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Kim Wilkins takes a swing at literary snobbery

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)?

No? Great!

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…?)

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About paulaweston

I'm a writer. And a reader.

3 responses »

  1. I don’t give a flying fig, but I’m also in the U.S. where it seems that the tides are finally changing insofar as mainstream acceptance of SF/F has pretty much become a reality. You’re very likely these days to see someone reading some sort of SF/F book (even if it’s extremely light SF, or completely meaningless vampire books, or what have you).

    But, I don’t know a lot about Australia’s literary history, so it may just be that Australia is experiencing what SF/F has been fighting for 50 years. I know I hadn’t read anything by an Australian author until Scott Westerfeld stormed onto the scene, and since then it seems like a heck of a lot of Australians are getting published these days. Even if they are just now experiencing this push against SF/F, though, it doesn’t make any of it acceptable. The way I like to think of it is this (using a U.S. politics analogy): the literary fiction community are the equivalent of the Republican Party; they’re both afraid of change, even if that change is inevitable; in the case of the Republican Party, it’s gay marriage and healthcare, and in the case of literary fiction, it’s the rapid change of “literary” tastes in general readers and the reality that most people (most readers, who likely are responsible for keeping the publishing industry afloat) are probably going to read some sort of SF/F (heavy or light, or even hidden) on a regular basis.

    But that’s what I say…what do I know?

    Reply
  2. I must admit that I’m not quite up with the whole lit-fic vs genre-fiction. Are Austen or the Bronte sisters literary fiction, or Romance or Gothic-something-or-other? Is Tolkien literary fiction, or is he Fantasy? Who decides?
    Can books flip into a different category after a certain period of time? (I am serious about these questions – if someone could enlighten me that would be great)

    I am pretty sure that Stephen King fits quite neatly into the Horror genre. I was a big fan of him in my teens and twenties. I was forever trying to convince people (who had probably seen film adaptations of ‘The Shining’ and ‘Pet Semetary’ that were around at the time) that there was more to King than blood and gore. People were shocked to hear that the movies ‘Stand by me’, ‘The Green Mile’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ were from King’s novels and short stories. That’s not to say that King didn’t write some pretty creepy s#!t !

    Thinking of Horror, can you add Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Robert Louis Stevenson (I’m thinking ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ rather than ‘Treasure Island’ or ‘Kidnapped’) to my question mark list re Literary or Genre?

    Reply
  3. Hey Placey,

    The definition of “literature” is an age-old question and one that’s generated some pretty passionate debates among bloggers.

    Who decides? Great question! Probably the mainstream media, booksellers and awards. They set the parameters for categories (be it top 10 lists, award categories etc.)

    The beauty about the advent of online reviews is that the lines have become quite blurred now – at least in the eyes of readers.

    I hope some other bloggers leave their thoughts on this one!

    Reply

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