, when the serious stuff doesn’t sell while the mindless stuff gets snatched up off the shelf, the consequence is the dumbing-down of the genre, creating a marketplace in which books for serious readers can not survive.

    What a joke…that has ALWAYS been the case. Welcome to the world of capitalism. Always the lowest common denominator has pushed out the older stuff.

    Heres the test….the real test of whether your consistent throughout your thinking, or whether its just in your trained field. Would you like everyone to listen to classical music because everything after classical was just fluff? No brainpower needed, just quick simple easy tunes….

    Actually that would be a great comparison…what do the authors of this blog listen to music wise. Do you listen to pop? Rock? Classical? Where exactly are your tastes in a medium that you may not neccessariy have been trained in.

    Do you listen to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven….or do you listen to what the classical critics would call “mindless drivel” spawned by others?

    I wonder how many hypocrites we have here…..supporting drivel to the extent that the “good” stuff cannot survive.

  34. Lois Tiltonon 06 Aug 2006 at 10:16 pm

    In the immortal words of Mr Palmer: “I did not know I contradicted any body in calling your mother ill-bred.”

  35. Constance Ashon 06 Aug 2006 at 11:33 pm

    In the meantime Kl ignored entirely every other response to Ms. Tilton’s well thought out speculation, including moi!

    This is the crux of the problem.

    It’s supposed to be us against them.

    But it is not.

    As we can see right here on Deep Genre: Hardly any of us agree on anything except that we all love the Stuff, whatever parts of the Stuff we love.

    It is NOT about us against them.

    It is about our love.

    Love, C.

  36. Vivian Francison 07 Aug 2006 at 12:02 am

    When I notice a clank or clunk it can wake me up as well. I might groan, but I accept it. A perfect plot is like the philosopher’s stone. An exception would be when the difficult situation at the end of a book is solved with a cop-out. That’s just cheating.

    It would be interesting if sometime you posted a review of one of the genre books you admired.

  37. Lois Tiltonon 07 Aug 2006 at 12:14 am

    My reviews can be found at It is a short fiction review site, however.

    I think the August column should be out tomorrow.

  38. Erin Underwoodon 07 Aug 2006 at 11:30 am

    One thing that’s been bothering me about KL’s post is that his general message seems to state that you can’t really evaluate this stuff since it’s so subjective. So, let writers write what they want to write and let readers read what they want to read.

    That sounds great on the surface, but where is the quality control? Whose got the red pen making sure that the author isn’t making horrendous storytelling mistakes? What impetus is there encouraging readers to reach beyond their current reading selection?

    KL, change is possibly the only constant that we can count on, and sf/f will change no matter what we do. Why should we, as readers and writers, stand by and let it change for the worse?

    Forgive me if I’ve misread your meaning, but you seem to be saying “let genre be what it will be”, which is simply absurd. Entertainment is a product just like medication, gasoline, or computers. If we applied your reasoning to any other product, the results would be disastrous. Therefore, it isn’t a stretch to believe that if there is no quality control applied to sf/f (or fiction in general) by the writers who compose it and the readers who read it, it too will become … well, I hate to think what it would become.

    I’m the last person to say what’s crap and what’s not crap, but we all know bad writing exists. It’s out there and it gets published. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out these facts and trying to find some kind of middle ground or greater understanding between the genre writers/readers and the literary writers/readers.

    Personally, I think this is an excellent discussion. It has done a great job of bringing many of the dark little issues surrounding genre/literature and readers/writers/publishers to light. It is also a pretty gutsy conversation and it’s one that has been overdue. You never know, this discussion may inspire a reader to reach for a book outside of his general reading scope, a writer to take just a little more care in the planning/writing/proofing process, or a publisher to take a chance on a book that becomes the next blockbuster despite the standard marketing formula.

  39. Lois Tiltonon 07 Aug 2006 at 11:52 am

    Erin, I certainly hope so!

    To say that there is no real qualitative difference between, say, the Gor series and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is a position I will never accept. There is a proper word for stories that a large number of people like: “popular”, not “good”. Some crap is popular; some better books are also popular, but I wish there were more of them.

  40. Jellyn Andrewson 07 Aug 2006 at 3:00 pm

    kl said:

    Would you really want your reading list determined by a few people who seem to think to know what everyone else should be reading by their own standards?

