WHY GENRE FICTION IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER
It was a time when a growing number of people found themselves robbed of their dreams. It was a time when we saw literal fascism on the rise. It was a time when oppression turned to totalitarianism.
I’m not talking about 2018. I’m talking about early 1900 America, when genre fiction—particularly noir—came to great prominence. The people of the 1930s survived the Great Depression and World War I, their spirits already broken, only to then see the rise of literal fascists, totalitarians, and bigots who wore their symbols proudly.
And in the midst of this were genre fiction writers. Fantasy, science fiction, mystery/thriller, romance, even the inklings of what would become the modern YA genre. They told stories that asked the questions few were willing or able to ask.
These writers compelled readers to think CRITICALLY and take action, to recognize and integrate the marginalized, to offer safety and security and above all a RECKONING for those whose only choices were to be abused, forgotten, or erased.
Whereas fantasy and science fiction writers presented their social criticism indirectly, writing about the future or other worlds to represent political and cultural voices that had been removed from public debate, suspense writers discussed “the devastating effects of American capitalism on society's marginal people” through crime thrillers.
Even genre fiction containing more obvious, explicit social and political commentary escaped condemnation because critics dismissed them as vacuous forms of entertainment.
That’s right. According to critics, genre fiction couldn’t inspire dissent because genre fiction had nothing substantial to say.
Sound familiar, writers?
It was here that genre fiction took an extremely dark turn.
Mystery/thriller evolved into NOIR. Noir writers didn’t want to offer a single hint of escapism. They subverted reader expectations simply by showing the world at its worst. Hard work and good intentions for damn sure didn’t guarantee success in the real world. Where did that leave us?
What did that mean for main characters? Well, there might be another parallel here. If they saw that being heroic didn’t earn justice, why should they give a damn? If playing by the rules didn’t help, why not play dirty? If being polite meant indulging the worst impulses of their oppressors, why not embrace being rude as hell?
These questions drove noir storytellers to invent the anti-hero, a character who might have noble ambitions but didn’t require noble methods. In a world where value was defined within civility, noir heroes decided that sometimes, the kind thing to do was to fight. To shout. To play dirty. To be rude as hell if that was what was needed.
Evil, you see, can afford to be polite because it assumes full knowledge of the ways it is cruel and how to justify it.
It’s goodness that values kindness, and kindness means standing up for the downtrodden, marginalized, and abused, even when that means making enemies of those who don’t mind doing harm.
Suspense writers create situations where the audience must question the significance of choices reduced to what Kenneth Lincoln describes as “brute survival or massive robbery or corporate slaughter.” James Cain’s classic noir stories, for example, show a world where there is no law but chance. And yet as hopeless as that sounds, it’s in this desperation that genre fiction writers subvert convention and return the possibility of dignity to characters, no matter their end.
Genre fiction doesn’t so much repudiate the ideas of justice, love, and truth, so much as expands them to integrate diverse forms of self-creation. The world will go on its way without regard for human desires and concerns, but an unshakable fate doesn’t deprive our characters from contributing to their destinies with every decision they make.
The early 1900s wasn’t the first time writers weren’t taken seriously, and as we can see clearly today, it won’t be the last. This isn’t the last time that someone will tell you that what makes you different makes you weak. Or worse, that what makes you YOU somehow means you’re broken.
You already know this, but I still like saying it. You’re not broken. You’re not weak. The things that make you different make you YOU, and the things that make you YOU make you strong.
Genre fiction has never been more important, in part because it is still a vital mechanism for change. And most of all because the critics of that change still keep underestimating you.
They want you not just afraid but panicked and reactionary. Panicked people are easy to manipulate. But deliberate acts of bravery inspire others precisely because of the courage they require.
We can’t stop being afraid, and maybe we shouldn’t. But we can choose not to be panicked. We can choose to make choices in the face of terror. Terror, you see, is often the birthplace of true courage.
Now let’s be brave. Keep writing. Keep fighting. We’re in this together.