Today we talked genre snobbery: what is it and which subgenres are most often affected? Can literary fiction and fantasy fans ever agree on anything? Do romance and young adult books get an unfair reputation? We attempt to lay out our thoughts.
Hosts: Hiu, Kop, Jenia, Tam
What We’re Reading:
- Tam: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
- Jenia: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip
- Kop: Middle Game by Seanan Mcguire
- Hiu: We Lie with Death by Devin Madson
Books Discussed this Episode:
- Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Hiu)
- Carrie by Stephen King (Kop)
- A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab (Kop)
- Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (Kop)
- Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Kop)
- The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (Jenia)
- The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Cat Valente (Kop)
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (Kop)
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Kop)
- The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas (Hiu)
- Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft (Hiu)
- The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Hiu)
- Krista D. Ball’s “Is ‘Good’ Good Enough? – Marketing’s Effect on What We Read & How to Change It”
- Perpetual Pages booktube video debunking “I Only Read Good Books”
Intro: Welcome to The Fantasy Inn podcast, where we share our love for all things fantasy and discuss the broader speculative fiction industry. Welcome to The Fantasy Inn.
Hiu: Hey guys, welcome to The Fantasy Inn podcast. This time around we are going to be talking about genre snobbery, which should hopefully lead to a lot of fights. Which is very, very, up my alley. I’ve actually got a legitimate bag of popcorn here which I’m gonna eat as obnoxiously as possible while riling everyone else up.
So I’m Hiu. I’m the Scottish cabbage person.
And how about you guys?
Tam: I’m Tam.
Jenia: I’m Jenia.
Kop: And I’m Kop.
Tam: Did you just forget your name?
Kop: Me? No, I didn’t. I didn’t forget my name.
Tam: Just checking.
Jenia: It’s a fake name. It’s his fake internet name.
Kop: It’s my real name, I promise.
Hiu: Okay, so talking about genre snobbery. What is genre snobbery? Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about. Recently, Marlon James brought out his new fantasy book, making the crossover from literary fiction to genre fiction. These two fanbases don’t always get on, so… fun.
<speaking about what everyone’s been reading> It’s gonna be the same books.
Jenia: But I thought we were pretending that [this episode] is taking place in the future and we’re talking about future books! That’s why we had the conversation about what we’re going to read next!
Hiu: Well, yeah, I was making popcorn for that, so…
Kop: Just say what you’re going to read next.
Jenia: Or a book you read last.
Hiu: So what are you guys reading right now?
Tam: I’m currently reading Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett. Yeah, it’s got interesting magic.
Jenia: I’m reading the Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip. I’m reading it for the /r/Fantasy Book Bingo for a book that was published before I was born. It’s about a woman who lives alone on a mountain. Then a baby gets dropped on her lap, basically. And now she has to take care of it. I am about 20% in, so I don’t know what happens after that.
It’s a good book. I feel like I’m alienating a lot of people because McKillip is very well loved. But it’s kind of old. <laughs nervously> So anyway, what about you, Kop?
Kop: I’m reading Middle Game by Seanan Mcguire via a Netgalley ARC [Advance Review Copy]. It comes out in May.
It’s about these two twins. One is really good with language, and the other one is really good with numbers and math. And it turns out that they aren’t really human or of this world, but they don’t really know what they are either. There’s a third person in the mix who created these two people, and so throughout the book, we kind of learn more about them and more about if they can achieve god status.
Hiu: Cool. I’m currently reading We Lie with Death by Devon Madson, which is the sequel to We Ride the Storm. [We Ride the Storm] is a SPFBO (aka “spiffbo”) finalist this year and was one of my favorite books from last year. I’m really looking forward to digging into this one.
I’m only about 10% of the way through but I am going to love it, I can already tell. And if I don’t love it… I will hate myself.
So, seguing into what we’re actually gonna talk about: Genre Snobbery. We’ll talk about things like lit-fic vs genre fiction and why everyone generally just pokes at this hornet’s nest with a very long stick.
Kop: So for genre snobbery, one of the biggest ones I see in terms of “rival groups” would be genre fiction. Speculative fiction, horror, anything mystery/romance/thriller versus “literary fiction.” And a lot of times, I see people look down upon one or the other. People who read genre fiction might find people who read lit-fic snobbish. And the other way around: people who read lit-fic might see people who read genre fic as “you don’t read real books,” or “you don’t read books that have any real value to them,” which I think is pretty BS.
