Thursday 10 March 2011

Literary Genres by Marie-Louise Jensen

I've just read an interesting piece on Stephen Hunt's website, about the invisibility of genre fiction on World Book Night and its general invisiblity in the media. The discussion was mainly about adult fiction, but so many of the points seemed to me to be relevant to the world of young people's fiction, that I feel impelled to look at a couple of them here.
Of course our starting point is that children's fiction is already the Cinderella of the fiction world. But let's leave that aside for now. Martin Amis' offensive remarks have already been responded to thoroughly here.
The general bone of contention is that so-called genre writers feel they are looked down on, ignored and passed over for writers of contemporary fiction. In children's fiction, I would personally refer to that as 'issue fiction' for reasons I will explain presently.
When I first started reading and studying fiction for young people and looking at reviews and esecially prize lists back in about 2004, it struck me immediately that the majority of the books that make those lists are issue fiction. This is particuarly true of the Carnegie prize, where it's rare to see genre fiction, unless it's suitably dark and adult.
Historical fiction is sometimes taken seriously, but woe betide any writers who have the poor judgement to include a love story, because that will relegate them to the trash pile at once. A group of us have recently found that to be true when we considered joining a newly-established history association that has allegedly banned all works of romance from their august and select group.
But is issue fiction intrinsically better or more worthwhile than science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, horror or chicklit?
The answer has to be: of course not. There will be 'good' and 'bad' books in all genres. So why is it so over-represented? It isn't what is read most or sells best. The prize for that would probably go to fantasy, spy books or chicklit publications for that. Any children's author probably knows that it's fantasy that sells best in the foreign rights market, for example.
Chicklit is contemporary fiction, and yet is just as ignored as any science fiction books. This is why I earlier drew the distinction between issue fiction and contemporary fiction. In fact the Queen of Teen award recently drew some most ill-considered remarks from a well-known writer for young people who ought to have known better. She suggested most strongly that it was all trash and criminalised the reading of it.
So why would that author - who is not alone in her position by any means - lift her voice against her sisters in fiction-writing and denounce their work?
I do believe that this snobbishness spreads into our world of children's fiction. That many people like to look down on genre fiction - and chick lit above all is considered fair game by almost everyone. (I noticed Stephen Hunt didn't defend or mention chicklit in his rant. Even he, the defender of genre fiction, probably secretly likes to look down on it; the exploration of women's feelings and relationships a fearful, unknown world to him!)
What I can't explain is why. I think all the genres have an equal amount to offer the population and are all of value, each in their own way. I certainly read the whole lot when I was growing up. From Enid Blyton, to pony stories, to Tolkein to a huge selection of the classics. And I'm quite sure I was all the better for it.


Keren David said...

I completely agree that certain genres of children's literature are undervalued - and I'm curious to see how that will affect my next book, which has a chicklitty cover and quite a bit of both sex and shopping.
But I think you're a little hard on the Carnegie Medal. Looking at the winners from the last nine years, three are historical, four are fantasy/magical realism. Two are contemporary, but not really 'issue' books - Just in Case by Meg Rosoff and Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce. You have to go back to 2000 to find a winner that is a real 'issue' book - Beverley Naidoo's The Other Side of Truth. I think the Carnegie's bias tends to be towards literary prose.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, I agree, Keren. It's not what's written, but how it's written, that counts. Though 'Just in Case' which I have just read and absolutely adored!! is a kind of magical, playful fairytale around a very serious subject indeed - teenage depression. But that's the thing, isn't it - fiction is about life, what makes the difference is how we bounce it around..

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I'm sure you're right, Keren. I just always look at the Carnegie list and think it often looks rather grim and adult for a 'children's' prize list. Of course that's a generalisation though.
The regional prizes, mainly chosen by the children themselves feature quite different books though. Which I always find interesting.
Good luck with the chicklit(ish) book! I shall look out for it! :-)

Leila said...

I do think it tends towards the adult. It tends to be books that the children's librarian enjoyed, rather than the books that the children enjoyed - which is not to say the children won't enjoy the books too, but they are chosen by adults of a particular kind and reflect theur assumptions and tastes. No Alex Rider on there, for example. No Louise Rennison. And those are books that a wide range of children absolutely love.

I agree completely with your final paragraph. I read all sorts when i was a child, and never considered judging (e.g.) Willard Price as better or worse than C S Lewis. They were different, and I needed and wanted both.