The Blessings and Curse of Genre Literature

photo-1024x764On June 19th in a mad high of excitement and sleep deprivation, I posted this as my status on facebook:

284 pages and 79,081 words later I have finished the first draft of my first book! I am feeling very thankful and excited. Now it’s time to start the editing process!

I had so much fun for the next day or two as I had people from all of the different parts of my life congratulating me about finishing my first draft.

But then came something that I didn’t really expect. People started asking me what my book is about. The first few times people asked me this, I’m pretty sure I babbled incoherently for several minutes, floundering to find a way to encapsulate what I had written in a few sentences. I have it pretty nailed down now, and it goes a little something like this:

Friend: “So what is your book about, Em?”

Me: “It’s a murder mystery…with superheroes on the side…” * hangs head *

I was talking to several people about it last night, and I realized with horror that I was embarrassed to admit that there are superheroes in my story. I shouldn’t be ashamed of my superheroes. I am very passionate about comics (though the New 52 has dampened that fervor slightly… Scott Snyder, we need to have a serious chat). But sometimes people give me this knowing smile when I explain that my book a.) contains superheroes and b.) is written for a young adult audience. They stop taking me seriously.

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Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001.

I’m angry at myself for allowing other people to make me feel embarrassed for what I write, and I am not the only one who feels this way. I just finished reading a collection of essays called Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which, shockingly, is partly about comic books and superheroes.

Maps and Legends at first seems like a hodgepodge of essays. There are essays on Sherlock Holmes, Norse mythology, Cormac McCarthy, comic books, and children’s books. But looking back on the book as a whole, I understand what Chabon set out to do with these essays—he set out to expand readers’ horizons and our understanding of what “serious” fiction can be.

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Chabon’s collection of essays seeks to break down the barrier between “Literature” and “genre fiction”.

Sure, we all know about the Canon of Literature—a list of books by dead white guys that we all read in high school. These books are Classics, with beautiful prose and deep themes that we can still analyze and deconstruct today. But there are other books that, as Chabon writes in the essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story” are stuck in the ghettos of bookstores, that are considered “genre fiction”—science fiction, high fantasy, children’s literature, young adult literature, etc. You know, the things that you would find on NPR’s Guilty Pleasure list, in which writers talk about the books that they enjoy but are embarrassed about reading because they are not considered ‘Literature.’

Chabon writes, “The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as ‘guilty pleasures’ (a phrase I loathe). A genre implies a set of conventions—a formula—and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is supposed to be) of all formulas and templates.”

Genre books, Chabon argues in Maps and Legends, can also be complex, lyrical, and have deep themes and characters, even though they take place in space or have people running across rooftops in spandex. As an avid reader of young adult fiction, I know that writers such as Markus Zusak, Maggie Stiefvater, Melina Marchetta, and John Green know how to tell good stories, write compelling characters, and string together wonderful sentences. The young adult genre is filled with innovation, creativity, and experimentation.

I wrote what I wanted to write and I had so much fun doing it.  So the next time someone asks me what my book is about, my goal is to hold my head high when I answer.

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Michael Chabon with three of our mutual friends.

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