People like stuff that you don’t. That’s OK.*

I have a question for the commentariat: Why is it that some substantial sub-set of the proponents of (genre, sub-genre, literary kink) X always feel the need to attack (genre, sub-genre, literary kink) Y? With Y usually being either the hot new thing, or an old long term best-selling thing?

I think that the attacks are supposed to come across as serious people being serious about important issues in the literature that they love, but mostly what I see is something that looks very like insecurity and tantrum throwing. Not always, of course, but with frightening regularity. This seems especially true in the current steampunk kerfuffle.

For context, the science fiction and fantasy genresphere has been having a spat lately about the merits of steampunk in which many on the two sides are flinging great gobs of words at each other like punctuation-laden poo. It’s not pretty and in many cases it seems to be a mix of sour grapes and tribalism, and it looks just like every other variation of this argument we’ve had for the last fifty years. The only real difference being which (genre, sub-genre, literary kink) we’re arguing about.

It seems to me to boil down to the idea that one’s personal favorite type of writing is the only type of writing that other people should love and pay attention to, and that anyone who disagrees that one’s pet (genre, sub-genre, literary kink) is the one true form of worthwhile writing is a moron. The argument tends to be expressed in one of two ways:

1) I want more of my stuff, and why isn’t everyone writing and publishing that? “Waaaaah!” *POUT* It is often accompanied by the stomping of rhetorical feet and tearing of hair. It mostly looks like highly articulate toddlers throwing a tantrum because the world isn’t treating them and  their pet interests as the center of the universe.

2) How can anyone believe that Y is worthy of their attention and dollars? Y is immoral and anti-intellectual or just plain bad. The people who read/write it are dupes/exploiters or simply uncultured. If people really understood the underlying dynamic of Y they’d realize that and come over and read X, which is the one true way. It mostly looks like even more articulate toddlers throwing a tantrum because the world isn’t treating them and their pet interests as the center of the universe.

It’s happening now within the genre with steampunk. It’s ongoing as a constant sort of low level warfare between some of the proponents of the various genres(**): Hard SF looks down on Fantasy. SF and Fantasy look down on Romance. Literary Fiction looks down on everybody, etc. It will almost certainly flare up tomorrow with some other set or subset of the literary world.

And whenever I encounter it I think: People, get a freaking grip!

Not everyone likes what you like, and that’s okay. In fact it’s wonderful and healthy and necessary for the survival of a culture. Diversity of thought and idea and taste plays an important part in our ongoing survival as a species. It drives some of us to try that funny looking new fruit, or to accept that those who don’t look and think like us are people too, or to take a long walk over the hill and find out there’s cool stuff over there.

The tendency of people to act as though stuff they don’t like is awful and bad for the culture if not downright immoral is one of the human tribal reactions that I find least attractive. It’s genre fundamentalism and it’s ugly and petty and basically unhealthy, both for the culture and for the head of bile it builds up within the person in question.

Does this mean I’m immune to the impulse? Of course not. There are sub-genres I think are stupid or hateful or bad for people. When my stuff doesn’t sell as well as somebody else’s stuff I get a little jealous and pouty. Hey, I’m human. However, I really do try to throttle it down because it’s bad for me and indulging the impulse is bad for the culture.

If you were a geek in school you probably remember what it was like to have the cool kids looking down on you for loving Star Trek or Dr. Who or for reading those funny Lord of the Rings books. This impulse to say my (genre, sub-genre, literary kink) is good and your (genre, sub-genre, literary kink) is bad is an expression of that exact same sentiment. It was ugly then and it’s ugly now and those of us who’ve suffered from it really ought to know better. So why do so many of us keep doing it?

——————————————————————–
*I posted the initial rant version of this essay over at Wyrdsmiths and it got enough attention there that I thought it was worth the effort to expand and clean it up for a broader audience.

**Please note that this following section applies to some proponents of given (genre, sub-genre, literary kink) X, not all.

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There are 12 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    Don’t forget the politics. Sometimes it comes out so clearly in the attack that you can see: the people who write this disagree with me and so must be writing nonsense.

  2. 2. Andrew A. A.

    Respect and Defense. Its hard when something you enjoy is harped on for whatever reason. It makes people close doors to other experiences. I like fantasy and you tell me its trash then i don’t want to read your hard-sci-fi.

    The well established genre’s have huge support and people like the feeling of belonging and stick with the “well if the New Yorker, Times, and Oprah, like it and millions of people read it then it will be good.” How dare you say anything against the majority. Add bestselling genere ficiton or being at a genre conference and the same arguements will come out.

    My Opinion Matters. You ask for my Opinion and I give it to you and then you disagree; I look for support to my opinion, you look for support for your opinion and we argue with nobody really winning just a lot of heat. And in all honesty that’s okay.

    I hate the last book of a YA fantasy book (coming to theaters soon) with a passion. i don’t believe in anthing that was accomplished, plotted, how it ended or the story it was trying to tell. I don’t believe the author followed her own outline and was forced to get a book out. That opinion is mine and has caused me to go into a fury like no other book and into battles with opposing forces that has at time gone down into tears (my own -ha!). It is best not to get me into a discussion about that book, its popularity or the movie coming out. Why? Cuz I wanted to love it and I didn’t.

  3. 3. Douglass Smith

    They’re good points you make about taste. I’ve posted a few things over the last weeks on my blog.

