August 8, 2013

Are Genre Stories More Stupid?

Pacific Rim poster from ComicCon with text: Does "Genre" = Stupid?

I make no secret of the fact that I’m a genre girl. I prefer genre stories (of almost any genre) over most literary fiction. Ditto for movies.

Give me an action, sci-fi, comic book, or adventure story, and I’ll be there buying tickets. Even for the cheesy ones like Green Lantern. (Though I’ll promptly make fun of those. *smile*)

My point is I find genre stories easier to relate to. Does that make me stupid? Not according to my IQ scores or to my (as Melanie Marttila recently said) “thought-y” posts. Just because I enjoy genre stories more doesn’t mean I can’t read and enjoy literary stories as well. It’s simply a preference.

The Shell Game of Definitions

Yet there’s never an end to those who want to put down such-and-such movie for being dumb and unworthy of reviewer stars or such-and-such genre for being formulaic or unrealistic. Those same people all too often then put down those who read or watch such stories, as though if we enjoy genre stories, we can’t possibly be capable of appreciating more than one style.

Author Heidi Cullinan summed up my feelings on what makes great literature, and the same could be same of stories in general, no matter the medium:

“I consider literature to be anything that moves me deeply, makes me think, gets me coming back again and again because it is so rich and powerful it can change lives.”

Anyone who thinks genre stories are incapable of moving us, making us think, or changing our lives is being willfully blind. These are the people who call Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice literary fiction rather than romance so they can justify their respect. Ditto for calling Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 literary rather than science fiction.

Sure, not every genre story rises to that level of greatness, but neither does every literary fiction story. All literary fiction isn’t automatically genius, just as all genre fiction isn’t automatically stupid. It’s disingenuous to act like genre can’t reach that level simply because some erase the genre label from any stories that do succeed.

Why Is It So Easy to Dismiss Genre Stories?

One of the biggest tools that can make a story feel deeper and more meaningful is subtext, where we read between the lines and interpret based off what’s not said. News flash! Genre stories can use subtext too. In fact, they can use subtext just as well as literary stories.

However, because many of the naysayers have such low expectations of genre stories, they never go looking for the subtext. Therefore, they assume there isn’t any. But that assumption is far from true.

I’ve analyzed the subtext of The Amazing Spider-Man movie, and stories don’t get more genre than a comic-book movie. The recent movie Pacific Rim had mediocre dialogue—and beautiful, deep subtext.

Yet did the reviews comment on the subtext? No. The reviewers called the movie dumb. Who’s thinking superficially now? *grin*

If we’re never aware enough of the potential for layers or nuance in stories, we’re never going to find them. And maybe that’s part of the problem with dismissal of genre stories.

Subtext? In a Movie about Giant Robots and Monsters?

Pacific Rim is a homage to the original Godzilla and monster movies. Many of the subtextual cues are thus a mixture of European and Asian cultural touch-points.

In the opening scene, the characters are wearing white (the only time in the movie the hero wears head-to-toe white), which represents young and innocent in European cultures and can represent death in some Asian cultures. Those who have seen the movie know that both meanings of the color foreshadow events of that scene.

Others have commented on the significance of color for Mako’s character. The blue in her hair as an adult matches the blue of her jacket in the emotional flashback from her childhood, showing how she’s still carrying that memory with her, years later. The red shoe child-Mako holds to her chest figuratively evokes her heart. A heroic gold backlights child-Mako’s savior, providing additional understanding for the level of respect she has for him, etc.

The entire ending scene has religious undertones of the mecha-robot that directly represents the hero—complete with matching injuries—descending into hell. The hero rises (literally) to fight another day, reborn with a new connection to humanity.

And yes, the director of Pacific Rim is Guillermo del Toro, so these cues weren’t mere coincidence. He purposely designed this movie—which is so easy to dismiss as silly genre (“Giant robots versus Godzilla-monsters? *snort*”)—to have multiple layers and nuance.

Am I saying that this movie was an Oscar-worthy “best picture”? No. Then again, half the movies nominated for Best Picture some years aren’t worthy either. But how many reviewers (or normal movie viewers) bothered to notice those subtextual layers?

Is that lack of insight really a failing of genre stories? Or a failing of those who assume them dumb and refuse to look deeper?

The Formula Creates the Subtext

Every genre has a formula, yes. The mystery must be solved. The bad guy must be stopped. The couple must find their happy ending.

