Anything, if put in the right context, can be described as “genre fiction” – anything, in fact, with a genre: romance fiction, kitchen sink fiction… Here, however, I use it in the sense of its most common definition, science fiction and fantasy.
It’s easy enough to sneer at genre fiction, to assume that it’s all aliens with ridiculous names, pouting women atop dragons in chainmail bikinis, the fulfilling of schoolboy fantasies… and it can be, if you like that sort of thing (and I write as someone who mostly doesn’t), but “genre” fiction – usually a sneering, derisive term – has a range and a depth which is still overlooked and unaccepted. Writers, afraid that they won’t be taken seriously simply because of the genre of their work, give sci-fi such watered-down names as “speculative fiction” in order to try and fly under critics’ radar. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, a complicated yet exceptionally-written piece of sci-fi, received in its time such gloriously backhanded compliments as “… [Clarke] is in the very small group of writers who have used science fiction as the vehicle of philosophic ideas.”
On the contrary – to suggest that this group is small is a fallacy. Critics prize fiction that holds a black mirror up to society, attempts to tell us something about the human condition, yet still don’t regard science-fiction and fantasy in this way. Stories that show us “a slice of life”, that analyse ordinary events and people, are praised by critics in a way that genre fiction isn’t, inserted instantly and comfortably into the category of “true literature”, and there are reasons for this; it takes ability and astuteness to show the importance and the substance of everyday life, to show the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.
A common opinion seems to be that these skills and an ability to world-build in genre fiction are, as writing tools, mutually exclusive. This is absolutely incorrect. Both genres are, in fact, some of the best environments to analyse our humanity: having had taken away the real, the ordinary and the stable, we then rely on a writer’s knowledge of how people work to convince us to step into their world. One brilliant example of this is Terry Pratchett’s novels – he writes a world where gnomes and magic are commonplace, yet his characters are so very human that it is all, somehow, believable. By changing our world, authors can show what stays constant in us, as humans, in our consciences, our beliefs.
Authors known for non-genre fiction write science-fiction and fantasy also; bad writing in these genres is not universal. Several works of “genre” fiction have been praised for their prose and structure.
Then there is the fantastical element of such fiction. Do we truly want to read about everyday life? Ask a child – or indeed, many adults – why they read, and a large proportion will answer that it allows them to escape where and who they are, to imagine things impossible. As much as fiction that holds a mirror to fact is praised, regarded as something “grown-up”, the whole point of fiction is imagination and escapism. Maybe genre fiction, the thing so derided by popular critics, is our way of admitting that, no matter how many responsibilities and depressing certainties we may acquire in normal life, we still secretly want to believe that we can build – or be – things that transcend the ordinary, meet other species from distant and strange planets, ride dragons.
Maybe some of just still want to believe in magic.