Hiu: What gives a book value? Where do you think that most of this rivalry stuff comes from? There’s value in different parts of a book. Things like plot or prose above things like characters, etc.
Kop: I think some people would define it as: If you can’t write a college-level essay, do research about this book. If you can’t pick out random themes in this book and apply it to your life, then it doesn’t have any value. If it’s just an entertaining read, then it doesn’t have any value.
So for example, I was once told that when I was reading Carrie by Stephen King, “why are you reading that, that doesn’t have any value to it.” So it’s not a good book, because it’s just an entertaining read. They didn’t find that entertainment had any value.
What do you think, Jenia?
Jenia: I think it’s interesting how the snobbery goes both ways. For example, I really like fantasy, but I also do like these classical books that they forced us to read at school. Actually, most of them I really enjoyed, but I think most people’s experience with the classics is having to sit down and analyze things like “why did they use the color red in this scene” or whatever. So people have a sometimes very, very negative view of [classics].
And it’s just like they don’t know what they’re talking about. [People assume] lit-fic is just divorced professors trying to fuck college students in the middle of their midlife crisis and so on. I just think it’s interesting how when people always tell you that what you’re reading is worthless, then you kind of start telling them that what they’re reading is worthless as well. So it’s, I don’t know, it’s just an interesting kind of dimension, I think.
How about you, Tam?
Tam: Well, pretty much the same as what everyone else’s said. I don’t really have anything to add.
Kop: So why don’t we talk about what kind of genre snobbery we find in speculative fiction in general. So let’s say sci-fi/fantasy.
Hiu: Circling back to the rest of that internal genre snobbery like sci-fi and fantasy, Kop. It’s almost as if for some people it has to be one or the other. Either you like Lord of the Rings or you like Dune and you can’t like both or be based in both communities. It’s seen as a little weird. Which I don’t necessarily agree with.
Kop: Yeah, it’s really weird how you see people say, for example, “Oh I really like Star Wars, that’s a great sci-fi series!” and then you get people rushing at you and saying, “How dare you, that’s a fantasy series!”
Or people who label A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab or Mistborn [by Brandon Sanderson] as “This is a great [Young Adult] series!” And then you have people rushing at them, saying “How dare you? This is pure adult fantasy. This isn’t that YA crap.”
Hiu: Oh man. We’re talking about YA. I’m gonna get my popcorn for this.
Yeah, the YA thing’s almost like a hot topic because the conversation of what can and can’t be YA, what kind of topics can and can’t YA touch on. And people get very invested in it.
There’s a lot of blow ups about that. “This book is good. It can’t be YA.” Or “This book has too dark themes. It can’t be YA.” But others say that YA can be anything, it’s just still for the [younger] audience. But is [the YA label] for the audience? Is it for the genre? It’s that whole thing.
Where do you guys stand on that one?
Jenia: I wonder if it’s because fantasy is seen as lesser than or associated with teenagers or children or whatever. And you know that quote about how the best age for fantasy is 12? I wonder if because of that, some adults who like fantasy really want to separate themselves from teenagers and just be like, “Oh, no, we don’t like that crap for kids. We like the adult stuff with a lot of blood and stuff.”
I mean, I wonder if that plays into it.
Hiu: Of what now?
Jenia: Bloooood, lots of blooood.
[everyone yells bloooood]
Kop: Yeah, I get what you’re saying. There’s always those people you see who go, “You know, I’ve outgrown Harry Potter, so I’ve outgrown YA.”
I mean, I think it’s perfectly okay not to like YA or not to like adult fantasy, even. I know YA itself isn’t a subgenre, but I always see people talking bad about it. On the flip side, you get the people who say things like “YA is only a marketing ploy.” Which I can see on the one hand, but then on the other, the way these people talk about it makes it seem like the publishers and marketers randomly decide what’s YA and what’s not, you know?
As if they have a dartboard and they throw darts at the book and “Oh, well I guess now Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky, that’s YA now.” Or I guess, what’s an actual YA book–
Jenia: The Poppy War!
Kop: [laughing] That’s a YA book, I guess.
Hiu: Oh boy.
Kop: It’s like oh well I guess The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Cat Valente, that’s adult fantasy now.
