In Defense of Genre Fiction

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).

tea2

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?

*We would have been good friends if he hadn’t died fifty years before I was born. I just know it. I would love to have tea with him instead, although he would probably eat more than his share of scones.

35 thoughts on “In Defense of Genre Fiction

  1. The saddest part to me is that she wants to deny other people the pleasure of reading romance– what some want and like. It’s okay to not enjoy a certain genre, but that doesn’t give a person the right to eradicate it and deny it to others. Free speech and all, she has the right to criticize, but it’s a two way street. We have the right to write happy endings. BTW I love G.K. Chesterton! Tea with him would be amazing!

    • Agreed! There are several types of books I tend to avoid, but I’m happy to admit that other people seem to like them and that’s fine by me. 🙂 And yes, there are several authors no longer alive who I’d love to have over for tea.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  2. Love this article – as stated, there is so much craziness in the world, a happy ending does the heart good. I don’t care if it’s sappy or predictable. And if a book causes me to cry or laugh along the way to the happy ending, so much the better. Thank you, again, for this article!

  3. How honest! I do feel like admitting you read romance novels and like them gives people the opportunity to judge you, like you’re not intellectual enough or hold unrealistic expectations. Romance authors and readers alike can be pigeonholed because of our love of romance novels. But, I love them because they give me all the feels. They make me laugh, cry, think, empathize, and discover truths/revelations. And the story may be predictable with its ending, but they make me happy and bring joy to my day. As for the authors, they put a lot of time, thought and energy into their work for their books to be cast aside as unimportant or a waste of time without being given a proper chance. I just want to say thank you to all the romance writers who take the time to write what God has pressed upon their hearts. It is important, it is appreciated, it is loved. Thank you.

  4. I love this! In December of 2016, I won a writing contest for arguing this exact point. I’ve had lots of people argue that I should try writing something of more “value”, but what they don’t understand is that my genre fiction, Christian romance in particular, is of value to me.
    My walk with Jesus has changed drastically because of my characters and the obstacles they face. And in turn, I can only pray it does the same for my readers.

  5. What a sad day when we can’t even enjoy a little extra romance in our reading. Romance is part of life and small moments have a big impact on our lives. True, there are a lot of other books to read and that is the beauty of the choices we have. However, I enjoy this genre and there are moments when I cry, laugh and thank God for the life I have. These moments of reading are the moments I am sure my mother hoped I would find when she instilled her love of reading in me with frequent visits to the library. How dry and dull life would be without these wonderful books. Thank you Bethany House for continuing to publish this genre. I have never returned one of your books to the library or put aside a purchase for undesirable content as I have from a seemingly innocent books written in poor taste. I don’t like the gratuitous inclusion of topics or character traits popular today that are added as fluff to sell a book. Nope. Bring on more cream puffs for I would enjoy another cup of tea and divert the conversation toward one of the delicious new books on the shelf.

    • I love the concept of the beauty of choice, Mardell. How lovely that we live in a world where there are a variety of genres and styles so that all readers can find something they enjoy. I’m glad you’ve found plenty of favorites, including some from Bethany House.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  6. I am pretty sure I read that original post and thought how gracefully you handled it. I overheard a similar comment from a church member standing in our church library, which of course bruised my spirit, because like you, I love all genres and can appreciate them in a myriad of ways. Just as our Lord God used different genres when He wrote the Bible . . . poetry, hymns, history, genealogy, parables . . . I would be shocked to learn that there is only one way to write a good story.

    • This particular incident was a message to our page, but it has come up at other times in various ways. 🙂 I like your example of genres in the Bible…so true, Rebecca!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  7. Looooooove! (Also, now I just want to have tea with you sometime, Amy!)

    Sort of in the same vein, I often hear genre fiction, romance especially, sort of waved off as “fluff.” And I always want to say: “But…do you consider your relationship with your significant other as ‘fluff’?” Haha! Of course, I suppose that counter reply doesn’t work so much if the other person is unattached or otherwise opposed to love/romance for some strange reason. lol! But still. Love and romance, to me, is such a universal, relatable thing…for all its light moments, romance is also this heady, sweeping thing. It’s something God created! So I just can’t see it as fluff!

    Anyway, I love this and I love romance (reading, writing and experiencing it!) and honestly, it took me awhile to be able to say that without feeling a little silly, perhaps even a little less-than as an author…but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it’s an essential part of who I am. It’s part of what makes me me. And I love that there are readers and fellow writers who have that same romantic bent and aren’t ashamed of it. 🙂

    • Anytime you’re in Minneapolis, let me know! I know of a great tea place. 🙂

      I like your comeback, Melissa, both the sassy part and the thoughtful one. An excellent perspective as someone who actually writes romance. Keep on writing stories that you (and other people) love!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  8. I love well written Christian fiction. As a teen when I was going through a time when I didn’t read my Bible and was drifting from the Lord I would read Lori Wick’s books. She had the word in there and God showed me revelations through her books. Well written, spirit filled, Christian fiction is a gift for those who love to read!

  9. I love Christian fiction. And I love happy endings. Not everything has to be deep or philosophical. Most of the time I like to read some just to enjoy it. Please keep publishing books we can enjoy reading.

  10. I love the wit and wisdom of GK Chesterton! It makes me happy to know that you are a fan, too.

    I was recently discussing romance novels with someone who said “Aren’t they all essentially the same story? Boy meets girl – loses girl – wins her back – they live happily ever after?”

    I responded that perhaps that was true to some extent, but that there is an amazing amount of creativity being applied even to that simple formula & it is that creativity that fascinates me.

    I loved fairy tales when I was young – which certainly have been proven to have value & a place in the development of young people’s character & conscience – and to me, romances are adult fairy tales. It IS a good and worthwhile thing to be reminded of what it means to be noble & virtuous versus self-serving & villainous. To be reminded of what we should ASPIRE to be.

    The happily ever after is only fiction to unbelievers. We may not get to experience them in this life, but we know there’s going to be one. Romances are uplifting because they allow us to envision what happily ever afters can be like.

    So, that’s pretty much it in essence: romances are uplifting & keep my soul from getting sad or weary. How can anyone say that’s not a worthwhile thing?

    • I love your insight on this, especially in what characters teach us about morality. That’s great! Another good reason to read books with happy endings. 🙂

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  11. I am a little late to this party–behind on my email reading! I must tell you I feel the same way that you do, Amy. I have given considerable thought to the genre’ fiction that I do love to read, versus classic literature. My son and I debate this occasionally. While I enjoy some classic literature and contemporary fiction literature, I usually prefer Christian fiction. My son says “mass market” fiction is about things that happen to people, while literary fiction is about the people, basically. I defend Christian fiction to anyone. I enjoy it and always come away with a lesson learned or a thought to ponder. That’s enough for me. I read for entertainment and a little escape or mental vacation! Thank you so much for your thought provoking post.

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