    You ask why many of us “keep doing it”. I suppose we do because it’s fun to argle bargle, and we feel the need to try to convince ourselves that what we’re doing is ‘the best’.

  4. 4. --E

    Diversity of thought and idea and taste plays an important part in our ongoing survival as a species.

    –>This statement strikes me as a little ironic. Sometimes a (genre, sub-genre, literary kink) gets out of hand and takes over the market, as the recent “if it doesn’t have a vampire in it, we don’t want it” phenomenon demonstrates.

    Yes, things without vampires were bought and published. But the proportions were waaaaaaaaay off. I read practically nothing for two years because everything looked to be chasing the market, rather than the honest inspiration of authors writing what they most wanted to write.

    Look, I read Kim Harrison, so obviously I’m not anti-vampire. What I am is anti-market chasing, because that results in mediocre work that would never sell except that publishers are desperate to capitalize on consumer demand.

    I blame the authors about 30%. Some of them may genuinely like that hot market category (be it vampires or zombies or steampunk) and were just waiting for their particular love to become popular.

    Mostly I blame the publishers–or more specifically, certain lazy Marketing/Sales departments who want the easy labor of “hey, I didn’t read the book and I don’t know if it sucks, but it’s in the hot category!”

  5. 5. Stuart Clark

    I’m with –E on this one.

    I don’t think it’s so much people attacking a sub-genre because they don’t like it but more because they have a feeling that said sub-genre that they don’t particularly care for is being thrust upon them. Whether that perception is correct or not is another thing (Steampunk appears to be all the rage but go to the SF&F section of any bookstore and you’ll find plenty of other books to read that aren’t Steampunk).

    I think people see the “market-chasing” that –E talked about and they don’t like it. If Steampunk isn’t their thing, then they don’t want to see the market flooded with Steampunk books – and that’s where I think the attacks originate from.

    Again, as I mentioned above, there are PLENTY of books out there to read if you don’t want to read Steampunk, but then I guess it comes down to do you want to read a new book, or do you want to read a “new” book – and the feeling is, everything “new” is Steampunk.

    Maybe people should try getting outside of their comfort zones and make some effort to try some new authors (like you), perhaps. ;-)

    You can’t blame the publishers for jumping on the latest hot sub-genre, especially at a time when their industry is going through a complete identity crisis, but I fear it could backfire on them horribly.

  6. 6. Kelly McCullough

    Oh hey, look at that. A bunch of people checked in while I was offline. Thanks for all the comments.

    Mary, oh yes, there’s lots of politics involved.

    Andrew, that’s part of my point really. If it doesn’t get started in the first place there’s really no need to counter-attack.

    Douglass, it’s tough. On the one hand I really appreciate discussions about the relative merits of different piece of literature and art and would never want to stifle that impulse. On the other hand I think that the human tendency to map our tastes onto some sort of cosmic good/bad matrix leads to a lot of nastiness.

    E—I’ve yet to see that happen in any meaningful way (with the possible exception of western as a genre). Certainly things may get larger or smaller market shares, but as long as a given sort of fiction has an audience it seems to continue to be published. For example, despite much complaint to the contrary there’s still plenty of Hard SF getting published, probably more in absolute numbers than there was a decade ago. It’s just that it’s a much smaller percentage of the SF&F market because other things have expanded into the field. The appearance of something one loves being driven out of the field is not necessarily the same thing as having it actually vanish.

    Stuart—I’m not sure that I see the phenomena of market chasing in quite the same way. Generally the reason one sees more of fiction type X appearing is that readers want it. With shelf-life being so brief as it is these days, you wouldn’t see a huge fiction X (vampires for example) shelf presence if there weren’t readers snapping those books up.

    Publishing is a reader-driven business and if there’s a big market for something, it’s because a lot of readers want to read it. I’m not sure how giving readers what they want comes out as a bad thing. I know it can be disheartening to find that the number of readers who want what you want is not as great as the number of readers who want something you really don’t want, but I’m not at all sure how that’s the fault of either the writers or the publishers.

  7. 7. Will

    Great piece! I think criticism can be categorized at least 3 ways:
    1) Is the sub-genre a valid form of fiction? – which this piece addressed
    2) Is the message(s) of a work a valid message? – which, of course, will depend on the reader’s own values
    3) Is the piece well written? As a life-long sci fi fan & an occasional reader of fantasy, I wonder how these literary fiction prize winners are better than the work of my favorite authors.

  8. 8. Daemon

    One of the biggest problems is that the people who rant the loudest for one genre and against another are often the ones who have read neither genre extensively enough to make a viable argument. The most annoying are the ones that refuse to admit that something is in a given genre simply because they dislike that genre.

  9. 9. Kelly McCullough

    Will, thanks for the comment. Your number one is a category that’s always made me uncomfortable because it assumes a number of things I don’t buy into, which is a big chunk of why I wrote the post. First it assumes that there is such a thing as invalid fiction, which I’m unwilling to concede. Second, it assumes that there’s someone with the standing to decide what is and isn’t valid fiction, and likewise. One reason I’m so uncomfortable with the idea is that it’s very closely related to arguments that have historically been used to denigrate the art of women and minorities with phrases like, “oh but that’s just romance it’s not real literature.

    Daemon, very good points.

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Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.

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