As I mentioned in my post about beat sheets, a formula is not a bad thing. The “must haves” for every genre can be checked off and still leave a story room for originality. The must-haves, in fact, form the basic subtext of the genre.

For example, romance novels—with their required happy ending—create the subtext that we deserve happiness despite our flaws and that we’re stronger together than alone. They posit that love is a powerful force, enabling people to overcome countless obstacles.

Most modern romances contain the subtext of celebrating people who are empowered, those who are willing to fight for what they want and take responsibility for creating their own happiness. Really, with all that, is it any wonder that I, a Pollyanna at heart, write romance? *smile*

Romances are the modern fairytale, and yet contrary to the many digs at the genre, they’re still realistic on a subtextual level. As historical romance author Tessa Dare pointed out, anyone who contends that relationships with respect, fidelity, and great sex are fantasy are, once again, being willfully blind. How sad life would be if believing in love meant we had no grip on reality.

As a romance author, I can assure those who would put down the entire genre (usually based on one example) that I don’t write with the purpose of “getting the reader off.” I embrace all the inherent subtext of the genre, and I enjoy adding additional subtext, often about my themes of the power of redemption, the ability of love to heal, the importance of sacrifice. And yes, I do all that on purpose.

If someone doesn’t pick up on all that subtext in romances, fine. They’ll still have an entertaining read. But it’s close-minded to assume there are no—and cannot be—layers or nuances within genre fiction, and it’s just plain ignorant (not to mention rude) to use that false assumption to ridicule genres and those who read them.

I’m proud to write genre stories. I have my preference and others will have their preferences. There doesn’t have to be a “better” or “more important” scale to those preferences. I haven’t put down literary fiction (or those who read it) in this post despite my preference, and all I’m asking is that people give each other the same courtesy. *smile*

Do you agree that genre fiction can be just as “smart” as literary fiction? Do you know people who assume genre stories are dumb? How do you define what makes a story “smart” or “good literature”? Have you found deeper meaning in genre stories? If you’ve seen Pacific Rim, what did you think of the movie?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Paul Anthony Shortt

Thank you for this post, Jami! I much prefer genre books and movies to literary fiction or high drama – it just happens to be my preference – and I love finding deep meaning in those stories. There’s so much wonderful meaning to be found, intentional or not, in genre fiction, and it was my love of discovering it that led to me choosing to write genre fiction.

Laura Pauling

I love reading, watching and writing genre fiction! Better yet, I love a genre story that is well written and has a literary spark! I don’t think they are dumber, just different. 🙂

Angela Quarles

Great post! It annoys me no end when folks judge genre by the worst, and elevate the best into literary fiction.

And dovetailing nicely with this post, is this one on feminism and subtext in romance novels:


I actually believe that “genre” stories have the ability to be better than genre-less ones. A fair number of presumably “high-brow” writers are actually meaningless, because what matters is the meaning to the reader, not what the author intended. (That or they embrace presumably “high-brow” philosophies like “Everything is meaningless”.) Now, those things can show up in “genre” fiction. (Using quotes because “literary” is effectively a genre in itself.) But those things aren’t the be-all, end-all in genre fiction, due to all the other things going on. Due to the multiple levels of meaning and purpose, I believe that “genre” fiction can be deeper than “high-brow”, because it has more levels. Some cases in point: The Handmaids Tale and The Time Traveller’s Wife. In fact, one of the best examples I consistently remember of an all-around effective novel is the paranormal romance novel Gabriel’s Ghost by Linnea Sinclair, which is space opera. World building, relationship development, word choice—all those (and more) are used to good effect in that novel. Note that if you hate the author’s style or some aspect of the genre, you’ll find some of it lacking, but that’s true of any book. Not all readers connect with every writer’s style or characters. There’s a reason a good friend of mine hates the author Patricia Briggs—she doesn’t pick up on the subtext, so the characters come across as flat to her. We’ll read the same book and come away with completely different understandings of it. That’s a style…  — Read More »

