Last time we talked about how our literary education can affect our reading habits later in life. One interesting result of that conversation revealed—once again—just how subjective reading for enjoyment can be. The stories some of us hated, others loved.
Personally, I have no interest in non-genre stories. As I’ve said before, this is not a sign of my inability to think deeply, but rather a personal preference.
At the Desert Dreams conference a week ago, something the delightful Mary Buckham mentioned in her character workshop struck me, and I wondered if her idea could be related to this genre vs. literary preference. Let’s compare notes and find out. *smile*
Literary vs. Commercial (Genre) Fiction
Before we dig into the question, I first want to share what Mary Buckham said in her Down and Dirty Ways to Create Stronger Characters workshop. My note-taking skills aren’t quite what they used to be, so these definitions are paraphrased from her descriptions.
The point of the story is for the character(s) to understand themselves better. This is achieved through episodic events that force understanding. However, characters aren’t forced to internally change or to change their situations.
The point of the story is to focus on how people change. This is achieved through external events that trigger choices and force internal changes in the character(s), both of which lead to external changes in their situations.
Obviously, those are simplified definitions, but I think there’s a lot of validity to Mary’s perspective. More importantly for my question, those different approaches create even more diverse themes.
Themes in Literary vs. Commercial (Genre) Fiction
Mary then compared what each style has to say about life and fate (again, this is paraphrased):
The lack of internal change in literary fiction creates the impression that things just happen and that there’s not a lot we can do about it. Whether intended or not, this subtext develops a theme that applies to most literary fiction stories: “Life sucks and then you die.”
In contrast, commercial fiction often shows characters facing choices, and how they decide greatly affects the rest of the story (for good or bad). In other words, in genre stories, things happen and there is something we can do about it. This subtext creates a theme that applies to most commercial fiction stories: “Write your own fate.”
Story Themes and Our Worldview
A couple of weeks ago, we discussed how our favorite stories often have themes in common with each other and with our worldview. I mentioned how our reading preferences—from themes to types of characters—might be driven by our worldview.
I also suspect our worldview affects our preferences for literary vs. genre fiction. After all, we’re more likely to read stories that resonate deeply with within us, and the subtext of literary vs. genre is often very different.
“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.”
Empowered. Fight for what they want. Take responsibility for creating their own happiness. That certainly qualifies for the “write our own fate” theme of genre fiction.
Personally, I believe that we can change our future through our choices and that we do write our own fate. I believe all that because I have changed my own fate several times in my life. I’ve rewritten my future more times than I can count (and in hugely significant ways) by making choice A rather than B and by changing internally.
So really, is it any surprise that I prefer genre stories? Is it any surprise that stories where the characters don’t end up in a significantly different place from where they started (often because they never learn, never change, and keep making the same mistakes) irritate the hell out of me?
To me, drama and angst is pointless without a takeaway message shown through a character changing and learning. Without that, those characters deserve a “Too Stupid To Live” label. In the most frustrating “nothing changes” literary stories, I start wishing for a good ol’ genre attack (aliens, zombies, whatever) to take them all out and save me from their misery. *grin*
Obviously, that’s just my personal opinion. I’m not “right” and others aren’t “wrong.”
Plenty of people love the literary fiction books recommended by the Oprahs of the world. And I suspect that difference in preference has to do with our worldviews.
How Might Our Worldview Affect Our Reading Habits?
Some people might believe we can change our fate, but that change is too difficult for most people or often results in more problems. Others might believe only the privileged can change their fate. Others might believe the best human intentions will eventually succumb to the entropy of bad habits. Etc., etc.
Again, there’s no wrong answer. But if those are our beliefs, we’re more likely to enjoy stories that reflect our thoughts:
- If we think change is possible but extremely difficult for most, we might be more accepting of stories where characters try to change but fail.
- If we believe change causes more problems, we might gravitate to tragedies where characters’ choices make their lives worse.
- If we think only the privileged can change their fate, we might be drawn to the trials of the underprivileged.
- If we believe “life sucks and then you die,” we’d feel at home with stories that focus on unresolvable struggles.
- And so on…
Of course we can encounter exceptions. Maybe we don’t relate to the worldview posed in a story, but we love the protagonist. Or we grew up in the same setting and read for the nostalgia. Or we’re in a similar situation and want to feel as though someone understands what we’re going through.
We can also read and enjoy different types of stories depending on our mood. Maybe some days we’re more optimistic than others. Or maybe some days we’re more irritated with people than others. *snicker*
More importantly, this theory of worldview and reading preferences should bury for eternity the idea that literary stories are somehow “better” than genre stories. As I’ve said before, genre stories can have the same well-developed characters, lovely turns of phrase, etc. as literary stories.
The difference isn’t in quality but in worldview. It’s not “better” or “superior” to believe that people can’t change or that fate can’t be avoided. And the idea that choices and changes can affect our future isn’t contemptible. It’s simply a different point of view.
As for me, the Oprahs of the world can keep their tales of woe. I won’t put down their perspective—or feel guilty for my own. I’ll just continue to embrace my Pollyanna worldview and enjoy my genre stories. *smile*
Do you agree or disagree with Mary’s take on the point, theme, and subtext of literary vs. genre stories? What type of fiction do you prefer? Does this preference match with some of your worldviews? How so? If you like stories opposite your worldviews, what makes them enjoyable to you?