During an anthology panel at the 2015 Virginia Writers Club Annual Symposium, writer and publisher Austin Camacho likened the plethora of fiction genres and writers to the array of restaurants people choose from and frequent. That's not Austin in the picture -- I chose that image to represent the "room for all" theme. I’ve lost Austin's exact comments, but I absorbed then an “ah-ha!” moment that released me from my biases about which genres and authors were good, worthy, superior, etc. I’ve always been that type of person who understands the world by categorizing and comparing. I now recognize my ranking of books and authors as reader “snobbery,” and I feel freed to have curtailed, if not ended, that uncomfortable practice.
American public libraries before the 1970’s did not typically include “commercial” or “popular” fiction. The library was primarily an educational institution, and library collections included materials for public betterment. The late 20th Century change in library “quality-driven” to “popularity-driven” collections policies better reflects our country’s democratic heritage, in my opinion, although I’d not express it using a quality versus popularity dichotomy. The historic derision of genre fiction, and my college literature studies, may account for part of my erstwhile book snobbery. Today while writing this, I read an article suggesting that the aim of commercial fiction is entertainment, and the aim of literary fiction is art. Wow. I don’t really know how I feel about that. I’m going with “insulted.”
Back to the restaurant analogy, some diners may frequent only four- and five-star restaurants. Others may eat at Cracker Barrel. I dare say most of us have tried many eateries serving varied cuisines at varied prices. So go our choices in reading. I’ve enjoyed complex, densely-written stories with highbrow vocabulary as well as light, quick reads accessible to fifth graders. Likewise, I’ve dined in the Williamsburg Inn’s Rockefeller Room as well as the parking lot of Roy’s Big Burger in Henrico County’s Lakeside area. I’ve been known to grab food from a McDonald’s drive-thru. I can digest a “Wendy’s” type of novel one day and a “Ruth's Chris” novel the next. I respect the range of written works available, and I celebrate that readers have a choice. Vive la différence! Let the market respond to reader tastes.
I’ve stopped my mental habit of rating stories and authors. Whereas before I’d shake my head in disbelief at the popularity and earnings of authors I “looked down on,” I can now respect their audience connection and their success at providing stories suited to that audience. My judgment of author skill, too, was faulty. I’m not expert enough in fiction writing to accurately assess command of craft, plus what I liked and didn’t like about an author’s writing had more to do with style and voice than with skill. We authors are each on our own path, exploring our talents and sharpening our skills. We are not good or bad, serious or trivial, or deep or frivolous, but different.
My new egalitarian outlook does not excuse error or sloppy craft, but it does call for lenience in criticism. My motto now is to esteem the creative and embrace the promise that writers mature and actualize their talents into their highest and best products. Humph. Sounds like a - n affirmation from my New Age class. I’m still going with it!
Leisure readers, if you’ve found a home in mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, horror, etc., good for you. I, too, have favorite genres and authors. That may be all you need. When you branch out to other authors or fiction types, be open to the experience of a new “restaurant” and a fresh “chef.” Choose your own books. Read what you like. There’s room for all of us.