Taurean Watkins

As you know, Jami, my genre’s easily misunderstood, and I fight the ignorance on a regular basis. But I won’t rant on that today. I’ll only say this: If you can’t easily suspend disbelief, and or feel all creatures from “real life” have to be realistic down to the last, freaking detail, you wouldn’t enjoy most of my stories. But just because animals portrayed in a story, whether book, film, etc, is not 100% realistic doesn’t mean it’s entirely based in “Myth and nonsense.” I research the animals I write about, but that doesn’t mean I want to be bound by science at every turn. Period. It’s why some love Old Yeller (Sad Ending and all) but not enjoy say, “All Dogs Go to Heaven” just because it’s not “National Geographic” accurate at every turn. I can’t count how many times I saw that flick as a kid, and having watched it recently, I clearly had a braver aspect to my viewing tastes that the teen years stepped on a bit. Still, I rest my case. Oy! Did these people NEVER watch cartoons or read comics in their youth? Where’s the willingness to play with imagination gone? I mean, people were dreaming up electric cars LONG before they were scientifically feasible, and I don’t see people laughing at the Chevy Volt for being “Real.” Now I’m not trying to sound crazy. Yes, I know objectively animals don’t talk and think as we do, but I do know they have more…  — Read More »

Kim Barton

I couldn’t agree with you more! I love genre fiction. I rarely read literary fiction anymore. I was an English major in college, because I love literature, but that love was often ruined by having to read the classics. I felt like I was the kid screaming that the Emperor had no clothes! It seemed to me that the writers just wanted to play with writing, but didn’t care at all about the enjoyment of the reader. People are surprised to hear me say that I hate Faulkner, James Joyce, Hemingway, The Great Gatsby, and on and on. Literary fiction today often feels the same to me. The story can be lost in the cleverness of the writer. I agree with the person who said that some of the best stuff combines genre and literary fiction, like The Handmaid’s Tale. When I taught literature to teen homeschoolers, we read some of the classics. We did the obligatory discussions about all the important themes and such. What did they read that they got the most out of? The Lord of the Rings. We had the most amazing, intelligent, and insightful conversations about human nature, good and evil, the environment, the role of technology in the world, and more. It was the most enlightening 3 months of my life as a teacher/tutor. And we were reading high fantasy that critics have hated for 60 years! I remember also teaching the Harry Potter books (me and HP again!) and when the kids and…  — Read More »


OF COURSE genre fiction can be as smart as literary fiction! Case in point: Mary Ann Rivers’ THE STORY GUY. The way she twists words into sentences was lovely and (to me) like something I’d read in literary fiction. And it did something that reading rarely makes me do: I cried. A well-written story, beautifully told.

Another example would be Charlotte Stein. Not every one of her novels quite reach that standard I’ve got in my head for literary fiction, but her stream of consciousness way of writing is something you’d definitely see in literary fiction – and she uses it to describe some of the most sinful things imaginable 🙂

Amanda Martin
Amanda Martin

I love this. When I started writing romance / chick lit novels and people asked me what I wrote I would say, “oh just chick lit”, because I assumed I’d be looked down on. In fact most people are either not interested that I’m an author, regardless of what I’ve written, or they’re just impressed that I’ve written anything!

Maryanne Fantalis

I dislike most “literary fiction” put out these days because of its self-conscious navel-gazing: “Oh, look at these lovely sentences. Oh, look how clever I am. Oh, look at how many rules I’m breaking.” And to your main point: Guy Gavriel Kay. There is no one penning more insightful books about the human heart or human history than this fantasy writer.

Karen McFarland

Hi Jami!

How’s my Phoenician friend today? The weather isn’t the only thing that’s hot. This post is smokin’ Jami. Great way to break it down.

You know, I am a fairly new writer. I can’t believe how touchy some can be over genre verses literary. To me, shouldn’t all works of fiction be written with strong craft? Isn’t it essential to any story? Isn’t it the reason why readers continue to read our stories to the end.

So as I make an attempt to write my stories, I will endeavor to apply this great advice! Thanks! 🙂

Pauline Baird Jones

Now you’ve made me want to go see Pacific Rim. Very cool blog post and I agree. I get weary of the “stars on thars” that people sometimes engage in. Read and let read. 🙂

