Recently, I had an exchange with a reader via Facebook message who did not approve of romance novels and wanted to explain why Bethany House shouldn’t be publishing them. Her biggest issue seemed to be that she didn’t perceive genre or commercial fiction, like romances, as having the same inherent value as the classical authors she listed (including Jane Austen, who doesn’t count as a romance author, apparently).
I responded with something vague and polite, but if we had been friends sitting down over a cup of tea, this post is probably what I would have said instead. You’re welcome to eavesdrop on our hypothetical conversation (and enjoy a cup of imaginary tea…I recommend Licorice Spice).
First, I’d say, give me book recommendations anytime! I love literary fiction, and I’ll often pick up a good classic novel. Those books affect me in a special way. They have the power to reshape the way I think and challenge me and let me appreciate the sheer beauty of words and descriptions. Many of them will endure for generations, and that’s amazing.
But do you know what else is amazing?
An author who can keep me up late, turning pages and laughing in just the right pages. A story that transports and entertains me, especially if I learn something interesting by the end. Plots that help me see the world as it ought to be while characters overcome odds and make sacrifices to reach a happy ending. Well-written genre fiction does these things and more.
Oops. Shouldn’t have brought that up, because now my imaginary tea party friend accuses happy endings of feeling fake and untrue to reality.
To which I say I’m sure every now and then there’s a poorly written one that does. But let me tell you, I’ve read three literary novels this year with tragic endings that felt painfully artificial—like the author just wanted to break convention and inject some gratuitous misery into their protagonists’ lives toward the end to make a philosophical point. Besides, with all the craziness in the world, some people prefer unambiguously happy endings, and most at least like hopeful ones. Nothing wrong with that.
My tea, at this point, is getting cold, so I let my friend deliver an extended analogy where she compares genre fiction to fast food—mass produced and cheap but with very little nutritional value.
I disagree as politely as possible. (And I also take the last two cream puffs without shame because, really, she just insulted a lot of authors I love by criticizing their value and implying it’s easy to “mass produce” one of their novels, and that’s just mean.)
To me, the food analogy works better if you say that literary fiction is a presentation-first tray of gourmet appetizers, while truly good genre fiction is the crusty homemade bread you stick in the toaster for breakfast, or the apple you toss in your lunchbag, or the Crockpot soup you have going so it’s ready when you come home from running errands. Not all of it is fancy or rich or exquisitely shaped, but it’s what we love and need for everyday life. As my good friend* G.K. Chesterton put it when responding to similar criticisms of genre fiction: “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.”
Fiction sustain us. We shape our stories, and then they shape us, and not just the ones that are sprawling, articulate tomes or deep, character-driven tales. People read for a lot of good and legitimate reasons—to experience a new time period, to be distracted from a hard reality, to have something to talk about with their friends, to find out what happens next—but it comes down to the fact that we need good stories, and those good stories can be found in almost any section of the bookstore.
Probably, by the end of this conversation, I have not convinced the no-nonsense reader to end her crusade against romance novels and give one a try. But maybe, hopefully, she’s a little more thoughtful about the books she claims aren’t thoughtful enough.
If you’ve ever wondered why genre fiction is worth reading, I hope this is helpful to you. Don’t judge a book by its ISBN.
Sure, there may be rhetorical questions in the back cover copy where you could probably guess the answer.
There may be certain tropes you know to look for—a hero with wounds in his past, a setting you’ve seen before, or a dramatic reveal of a clue.
There may be a cover that looks less traditional and more lighthearted than the good ol’ classic volumes of yesteryear.
But there may also be an excellent story, one that draws you in and makes you ask “what if” and keeps you guessing and gives you a reason to laugh or cry or see things in the shadows that aren’t there or sigh from happiness or generally feel a little more human.
So, now that tea is over, how about taking some time to read a good book?