Genre Bashing Dumbassery
The Wall Street Journal published an article criticizing YA fiction last week that pissed a lot of people off. I’m not going to respond to the arguments made in that article, in part because smarter people than I have already done so.
Instead, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce the Genre Bashing Dumbassery Scale (patent pending).
When you criticize a genre without really understanding that genre or recognizing its range, you’re probably going to come off as a dumbass. If your GBD score is high enough, you might even get a dedicated Twitter hashtag where thousands of people will chime in to explain exactly why you’re full of crap.
Here are some sample scores, with 1 being insightful, educated commentary and 10 being the ultimate cluelessness.
- “YA is all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation and darkness!” Easily disproven generalization used to justify an old-fashioned “Protect the children!” rant. GBD: 8.
- “Science fiction is for kids; it’s all rockets and explosions and flat, emotionless characters.” A claim made by someone who once saw a Heinlein paperback in the grocery store rack. GBD: 9
- “Romance is formulaic hack-work.” Some romance lines do have formula guidelines for their writers … but show me any genre without its formulas. GBD: 9.5 (I nudged this score higher because I’m sick of romance being the easy target.)
- “Literary fiction is dry, plotless crap written by ivory tower wannabes.” Some is. Some isn’t. Some is brilliant. Some is crap. Bored now. GBD: 8.
- “Author X is another author who built his career writing unoriginal Tolkien knock-offs.” Suggests a generalization about fantasy, but then again, Author X really has built his career from ripping off Tolkien… GBD: 3.
- “I don’t read ______ books.” That’s nice. If everyone read the same stuff, it would be awfully boring… GBD: N/A.
- “I don’t read ______ books, but let me tell you why they suck.” Congratulations, you’re a dumbass. GBD: 10.
High GBD scores may result in public mockery, criticism, and being thoroughly schooled by people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about.
June 9, 2011 @ 9:53 am
How do you rate, “The fandom puts me off” and “I tried one or two books, but it seems like it’s not my cup of tea”?
June 9, 2011 @ 10:26 am
I think I prefer the #YaKills hashtag myself… it really cracks me up! Like this one:
@sarahockler: Tried to make my own polyjuice potion in chem lab. How come Harry never had *his* stomach pumped? #YAkills
June 9, 2011 @ 10:46 am
The author who wrote that irritating WSJ article will be on NPR this morning: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/06/09/midmorning3/
Jim C. Hines
June 9, 2011 @ 10:50 am
Neither of those statements is making any sort of broad generalization or condemning a genre, so I’d probably give them both very low GBD scores unless there was more to it.
I have no problem with personal preferences and people having different taste. But if someone were to say “I tried one or two books and this entire genre is utter garbage,” that would earn a much higher score 🙂
Jim C. Hines
June 9, 2011 @ 10:50 am
I hadn’t seen that one, but I’m already amused 🙂
Jim C. Hines
June 9, 2011 @ 10:50 am
I hope they have a transcript or write-up.
June 9, 2011 @ 12:24 pm
haha, I LOVE that scale. As a reader of all kinds of maligned fiction (including YA, SF, fantasy, romance, and occaisionally “literary fiction”), it just makes me feel good.
Deborah J. Ross
June 9, 2011 @ 12:57 pm
Jim, like you, I have no problem with “not my cup of tea” if the person has actually read the genre. I roll my eyes at, “I hated (some badly done sf movie), so I know I’ll hate sf books.” Or “I just can’t get into robots/elves, so I won’t waste my time reading about them.”*
*Real statements, with names redacted for delicacy.
Jim C. Hines
June 9, 2011 @ 2:09 pm
Yep. Movies =/= books (just look at the latest Pirates of the Carribean movie!), and dismissing something you’ve never actually read is just silly.
June 9, 2011 @ 2:14 pm
Great blog, Jim. Love your GBD scale. And thanks for being tired of everyone picking on romance! As someone who loves romance, I get really tired of the constant sneering for a genre that provides real enjoyment for so many readers – and has turned more than one “I hate books! Books are boring!” anti-readers into voracious readers for life – many of whom then go on to read in other genres as well.
Jim C. Hines
June 9, 2011 @ 2:18 pm
I’m betting at least a little of that is envy. From the authors at least, most of us would *love* to be selling as well as romance! 🙂
June 9, 2011 @ 2:44 pm
I too, was thoroughly put off by the WSJ article. As a result, I also added several scandalous titles to my TBR list. 🙂
They basically gave those authors a bunch of free publicity, even if it pissed a number of people off. Small bit of silver lining there.
We must stay positive, after all, mustn’t we? 😉
Jim C. Hines
June 9, 2011 @ 2:46 pm
Jackie Kessler is a friend of mine. I would *love* to see her Bookscan numbers following all the attention the WSJ brought to her and her book with that article 🙂
“As a result, I also added several scandalous titles to my TBR list.”
This seems like a perfectly appropriate response!
