Ever feel the need to hide the cover of the fantasy novel you’re reading, to avoid someone making a snap judgement about you?
Not because you’re embarrassed by what you’re reading, but because the rest of the literary world frequently snubs its nose at speculative fiction and we’re made to feel our reading choices show some sort of lack of taste (or, ironically, imagination)?
But if you answered yes, take heart. You’re not alone. In Australia, particularly, spec fic is considered a poor cousin to literary fiction (even though bookshops across the country are expanding fantasy sections to accommodate buyer demand).
Eclectic Australian novelist Kim Wilkins recently went to town on the notion that genre fiction (be it fantasy, sci fi or romance) is somehow inferior to literary fiction, and that its fans are somehow less intelligent because of their reading choices.
Those of us who read both – and we’re more the rule than the exception – know that’s not true, and yet the non genre-reading world tends to dismiss us with, at best, pity, and, at worst, derision.
Kim’s strongly worded comment piece in WQ (produced by the Queensland Writers Centre) lamented the bias in Australia against genre fiction. That genre fiction is all but ignored by funding bodies, literary awards, critics, and the media in general (the latter is generally only interested in international fantasy writers whose names end in Meyer or Rowling, and only then once film adaptations are under way.)
(I should point out there is one glaring exception: The Australian Review publishes reviews by George Williams on new fantasy releases on a semi-regular basis.)
Kim points out that in Australia, genre fiction – particularly speculative fiction – is considered beyond the definition of “Australian fiction”, even though a large number of published Australian novelists write fantasy.
One of the reasons so many Australian fantasy fans turn to blogs is that there’s very limited coverage of any form of spec fic in mainstream media here. Kim points out that literary works dominate reviews in major newspapers and magazines, providing figures to back up her assertion that coverage is heavily skewed towards literary fiction.
She says: “In real terms, these figures suggest readers are going to have a much harder time finding articles about their favourite genre authors, than about their favourite lit fic authors. Number one: that’s not fair. Number two: is there a chance that the low regard for these books might actually make readers feel ashamed or stupid for reading them?”
There will always be debate about the differences between literary fiction and genre fiction (and Kim even argues that literary fiction is a genre in itself, with its own rules and style).
Genre fiction can be well written, and literary fiction can have a page-turning story. Style and story-telling don’t have to be mutually exclusive. (And yes, I realise there’s plenty of crap fantasy around – but there’s crap lit fic too.)
I read lit fic and spec fic, but I know I definitely feel different about reading each in public, and that’s wrong.
I love good spec fic. As Kim says in WQ, it’s the pleasure of familiarity. Not predictability, but the familiarity of well constructed stories, imaginative mythologies and multi-dimensional characters that offer escapism and – when done particularly well – give me a fresh perspective on my own world.
I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this issue.
Do you read what you want and couldn’t care less what people think? Or do you – once in a while – feel the need to explain your reading choices? (That, you know, you know vampires aren’t real…?)