I am an unabashed fantasy nerd. I was raised on Harry Potter, YA vampire novels, Brandon Sanderson, and Dungeons & Dragons. I still play World of Warcraft and I world-build for fun, but my entire life, I have heard fantasy--and genre fiction in general--referred to as a “guilty pleasure.”
With the explosion of YA and genre fiction in the past decade or so, the literary world has seen many arguments for the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction and, in many cases, for literary fiction’s superiority. Arthur Krystal, in his piece “Easy Writers” for The New Yorker, promotes this hierarchy on the basis of genre fiction’s disproportionate focus on archetypal plot and inherent escapism. He describes genre fiction as “a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives.” I read this article a few months ago and felt the familiar sting of shame for my love of fantasy fiction.
Conveniently enough, I find that my favorite fiction series of all time, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, works well as an example here. The series I have read is a translation from its original language—Swedish--which gives it some unique features. It spans a few genres, like crime/mystery, thriller, and detective/government conspiracy, with a brilliant substratum of social justice. The language of the first three books is bone-dry and direct; to what degree this is due to Larsson’s writing or to the translation, I cannot say, but the intrigue of the novel, for me, is almost entirely its plot. According to Krystal, with genre fiction, “it’s plot we want and plenty of it.” Larsson certainly delivers, with three massive bricks of text and character and plot networks to rival those of George R. R. Martin and Balzac.
“You don’t read [genre fiction] to escape your problems, you read it to find a new way to come to terms with them." —Lev Grossman
There are massive communities of readers who enjoy genre fiction. Let them. Let them devour their romance novels, their mysteries, their sprawling fantasy worlds filled with heroic, antiquitous lore. I refuse to feel ashamed for avidly reading the genres that excite me, enrapture me, and shape me. Reading, I have found, is one of the most creative, productive, community-oriented activities we have to enjoy, and I argue that it is shameful to judge or stigmatize that which is important to anyone.