Classic Remarks: Are Genre Classics Respected?

This week Krysta and Briana at Pages Unbound are hosting the discussion: Do you think genre books receive the respect they deserve, even if they are considered classics?

I think this is such an interesting question, and I’m really looking forward to hearing some of the discussion around it. The short version of my answer is: sometimes.

Classic science fiction tends to get a lot more respect than classic fantasy, but only if it’s not *too* science fiction-y. Romantic mysteries and adventures get taken much more seriously than the gothic adventure novels of the Regency era. Classic romance novels get taken seriously until about the19th century.

Examples. Fahrenheit 451 is generally taken seriously as “literature,” and is even studied in school by most American students. It was written around the same time as The Lord of the Rings, which is generally dismissed by the literary folks as perfectly fine to read for fun, but not on par with, say, Catch-22. Frankenstein, widely regarded as the first science fiction novel, is likewise beloved and respected. Dracula (which, to be fair, was never meant to be “serious”) and the stories that inspired it are not. Isaac Asimov’s work is generally well-regarded, whereas HG Wells is an oddity. Brave New World has successfully made the literary canon, Dune has not.

More examples. Agatha Christy and Sherlock Holmes are deemed literary classics and worthy of respect. Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers are also well-respected, despite being pure entertainment. But Ann Radcliff is still largely dismissed as pulp, and we certainly don’t read her stories as part of cannon.

Don’t even get me started on romance. Many of the most beloved classics are romances, but now it is the most hated of genres by book snobs.

Where I would be interested to learn more from someone who maybe studied literature is that the rigid distinction we make between the various “genres” seems to be a very recent thing. Possibly it came about in the 60s and 70s when science fiction and fantasy really exploded, or when pulp fiction became so easy to print. Certainly we don’t shelve A Midsummer’s Nights Dream and The Tempest in a different spot than Hamlet and Macbeth which aren’t in a different spot from Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. We don’t bother to make the distinction that Les Miserables and The Three Musketeers are technically “historical fiction” the way we probably would now, and I’ve never heard Jane Austen classified as a romance author.

In general I feel that the genrefication of books is not particularly helpful for any reason other than to help people find the kind of books they enjoy reading. I prefer Sci-Fi and Fantasy, unless it’s YA where I usually prefer romance. I don’t enjoy thrillers. This is helpful for me because I know what kind of books to read. It is NOT a value judgement on my part saying thrillers are bad or not worthwhile. I wish the literary elites would take genre fiction as seriously as it deserves to be. But, sadly, for books written since 1950 that seems unlikely to happen, and that is a topic for another day.

18 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Are Genre Classics Respected?

  1. To be fair, I’ve read a few Radcliffe books, and while they are entertaining, I can see why no one really thinks they are literary masterpieces. :p She falls in that category of “one of the first to do something, so she’s historically interesting if not necessarily the world’s most skilled writer.”

    I do like your post that there are books with sci fi and fantasy elements that people say are classics without a second thought, but then there are other books that don’t get called classics. I wonder what the line is. A light touch of magic is ok, but full epic fantasy is just too much?

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  2. Wow! You raised so many great points! There ARE a few genre books that get respect, but it does seem like there is still this hierarchy where something like LotR can be a “fantasy classic” or “influential in its field” but is still seen as fluffy entertainment for the undiscerning masses. Maybe there is some line where Frankenstein can be seen as serious because it is more “realistic” (set the real world, just with a “monster” created by a scientist) than something that is set wholly in space, in the future, for example.

    I also think there is still sometimes this need to justify genre fiction as being classics. I remember discussing Jane Austen in college and the professor asked something about whether Austen should be in the canon, or maybe mentioned that some people found her inclusion controversial. People responded by saying, essentially, that the books are “not just” romance, but also include social commentary. There is this idea that a book needs to have something more, needs something that makes it “serious” for it to be considered worthy of the classic label.

    I also like your note that books like The Three Musketeers are technically historical fiction. I think it’s easy to forget that, maybe because readers don’t always have an accurate idea of when an author was writing and when the book is set. It just feels like, “Oh, Dumas is an old guy from the past and this book is in the past and therefore he must have been writing about his own time.”

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    1. I love you point about how Austen isn’t “just” romance, that she also has social commentary. As if sf/f … doesn’t? Like, seriously, show me a genre of books that completely leaves social commentary out, and I’ll eat my hat. But the genre snobs of the world act like their favorite books are more “serious” or “important” just because they’re more realistic. I don’t know. Can you tell you hit a nerve?

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  3. Fully agree that genres are best approached as tools to help the reader find the material they’re looking for, rather than any sort of literary snobbery canonical or otherwise. I’d definitely be curious to learn more at some point about the history of genre divisions- as you say, it would make sense for that to be something that happened fairly recently as “lowbrow” books have become easier to print. That said though, the authors winning literary prizes and entering the canon in the last fifty years or so are still not necessarily commercially popular; I think we may have entered an era where at least as many readers are dismissive of literary fiction as of genres like fantasy and romance that aren’t often considered classics by the book snobs.

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    1. Art in the late 20th century to now, in general, confuses me. Art, literature, music, we all do the same thing, which is take “serious” versions seriously and dismiss “popular” art. But like, that’s not something that we do with historical art. Shakespeare was as beloved by the masses as Dan Brown. In my music history classes we studied both “high” church music and “low” minstrel tunes. I’m not sure how and why in modern times we are so snobby!

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  4. I wonder if some of the difficulty with science fiction classics (especially with hard science fiction) is that if it sticks closely to science (as understood at the time), it may date itself more readily. My son and I just finished Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, which I adored as a kid (and still enjoyed!), and a lot of the science—while fascinating in retrospect—has been significantly altered as we’ve learned more about how geophysics work. Don’t get me wrong, I still love it all! But maybe anachronism—like pop culture references in mainstream novels—ends up being their classics-status downfall? (Very specific to hard sci-fi—softer sci-fi like Frankenstein and Brave New World are less about the tech, and more about the sociological consequences of science, and may fare better. Nobody minds silver bodysuits and Feelies, but climbing into the earth pre-plate tectonic theory might be harder to navigate, regardless of literary merit. (Also, some SF (not all) from early on can also have some explicit racism, as I’ve found retreading some old reads with “anthropologist” characters from the late 1800s!)

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    1. That’s actually one of my favorite things about reading old SF. I especially loved reading The Martian Chronicles last year because Bradbury thought we would be able to shoot spaceships out of our backyard and get to Mars that way by 1990. 😂

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  5. I think that the genres are useful for helping you find what you need.. But it’s not that simple anymore. With the majority of people needing to classify and define everything.. we’ve actually complicated a process that was originally intended to simplify our lives.
    Sorry, not very awake. 😳

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