I was at an academic conference some years ago, hanging out at the bar with a bunch of colleagues and editors, when I mentioned that I wrote creative as well as scholarly material. There was some mild interest, though most of it evaporated when I said that I wrote genre fiction, and by the time I had revealed that I wasn’t actually published, there was an embarrassment in the air like an unfortunate smell. Having been published since has altered things some, but it’s amazing how often my colleagues respond to discovering that I publish fiction as if they’ve found out I pose for soft-core magazines or compete regularly at gopher juggling: cautious interest, even admiration, tempered with an impulse to back away smiling and looking for the nearest exit. And I still get the overt sneer from time to time.
Not too long ago a friend and colleague casually remarked to me that in addition to my scholarship I wrote “crap.” He used the term casually, without malice, as if I would readily agree, and he did so not because he thought my fiction was bad (he’s never read it or anything like it) but because to him genre fiction is automatically “crap.”
It’s doubly infuriating to get this from literary academics, but only because I think they should know better (and most do, I think), but it’s maddening from anybody, and though I can shrug it off (mostly) these days without too much thought, I remember how depressing it was to feel thus belittled when I hadn’t been published yet. Because that sneer says all kinds of things, but at the heart of most of them is that cruelest and least easily deflected taunt:
Oh, grow up.
That’s what I hear anyway. What are you, twelve years old, making up stories to tell your stuffed animals? Get real. Get a job. Get a REAL job.
The poison of such jibes, of course, stems from that little voice in some dark recess of my head that thinks they’re right, that there’s something juvenile about imagination, even about verbal expression (gendered, this, I suspect), and that telling stories is absurdly childish.
These arguments founder a little if you are making pots of money off said stories, or winning prestigious literary awards which imply your Mastery of Serious Things, but only a little. As a culture, I think, we value hard, real things: money, numbers, material products, things which go fast, or make us more efficient. (And the reason I get less disdain now, absurdly, is because I now make money off my stories). We enjoy being entertained, but for all those who fetishize the entertainers there are two who think they are charletans, out of touch with the Real World the rest of us live in, delusional creatures who can’t separate the fictions in which they perform from life. And all this is far worse if what you peddle is—guilty even in the name by which it identifies itself—fantasy.
Because there’s Reality, and then there’s Fantasy. Reality might include mystery especially (or so we’re led to believe) the police procedural type of mystery, and if its gritty enough, thrillers (medical, romantic or whatever.) Literary fiction is automatically considered (often wrongly, in my view) to be grappling with reality and there’s a soft area around kids and YA books where fantasy is sort of tolerated because it’s for children (i.e. people who haven’t actually grasped reality yet). The problem area is fantasy for adults.
Of course, if you are an adult who reads fantasy, there’s no problem at all, but when you’re introducing yourself at a cocktail party those people seem curiously thin on the ground. After a while it can start to feel like some nightmare AA meeting:
“Hi, my name is A.J. and I write fantasy.”
To which the room responds (in unison),
“You might want to keep that to yourself, man.”
Am I projecting my own self-doubt and cynicism onto those around me? Probably. But, as I said, the problem is less about other people than the voice in my head (Northern British, working class, male: yes, they’re all relevant) that thinks those people are right. Fantasy? What’s that all about? I mean, it’s not real is it?
And this is where I have to step up and say yes, of course it’s real. I don’t mean I believe in dwarves, vampires, and magic swords or that I long to wear ring mail or space suits. I mean that stories of all kinds are both real and unreal, real in that they are grounded in what we know: language, emotion, character, the drama and struggle of everyday life, unreal in that they are tweaked, ordered, given form and purpose in ways reality rarely has. Writing genre fiction is like sport where the stuff of life—the stamina, the aspiration, the conflict of the quotidian—is focused, regulated and measured within its own logical structures. Genre fiction, like baseball or soccer, contains life in the sense both of holding it inside and restricting it, giving it shape and meaning so its themes are manageable.
Our culture may no longer believe that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world and many may assume that art (yes, art) which they treat as frivolous is necessarily constructed out of frivolity, without purpose or seriousness, but they are wrong. There are few higher callings than those which stimulate the imagination. There are few forms of entertainment that stimulate the mind and heart like a good book, few which do it unobtrusively—where it feels less like work—than a genre novel. Writers perform a public service, but they have to delve into their souls to do it and it’s bloody hard work. We can be proud of what we do, and if it requires us to be child-like—not childish—in our creative process, so much the better. After all, most of what people think of as being grown up (or real) is delusory bollocks.