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Rothfuss on Genre Fiction

Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind, has something interesting to say about “genre fiction” in his interview at FantasyBookSpot:

Q: Do genre books play a more central role than others?

A: Actually, I’m going to be irritating and answer your question with a question. What do you mean by genre books?

As time goes on I grow increasingly irritated at the term “Genre Fiction.” It seems to imply that one type of fiction, “Literary” fiction, is the only real fiction, and everything else is its ugly bastard cousin-in-law.

I say unto you. Literary fiction is a genre just like everything else. It has its rules and its foibles just like every other genre. And, like all other genres, 85% of literary fiction is pure shite. Pretentious, self-involved, artsy bullshit that neglects the things that make stories worthwhile. I’m talking about good language, good plot, good characters, and, hopefully, some sort of worthwhile content mingled throughout.

Now, lest people accuse me of being prejudiced, I’d like to say that the same is generally true of the fantasy genre. The difference is that literary fiction tends toward boring, empty stories that are either preachy or vapid. Fantasy, on the other hand, tends towards cliché stories about evil sorcerers trying to destroy the world. About young princes whose coming was foretold by prophecy. Elves with bows, magic swords, broody vampires, unicorns….

Q: Hold on. Unicorns are cliché crap? I thought I read somewhere that The Last Unicorn was your favorite novel.

A: It is, or at least one of my favorites. In fact, that novel is probably the reason unicorn stories have become a little cliché. When someone writes something as dazzlingly brilliant as that novel, people want to imitate it. The result is a lot of less-than-brilliant knock-offs.

Elves, Dwarves, Goblin army, cursed ring, evil sorcerer. Tolkien did it. It rocked. Let’s move on. Let’s do something new.

[via FantasyBookspot forum]

I’m not sure I agree with the automatically-inferred negative connotation of the term “genre fiction”. I suppose it all depends on the speaker’s impression of it. I frequently use that term because it’s a more user-friendly label than “non-mainstream fiction”. Any regular reader here knows my reading preferences stand solidly in the genre camp; I don’t see sf/f as the ugly stepchild of all fiction. In the end, it’s just a convenient handle to put on the thing.

As to the “Tolkien did it…Let’s do something new” comment, well, I’m in full agreement there.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

3 Comments on Rothfuss on Genre Fiction

  1. Genre fiction does exist, and these day there is little left of the once-prevalent condescension of literary highbrows toward the popular literature. Genre fiction is any fiction that forms a category of particular readership taste. Genre fiction is judged as good and bad not on its storytelling quality only, but also on how well or poorly the specific genre standards are met.

    Each genre is a genre because its has standards and conventions unique to itself.

    When a reader is in the mood for a Western, he wants a cowboys-and-injuns story. Even if the good story on other grounds, such as good plot and character, a guy looking to read a Western will not be interested in it if it does not have the particular tropes and props of a Western, or if those props are handled badly.

    If this is unclear, let me use an example. I sincerely doubt any fans of Westerns went to see Will Smith’s WILD WILD WEST, a movie starring a giant steampunk-style spider-machine: or if they saw it, they liked it as a comedy, for its comedic aspects, or as science fiction, for its science fictional aspects, or as an adventure. I cannot imagine anyone going, “Well, I just saw HIGH NOON and THE SEARCHERS, and I want to see something in the same mood and setting and atmosphere, so I think I’ll go watch WILD WILD WEST.”

    Mainstream stories concentrate on story telling only, and have only a single yardstick to judge them by: is OLD MAN AND THE SEA a good tale or not? Genre stories have two yardsticks: first, is it a good story qua story, and second, it is good genre qua genre.

    For example, a horror story that horrifies is a success as horror, even if it is a failure in terms of sheer story-telling, the story as it would be with the horror element stripped out. A romance story that does not have a satisfying boy-girl romance, either a happy romance or a tearjerking tragedy, no matter how good it is as a story, is a failure as a romance.

    A science fiction story is a success as science fiction if it includes that familiar sense of wonder which comes of contemplating what science might tell us, what the future might bring. SKYLARK OF SPACE is a good science fiction story because it is pure SF wonder, without any pause for characterization, and only the sketchiest plot. Why were the Fenachrone setting out the conquer the universe anyway? No one knows and no one cares. We want to see Richard Seaton blow up the Fenacrhone space-battlewagon with his third-order zone of force, assuming he can escape from the fourth-dimensional evil of the hyperplane.

    Naturally, authors who can satisfy both sets of criteria, both the basic story-telling standard and the particular standard of a Western, a Romance, a Detective Story, a Horror story, a Fantasy or Science Fiction story, deserves high praise. It is difficult to do both, maybe impossible for anyone other than a genius. But we should not be too fulsome in our praise, because what the literary reader looks for is not what we look for: we need more than he. Science fiction is harder to write than mainstream fiction.

    Let me use an example to say why. THE SEVEN SAMURAI is a classic of the Samurai story genre. The heart of this story examines the honor of the Samurai class and the unity of the farmer class in Japan. But the story is good without the elements specific to Samurai stories: you could strip out the Samurai elements, and make the story into a western (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) or a cheesy space opera (BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS), or, if you wanted to be really, really lame, a bad swords-and-spaceships anime. But none of these ripoffs have the magnificent power of the original story because all that is being copied is the surface story, not the thoughtful and sad heart of the work.

    In other words, any Science Fiction story that would make a good story with the science fiction elements ripped out, is a bad science fiction story, because then the science fiction elements are shown to be not integral to the work.

  2. “non-mainstream fiction”

    This implies that literary fiction is “mainstream”, and I think if you look at sales figures you generally find only a few of these books(The Corrections and The Life of Pi come to mind) approach the sales of big genre authors.

    My own approach is this: if I’m looking at a trade paperback and it isn’t 3 novels in one, then it’s “literary fiction” and I’ll be bored to tears….:)

  3. No implication intended. I use the term “non-mainstream fiction” to be synonymous with “genre fiction”. Literary-ness and categorization are two separate properties of fiction. You can have literary (and non-literary) sf just as easily as you could have literary (and non-literary) fiction that is not classified as being “genre”.

    Now just don’t ask me to define “Literary”. :O

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