Jenia: It’s always: If I like it, then it has to be this subgenre or whatever because I like it. So it’s not like the rest of them.
Kop: Yeah, but I definitely think romance fantasy is really heavily looked down upon.
Hiu: I don’t understand why that’s got such a bad rep. And you know people love to shit on it just because they feel like it’s a thing they can shit on.
Kop: I really think it’s because of Twilight, honestly.
Hiu: How long ago was Twilight published, though? That’s fucking years ago.
Jenia: More than 10 years ago.
Kop: Exactly. I just looked this up. The last book was published at least 10 or more years ago and yet people still use Twilight and The Hunger Games as the quintessential “This is YA.” They say, “I don’t like YA. I read Twilight and The Hunger Games and I didn’t like them so I don’t like YA.” Or “I read Twilight so I don’t like paranormal romance.”
Hiu: I think that’s really where the genre snobbery kind of comes into it. Things like Twilight are put forward as YA and this is why YA is bad in their mind. But for instance, look at The Hate You Give [by Angie Thomas]. The movie just came out last year, and that’s a YA book. That’s a YA movie, but it’s referred to as this whole adult thing because it has adult themes.
And, you know, it couldn’t possibly be YA because this is good. You know what I mean?
Jenia: The elephant in the room is that YA is considered to be female-centric, female-directed, female-authored, and so on. The same with romance fantasy. I remember at one point, I wrote a review for The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden, and I got a response to that with somebody asking me if the if the book is YA.
I said no, I don’t think so. There’s a lot of emphasis on prose specifically, and on atmosphere, very little emphasis on plot, it’s a bit dark, and so on. And then this person started telling me that no, it seems a little too young, even for YA. Because there’s magic, there’s a talking horse and shit.
And that’s like, for girls. Little girls. Not even YA, not even teenage girls. Baby girls!
What does this have to do with fantasy, if it’s set in historical Moscow? And what can that come from, except from somebody who just doesn’t like things aimed at women? I mean, I’m sorry, but I don’t know. That’s just kind of how it is. That’s also part of the genre snobbery, I think.
Kop: Yeah, the gender of the author definitely plays a big role in it. I think it was Krista D. Ball who had the report sometime last year on Reddit’s /r/fantasy subreddit where she surveyed different women authors and basically found that even if a woman wrote epic fantasy–it could be the exact same thing as her male counterparts–the cover at least will be marketed as more towards the romance aspect of it.
I definitely agree with that and I was watching this one BookTube video by, I want to say was Perpetual Pages. They talked about why they like to diversify their reading and they brought up the argument of I Just Read Good Books. Their counter-argument to that, which I really like, was that if you [feel that way] and you don’t read diversely, then what you’re kind of implying is that books written by women and books written by people of color… those aren’t good books.
So diversifying your reading and intentionally reading genres that you might not be interested in, it’s a good thing.
Hiu: Okay so let’s try and dig into where we think some of this animosity and rivalry comes from. For instance, Marlon James’s new book just came out: Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Because he’s a literary fiction writer the book itself, although being fantasy and although being pushed by the author as fantasy, is being marketed pretty much as a lit-fic novel.
This has sparked a bit of an argument between fantasy fans and lit-fic fans. So how do you think that the media push and the advertising aspect of a book fuels this kind of animosity?
Kop: Is Marlon James a… like has he been nominated for a Man Booker Prize before?
Hiu: He won it, yeah.
Kop: Yeah because I don’t know what’s allowed in the Man Booker Prize, but usually from what I see, it’s lit-fic. So I think a part of it is trying to get certain books into certain award categories and the animosity… I think is just silly.
Jenia: I think you often get these book reviewers from these big publications like the New York Times who don’t read much of the genre themselves. Which is fair, nobody has to read everything, but then they come out with these posts about how somebody is revolutionizing the genre or how finally it’s not just swords and women in terrible armor.
For people who are really into [fantasy] and really up to date like we are, it sometimes feels very off-putting because–I haven’t read the book, maybe it’s a wonderful book, I did like the other book of his that I started reading–I don’t know if [Marlon James] is necessarily doing something new in a way that sometimes these big publication say that these lit-fic authors are.
That’s where the tension comes in. Not specifically from the author (they’re often big fans of the genre because they are writing in it) but more from the outside. Yeah.