June 9, 2011 @ 2:53 pm
Her first book was already on my list, but I made it a point to go back and add the next three out of mean-spiritedness. 🙂
Incidentally, I read a ghastly amount of V.C. Andrews growing up (TRASH! INCEST! TEEN SEX! MURDER! TRASH!) and I think I turned out pretty well despite that. I resent her implication that literature corrupts and that people aren’t capable of separating fiction from reality and acting accordingly. As a teen, I was pretty capable of that, and honestly, most other teens are too.
For many teens, reading is escapism. Escapism from a harsh reality. And I KNOW many a teen has found solace in knowing they are not the only ones to conceive of their misery. Anyone who thinks YA is a bad influence for heavy subject matter/themes can, to put it bluntly, fold it in four corners and stuff it.
June 9, 2011 @ 5:59 pm
I get that all the time. I write cross genre. UF/Paranormal romance. I get readers on both sides of the fence wanting it to be more their genre than the other. And then the anti-romance readers of all kinds, and the anti-sex-in-the-books readers who assume you write porn if you mention genitals at all…and the anti-this and anti-that…I’ve heard most of it. But you know what? I write for the readers who love my work. I write for myself. I just wish people could let others like what they like without being bitchy or snide about it. ALL opinions are subjective.
June 9, 2011 @ 6:49 pm
you should hear some of the “great” stuff said about web comics… and comic art we manage to annoy everyone.. in two mediums writing and art.
June 9, 2011 @ 6:51 pm
Recently my 30 year old daughter FINALLY started reading for pleasure. She went and got a library card. What got her reading? YA fiction: The Twilight Saga. I’m pretty sure she realizes that vampires don’t exist. I’m just excited that she finally gets that reading can be entertaining.
June 9, 2011 @ 6:58 pm
I highly approve of your scale. Thanks for sharing!
I would speculate that in addition to sales envy, there’s a bit of misogyny to romance-bashing; for a certain subset of people, anything marketed primarily towards women is to be disdained.
Jim C. Hines
June 9, 2011 @ 7:03 pm
Oh, definitely. Romance is supposed to be a girlish genre, so of course it’s inferior to all of the manlier books. Sigh…
Jim C. Hines
June 9, 2011 @ 7:04 pm
Whatever gets them reading!
For me, I went through several years of reading nothing but Star Trek books. Some were really good. A fair number … weren’t. But it was what I enjoyed, it kept me reading, and eventually it led to reading more broadly and discovering the rest of my genre.
June 9, 2011 @ 8:16 pm
I am so, so, so happy that you wrote this little response/article, Jim, and additionally thrilled with all the wonderful responses that people have added!! Some of my favorite points, which I’ll briefly re-iterate: (1)opinions are subjective (2)why can’t we just let people like what they like (3)at least people are reading!! let romance, or “dark” YA, or “Tolkien ripoffs” pave the way for people to read, if that’s what pulls them in (4)many people, especially teens, read for escapism and for pure pleasure. Almost all of them understand the difference between fiction and reality. (5)You are a total dumbass if you criticize, malign, or warn people away from books you’ve never even read.
We adore selling all kinds of “trash” and “fluff” and “guilty pleasures” at our bookstore … a special thanks to “Anita K” for her comment, which speaks perfectly for me, as well (“As a reader of all kinds of maligned fiction…”). Me, too! I feel like I can’t win either way: if I read sci-fi or YA, it’s not serious enough for some academics and literary snobs; if I say how much I enjoy literary fiction, then I’m an academic snob or else a book club biddy. That’s why I read to please myself, not what others think of me. 🙂
Jim C. Hines
June 9, 2011 @ 8:22 pm
“That’s why I read to please myself, not what others think of me.”
That sounds like the best plan to me!
The really sad thing is that less than a half hour after I posted this, I came across an article on a SF blog bashing literary fiction. Sigh…
June 9, 2011 @ 8:28 pm
The audio is up and clicking on the link takes you to the relevant section of the program. Unfortunately it looks like this is an in-house production of MPR – Minnesota, as opposed to National – and it seems that they don’t do transcripts. ‘Looks like’ and ‘seems’ because this is the first time I’ve checked their site.
June 9, 2011 @ 10:17 pm
As well as reading a lot of the looked-down-upon genres, I’m also a model railroader. And you have to be pretty sure of yourself to say “I’m going to Mike’s to play with his trains.”
Now, if there were only some more fantasy-railway-mystery stories (more than the one by Wrede and Stevemer).
June 9, 2011 @ 11:00 pm
I once killed somebody for bashing SF. That was probably a *little* extreme, though. (Only fictionally, of course, on my defunct blog. And it was science fiction, at that. So, nobody who “matters” read it. But it was fun!)
June 10, 2011 @ 10:21 pm
The Wall Street Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch. As such, its job is to soothe business people and investors and scare average Americans about anti-authoritarian communism, and the YA article does the latter nicely. Luckily, teenagers don’t read the Wall Street Journal nor listen to their parents, especially when their parents start whining about how stuff now is so much more awful and nastier than the stuff they had back when, like, say, Watchmen, Porky’s, and “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.” We had YA back when I was young, it was called Jaws, the movie, and it started with a naked woman being eaten by a shark and ended with corrupt government officials letting tourists get eaten until underpaid public servants destroy the threat. Also Escape from New York, which was about corrupt government leading to desolation and the protagonist fighting a losing battle against the odds for money. And 4,000 post-nuclear apocalypse stories.
