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Genre Prejudice

Monday, July 30th, 2012 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

genreIt’s a lot easier for me to be generous about other genres than it used to be. I’m trying to decide if that has something to do with me mellowing with age, or if it’s because there’s a whole lot more sword-and-sorcery available than there was ten years ago … or if it’s simply that I don’t feel shut out anymore now that I’m writing sword-and-sorcery stories for a living.

Fantasy seems a lot more popular even among the mainstream readers than it used to be, although the dividing line between fantasy and sword-and-sorcery still seems pretty blurry. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to define the difference, but I often feel like I’m shouting in the wind. The common conception remains that if it’s got swords and magic, it must be sword-and-sorcery, regardless of pacing or the focus of the plot. But let’s set another discussion of sword-and-sorcery aside for the nonce and focus instead on genre prejudice.

I think a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers and readers feel like low faces on the totem pole because their favorite fiction is sneered at by people in the know. A while ago, I started to realize that MOST writers felt like their genre was being kicked to the curb. Horror writers have been going through a hard time now for a good long while. YA writers, well, they “only write YA,” and God help the urban fantasy people, whom are in fashion to be hated. As writers and readers, we all turn up our noses at all the things we find wrong with some one else’s genre. Really, that’s all that’s happening with the literary criticism of genre work. It’s easy for us genre people to detail the things we find annoying about literary fiction, but it turns out lit fic writers feel harried themselves.

When you enjoy a genre — like historical fiction or sword-and-sorcery — there logically must be some aspect of the genre that you like. And there likely are some aspects that others would cite as weaknesses that you either don’t notice or are willing to tolerate. As much as I love the fiction of Robert E. Howard, for instance, I will freely admit that there are few engaging female characters in the vast majority of his fiction. And I must also admit that while the prose may be beautiful, even when it’s grotesque, it’s really not about slow, measured consideration. That’s fine with me a lot of the time, though I wouldn’t want to read it all the time.

muckerBecause I read a lot of older genre fiction, I am used to having to forgive racial and social conventions that make me wince. These attitudes come from the time and region of the writer, thus it always seems fairly absurd to criticize standard outlooks of the time that the writer shared. For instance, recently I discovered more than a share of cringe-worthy attitudes about Mexicans and Japanese on the part of some characters in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel titled The Mucker. Yet looking past that, the novel was surprisingly good. Its second installment (The Return of the Mucker) was far more pulpy than the first; I still enjoyed it, but not as much, for while I have a toleration for pulp, there is a limit to how much coincidence, damsel-in-distress saving, and heroes being knocked unconscious and captured I can endure before I toss a book aside. Other readers have no trouble tolerating any of those issues, but can’t accept the conventions of urban fantasy where vampires are sometimes good guys, or tolerate the technical discussions in hard science fiction.

Lately, I’ve been wandering out of the fantasy province to read some westerns, a field I’d carefully avoided and now find of great interest for a variety of reasons. I always used to hear pro writers saying to read outside the field and I used to nod knowingly, because I was always reading history books. I felt like I “got it.” Now, though, as I absorb detail after detail about Indian archery and wilderness survival and horse handling from a genre I used to think would be dull as dirt and full of cliche (really, don’t they all have their cliches and conventions?), I truly get it, and wonder how I could have convinced younger Howard to read this stuff sooner. Or to look past sparkly vampire prejudice to see some sparkly dialogue between Bella and Edward. Or to try out some mysteries to see how to build a case or some noir atmosphere.

I don’t think I’m ready to read every genre, or ever will be. Some continue to bore or irritate me, and a few disgust me. But I get now that it’s not that my favorite fiction is better than yours, just that my fiction works for me better than yours does for me. Good, bad, maybe it’s all just perception. I’ve grown a little more willing to try something without thinking it will taste icky just because it’s green. Vegetables aren’t always bad. I could never have convinced four-year-old me of that, but possibly these not-especially-profound conclusions I’ve drawn about genre will inspire some other young writers to venture outside their comfort zone a little, the way I wish I had done sooner, to learn some techniques from other fields a little faster than I did.


Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the historical fantasy novels The Desert of Souls, and the forthcoming The Bones of the Old Ones, as well as the related short story collection The Waters of Eternity, and the Paizo Pathfinder novel Plague of Shadows. You can keep up with him at his website, www.howardandrewjones.com, and keep up with him on Twitter or follow his occasional meanderings on Facebook.

18 Comments »

  1. I think mellowing with age is a factor, although it might not be the only reason you’re becoming more tolerant of other genres. It’s a large part of why I’m becoming more open to literary differences. I’ve discovered now that I’m no longer in my teens or early twenties, I don’t know as much as I thought I did and some of these other genres aren’t that bad after all. Too often I only judge a genre or subgenre by the worst examples.

