There's a conversation about genre fiction going on over at HTML Giant in response to a post on Tin House's blog. It's basically an argument with one side saying that genre fiction is too often stereotyped and dismissed by snobby literary types who haven't read any of it, and one side saying the genre people are overreacting and what's wrong with calling a spade a spade: genre fiction is formulaic by definition, etc.
One example being bandied about is The Road (which I haven't read)—the genre side says that The Road is speculative fiction about a post-apocalyptic world and is therefore sci-fi and furthermore this label is useful because people who like The Road might like other post-apocalyptic fiction and vice versa. Whereas the lit side says, No, that's not a useful label because people who like The Road are more likely to enjoy other, non-sci-fi books by Cormac McCarthy than other post-apocalyptic science fiction, because the aesthetic/style of the book is more salient than the sci-fi-esque elements. And vice versa: regular readers of science fiction aren't necessarily going to like The Road just because they've enjoyed other post-apocalyptic novels.
Not that this puts me squarely on one side of the larger argument or the other, but I agree more with the lit side in this case. I kind of liked Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances which indisputably has sci-fi elements, but that doesn't mean it made me want to go out and read more sci-fi books. The literal subject matter of a book has less bearing on whether or not I find it interesting than the aesthetic. I've also enjoyed Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut novels that have been classified as science fiction, though especially in the case of Atwood, the sci-fi elements were arguably the parts I found least interesting. What attracted me to those authors was a sensibility, not a genre label or knowing that they sometimes wrote about aliens or whatever.
I definitely don't dismiss science fiction or other genre fiction as "bad writing," especially compared to "literary fiction." As far as I'm concerned, "literary fiction" has become a label or genre with just as much baggage as "science fiction" or "fantasy"—it sounds like shitty book club fodder a la The Beekeeper's Wife (or whatever permutation of bees and wives, not sure if that's a real book or not). However, I do avoid books labeled as genre fiction myself, even though I haven't read many (although my mom and brother are huge genre readers and pushed lots of the classics on me). Why, you ask? Why, if I'm not just stubbornly assuming the writing will be crappy?
Because I don't like genre movies! I have yet to meet one person who enjoys genre fiction that doesn't also enjoy genre movies. For me, seeing a science fiction movie, no matter how great it's supposed to be, feels roughly like being in church. I don't like Star Wars, I don't like Star Trek, I didn't even like Bladerunner. Sorry, world, it just doesn't interest me. It's not that I think it's bad, I just don't give a hoot. It's purely the same principle that keeps me from watching team sports: total lack of interest. It's judgment-free.
This is all apropos of John begging me last night to see District 9 with him. I've heard so many good things about it I humored him and watched the trailer. But I dunno—it really does look, as one reviewer described it, like a war movie dressed up as science fiction. If there's a genre that appeals less than sci fi, it's war. See, I kind of want to see Moon, which looks more abstractly creepy—I like space. I like science! But I'm not so into gunning down aliens. (I also dislike arcades.)
I fully expect a comment like "Come on, Bladerunner is so good!" It's not it, people. It's me.