Have you ever felt the urge to hide the cover of the romance novel
you were reading? Why is the romance trashy, but the biography of Charlotte
Bronte virtuous? Why do so many fanfic readers and writers feel compelled
to hide their hobby?
There's a firmly established literary hierarchy in
America (and probably the rest of the Western world as well, certainly it's
grounded in ideas that predate the colonization of the Americas). We may not
always be aware of it, and it doesn't apply in every instance, but it's the
foundation of how we judge literary merit and how we decide whether a
particular text is "worthwhile."
Nonfiction is considered more worthy than fiction. The idea that fiction is
vaguely suspect isn't a new one. From the earliest romances and novels, the
academic and literary establishment has looked askance at fiction.
Historically, it's been associated with women and young people - escapist
dreck that stimulates emotion and lust, and transports the reader to a world
that never was. Nonfiction, on the other hand, is serious, factual, proven,
Some kinds of fiction have lost the stigma they once enjoyed. "Literary"
fiction is now viewed as legitimate. It's hard to define exactly what makes
a book literary fiction rather than popular fiction - factors include the
author's reputation, exploration of "larger themes," and above all, a
concern for the craft of writing and the use of language, rather than the
art of storytelling. This doesn't mean that literary fiction can't tell a
good story - one of my favorite novels, A. S. Byatt's Possession, is
categorized as literary fiction, despite the fact that it's a fascinating,
tangled literary mystery and romance full of intriguing plot twists But in
general, storytelling isn't the first concern of literary fiction.
Older texts, if they survive, eventually get grandfathered into literary
fiction, under the subset "classics." It doesn't matter if they were
originally popular fiction designed to entertain and spin a good yarn, any
novel or story written more than 100 years ago is generally accepted as
Popular fiction, and especially genre fiction (novels or stories that follow
recognizable conventions and formulas), is considered merely
entertainment - disposable books that you read and throw away, something to
be a bit embarrassed about. Yes, academia has recently become enamored with
all forms of popular culture and entertainment, and so there's a trend for
academics to study popular fiction. But it's all done with a kind of remove,
like a scholarly parlor trick, as if it were some kind of joke that the
weight of academic scrutiny is being applied to something so trivial and
Even in genre fiction, there's a hierarchy, which can be summed up neatly -
any genre associated with men is accorded more approbation than one that is
primarily associated with women. This rule applies not only to larger
categories, but also to sub-sets within them. So spy novels aren't as
laughable as romances, and hard boiled detective stories and police
procedurals are more reputable than cozy country house mysteries.
What's important in popular fiction (and even more so in genre fiction) is
an emphasis on storytelling - plot and character are given more weight than
thematic elements, imagery, and elegant phrasing (not to say that genre
fiction can't be well written). What I noticed when I started thinking about
the differences between literary and genre fiction, was that, because of the
emphasis on storytelling, in genre fiction all the narrative kinks are
closer to the surface - the plotting is more formulaic, plot devices and
character archetypes are more broadly drawn and more easily recognized. As I
reader, I find myself responding to these elements more viscerally than I do
in literary fiction, where they tend to be buried, transformed, and
submerged beneath the writing.
All of this applies to fanfiction as well. If anything, the narrative kinks
tend to be even closer to the surface, more noticeable, perhaps because
there's little need for backstory or exposition. If genre fiction relies on
convention and pares away the writerly flourishes of literary fiction, then
fanfiction relies even more on the reader's knowledge of the source
material, paring away even more of the "extraneous" writing, and laying bare
the underpinnings of the story. Fanfiction is composed of one high point
after another (sex scenes, meaty character revealing moments, or plot
twists), with all the dull but usually necessary bits stripped away.
Fanfiction is storytelling boiled down to it's essential elements; is it any
wonder that so many readers find it appealing? And given the dubious view
our culture takes of storytelling, amateur writing, and literary fields
associated with women, it should also be no surprise that fanfiction is
viewed as an artistically and morally compromised endeavor.