Fangirl Unleashed: The Apocalypse is overrated – or why there’s nothing wrong with genre fiction

The world is being taken over by vampires. Or maybe zombies, I can’t keep up. According to cultural commentators, creativity is being stifled because bookshops, cinemas and TV schedules are full of supernatural silliness, and no one wants to be serious anymore. (See Stuart Heritage’s Guardian piece for the latest example).

At first glance, this may seem true. The briefest browse in your local bookshop will unearth shelves of undead tales, from gory horrors to tween romances to, I kid you not, bloodsucker books for babies. Then again, said bookstore will also be packed full of novels about would-be writers having existential crises in Manhattan. At least the vampire books are kept together if you want to avoid them– it’s all too easy to pick up what looks like a promising read only to discover it’s some glorified tale of middle class intellectual angst that bears less resemblance to most people’s actual lives than Bloodsucking Zombies from Outer Space. I live in South London, for God’s sake; the undead stalking the streets feels more real to me than some whimsical tale of an ageing New England academic seeking to reinvigorate his muse via the vagina of an impossibly beautiful, promising young student. Likewise I am tired of watching films where a man old enough to be my father romances a woman young enough to be my child: if I’m going to be fed a fantasy, I want it to bear some resemblance to mine; if that involves shirtless vampires, why is that bad?

In the same way that female-centric films are ghettoised as ‘chick flicks’, ‘syfy’ (as the new label has it) is dismissed as romanticised/infantilised nonsense. Those aren’t unrelated phenomena, because syfy is one of the few arenas consistently featuring strong, complex female characters. It’s rather depressing that such characters seem more acceptable if they live in fictional worlds.

As sci-fi pushed the boundaries on race long before mainstream culture was brave enough to do so (featuring multi-racial casts, non-white commanding officers and inter-racial romances), it’s an area where women can be people, not just girlfriends and eye candy. In part this is because in fantasy – like in crime – women writers enjoy a status and saleability they don’t elsewhere, even if many started out with the reassuring anonymity of initials disguising their sex. It may still be harder for a woman to be recognised for her literary merit, but at the sales point, the sexes are increasingly equal. (Bestselling crime writer Martina Cole apparently, when asked if it bothered her that genre fiction rarely won awards, magnificently said ‘The Booker prize money wouldn’t keep me in cigarettes.’)

As for tackling issues – another criticism against the genre is its lack of ‘seriousness’ – anyone who believes that fantasy is about moody teens swooning over sparkly vampires isn’t paying attention. ‘Syfy’ routinely tackles ‘big’ questions with a boldness that mainstream culture balks at. You may have dismissed the rebooted Battlestar Galactica as all spacesuits and shiny robots, but you won’t find a more morally complex response to a post-9/11 world, examining issues such as religious extremism, torture, suicide bombings and civil liberties in a way that little else dared to in the immediate aftermath of the Towers falling. Satirists since Swift have found the veil of fantasy a useful shield for ideas that would be deemed shocking in everyday fiction – why should that tradition not still hold strong? I’ve read few more insightful commentaries on multiculturalism and the dehumanising effects of unchecked capitalism than in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series: the fact that he writes about a world full of trolls and dwarves makes this a more impressive achievement, not less. (Also, if a writer of the calibre of A S Byatt praises Pratchett as a must-read you have to consider that, if you dismiss him, you’re the one in the wrong).

It doesn’t help that some writers refuse to accept the genre label, because their work is ‘serious’, fostering an insidious Catch 22 – serious work isn’t science fiction, so science fiction can’t be serious. Authors like Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro write about clones and worlds where women are sold as incubators, but it’s an allegory, not science fiction, so that’s alright, they’re still proper writers.

It’s easy to see titles like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and despair for creativity, but how is this bastardisation of existing ideas different from the Chapman Brothers drawing skulls on Goya paintings? At least the writers of Jane Slayre (come on! You laughed!) left the original to enjoy. When it boils down to it, can’t everything be categorised as one genre or another? But try describing The Wire to a fan as ‘just another cop show’ and watch their head explode.

Fantasy is like any other genre. Some of it is facile rubbish, some of has an inventiveness that takes your breath away – and that may include vampires or zombies. Dismissing something because it’s ‘fantasy’ is like saying you don’t want to read Madame Bovary because you don’t like Mills and Boon.  Why not give it a try? Except for Twilight. Those books really are shit.

Fangirl Unleashed will be back in a fortnight – in the meantime feel free to pop over to my other blog, Body of A Geek Goddess, and say hi…

  • Jennifer

    Bravo! Very well put. There are so many good points in there I can’t begin to list them, but you’re right—Martina Cole’s quote kicks ass! And makes me want to start smoking again.
    And say hello to the zombies in South London for me. I miss them.

  • Steve Lemlek

    I have to agree with you. I think if you want to examine a theme in its most extreme state, then you’ll generally have to do it through genre fiction.

    But I do love my quirky stories about New England life. Nothing can top it…well, except a bunch of stuff.

  • Tracey

    Thanks! And yes, Jenn, that is one of my favourite quotes ever by a writer… and of course I’m not at all influenced by the fact that I have just written a book in which vampires feature heavily…!