I have never been able to abide the snobbery that exists in some literary circles regarding genre fiction. For example it dismays me that anyone can dismiss The Lord of the Rings because of some pretentious, elitist literary ideal that completely disregards Tolkien’s extraordinary, ground-breaking achievement. Even if you hate The Lord of the Rings, it is undeniably a landmark of literary fiction. It is a masterpiece.
Yet in certain elite circles there still seems to be snootiness not just about fantasy writing but genre storytelling in general. In the same way that Oscar voters often disregard genre movies and typically pick winners that are worthy but dull, Booker prize winners are sometimes (but not always) of a similar ilk. By contrast, an examination of the bestselling books of any given year will provide a list that includes many genre writers – many of whom have also been dismissed by the so-called literary elite – that are clearly beloved by the general public.
In my view, genre writing at its best is just as important as any so-called serious literary endeavour – if not more so. Authors who master genre bring just as much piercing insight into the human condition. The difference is they often do so far more entertainingly and therefore far more effectively.
Sticking with The Lord of the Rings as an example, that novel is not just about a bunch of hobbits trying to chuck a ring into a volcano to destroy an evil Dark Lord. It contains profound insights into the horrors of war, the nature of good and evil, friendship and – in my opinion most importantly – growing up. There is more “truth” in The Lord of the Rings than in many non-genre texts that these elitists seem to prefer.
Germaine Greer once dismissed The Lord of the Rings as “Nazi tosh” on the BBC. She was then challenged by the presenter as to whether she had actually read the book, and forced to admit she hadn’t. Leaving aside the fact that Greer’s ridiculous comment can be disregarded because she hadn’t read the book, accusing Tolkien of being a Nazi sympathiser is profoundly offensive to the memory of the great man. This is particularly galling considering his own well-documented condemnation of Hitler as a “ruddy ignoramus” and the way he told publishers that a German version of The Hobbit could “go hang” because he refused to sign a piece of paper saying he had no Jewish relatives.
Yet this kind of smear, not to mention snobbery about texts like The Lord of the Rings, still seems to persist in these elite literary circles. Other fantasy authors besides Tolkien have suffered a similar fate, with JK Rowling being particularly singled out by some, in spite of the fact that her Harry Potter canon is unquestionably an extraordinary achievement. This snobbery isn’t just directed at the fantasy genre either. Romance, thrillers, whodunnits, science fiction, horror and other subgenres are also routinely dismissed as lowbrow by the literary elite.
Of course, in one sense this doesn’t matter. Genre fiction remains as popular as ever, and the authors are justifiably rewarded. Yet this snobbery really sticks in my craw. Somehow when the literary elite have a go at one of my favourite books (such as The Lord of the Rings), it feels like they are having a go at a friend. Therefore I feel honour bound to go on the defensive.
Incidentally, my most recent novel The Birds Began to Sing touches on the power of the written word in general, and the power of genre writing specifically. Click on the link below to order on Kindle from Amazon.
Print copies are also available from Lulu.com: