I’m not usually that affected when famous people die: it’s sad and all, of course, but mostly it’s time for a moment’s reflection, then you get on with your day. This week I’ve been reading two very different books by two very different people, both of whose deaths hit me harder than normal, because they felt like such a big part of my life: Carrie Fisher and Terry Pratchett. Both books are honest, funny, wise and moving – all the more so because you realise it’s the last thing of theirs you’ll likely read. Both, in their own way, also felt like they shed useful light on my own art.
While Fisher’s The Princess Diarist has a gimlet eye for sexism and the double standards that come with it and so is a useful primer for Hollywood, Pratchett’s A Slip of the Keyboardis a collection of non-fiction that is a must for any writer.
He talks not only about the oddness of literary fame, but the inherent sexism too often found in fantasy (his chapter on the reason there are no male witches or female wizards is fascinating) but also the snobbery and dismissiveness around writing what is classed as ‘genre’ fiction. Fantasy is not serious, so people who write it are not serious writers – if someone literary (say Margaret Atwood) writes it, it magically becomes transformed into something that is no longer genre. (He also neatly skewers the elitism that often accompanies this, saying ‘magic realism’ is a term used by reviewers to mean ‘fantasy by someone I went to university with’).
It’s a topic I’ve written about myself – though obviously he is, ahem, just ever so slightly more eloquent – and it made me think not only about how other people see my books, but also how I do. Because as well as writing contemporary fiction, I’ve written in genres that are routinely dismissed as ‘silly books for silly girls’ – romance and paranormal. And it does affect how people view them, and talk about them (or don’t – I have friends who will enthusiastically praise my books to me, having clearly read them in some detail, but would never admit to reading them to anyone else: yes, guys, I have noticed). But it also affects how I treat them myself. It’s like (and in fact is, I would attest, related to) internalised misogyny: it’s easy to find yourself judging things by criteria you never agreed to, and don’t even actually believe in.
I’ve found myself adding a disclaimer, an apology, making sure whoever I am interacting with knows I am making no great claims for my books or, conversely, emphasising that though they seem superficial, they touch on weighty topics: they are feminist and diverse, they deal with issues such as sexuality, bigotry, racism, class and the toxic erosion caused by loneliness. But honestly, why do I bother? If Terry Pratchett – with the benefit a knighthood and 50 million sales or so behind him – still had to defend himself against the idea that he wasn’t a ‘real’ writer, then clearly I can’t fight it. But I can stop joining in.
It seems like every couple of months another storm kicks off on Twitter when some genre or other is dismissed as trivial, its readers undiscerning and stupid: romance, children’s, YA, anything to do with vampires, even – sometimes, though less often – crime (often – surprise! – in any field where readers or authors are predominantly female). Of course, there are crappy books in those genres, but there’s also about a thousand too many ‘literary’ novels about a middle aged white guy having a midlife crisis: dross is everywhere. And so what if the reader isn’t ‘discerning’, by whatever standards some Times or Guardian journo has chosen to define that? Maybe they just want a few hours’ escapism from a shitty or demanding job, the stress of childcare, the grind of a world that is fast doing its own imitation of a YA dystopia. Or maybe a cheesy romance with an easily obtained Happy Ever After genuinely feels more real to them than a book about a middle class novelist having an existential crisis?
Many YA and romance books offer clear-eyed, compassionate takes on major topics, from rape to mental illness, loss, ageing, divorce and dysfunctional families. Sci-fi and fantasy can be a way of exploring our own world’s attitudes and social constructs: Pratchett wrote witheringly – and with great humanity – about everything from people trafficking, class and extremism, to the destructive nature of unchecked capitalism. But that’s not serious fiction, right?
I’m not saying everyone should go out and read a genre they hate (even though they might be pleasantly surprised). Personally, I’m not a fan of high fantasy or hard sci-fi (ironically, perhaps, since I devoured both in my youth), but I see that an expression of my personal taste, not a sweeping judgement either on those kinds of books or the people that enjoy them. So maybe, in the same way I try not to fall into the trap of dismissing genre books by other people, I need to stop doing that to my own. They won’t cure cancer: but that’s not what they are for. Sure, they are feminist and smart, but they’re also just fun, entertaining reads that you can turn to if the world outside starts to press in a little too hard. I just want people to enjoy them. It’s probably time I just let myself enjoy them, too.
Like my writing? Help support it by downloading one of my books!
Paranormal snark – Dark Dates: Cassandra Bick Chronicles: Volume 1
Rom-com with bags of Northern charm (and minor sweariness)The Bridesmaid Blues
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