Why genre matters, some thoughts on some thoughts by Namwali Serpell

Give this piece on genre a read. It’s by the very talented Namwali Serpell, a writer who sat through the same sort’ve high literary education I did, and who says she has found liberation as a reader and writer in genre fiction.

The literary gripe against genre fiction is that it’s designed to fulfill a form or meet the expectations of a marketplace rather then be a true expression of the human spirit, unfettered by convention. A mystery novel, with its prescribed crime, perpetrator, detective, and solution can never aspire to the heights of a high modernist work like the novels of Virginia Woolf, for example, and is therefore not worth our serious attention as readers or our aspirations as writers.

The catch, as I discovered while secretly devouring Issac Asimov books between final exams in college and have never quite recovered from, is that genre can, because of its accessibility, take over your imagination in a way that free form works almost never can. The other catch is that much great art, from Homer to Dickens, is much closer to genre than we are taught. It uses familiar forms to give shape to thought and sensibility, and to pass them on to the reader, sometimes across centuries. What is enthralling is what is also so effective about genre pieces. They are why I tune in, turn the page, or pick up the next volume on my shelf — because I know I will feel welcome on the page. 

Once you’re in a genre as a reader (or even as a writer, I imagine) then you’re free to ironize and problematize and play with convention as much as you like. Artists have been doing that almost since the forms they work in were invented. Shakespeare makes fun of plays. Spenser and Milton, the great English epic poets, make fun of or get really self-conscious about epic pretty much from the get go. Irony is nothing new. But we can read old genre books, even the really ironic ones, because, like an old master who has taken the time to paint the world as it really looks, they express themselves in forms we instantly recognize. 

Genre, as Serpell suggests, can be petty. But I’d say rather in the sense that to be small (petit) is also to be humble and homely. It’s only by starting out where people are that you can lead them to wonders.