October 01, 2006

Television Substitues and the Role of Genre Fiction

by Alan Beatts

I don't watch TV.  Haven't for years.  Not that I really have anything against it but my life tends to be busy enough that I can't manage to be near a TV at the same time each week so following series or having a favorite show is pretty much out.  It's pretty funny, really, since my parents used to worry about me watching too much TV when I was a kid (which is a concern that seems to have gone sadly out of fashion, oh well).  Granted, there are things like TiVo and, even using a VCR (which I can program, thank you very much) but it never seemed worth the trouble just to be able follow a series.

There have been some series that I thought were well worth watching.  I came very late to Buffy the Vampire Slayer but I own all the DVDs (I think it was Peter Beagle talking about how much he had wanted to write for that show that might have tipped me over the edge and made me start watching the DVDs -- thanks, Peter).  Right now I'm starting to get sadly hooked on Deadwood though I did dodge the bullet on Battlestar Galactica (there were just too many holes in the plot of the pilot for me).

But the point is, I don't watch TV.  I read instead.  But not because I think it's "better" or "more meaningful" or in any way superior to TV.  I just like it better (and I can do it just about anywhere).

Which finally brings me to my point.  In this field I have heard many people go on and on about the literary merits of various writers and works.  I also hear about how specific genres are "important" for various reasons -- "Science Fiction gives us the opportunity to consider and confront questions that our society and species will have to face in the future" or "Fantasy is a road map to the beliefs and ideas that are central to our shared, human mythology" or "Horror gives an important chance for the reader to confront their personal fears and demons, rendering them powerless".

Are you nodding and saying, "Yeah, that's right."?  If so, I'm sorry for what I'm about to say . . . I think that most of the people who talk about those lofty ideas are missing the main point of why Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror exist.

Genre fiction is an alternative to watching TV.

Ouch, huh?  Yup, not very lofty.  But when people (writers and editors especially) forget that we're in the business of providing entertainment, the result is crappy fiction that doesn't sell.  That's not to say that the lofty ideas that I mentioned can't be served by genre fiction or that genre fiction can't or shouldn't aspire to the highest levels of writing.  But the story and the entertainment has to come first because that's why people buy and read this stuff.  They want a good story, a fun ride, something to relax with and take a break.  And if they don't get it, they won't read it and the work cannot accomplish anything, neither something base like entertainment or lofty like changing people's lives or their world.

And by the way, what's so bad about writing solely to entertain?  People die without entertainment.  Their lives become nothing more than survival and that's not enough of a reason to keep going for many people.  So we need entertainment.  It may not be one of the most basic needs like food or shelter, but it's damn close.  Even people in the most squalid refugee camps or miserable prisons play games, even if it's nothing better than "kick the rock".  So isn't providing entertainment actually a pretty lofty vocation?  Perhaps a more important one than trying to change the world or people's attitudes?

It's because of this that it makes me tired to listen to people in the field disparage writers like Stephen King and Robert Heinlein or sub-genres like Tolkien-esque Quest Fantasy or Military SF.  I love Stephen King and Heinlein and so do a lot of other readers.  It's not because they are masters of the language or because they have sophisticated plots -- it's because they're entertaining.  And that's good enough for me.

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