But mostly, this is just retread from the 2003 Gossip Girls et. al. in YA are turning our daughters into sluts media articles, and Janet Asimov’s 1997 editorial in Asimov’s about how nihilism is taking over SF and turning it all dark. It’s a retread, so I’m not sure it’s really worth an 8 on your dumbassery scale.
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June 11, 2011 @ 8:35 am
[…] Genre Bashing Dumbassery — Jim Hines is funny. (Via Steve Buchheit.) […]
Bruce E. Durocher II
June 11, 2011 @ 10:47 am
My favorite example of probable (I’m trying to be generous here) envy followed by nemesis, as opposed to damn stupidity followed by nemesis, was a review of a SF film in The New York Times which rapidly descended into a lengthy screed about how inferior comics and graphic novels were to any other creative output. Unfortunately for the writer, Will Eisner had died the previous day. I like to think of that reviewer doing a spit-take of their orange juice when they saw who made the front page and who ended up buried deep in the interior of that day’s issue.
June 11, 2011 @ 5:43 pm
How can commenting on literary fiction earn GBD points? It’s literary, not genre! You should be getting GBD points for comparing it to genre fiction!
I take it then that saying “literary fiction” is a genre in denial about being a genre doesn’t earn GBD points?
…or does it?
June 11, 2011 @ 10:23 pm
Andrew Trembley: “I take it then that saying “literary fiction” is a genre in denial about being a genre doesn’t earn GBD points?”
I’d say it does because literary fiction isn’t a genre, in either the category sense of the word or the literary movement sense of the word. (Whereas SFFH are genres in the category sense of the word, but not in the literary movement sense of the word.) What happened was that the realism movement of the 1800’s spawned the modernist movement of the early 20th century, which in turn birthed the post-modernist movement, and it was the modernist/post-modern movements that got called “literary fiction,” by which its adherents simply tried to assert that their movements — contemporary (and sometimes historical) dramatic realism — were the most literary of all. After all, it was in hardcover and not sold in grocery stores (except of course they actually were sold in grocery stores.)And so many people, in arguing against the categories they have designated commercial “genre,” do assert that literary is a defined genre, which it is not in any sense. Especially as those renegade modernists are just as happy to include in their imaginary literary genre non-realistic works and give them prizes and everything, and insist that they are not “genre,” which they also regard as a movement of some kind, possibly involving giant space squids and forsaking character for action plot. And in response, genre readers often think that SFFH is some kind of movement too and that it is in opposition to “literary fiction,” as movement and category, which they say everyone knows is boring.
What is actually boring to me is the imaginary war between imaginary genres that are mainly based on book packaging.
Jim C. Hines
June 11, 2011 @ 10:31 pm
“I’d say it does because literary fiction isn’t a genre, in either the category sense of the word or the literary movement sense of the word.”
I disagree, but it’s not really a conversation I’m that interested in having.
You might check out some of Nick Mamatas’ comments at SF Signal, though. http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/06/the-emptiness-of-literary-fiction-and-the-stereotyping-of-genre-literature/index.html He does a decent job pointing out that “literary fiction” has been around for at least two hundred years, and is used as a genre term much like “science fiction” or “romance” or the rest.
June 12, 2011 @ 4:17 pm
Actually, Mamantas meant Romance with a capital R, which is not romance novels but the genre of romantic novels which includes SF and fantasy as part of the romantic literary tradition for academics, going back to Wells, Byron, et. al. The modernist realism movement that developed in the 1800’s was in part in opposite to the romantic tradition, and the argument developed in the 20th century that contemporary realism was literary, which it had been called before, whereas romantic novels were commercial, populist and indulgent. Romantic classics like Ivanhoe, etc., are treated as historic literature in this argument, but not their modern counterparts unless a particular author is designated as having moved beyond romantic trappings into realism by in depth, realistic portrayals of character, rather than the romantic tradition of action, danger, emphasis on plot, etc. (Although more realistically, it depended on who published the work, how it was packaged and in what format, where it was sold, and possibly the educational background of the author.) So what Mamatas is saying is that modernism has been around awhile. And Lev Grossman argued in his article that he did that romanticism had now made a comeback over modernism and post modernism. But modernism is only one form of literary movement. And the categories we call genre — science fiction, romance, mystery — are not literary movements per se. They’re loosely organized bookselling categories in which stories may be largely modernist, or romantic or other approaches. And the term literary fiction is not a cohesive movement centered on modernism these days, as Mamatas was arguing, is a broadly applied term, and is not an organized bookselling category either. And this is part of the problem because people are not using the term the way Mamatas is explaining its history to be, despite Mamatas’ assertion that they mostly are. Hal Duncan’s several essays on this issue, some of which Stevens references in his article, offer up a very detailed history of how the term got co-opted well beyond simple modernism. The imaginary war that people are talking about when they talk about literary versus genre is not modern realism and romantic fiction as two different ballparks.
Thank you for indulging me, Jim. Having clarified what I meant, I’ll be good now. 🙂