It's become trendy to lament the critical drubbing reserved for certain popular genres among, ironically enough, the American literary establishment. In the pages of the New York Times Book Review and similar literary gate-keepers, one will find such comments applied to the graphic novel, true crime, horror, chick lit, bodice rippers, and science fiction. Though nearly every critic who stages such a defense depicts himself as a lone voice, it's a hugely popular and pretentious way to signal a lack of pretension. This attitude extends the logic of diversity to genre and it's embraced as a form of progressive politics.
This is silly, which is not to say that there aren't genuine political prejudices at work in the contempt displayed for certain genres, most obviously romance. While there's nothing wrong - and a heck of a lot right - with analyzing the politics and artistry of such books, there is something wrong with pretending that genre labels are somehow discriminatory and a means of oppression. Genre labels are functional; they help readers find the sort of book they want to read. The truth is that genre fiction is less 'serious' than literary fiction, for the simple reason that genre fiction subscribes to certain structural, aesthetic, and narrative formulas, while literary fiction rejects, or at least attempts to reject, formulas. There might be a significant grey area here, but it is possible to make the differentiation.
The formulaic nature of genre fiction is part of its appeal. Horror fans want to find thrills and scares in their novels, mystery fans want to solve crimes, romance fans want amorous fantasy and titillation. The subversion of the formula is more often than not what allows a work of genre fiction to make the leap over into literary fiction. (Established literary names will also usually have their genre efforts shunted over to the realm of more 'serious' literature - whether it's fair or not, an author's reputation matters a lot when it comes to a book's reception.) Ultimately, the genre formula is the draw, and not a defect, a feature, rather than a bug.
The current American literary scene discourages negative reviews and encourages puff pieces, while the world of literary social media is dominated by political crusades against books and writers perceived as intolerant or politically out of line. This atmosphere of hair-trigger outrage, gushing support for the literary enterprise, and corporate-flavor marketing puts critics in a less than comfortable position. The American literary establishment has always prized the middle-brow and lifted a mocking eyebrow at the high; now, critics prove that they're not evil by not merely embracing the low-brow, but defending it as though it were in mortal danger, though of course the very genres that are being treated as damsels in distress are the least imperiled. Those are the books that hit the best-seller list.
None of this means that genre fiction is without value; rather it means that its value lies precisely in its difference from literary fiction. Readers turn to genre fiction for the same reason that they might go to see a superhero movie or stream a song by Taylor Swift. The formula is dependable, even the big twist is dependable, since that twist is part of the formula, just as the modulation and bridge are in a pop song.
Being a fan of Helen Fielding and Marian Keyes, queens of chick lit, doesn't prevent me from recognizing that their work, charming and chummy and toothsome as it is, is not serious literature. They absolutely deserve their success, but they, and their fellow genre writers, are not experimenting with form or convention, or tackling the more difficult and contentious aspects of either individual or collective life. Their heroines are likable and relatable. Their endings are upbeat. The darkness is always sweetened with light. And that's great! Because those things are what I want from chick lit. Something similar could be said of almost any genre, depending on the particular reader. I happen to enjoy books about young single women whose lives are messy but fun and someone else might go for books about people with superpowers saving the world or detectives with a past solving a gruesome murder or teenagers doing all the screwed-up, slapdash things that teenagers do. Those preferences are not stupid or demeaning, but neither are they worthy of praise. They're merely an expression of mood and taste.
The idea that refusing to call genre fiction serious is somehow an insult presumes that seriousness is good, but seriousness is only good when it's in the right context. That's why we laugh at people who act deadly serious while, for instance, getting interviewed on the news in their skivvies. It's also why we feel scandalized when someone tells inappropriate jokes after someone's dog died. By wringing our hands over the critical reception of genre fiction, critics don't rescue it from an unjustly ignominious failure. Rather, they pander to a public that has fatally misunderstood identity politics.
Increasingly, readers identify themselves with their tastes. It is not unusual to hear someone say that he identifies as a Star Wars/Batman/Harry Potter/John Green, etc. etc. fan. Unsurprisingly, the people most keen to revile critics of their favorite stories and characters are straight white men, so it strikes me as possible that this blurring of the line between who we are and what we like is rooted in a desire, especially on the part of those who are decidedly not marginalized, to claim injury in the face of diversity. If we really are what we like, then every time a critic pans, or even just gives a lukewarm reception to, something we like, then the review becomes an insult, but here's the rub: we're not what we like.
Criticism is worthless if it's merely a concession to dominant tastes or strident fandoms. Genre fiction isn't junk, but it deserves a critical evaluation that considers it in its proper context. Liking Gillian Flynn or Dan Brown better than Kazuo Ishiguro or Marilynne Robinson doesn't mean Flynn and Brown should be judged by the same standards as their more critically acclaimed colleagues, nor does it mean that you're somehow a lesser person. It just means you prefer Flynn and Brown. No one can demand that the whole world subscribe to his or her individual taste. Even the attempt is obnoxious and puerile. The best thing both for readers and for the literary world at large is to have the widest possible range of literature to choose from, stretching from the fluffiest, most escapist genre fiction to the most complex, erudite, and gymnastically written literary fiction, with an equally wide range of applied critical standards. Rather than argue about which books are the most important and relevant and necessary, maybe we could stop ranking and start reading.