Writers are aware of how their work–not just their own work but work rather like theirs–is perceived, evaluated, and judged in the world. Writers–as shown by the current WGA strike–are not nearly as highly valued as they used to be, when fewer people could write but many wanted something to read. But this post isn’t about that–the overall devaluation writers across most fields have suffered in recent years. This is about how what people DO read is judged by those who claim the expertise to comment on it. As in most things, for many years white male writers were given a boost by reviewers and critics because they were the group that were “of course” doing the writing. But even then, even in the early days of published writing, there were distinctions. Serious people (scholars, academics, clerics) took some writing more seriously than others. Tragedy was ranked with in its own category from top to bottom (failed tragedies) but when compared with comedy…well, tragedy was *serious*. Comedy was just for laughs. No matter how good a writer of comedies, they would rank below tragedies. Romance in the *old* system (not love stories alone but covering the range now considered popular fiction)…travel stories, adventure stories, politically related stories…lay somewhere between the tragedies and the comedies, with a broad range of assumptions about the specific types.
There were also assumptions about the readers: which were good readers, which were inferior readers wanting only entertainment, and which should not be reading at all (women: reading meant they weren’t working. O horrors! Girls lounging around reading stories instead of sewing, knitting, cooking, cleaning, weaving, embroidering, scrubbing things…) Boys wanted to read entertainment (inferior) and adult men of sufficient quality wanted to read (paging rapidly past what they did read) SERIOUS writing about SERIOUS things like political theory, history, and serious things like accounting and mechanics. (Yes, this may be a simplification.)
But publishing kept happening, and books became numerous enough, cheap enough, and soon writing wasn’t just one occupation but many. Within fiction, it developed quickly into various genres, and then (with the advent of review publications that claimed to divide the worthy from the unworthy) into genre snobbery. Snobbery runs both up and down, by the way. Some readers like one thing, others like another, and competing readerships (fandoms?) developed naturally. But the review publications and university professors continued to play gatekeeper to official approval: books were either in the canon or out, on the basis of what these gatekeepers decreed. Religious arbiters approved only books that accorded with their notions of what people *needed* to read. Improving fiction. Fiction that was designed to, and effective at, making its readers better (whatever better meant to that arbiter.) Academic arbiters approved books that were difficult, on the grounds that nobody had have the easy ones explained…which meant they were useless for the curriculum. C. S. Lewis, for instance, mocked this approach to deciding what books were “good” (needed explication or even “would never be read just for enjoyment.”) Over time, between the early-mid 19th c. and the early-mid 20th, when ballooned and so did reading as an approved recreation for more and more people, the emerging genres were judged firmly by the established arbiters: churches and professors.
Serious fiction was approved. Serious fiction was, initially, all written by white men (women were too flighty to write it), and read by men, and appealed to men of sufficient education. Occasionally a Black man might write serious fiction but if so it must not have any real connection to Black culture, because that wasn’t culture. Women, if they wrote fiction, were assumed to be writing for women readers, and writing about “women’s issues” (family, home, babies, love stories: _Little Women_, or _Pride and Prejudice_, not for instance about politics, war, sex, travel, or “touchy-feely stuff.” Women DID write about male topics and sometimes got published and even read by men, but it was tough going. A woman writing about “women’s issues” knew her work would be devalued, no matter how good the actual writing was. It wasn’t “serious”. Family issues weren’t serious. Children weren’t serious. The work women did was not serious work, though of course they must be made to do it.
Romance in the modern sense, love stories, stories about courtship and love in particular, were considered fit only for women to read, and suited to women writers. Since women–readers and writers–were not as important as men, any genre women read regularly–no matter how well-written–was not going to get favorable mention in the big reviews. Men could indeed write about courtship and marriage–from a man’s perspective–and be considered serious as well as amazingly sympathetic (even when they weren’t.) But the men who wrote romance-genre books for women to read used female pseudonyms.