Melanie Marttila

OMG, Jami! You mentioned me in a post (squeee!).
I, too, am a genre girl and a proud one. Flying my geek flag 🙂 And yes, Green Lantern was cheese, but I think I might have watched for the eye candy in the skin-tight green onesie 😛 I’m going to have to go see Pacific Rim now. Both you and Katie Weiland have raved about it. I’ve been hear all kinds of good.
Back to fiction … I read everything. Classics, historicals, SF/F, YA of all types, lit fic, non-fiction, etc. I certainly don’t love everything I read, but I found some stuff that surprised me. It’s all about being open.
I should give more thought to sub-text, though. Your posts make me think thoughts, hence the thought-y.
Thanks for another great one 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Lol, and just because I like reading literary classics, doesn’t mean I’m “deep” either. XD Honestly, when I read anything, I only look to enjoy it. I usually don’t analyze things, except for writing techniques and character development, that kind of thing. Despite being an English major, I never automatically go looking for symbolism either, not even in literary stories. (I roll my eyes every time someone thinks “it’s the Christ symbolism.” It’s like ANY character who sacrifices him or herself to save others is a “Christ figure”. Lol.) I generally just read for the fun and pleasure of it. ^^ So yeah, just as a mainly-genre reader isn’t shallow, a mainly-literary reader isn’t necessarily “profound” either, lol. (I’m not really a “mainly” literary fiction reader though; I read a lot of fantasy too–though mostly teen/pre-teen fantasy. 😀 So maybe I’m kind of half-literary, half-fantasy.) But now that you’ve mentioned it, maybe I should pay more attention to subtext, lol. And yes, I agree that genre stories are no different from literary stories in their potential to have subtext. Honestly, I think all stories have subtext and depth if you care to look–or pay attention, so it’s really quite silly of those people to believe that genre fiction has no subtlety. 🙂 The “just-for-fun” genre series like Percy Jackson, the Animorphs, and the Mortal Instruments are FULL of subtext and meaning. There are SO many philosophical lessons to be learned from all of them. Seriously, those scoffers of genre fiction…  — Read More »

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Sorry, just wanted to say a bit more: Now to think of it, I believe that it’s impossible for a story to have no subtext, lol. Even a story as seemingly simple as The Wizard of Oz can actually be seen as a political allegory. (Yeah, I don’t really see The Wizard of Oz as literary fiction. I see it as a children’s story–which is a good thing because I LOVE children’s stories. :D) Even seemingly extremely shallow stories like the Pokemon series (haha, yes) are actually much more than meets the eye. The themes of friendship, undying loyalty and devotion, courage, never giving up, always aiming to be better and better, caring about others, etc., are very noteworthy, profound, and touching messages to the audience. These themes most certainly influenced mylife, so take that, scoffers of non-literary stories! XD In fact, I think Pokemon celebrates the greatness and wonder of friendship more than most other stories, literary or nonliterary. 😀 Hurray for friendship! ^^ But even ifgenre stories didn’t have any subtext or “deep” philosophies in them (and that would be utterly absurd), why would that matter? Why would that make them “dumb”? I see absolutely nothing wrong with loving a story just because it’s enjoyable and exciting. To be more general, I think any novel that makes you feel happy (or happy in the midst of your sadness for the character) should be commended! I think it’s a noble deed to make your readers happy. 🙂 (Yeah, I’m…  — Read More »

Denise D. Young

Serena, I love that you brought up the “Wizard of Oz.” So much children’s lit is dismissed because it’s “just for kids,” but it’s really quite complex. I agree that it’s almost impossible for a story to be without subtext.

I just think about fairy tales. They seem like these simple little stories, but we keep telling and retelling them. Clearly those “simple” stories tap into something deep inside of us because we can’t let go of them. Any type of story, whether it’s set on another planet, in another world, or in the here and now, can speak to us on this deeper level. 🙂

Denise D. Young

Coming from an academic background, I’m all too used to hearing genre fiction easily dismissed. In my undergraduate creative writing courses, we were forbidden from writing genre literature. That was a shame because not only did many student want to write genre lit, but there’s also strong marketplace demand for it. I also remember being taught about the difference between “high art” and “low art.” (Yikes!) This world certainly contains extraordinary art, good art, and bad art, but no work of literature should be dismissed because it doesn’t fit into someone’s preconceived notion of what good stories should be. When I arrived at grad school, we were free to explore whatever genre we wanted, as long as it fell within the scope of children’s literature. I finally had a chance to explore my love of the fantastic. (I now write mostly for adults, but I’m glad I had that time surrounded by other people who loved fantasy literature as much as I do.) There is so much well-written, powerful, inspiring literature out there in all genres, and no story should be dismissed because of its genre. Like many writers, I find genre literature challenging to write because, in addition to creating a well-crafted story, I also need to meet genre expectations. Instead of simplifying my process as a writer, the genre adds a layer of complexity, challenging me to think of new ways to meet those expectations while staying true to my characters. Good post, Jami! 🙂 I don’t think…  — Read More »


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