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Why Is Fantasy And Other Genre Fiction Looked Down On By The Literary World?

I’ve always found it remarkable that the people who look down on fantasy fiction tend to be the people closely associated with writing programs. Many literature professors (as opposed to creative writing instructors) don’t have this bias, in my experience.  They loved to read, study, and discuss.  They spend less time on “you should” and more time on “look what this interesting thing does.”

It’s like the difference between a scientist and a superstitious man. The first pokes a bug, wondering what response it will give, trying to learn from it.  The second goes about proclaiming that the color of the bug’s shell is an omen of evil.

Either way, yes, I’ve felt the discrimination that you mention.  I applied to MFA programs most of the top schools in writing (Iowa, Columbia, NYU, University of Utah) submitting my book The Way of Kings (an early attempt at writing that book) and got nothing but form rejections, with the occasional note of, “We don’t accept writers of Genre Fiction.”  The Way of Kings, it should be noted, is now one of the best selling fantasy works my era.

There seems to be a certain fascination in our writing programs with things that are “real.”  Beyond that, there is a kind of circling the wagons to keep out writing that might somehow “corrupt” the program with things seen as frivolous.  It makes one wonder what Shakespeare, Austen, Poe, or Dickens would think of people in comfortable tenured positions dismissing writing for being too friendly to the reading public.

More thoughts on the subject

This is an old hobby horse of mine—arguing that fantasy, and popular fiction itself, is an art form. It’s just something that interests, and bothers me, at the same time. It seems to me that those of us in genre fiction use the wrong tools when we try to argue for the literary or scholarly value of our works. A common argument we make is to point toward works that ARE more scholarly, such as books by Ursula Le Guin or even Grandpa Tolkien, and say “Look, fantasy can be of literary value too!”

The problem with that is that most of us aren’t Le Guin or Tolkien, nor are we trying to be. What does that say about us? If literary works like those written by Gene Wolfe are the highest form of our art, are the rest of us simply hacks? That argument may prove that there is literary value to some fantasy and sf, but it doesn’t really do anything for the genre as a whole. I have the same problem with the argument that points toward literary fiction, published by important authors outside genre fiction, which have fantastical elements. This argument says “Look, Beloved has ghosts! It’s really fantasy! What do you think ofthat?” This argument simply says that fantastical elements to not trash make, but does little to prove that we—as fantasy writers—are doing anything of value.

One final argument tries to take literary or scholarly conventions and apply them to our own works, striving to gain scholarly credibility by talking about genre fiction in a literary way. People who make this argument generally subscribe to the “90% of everything is crap” fallacy, but their own favorite books always end up in the 10% that isn’t. Even those who don’t pass judgment upon most of what’s out there are, in my opinion, participating in a method of argument that simply doesn’t do us any good as a genre.

You can’t use their rules to define what makes good literature, folks. They—the literary scholars—created those rules to describe a certain kind of writing, and we ain’t it! Trying to prove that popular fantasy books have literary value by using the establishment’s arguments is useless. Genre fiction does something different from literary fiction. Scholarly writing—whether it be a thick book about the lost tribes of Israel, or whether it be the new densely-prosed, New Yorker-style work of fiction—seeks primarily to engage the mind. In my opinion, that’s not what I’m doing as a writer. Yes, I like clever plots and interesting magic systems. Popular fiction, however, at its core is about emotion.

Fiction like I write is not about teaching you something, or about making a ‘distiguished contribution to American Letters.’ It’s about writing something that makes my readers feel what it’s like to be someone else. It’s about dreaming, about imagination, and about making you—for a short time—be someone else and experience their world.

Why is this important? Not for the scholarly reasons—not because of the prose, or because of the importance of the themes. Let’s look at my story—not one of the ones I’ve written, but one of the ones I experienced. When I was 14 I got into fantasy for the first time by reading Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane. This is a story about a woman trying to decide between her career—magic—and her family. It also has dragons, adventure, and romance. When I got done with that book I was surprised to feel that I understood what it was like to be a middle-aged woman having to choose between her career and her family, something that I know my mother struggled with a lot during those years. I thought that maybe I could see things from her eyes a little better.

Barbara Hambly did this for me, all the while entertaining me and making me dream at the same time. This is what popular fiction does. It doesn’t ‘teach,’ not really. It lets us feel life through someone else’s eyes, and lets us have an absolute blast while we’re doing it. We aren’t scared of letting something be fun, nor do we feel the need to weight our books down with ponderous themes or bulky, overly-rich prose. Instead, we let people feel what it is to be someone else.

Maybe those who read our books will be a little more kind and understanding to those they meet who are from different segments of the population. Fantasy preaches against racism, prejudice, hatred, and selfishness. Not overtly, by trying to pound in a message. We do this through the simple method of making our readers live lives as people far different from themselves. In my opinion, what we do is more important than a deep and scholarly book about something boring.

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