    Like you I’m also starting to read westerns, a genre I despised as a teenager (in part because that was what my brother read). I’ve always read mysteries, especially of the P.I. and noir variety, and that influence colors a lot of the fantasy and science fiction I try to write. I think there are a lot of things writers can learn from reading outside their preferred genres.

    Thanks for a great post, Howard. It was very thought provoking.

    Comment by westkeith - July 30, 2012 12:15 pm

  2. Thanks, Keith. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Something I wish I’d focused on more in the essay is that ALL genres have their conventions and cliches, be it epic fantasy or literary fiction, and that it’s our willingness to embrace or ignore them that makes it possible to enjoy (or despise) a genre.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - July 30, 2012 12:26 pm

  3. Hey, Howard,

    Westerns? Great idea…

    A few years back Ryan Harvey’s article on Felix Faust (aka Max Brand) inspired me to pick up THE LEGEND OF THUNDER MOON. It completely blew me away. I went right on to read the second book of the series RED WIND AND THUNDER MOON. I’ve always been more of an “Indians” fan than a “Cowboy” fan, so these books about an adopted Cheyenne warrior were right up my alley–Faust’s work has inspired me to bring some Native American influence into my own work. I have also finally obtained copies of the last two Thunder Moon books, THUNDER MOON AND THE SKY PEOPLE and FAREWELL, THUNDER MOON–they are sitting on my to-read shelf like glimmering jewels full of promise. I can’t recommend the Thunder Moon books strongly enough.

    Another thing that’s kept me reading outside the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre is being a teacher. I’ve had to read several books that I probably would have ignored if I didn’t have to teach them, and I’ve discovered some amazing works because of this (another reason I love teaching). From the raw honesty of CATCHER IN THE RYE, to the poetic brilliance of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, to the epic tragedy of TALE OF TWO CITIES, there is usually a reason why works are “canonized” and made staples of literature classes. I used to resist canonized literatuer (except Shakespeare and Poe, whom I always loved), but now I embrace it. Whatever “classic literature” I read in the course of my teaching always impacts my writing in some positive way.

    Great writing is great writing. Damn the genre restrictions and full speed ahead!

    Comment by John R. Fultz - July 30, 2012 1:12 pm

  4. It’s interesting you mention westerns because when I read Plague of Shadows, my initial thought (beyond enjoying the book) was that you had written a western in fantasy/S&S drag. I mean that in a good way. Or another way of looking at it is that westerns and S&S have more in common than is commonly assumed?

    Comment by andy - July 30, 2012 1:14 pm

  5. Familiarity with racial science as taught at the time can make early twentieth-century reading — quite interesting indeed.

    Especially when it prompts you to eye the comments about, oh, the Irish, or the French, or the Scandanavian. . . .

    Comment by Mary - July 30, 2012 10:15 pm

  6. Good, interesting post. It benefit as readers to stretch their reading muscles and see what else is going on out there. It took me several years away from an unpleasant high school teacher to seek out literary fiction on my own. Mysteries I wouldn’t touch till after college. It really is odd how so many genre fans get locked into a little box of their own making.

    Funnily enough, I consider myself a connoisseur of western movies and I’ve never been really able to get into the written form.

    Comment by the wasp - July 30, 2012 11:24 pm

  7. Yes, as Andy said, I do think westerns and S&S have rather a lot in common — usually a lone protagonist or small group, generally trying to do the “right” thing but not always on the side of the law — just using different hardware and facing different foes. And westerns tend not to involve as much tomb-robbing.

    When I was in college, in the summers I’d work in a local bookstore and when things were slow, I’d go see what was on the shelf. At one point I did start reading some L’Amour books — the Sackett series — but I think I stopped reading the series before they actually became westerns. Should go back and revisit them at some point.

    Comment by Joe H. - July 30, 2012 11:49 pm

  8. I’m not much a stickler on genre. I prefer science fiction and fantasy but I’ll read almost anything if recommended by someone whose opinion I value. I’ve noticed that as a writer I always find something interesting, if not entertaining. To me genres are mostly a way to sell and market books. It’s the story that matters most to me.

    Comment by Ndoro - July 31, 2012 12:12 pm

  9. John, you know, it was a combination of Ryan’s elegant praise of Faust and Hocking championing of Ben Haas (John Benteen/Richard Meade/Ben Elliot/Thorne Douglas) that got me to try them. Haas, as Benteen, wrote about a dozen men’s western adventures about a Cheyenne half-breed named Sundance (although other people ALSO wrote as Benteen, and they weren’t as good). While I’ve picked up a number of books by Faust, I haven’t read them yet.

