O genre, you contentious and poorly understood topic!
From the silly notion that “literary” fiction can’t have sex in it to the facepalm-worthy idea that novels written on cellphones constitute a new genre, we suffer a lot of bizarre delusions when it comes to the distinction between genre and quality.
Some privileged smugsters would like us to believe that literary-quality writing must have a realistic—preferably modern—setting, convey some sort of political message, and rely on the Gadsby-esque stunt of obsessively avoiding common phrases. In other words, the sort of thing that people might write who have (a) relatively little creativity, (b) lots of free time due to not needing a day job, and (c) a desire to smuggle their activist propaganda into your brain under the guise of storytelling.
Even the Hugo Awards—which one might assume would be free of this dust-up since they’re granted for science fiction—fell prey to the conflict, with the Establishment pushing a message fic propaganda paradigm and the Puppy outsiders claiming that the only thing that matters is a popular, rip-roaring story. This Puppy-like standard of quality is also quite common in the rising tsunami of self-publishing authors, for whom sales are the ultimate measure of worth.
DO YOU WANT TO BUILD A SIMILE?
But, there’s a more reasonable way of looking at things, a way that recognizes the weakness of both sides of this argument. (It helps to remember that two disputing parties cannot both be right, but the can certainly both be wrong.)
Imagine literary genres as types of furniture. Different forms for different purposes. Let’s imagine realistic fiction, appropriately enough, as shelves where one might keep books. And, let’s assign chairs to fantasy and tables to science fiction.
Although I didn’t include it in my graphic, you could probably guess that romance would be represented by beds. Although, really, any piece of furniture would do, amirite?
The Establishment types (who are small-C conservatives in mindset, but ironically usually big-L Liberals in dogma) would claim, narcissistically, that furniture means a bookshelf. Even a craptastically constructed bookshelf like Doctorow’s The March, which is a crapfest in a field littered with crapfests., is more literature/furniture than… all that other literature/furniture.
For the illiberal Establishment, it’s a bookshelf or it’s not furniture.
The reactionary types (who are often big-C Conservatives but almost always small-L economic libertarians) would claim that the most functional, popular, and best-selling product deserves the most praise. So let’s have three cheers for that plastic patio furniture you picked up at Walmart to hold you over until you could save up for something that didn’t look like giant Legos! They must sell so much furniture!
These are both repulsively moronic standards. Quality is quality, quantity is quantity, and form is form. Mistaking form for quality, like the Establishment does, is dumb and unfairly excludes most writers. Mistaking quantity for quality, like the reactionaries do, is also dumb and it turns the standard of quality upside-down.