    Our reading lists are already determined by a few people. Unless you’re reading extensively from small publishers, e-books, e-zines, and other web writing.

    While editors certainly have some idea of the market, the average reader, etc in mind when they choose what to publish, don’t they ultimately make their decisions based on what they personally like or think is good?

  41. k1on 07 Aug 2006 at 3:25 pm

    Erin: My point is exactly what you stated…let it go where it goes. It was not my intention to ignore what everyone else said, but to just comment purely on the intital post as responding to what others had said would make a long post even longer.

    If we compare it to the analogy of computers or gasoline. For the medications and gasoline there are specific standards and mixtures that can easily be measured…which is why quality control is different. They can measure content control. You cannot quantatively measure someone’s writings…..can you? For a business, I guess the only thing they have is sales. So from a purely business point of view, popular is good. As started already by many people in this thread. – ie the economics.

    As for the other responses……Constance and Laurel’s view chimed most with what I think, but what grates on me most is the assumption that readers have not tried other stuff that is in the shelves which is implicit in the initial post. Not to mention the fact that just because you “read” a “good” work, it in no way means you understand it or have understood what the author’s message was.

    So the craving for readers to read better books is one thing, but how can you tell that your readers are understanding what your writing? They may just be enjoying it on the superficial level…..

    Anyway I will shush now…


  42. Lois Tiltonon 07 Aug 2006 at 3:48 pm

    Jellyn said:

    don’t they ultimately make their decisions based on what they personally like or think is good?

    No. They ultimately make their decisons based on what they believe will sell in large numbers. Otherwise, the corporations that pay their salaries will fire them.

    I have personally heard editors on a number of occasions say that they liked a certain book, that they thought it was good, that they wished they could acquire it, but that they couldn’t sell it. Which ultimately comes down to saying that they don’t believe they can get people to buy it in sufficient numbers.

    And sometimes those books, and their authors, find their way out of the genre to a more literary publishing house, where the book sometimes sells quite well.

    So I can understand why authors who already have a place in that section of the publishing universe might not want to be thrust against their will onto the SF shelves.

  43. Erin Underwoodon 07 Aug 2006 at 4:12 pm


    I see what you’re saying about letting sf/f go where it will. I agree with the philosophy to an extent. However, I think there is equal validity in urging writers/readers/and publishers to try new and interesting things that will enhance the market as a whole.

    One example that fits with this philosophy is the literary renaissance of the southern US in the early 1900s. Whereas the North was producing good literary works, the South was stumbling. HL Mencken, a major literary critic of the time, would routinely print scathing remarks about the deplorable state of southern literature in the US. Whether Mencken’s theories about southern talent or intellect were right or wrong, his commentary played a part in stimulating southern writers to respond. The result was a canon of insightful and groundbreaking literature by authors such as Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Thomas Wolf, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, etc.

    More than anything, I think it is the nature of authors and readers to critically examine the literature that they write and read. This is how literature grows and expands over time. So, in a way, this discussion represents the lifecycle or growth process of literature.

    Note that I am including genre and mainstream fiction in my references to “literature”.

  44. Katharine Kerron 07 Aug 2006 at 6:20 pm

    I have personally heard editors on a number of occasions say that they liked a certain book, that they thought it was good, that they wished they could acquire it, but that they couldn’t sell it. Which ultimately comes down to saying that they don’t believe they can get people to buy it in sufficient numbers.

    And the first place the editor who likes a book must sell it is to the notorious PubComms or, in the UK, Acquisitions. These are the marketing people, the MBAs and managers, who know little about books but lots about money. They make the final decisions about not only acquiring a book, but how much the editor may offer the author for it. So if an editor really wants a manuscript, she (it’s usually she these days) has to find reasons that it will sell and then present them in a way that these Money People can appreciate — ie, it will SELL! BIG!

    If she can’t, it’s no deal. If they do let her buy it, come publishing time, they will decide again what editions may be put out (hardback, tradepaper, massmarket) and if any money may be spent on publicity.

    As far as I can tell, PubComm salaries are rising while editors salaries are shrinking or staying the same. People who do the actual work are the ones shafted in the current corporate culture.

