Have you ever walked into a library or bookstore and had that haunting and dreadful thought that there are so many books in the world and no matter what, you will never be able to read them all? I have this thought more often than I’d care to admit (blame the anxiety) but, for me, what is worst than the thought is the one that follows: if I am unable to read every book shouldn’t I be more discerning of the books that I am reading? There are a ton of classic books that I have never read, For Whom the Bells Tolls, Of Mice and Men, or War and Peace all of these titles sit on my “To Read” shelf while I will reread The Harry Potter Series, About a Boy, or Pride and Prejudice with little to no thought.
This book anxiety is just one of many types of anxiety I suffer from, however, after a spirited discussion with Bayana, I have come to realize that this anxiety is rooted in utter bullshit. The last book of “literary fiction” that I read was “The Marriage Plot” from Jeffrey Eugenides and had to slogged through it. Bayana was still in college at the time and was battling with herself and her professors about the merits of genre fiction vs literary fiction.
According to Wikipedia, literary fiction is “a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate social commentary, political criticism or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.” However, as a woman of color works that offer social commentary, political criticism or focus on the individual do not usually come from the bestsellers on the NY Times list. The top 10 books on current NY Times bestseller list does not include a single novel focusing on a POC so does this mean our stories do not hold literary merit? The book series that most changed my life and delivered the most striking social commentary was about a boy wizard and no one handed out stronger political criticism than Octavia Butler.
The idea that fantasy and science fiction does not hold “literary merit” is the height of snobbery and privilege. Whether true or not, to me, science fiction is more diverse and has the ability to tell more well-rounded stories. Nnedi Okafor’s “Who Fears Death” is set in post-apocalyptic Africa but reading it made me think of colorism in Black America, colonialism and slavery as well. It also touches on themes of self-confidence, monogamy in relationships and gender roles, all of that from a compact three hundred and eighty-seven pages. It took four hundred and seven pages for Jeffrey Eugenides to bore me to tears and the most memorable thing about his book was how much I disliked it.
Critics have the same bias to literary fiction as the Academy Awards have for drama in the film world and I believe it’s time we start to call out that bias for what it actually is, bullshit. The best movie I’ve seen this year was the charming and true to life comedy, Obvious Child, and the best books I have ever read are fantasy or science fiction. These works stick with you because they are well-rounded and multi-dimensional, just like life. Hopefully, there are as many laughs in life as there are tears, you’ll meet as many people who are different from you as are similar. As I work on stories, I think about my ability to build worlds and to stretch my imagination as far as it can go. I am happy to strive to be a genre writer and I refuse to take that as some sort of insult. I want to create diverse stories with characters who look like me and if that desire exludes my work from having “literary merit” than so be it, but lets not pretend that these colorless books which rely on large vocabularies will ever hold a candle to the truth found in Harry Potter.