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Literary Hierarchies and Fanfiction

by Melusina




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, useful.

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 worthwhile.

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 mundane.

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.


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