(The short answer to the question is: I don’t know. The long answer is me waffling on for several paragraphs without coming to a conclusion. And this probably won’t answer the question, even to my own satisfaction, which mean I will probably come back to it in the future.)
I’ve been thinking about why my tastes in fiction consumption veer towards the genre. I like comic books about rabbit samurai, a modern take on fairy tale characters, (intelligently done) superheroes, a former detective who gets psychic impressions from food he eats, a story that boils down to ‘What if Harry Potter was created by a writer to fight a conspiracy against people who control the world through fiction?’. I like books that mix up genres, such as hard-boiled with vampires (the Joe Pitt books), detective fiction with literature (Thursday Next) or with fairy tale (Nursery Crime Division). I like superhero cartoons, sci-fi television programmes, fantasy films, modern mixes of things (mythical creatures share a flat, Asbo heroes, teenage girl as private detective in high school, or teenage girl as vampire slayer in high school).
Things I don’t like for entertainment purposes: soap operas, ‘corset’ period dramas, dramas of any sort on ITV, any book that is considered as ‘literature’ (which usually involves chapter after chapter of descriptive passages where nothing happens and people feel miserable about something horrible that happened in their childhood), films that are considered ‘worthy’, autobiographical comix about a miserable cartoonist with an inability to connect with people (usually women). I have tried these, and will continue to consume them when well reviewed, but my heart won’t necessarily be in it.
I was thinking about this recently because I’m reading two books at the moment that I thought were genre but have turned out differently. One of them is Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, a 700-page novel that takes ages to do anything – a conversation where a single sentence needs to be uttered for the story to proceed takes three pages to happen. It just goes on and on and on, taking for ever to tell the story. It made me long for the compactness and urgency of genre novels. I think that the whole point of genre is to tell an interesting story as purely as possible, something that I enjoy immensely. There is no need to hide behind lengthy narrative – the vibrancy of the story is enough. This isn’t to say that the writing is any less beautiful; far from it. The appeal is good writing in an area where the author makes the rules.
I’ve always been drawn to comic books, and particularly superhero comic books, because of the limitless capacity of the medium to tell non-ordinary stories (although traditional narratives exist in the realms of comic books). Warren Ellis always quotes Harvey Pekar: ‘Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.’ Any story that involves elements that are outside the ‘normal’ parameters of narratives can work without the massive element required to translate the idea into, say, film or television (as can be seen by the fact that it’s only because of the advances in CGI that have allowed certain types of comic books/sci-fi/fantasy to succeed in the adaptation). Comic books have the immediacy that is required for genre story, allowing an almost unfiltered brain spasm to pass from author to reader, with no mess or fuss.
I think it comes down to liking a story: a novel narrative that has a specific reason to exist, because it must be told. Thoughtful pondering on the human condition and the nature of existence are all very well, but I want a plot, good characters, great dialogue, action, drama, weirdness, fun and entertainment. (This doesn’t mean that it can get away with being bad; my quality filter isn’t switched off just because it’s genre, although the limits are expanded to allow more flexibility.) I want to be entertained by my fiction, I want to be dazzled, I want to see something new. Is that too much to ask?