Genre Shaming

I recently read a tweet that basically said even though schools teach you to read “adult” books, it’s ok to read horror and romance and fantasy and fairy tales and science fiction.

Heck yeah! It’s so ok to read what you love and love what you read. And I’m not just saying that because I teach an English course called Fairy Tales and Fantasy.

I fully endorse liking the genres of books you like without shame.

But my reaction to this tweet went beyond agreement. I also felt a kind of sadness about it. It breaks my heart a little that schools teach us to feel guilt and shame about certain books rather than encouraging and fostering a love of reading in general. Even if you didn’t have teachers who had visible disdain for or even actively mocked non-“adult” genres—and I did— the fact that those genres are rarely taught implicitly teaches us to feel embarrassed about them. And it sends students the message, albeit indirectly, that those kinds of stories don’t have the same opportunities for close readings and critical analyses that Literature does. But, in reality, those stories feature characters and stories and themes and symbols that are not only there to explore, they are worth exploring. 

I understand the need to introduce kids to books that they might not read otherwise that have historical and literary significance, but they should also make room for romance, horror, fantasy, fairy tales, and sci-fi, new and old. I will say that older stories in some of those genres do tend to get taught more, especially in college, such as Tolkien or Asimov. So here I will make my case for modern stories. If the stories of the past should be read, in part, to understand the values and ideas of a particular time, then isn’t it crucial to read texts that reflect modern values and ideas? Shouldn’t schools teach children how to think critically, not only about the past, but also about the present and what that might mean for the future? I’m not saying that no school does this or that critical thinking about the past cannot be applied to the present. 

It is not only interesting, but also important, to see how recent literature across genres retells older stories and subverts or builds upon older ideas. How can you read Tennyson’s “The Day-Dream” without reading “Sleeping Beauty”? How can you read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice without following that up with modern romance novels? Or Tolkien or Asimov without modern fantasy and sci-fi respectively? (And this is not even to get into the question of who was telling those stories and diversity in literature.) So not only should schools stop shaming students, either explicitly or implicitly, for the genres they love, but they should start to fill in this conspicuous gap that exists in their curricula with these stories.

Now, all that being said, I think it’s important to take a step back and consider why this stigma exists. What sorts of people do we imagine read these books? Or who are we told—by media or the people around us—read these books? How do we stereotype those people? In what ways are they cast as inferior, and how do people in turn attempt to portray themselves as superior? 

So even if schools do not feel the need to fill this gap in education, then they should at least stop the genre shaming because it creates a sense of competition among readers that should not exist. The idea that “the books I read are better than the ones you read” is nonsense. Readers deserve a better and more inclusive community than the one fostered by schools and society and the idea that some books are inherently better because of where they sit on a shelf, not what is written in their pages.

If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for enduring my rant. 

What genres do you read and/or write? Do you agree that schools should include books from more genres, old and new? 

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