  45. Jellyn Andrewson 07 Aug 2006 at 7:37 pm

    Lois Tilton said:

    I have personally heard editors on a number of occasions say that they liked a certain book, that they thought it was good, that they wished they could acquire it, but that they couldn’t sell it. Which ultimately comes down to saying that they don’t believe they can get people to buy it in sufficient numbers.

    But would they try to get something published that they didn’t like?

    Whether it’s the editors or the corporate machine, there’s still a small number of people deciding what the average reader reads. This was the point I was trying to get at. Some vetting is going on, for good or ill. Maybe it weeds out something really great, but it also weeds out the truly atrocious. Well, most of the time.

  46. Lois Tiltonon 07 Aug 2006 at 8:12 pm

    There is certainly a small number of people deciding what the average reader will have the opportunity to read. But then, once a book is published, it’s up to the readers.

    The negative self-fulfilling prophecy is the easiest. You decide a book will never sell, you don’t publish it, voila, you’re right, it doesn’t sell.

    The positive self-fulfilling prophecy is trickier. You decide a book will be a best-seller. You splurge on a fancy cover, you spend money to take out ads, more money to send the author on a publicity tour, and most important, you bribe the bookstores for a center spot on the front table. It can still go belly-up, despite all your efforts.

    But the odds are, it’ll do better than the book you ignore because you’ve decided it won’t do well. This may be a book that the juniormost editor liked, but none of the Suits thought it was worth spending any money on.

  47. Erin Underwoodon 07 Aug 2006 at 8:59 pm

    … and there’s a good chance that juniormost editor saw something that people would like if they knew the book existed. If the book doesn’t get the marketing dollars, etc. it’s just going to sit on the general shelf with only the title on the spine to tell a potential reader that it exists.

  48. Karen Allenon 07 Aug 2006 at 9:08 pm

    I read and browse through a fair amount of middle-grade and YA fiction, both because I write it (or I’m trying to) and because I enjoy it. While children’s fiction is shelved by age, and series fiction is separated from other fiction, it is not usually divided by genre, at least in the bookstores I go to. SF sits on the shelves next to mysteries and historical fiction and realistic fiction and animal stories and what have you. This makes it easy to be an eclectic reader, or to venture into a hitherto unsampled genre–an interesting-looking mystery, say, could be just down the shelf from a favorite fantasy author. At least one has the chance to see a variety of works and consider reading them.

    That’s more difficult on the adult side of the bookstore. A book is exposed only to the potential buyers who visit the section where it is shelved, and the “fiction” section and the “science fiction and fantasy” section attract different readers (albeit with some overlap)–which I think is part of Lois’s point. A reader who prefers her fantasy a tad on the literary side might feel she has a better chance of finding something she’d like in the “fiction” section than the SF section–particularly if she’s an eclectic reader who wouldn’t mind running across a good historical novel or literary mystery or oddball mainstream novel, too. (And a person who reads little besides SF may not venture out of the genre aisle to find that good fantasy novel in the “fiction” section.)

    It’s too bad that books aren’t cross-shelved, or printed in both mainstream and genre editions (maybe with different covers)–just as some kids’ books are shelved for both Young Readers and Young Adults, and some are even published in different editions for children and for adults (I think that Pullman’s novels may have been so published, but I may be remembering a different author).

  49. Lois Tiltonon 07 Aug 2006 at 9:39 pm

    A number of mainstream/literary authors are using elements of the fantastic in their stuff, and a discerning genre reader would be well-rewarded by wandering over to those shelves and picking them out. A.S. Byatt is one of the best examples. I was quite enraptured by POSSESSION.

    But I would also like to be able to see some traffic in the other direction.

  50. Constance Ashon 07 Aug 2006 at 9:49 pm

    That’s also true in (public) libraries; genres are segregated from ‘literature and fiction.’ Which, I agree, is too bad. However, the readers want it like that. Some time back the NYPL decided to stop separately shelving the genres and the readers got very upset, because they had to waste so much time looking for their preferred genre. They liked browsing, but they wanted to browse within genre only.

    So the question is, did libraries and booksellers and publishers train the reading public into this separation, or did they respond to the U.S. reader’s preferences?

    Love, C.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply