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What Is Genre Chauvinism?

Genre is more than just what shelf the book goes on
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood via StockSnap

I’m sure there’s a better term for this, and I really ought to know it given my dissertation work, but lately in my head the term that’s been sticking for the way that certain genres (which, not coincidentally, are often those associated with youth or women) are unfairly considered unimportant or even toxic is genre chauvinism.

I’m finding it’s a useful term. It works both technically in its denotation and more associatively in its connotation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines chauvinism as “Excessive loyalty to or belief in the superiority of one’s own kind of cause, and prejudice against others” and notes that it often comes with a “defining” adjective, as my term genre chauvinism does. So, here, genre chauvinism would be a belief that certain genres are inherently superior to others, while being prejudiced against other genres. And this is exactly what I mean. When I say genre chauvinism, I’m talking about our tendency to consider “literary fiction” superior to “genre fiction” (never mind that there is no such thing as fiction that does not have genre(s), of course), our tendency to consider poetry by dead white poets more suitable for classroom use than poetry by living African-American slam poets, and so forth. And I mean “our” in a very expansive sense–I admit that I have fallen into this genre chauvinistic trap at times, and it is so pervasive in every corner of our culture that it takes active anti-genre chauvinism approaches to overcome, in the same ways that we need to be active in our attempts to get rid of sexism, racism, colonialism, etc.

Indeed, genre chauvinism overlaps with these other things that are well-known social concerns in contemporary scholarship. In scholarship on fandoms, ranging from Henry Jenkins’s landmark Textual Poachers to Anne Jamison’s comprehensive Fic, it is well documented that the bias against fanfiction is rooted largely in the fact that fanfiction has, historically, been a safe creative space for marginalized people, especially women and queer folk, to not only celebrate the canon that they enjoy consuming but also to engage with it critically and offer revisions that help correct the ways that mainstream texts reinforce marginalization. When we are dismissive of fanfiction, we are dismissive of spaces for marginalized people, and so we are dismissive of marginalized people themselves.

Likewise, genre chauvinism looks at so-called “genre fiction” or “popular fiction”, such as science fiction, fantasy, mystery, or romance–genres that are likewise often associated with young people or women–and dismisses it as somehow “easier” or “less rigorous” than “literary fiction,” a term that either refers to things that were originally written as popular fiction but have been grandfathered in by merit of their antiquity, or things that are pretentiously written as somehow being outside of genre. The latter category are generally as derivative and predictable as genre fiction, of course. It generally focuses on so-called realism, which means that it’s gritty, pessimistic, misanthropic, and generally misogynist too–your stereotypical Hemingway or Steinbeck. It’s stuff that offers no threat to the old guard of drunken white male academics, the stuff we foist on our high schoolers to drive them away from any joy of reading they might have had before. And for some reason we call it “better”. That reason? Probably sexism with a nice dash of racism.

Thus, it’s really not an accident that part of what I like about the term genre chauvinism is that it is most closely associated with male chauvinism, where most people hear the term chauvinism.

Interestingly, genre chauvinism is actually why I chose to major in English. When people ask me why I chose to major in English, I sometimes (when I’m feeling a bit more raw, I guess) answer “Because I hate it.” From middle school onward, I was naturally good at my English classes–I was intensely studying writing on my own time, and the New Criticism that was given to me (without the theory label) was just a game that was pretty easy to play once you knew the rules. But I was deeply frustrated by it, because I generally disliked the stuff we had to read, and yet I discovered that I could do the same kind of tricks with the stuff I was reading for fun, with the Terry Pratchett or Isaac Asimov or whatever fantasy or scifi author I had tucked in my backpack that day. There didn’t seem to be any difference when I applied the theory, and I was confused–surely there had to be a reason why they assigned this depressing dreck, and I was bound to find it out. I decided that the best way was to major in English, and maybe by entering the priesthood of literature, the secret knowledge of genres would be unveiled to me.

What I learned is that the reasons for these texts being selected are perhaps most optimistically described as “because someone with power said so,” and more cynically described as “complex interactions of sexism, racism, classism, and colonialism.” Neither answer is very satisfying, of course.

So we come to genre chauvinism. This is the reason why, for instance, when someone proposes teaching a course on video games with all the rigor of an entire discipline of scholarship behind them, they nevertheless have to prove that the course is rigorous enough to be a college class and not “just fun.” This is the reason why grown adults feel ashamed reading graphic novels in public. This is the reason boys feel pushed out of reading at a young age, because enjoying books that are actually fun is seen as girly. Genre chauvinism is a very complex locus where so many other discriminatory social constructs interact, but it’s a locus that can be shifted, and alongside that shift the other constructs can be challenged at the same time.

So what do we do?

We keep doing what we’ve been doing in so many corners of media studies: we try to honor all genres are real, hard work. We welcome fanfiction as a space of criticism and engagement, and we shame the authors who disrespect the fandoms that grew up around their works (I’m looking at you, George RR Martin). We recognize that every genre fills a niche in a complex media ecology, and we try to understand them in terms of those niches. In understanding genre in these nuanced ways–ways that don’t ascribe moral value to a genre, but rather try to understand the value a genre has to its participants–we fight against all the other kinds of chauvinism that create genre chauvinism.

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