    Andy, I think Joe and you have the nail on the head as far as there being a number of similarities between sword-and-sorcery and the western. The lone gunslinger has a very similar feel and outlook to sword-and-sorcery’s lone hero, or the wandering samurai. The attitude is the same — the rest is stage dressing. Corrupt banker with sinister gunslinger in place of evil wizard with monster.

    Andy, thanks for reading Plague of Shadows. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I took a few cues from westerns with the drafting of that one. My next is going to be taking a few more, and will be lower magic in some ways, at least on the part of the heroes.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - July 31, 2012 12:13 pm

  10. Ndoro, that’s a wise way to approach things; wish I’d clued into it a little sooner.

    Mary, yes, I agree. You really have to be familiar with some of the cultural assumptions that lie beyond the text when you sit down to read older fiction, or you’ll be in for a rude awakening. Some people still take knee-jerk exception to Huck Finn, and Twain was out to show that Jim was a man and slavery a pox on civilization… but he also showed people at the time using a certain word to refer to Jim. That’s all some people can see, not Finn’s wrestling with what he was taught was right and what he knows in his heart is right.

    A lot of these other writers were just using words and attitudes of the time without any sort of higher goal in mind, or understanding, like Twain’s, that these outlooks were poisonous. Anyone who would take objection to Twain night not know what to do with other period writers…

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - July 31, 2012 12:19 pm

  11. Wasp, maybe you just haven’t tried the right western. Unfortunately, I don’t know my way around the field very well myself yet.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - July 31, 2012 12:20 pm

  12. Interesting article on breaking through the genre barrier. I agree with Ndoro. The story is what matters. You referenced Edgar Rice Burroughs. He should be an inspiration to anyone who wants to explore different genres. He crossed over into multiple genres. But no matter what he wrote, cultural artifacts of the times not withstanding, he always came up with a good story, and often a great one.
    http://johnmwhalen.wordpress.com

    Comment by John Whalen - July 31, 2012 1:45 pm

  13. Great blog post! I think westerns and S&S are closely related genres as you all have expressed. One similarity that they share is the frontier life versus the civilized. Have anyone noticed that the western section of bookstores has been shrinking in the last few decades along with the S&S book titles? I think HAJ is right in that more S&S novels are coming out but this has been, I think, due to the eBook industry booming. Think of the S&S stories that you read first and got you hooked on the genre and chances are they were either a short story or a novella which disappeared from publishing a few years back. Imagine if short stories and novellas were not published back then and list how many books you would have read that were true S&S genre. I think that is why westerns disappeared as well as S&S and why you now see a surge of more stories. The genre, I maintain, will be popular again.

    I didn’t start reading westerns until a few years back. Louis L’Amour is the Robert E. Howard of westerns. Read the stories and you will see the same brand of heroes. Max Brand is great. I’ll have to dig up Harvey’s blog post on him. For those of you who like Indian stories try Don Coldsmith’s Spanish Bit sagas or John Clayton’s Arawak stories.

    For you writers out there you’ll find a goldmine of data useful to your barbarians and ancients in the descriptions of the western scouts, indians, and cowboys. Also, western writers build up their antagonists very well. That tough hired gun that the protagonist is up against could be converted easily to a swordsman.

    I’m glad Howard that you point out Twain’s real view about slavery. The only person Huck could trust and count on was Jim. Even Tom Sawyer betrayed Huck. Those who think that Twain is a racist just didn’t read the story.

    I have read Charles Saunder’s view of REH and he doesn’t count REH as a racist. However, he was hurt that the time period had such hurtful views of non-whites. The cool thing about our time is that the readers live in a new age and the next wave of writers will have heroes of every creed and color that will be acceptable to the public.

    Comment by Wild Ape - July 31, 2012 1:45 pm

  14. Actually, what I’ve noticed is that many of the racial assumptions go right over many modern readers’ heads, because it never dawns on them that the racial dividing lines of the early 21st century were not laid down as we climbed out of the primordial ooze.

    Comment by Mary - July 31, 2012 11:11 pm

  15. I think a lot of the genre boundaries are artificial anyway. S&S and Westerns both have their roots in – call it – Action Pulp. Did most readers care whether it was swords or pistols, magic or history? The same goes for the 21st century. If you read Martin and Gemmel you probably also read Scarrow and Cornwall – the story worlds may be wildly different, but the aesthetique and underlying world view is very similar. We need a new term for Pulp.. “Metal Fic” perhaps?

    Comment by zornhau - August 3, 2012 11:06 am

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