Can Genre Fiction Be Art?


Vision 12


Can Genre Fiction Be Art?


Theresa Smith

Copyright © 2002, Theresa Smith, All Rights Reserved

Can genre fiction really be art? You bet it can! Any form of writing can be art. Unfortunately, not all of it is. When you think of a specific genre an image immediately pops into your head of the 'stereotypical' protagonist of that type of work. Mystery elicits Ms. Marple, Sam Spade, and Lord Peter Whimsy. Space Opera floods us with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and of course, Captain James T. Kirk. The fact that these images are held lovingly in the mind’s eye of millions shows that the writers did it -- they achieved art.

Genre fiction is a several hundred-year-old tradition, at least. Stories about heroes fighting monsters to save the kingdom/ maiden/ magical thing (without which all of society is doomed) have come down to us in forms that pre-date writing by centuries. Not only were these genre stories, but for a very long time, they were also the only form of story anyone bothered with. It sounds dull on the surface, but the very sameness of the heroes and circumstances forced the evolution of new and better ways to deal with the idea of tone, style, and perspective in order to keep audiences coming back. These facets of writing were developed under fairly strict genre requirements. They are now some of the main tools we use to write any modern work from play to short story to novel. The fact that the Pied Piper is still leading the rats away and making the cheating villagers pay for their duplicity after about four hundred years makes him an icon, and his story art.

Art is that which speaks to our souls. The characters mentioned above and hundreds of others from various genres do just that. They speak to us clearly, eloquently, and in their own voices. They tell us stories set in places we’ve never been about things that never happened. And we believe them. Not only do we believe them, we move on to extrapolate insights from those fictional events, which enhance our everyday lives or illuminate for us a facet of living that we never understood or perhaps never bothered to look at. At the point where we learn something valuable about our world or ourselves from a fictional character set in a make-believe world the writer has indeed transcended his or her genre. That is art. There used to be a name for people who could do that, a name more dramatic than author or screenwriter or journalist. They called them bards. And storytelling was considered the highest art form of them all. After all, a painting can have another chance on another day when the person’s mood is right or the lighting is better.

The argument against genre fiction as art seems to be that since we know the outcome and more or less what the setting will be we are doomed to another boring book full of hackneyed characters moving listlessly through a timeworn plot to a foregone conclusion.  But I think that anything taken to its highest form is art. There is a lot of sculpture, but only one Pieta. There are a lot of portraits, but only one Mona Lisa. The same is true of any form of writing, genre or not. There are many space operas, but only one Star Wars.   And it is art.