Status and Genre Fiction

Mad Genius Club– highly recommended in general, especially for writers, especially especially for indie writers- had a post recently featuring an old interview with the esteemed Terry Pratchett. He made some excellent points about what’s termed ‘genre fiction’ in circles I’ve been in vicinity of- that is, fantasy and sci-fi.

Fantasy is often the target of elitist dismissal but sci-fi gets it plenty, too, though less because science fiction bleeds into modern life so often. You can also pretend it’s grounded in hard fact and real trends and therefore get your Serious Literary Writer cred if you approach it with Serious Writer Voice by way of some current pet cause of the Great and Good.

Elitist approval is an interesting thing to go chasing. I get liking something and getting your hackles up when someone unfairly criticizes it; morons who dismiss Tolkien as a cute, happy fairytale (in the modern sense of that noun) certainly anger me for as long as I care to dwell upon their wrongness. But I don’t understand getting outraged about it as if they’ve kicked your dog’s ribs in.

I suppose it’s a matter of human wiring. The biggest example I can think of is Martin Scorsese’s dismissal of comic book movies. There was an outrage, at least a manufactured one.

I think it might have been genuine outrage among a certain set. This set is not the lovers of nerdy things since childhood, who always liked Captain America and Batman, who have never chased pop culture’s approval. They aren’t inclined to do so, because they would never have loved superheroes like they do in the first place if they did. It wasn’t the done thing then. Of course the cultured big name Hollywood director doesn’t like superheroes. So?

The outrage comes from people who care about status. Scorsese is effectively old money, establishment, the kind of person with serious clout, whose name gets billing on movie posters and gets those movies to awards shows. The people who walk in that world, however peripherally, care that he disapproves of something they like. It’s a status thing. Because of cultural shifts and the fact that Scorsese is not young (therefore his power and influence are not what they were), outrage ensued.

This is not to say the nerdy set doesn’t have equivalencies. I do think the nerds have a tendency to disassociate with people whose opinions they think are wrong without too much friction. It’s quite possible some nerds are also status hounds for one reason or another. I also think the entertainment industry as a whole, written, video, gaming, all of it, is steeped in a status-consciousness unseen outside of the parlors of Old Money. Verily, perhaps it is the same.

Status matters to us; a well-kept trailer is probably a perfectly fine home and it could even preferable to a swanky apartment. However, saying you live in a trailer marks you as a lower status person in many eyes. Hence we do not want to live in trailers, even well-kept ones.

I’m not sure why genre fiction got the low status rap it has. I suspect it has to do with the old pulps, which could be fun, could be rough, could be bad, could be good but were definitely gentleman’s entertainment in one sense or another. It’s funny because the book touted as the first science-fiction novel is serious literary fiction, too, and all the great foundational works of literature are fantasy, as Pratchett points out. There’s some dividing line that isn’t clear.

These days, I suspect it’s who-you-know. Also writing in a manner you know will appeal to the pet thoughts and causes of those who decide who gets publication and press, similar to how you learn how to write to a teacher’s tastes so you get good grades on papers. Not that this is not also an interpersonal game; we all remember the kids the teacher liked getting better grades than they deserve.

Since I was very young, I did not fit in. My mother told me that I could either fit in or be myself and suffer the consequences, which is what I did. Not least because my attempts never worked out. I occasionally have echoes of those pre-teen social anxieties though less now with age and leaving the Army, where nearly every social interaction in the officer corps feels like some kind of test, but it is rarer all the time. I’m not cut out for playing who-you-know games, for clawing and kowtowing to get a hair of a chance.

I know status-consciousness is wiring, but I think perhaps opting to be the best you, to find your true place, in the ethical and religious sense, is a better option. Let the tides of elite opinion ebb and flow. I think it affects less in terms of sales or even culture than we tend to believe.

By which I mean, write that science fiction and fantasy! (Or read mine, maybe?)

Published by kathrynzurmehly

I am, among many other things, an Army vet and a freelance writer.

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