Hiu, you actually read the [Black Leopard, Red Wolf], so maybe you have something to add.
Hiu: I’m just over here letting you guys say all the controversial shit.
Yeah, to be honest, it just read to me like a fantasy book. It was a fat and epic fantasy book that was written in maybe a more literary style, but you get fantasy books like that.
So is it a big push that’s going to revolutionize the genre? Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But it’s disrespectful to disregard everything that came before. There’s all these other great fantasy books and even great fantasy books in the same vein as Black Leopard, Red Wolf, but to kind of disregard them and say this is the new starting point for the genre… to me that’s like kind of the epitome of genre snobbery.
And I don’t think it comes from the author. I don’t really think it comes from the publisher. It’s the way it’s spoken about afterward. Yeah.
Kop: Yeah, it’s that whole “finally a book that does this stuff, unlike these other books that came before.”
Hiu: Yes. Finally, a fantasy book without elves! Millions of fantasy authors just screamed in rage at that. When was the last time you read a fucking book with an elf in it?
Kop: Yeah, or “finally, a fantasy book that doesn’t include super long, hard-to-pronounce names,” even though I read maybe 100 books last year and not a single one had that concept in it.
I know that’s a big thing that a lot of people have against fantasy, this idea that fantasy names have random apostrophes and are super hard to pronounce. So that’s why some people don’t like to read fantasy because of this misconception. And I think a lot of genre snobbery comes from misconceptions.
Hiu: Okay, so I think we should try to tie this off now. So let’s end on a kind of lighter note. What are the funniest misconceptions you’ve seen about a genre that you’ve read?
Kop: I think the biggest misconception in any genre is that books should be read from page one to the end. And that series should be read in order. I think that’s a pretty big misconception.
What do you think, Jen?
Jenia: You’re really going for the controversial things? Um, gosh, I don’t know. Um, I don’t know. I like for me. I Hmm. Somebody else go first. Go Tam.
Tam: Oh, I don’t know how to answer this one. I don’t know. That’s a difficult question.
Kop: What subgenre are you currently reading? What genre are you currently reading?
Tam: Historical fantasy.
Kop: Is it boring?
Kop: Because I know for me, a misconception about historical fantasy is that it’s just like my history classes. It’s boring, dry, and not something I’d want to be entertained by.
Tam: Yeah, that works.
Hiu: Yeah, before I started reading fantasy, really reading it, I had a bunch of misconceptions about the genre. I thought everything was going to be like elves and dwarves. And that every book had to end with this massive showdown with a dark lord.
It’s not that, is it? There’s all these character-based books like Senlin Ascends [by Josiah Bancroft], books like The Bear and the Nightingale [by Katherine Arden]. There’s Terry Pratchett. So there may be some of the tropes in there but the misconceptions are misconceptions. That’s not what fantasy is and I think we need to realize that.
And the other side of the coin, looking at things like sci-fi and lit-fic, you think “oh [sci-fi is] just all weird aliens with their own languages and lit-fic is just all snobby books where everything has to be a metaphor.”
But you know, without reading it, it’s probably not that.
Jenia: Yeah, I guess my misconception… I always used to think the classics were… I’m always scared of them. I always think they’re written in a very complicated language. But somehow, every time I picked one up, I actually really enjoyed it.
So I think I should read more of those because I do really enjoy [them]. And then every time I’m not reading one at the moment, I’m scared again, which is a bit sad. But I guess that misconception is just stuck in my head very strongly.
Hiu: Yeah, you get a lot of people that think that classical fantasy is this kind of stuffy thing, but look at the likes of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. It’s this wonderful fairy tale-esque thing, it’s quite sinister and it’s quite charming. It’s not stuffy and boring like you’d think.
I think there’s a lot of books that get disregarded because of misconceptions. It does come from genre snobbery.
Jenia: And also just the idea that diverse books have started being published in fantasy within the last 10 years or so, when there were books written by women and by people of color [long before that]. And people have this idea that before 2005 everything was just white, male, and straight. But not necessarily.
And I think maybe that’s a bit of a shame because then we forget those books a bit.
Hiu: Okay. So on that happy note, we are going to finish up with this episode.
You can get in touch with us on Twitter (@TheFantasyInn) and let us know what your misconceptions are about some of your favorite genres, or what misconceptions you think you may have about genres you’ve not read yet.
And until then, we’ll see you next time.