Now sticking an art form into a less-respected ghetto has the unfortunate effect of lessening its overall quality for some time, especially if it’s popular within its restricted reading group. “Westerns” and “romances” both declined in “average” quality from the first westerns and courtship stories by women that were published. Because neither was well-respected, and there was a definable market, and there was no hope of a Pulitzer for either, publishers had no incentive to be over-choosy. As a voracious and fast reader, I read some of both and quickly moved onto something more interesting because then–in the early to mid-50s–so many in each were just anemic versions of each other. Westerns held me a little longer because horses, but still they were all pretty much alike and the children’s book horse stories had more horse detail. By the time better writers got into both again, I was “past that” and have only in the past decade or so found that *some* romance books are really fun reads, with interesting characters doing interesting things in the context of a courtship. Apologies to the writers I missed out on, that I would have enjoyed. (Also I hated pink, for reasons, and all those pink covers…ick.) Multi[e genres: modern romances, science fiction, most of fantasy, westerns, thrillers, police procedural mysteries, anything that becomes “too popular,” will be excluded from consideration for “serious” literary study and awards consideration, while fiction that explores whatever is currently in vogue in academia will get a pass if it’s well-written enough. There is always enough bad writing in anything called a genre to justify complaint. There is always, however, better writing, better characterization, more complex consideration of relevant issues, etc. than the bottom end. Readers of the genre past their first year of reading in it can tell the difference but will often read at least partway down into the depths because they’re interested in the topics, the type of story.
Which brings up the other complication of genre writing. If you like adventure stories, you want to read more adventure stories. If you like political intrigue stories, you want more of that. If you like stories of certain periods of history, or certain places or cultures in the world, or stories about particular occupations…you want more, and you will read more, and you will also avoid stories about those things that don’t interest you. For many readers, the *content* of the story is more important than the style. As a child I read every book in the town library about dogs and horses before I moved on to airplanes and spaceships (and kept reading about horses…) I learned early that the quality of writing in horse stories goes from Kipling’s “The Maltese Cat” at the top to one of the later “Black Stallion? franchise ghost writers at the bottom (I forget the title, but it was the one about the Black Stallion’s filly-something and it was awful. The original Black Stallion book wasn’t superbly great prose, but it also did not suck…it was lively, colorful, interesting, exciting in places, competent and consistent. Later…no.) Higher up than Walter Farley as horse writers were Marguerite Henry and Dorothy Lyons…and a few others. But nothing, initially, would get me to read E.B. White’s _Stewart Little_ or the one about the spider and the pig. I discovered E.B. White as a writer with his book on Arthur, because I was already hooked on that mythology. Subject matters intensely to many readers. I liked Nevil Shute a lot but not his most famous book, On the Beach…my favorite was Trustee From the Toolroom. I was hooked on Steinbeck all one summer (my mother had a row of his paperbacks) but left him forever with The Winter of Our Discontent. I liked spy stories, mysteries, thrillers (Helen MacInnes, then a bestseller of many good ones), stories of people doing things more than musing about life. I’m not blind or deaf to style, but it’s not what I notice first very, VERY good or pretty bad. This means that I tolerate some pedestrian writing because it’s about something that interests me, and toss other fiction for pedestrian writing because I do not ever want to see another story about young men angsting about how much sex they’re not getting (or getting.)
So judging by the reader I know best (myself) who has read widely from ancient classics to books out in the last few years, who used to be able to zip through 2-3 paperbacks a day (Dick Francis, for instance…then suddenly you *know* that author’s style and sense of structure so well that you pick up the next book and know on which page a horse will die, someone important to the main character will be threatened or injured, and …so on.) I’m not a one trick reader…and I know how I react to topics, styles, attitudes…etc. Judging by that, other people are also affected by all these aspects of a book: its cover, the writer’s first page, the writer’s sense of structure and how much “stuff” goes into each part of the book, the writer’s choice of and handling of different characters, the writer’s assumptions about people, the writer’s complete style right down to the punctuation….and every other thing I’ve mentioned. At root, all judgments on books are opinions. A non-native speaker can write a fascinating book for some native speakers, or can write a book that other native speakers drop after the first paragraph. A book hooks you, glues you to the page, drags you along will-he, nill-he, until either you finish it with a great sense of having had a wonderful time…or not. All whole-genre judgments reflect a lack of experience in that genre, because no genre is homogeneous. It’s not worth arguing with the academics, though, because they won’t listen until they fall in love with a writer hidden in that room and come out all enthusiastic and eager to tell their colleagues. Let them find their special places in your favorite genre on their own.