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Avoiding the Genre Reading Trap

3 February, 2011

Over at the Guardian’s website yesterday, there was yet another post about the Man Booker Prize and whether this was the year that a SF or fantasy book might finally make the shortlist (or even the longlist, for that matter). The post itself was similar to many I’ve seen in the past, and I have a feeling it was primarily being used as a method of stirring up debate. And debate there certainly was.

The comments for the post generally fell into two categories. The SFF fans suggested either that they didn’t really care whether genre books made it onto the list, or that the list itself comprises its own specialised little genre anyway (namely contemporary literary fiction). The non-SFF fans – the SFF-haters, to be honest, because some of them responded with a fair amount of vitriol – made the case that no genre books have ever been good enough to make the shortlist, and that the best of SF and fantasy can’t compare with the best of litfic.

Now, not surprisingly, my own opinions come down on the former side of the fence. The Man Booker Prize means virtually nothing to me, and whether my favourite books get on the shortlist or not really doesn’t bother me at all. I also found myself agreeing that past winners tend to fall into a genre of their own, and that its a genre that I have very little interest in. In fact, seeing ‘Winner of the Man Booker Prize’ on a cover is likely to make me avoid a book rather than pick it up.

This latter point is the true problem and it says more about my attitudes to genre than to the true quality of the winners of the prize. Every time I try to read a litfic book, you see, I invariably come away disappointed, which has made me avoid the literary fiction as a whole. I suspect that many SFF readers are the same – if it’s not science fiction or fantasy, they don’t want to know.

For my own part, it’s an attitude that I’m trying to change. My partner recently started reading a book about superheroes, which sounds firmly SFF. However, the fact that it has more favourable reviews on the cover from places like Wired and the Financial Times than from SF reviewers would probably be enough to make me avoid it. For my partner though, the source of the reviews didn’t influence his decision to read it at all – he saw a book about superheroes, thought it looked interesting and bought it.

This genre-reading trap is one that readers of all stripes fall into. Science fiction readers might get stuck reading only science fiction (and potentially a very narrow band of SF, like space opera or military science fiction). Literary fiction readers get stuck reading only Booker Prize winners or books blurbed by the authors of Booker Prize winners. It’s a trap that I’m trying to get out of. My aim is simply to read books that look interesting to me – that have good reviews, fascinating subjects, first pages that grab me, for example – regardless of genre.

Will I primarily end up reading science fiction and fantasy? Probably. I can’t escape (and have no wish to) the fact that it’s my favourite genre and that the books that interest me usually fall into it. However, I’ll also be trying not to judge books solely by genre, or by who blurbed them – or, indeed, by which prizes they’ve won.

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