Are some genres "for kids"?

I’ve always loved that quote. I recently did a re-read of the Narnia books and noticed a distinct parallel between it and the dedication to his goddaughter, Lucy, for whom he wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It reads:

And, true enough, when she ended up confined to a hospital bed with MS for the last years of her life, her brother would come visit and read the book to her over and over again.

I’ve found a curiously pervasive belief that ‘cartoons are for children’- I get a lot of books and cheap DVDs second hand from charity shops. These often, in the UK, have a separate section for kids stuff- the number of times I’ve pulled stuff like Viz comics and anime cartoons that are clearly labelled as rated for 15 or even 18+ from the midst of the Paw Patrol and the like is quite impressive.

I actually volunteered at a charity bookshop for a few years, and found a staff member who was doing it there- she was very confused at my telling her that she really needed to start checking what she was putting on the children’s shelf, after pulling a set of Viz annuals off there, because they were comics, of course they were for children. I had get her to read one, and I think all she took from it was that some people are disgusting and disguise adult material as harmless fun for kids.

Mind you, I also had the same staff member come up to me once and tell me, with a confused look on her face, that she’d just sold a sci-fi novel to an adult woman. Watching her try to backtrack when I pointed out that I was the person who managed the sci-fi section, and the book she’d just sold was one of my favourites was pretty funny.

It’s not the genre, it’s what you do with it that counts.

Science fiction and mystery and so on are literature. As are historical dramas and Shakespeare and whatever else you care to include. Sure, some elitists think that there’s some distinct category of “literature” that most writing never achieves, but those folks are wrong, and their opinions are not worth entertaining.

I think China Mieville coined the term mimetic literature, a not-especially-popular genre in which everything that happens could plausibly happen in the real, modern world. It has a small but rabid fan base, with university departments and everything.

Of course, Shakespeare is full of ghosts, witches, fairies, and so on in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, MacBeth, Hamlet and others.

The distinction that Exapno may have been trying to draw is between entertainment on the one hand, and… there isn’t a good, universally-accepted word, but literature or Art on the other hand.

The way I think of it, entertainment value is what you gain from a work while you’re experiencing it. The other kind of value (literary value, or artistic value, or whatever you want to call it) is what you take away from it after it’s over: it’s how you benefit from having seen/read it. Some works offer both kinds of value. But anything, to be worth reading/watching, has to have at least one or the other.

He says he loves the term, implying that it was already around. It’s probably about 50 years old because I remember seeing it when the first generation of interested academics started making the case for science fiction as a teachable literature back in the 1970s.

Nope. This is purely back-formation, applying modern terminology to books whose authors and readers had no such notions and would have fought them fiercely if they heard them.

There are thousands of examples of what today are usually called proto-science fiction, but when they were written were merely stories with a scientific idea* that drove that plot. They ran next to regular stories in regular magazines and garnered no especial comment unless they were unusually well done. They didn’t even have a name until the late 19th century when some called them scientific romances (when a romance was another term for an adventure story). Nobody thought of them as a specialized or separate genre of fiction.

Hugo Gernsback really did create the genre of science fiction with stories in his Science and Invention magazine leading to Amazing Stories. But that wasn’t until the 1920s.

*And it’s stretching things to say that Frankenstein has a scientific idea. The creation scene takes place offpage and gives no hint of how it’s done, although Shelley surrounds it with sufficient natural philosophy that people backform a scientific aura that is nowhere in the book. The creature may as well be a golem or an enchanted statue, as in previous stories about the non-living coming alive.

And the swordsmiths of Damascus didn’t have any clue what vanadium was, and yet we can still recognize that that’s the element that made their blades so special. Just because the first examples of a genre didn’t realize that they were a genre doesn’t mean they weren’t part of it.

Your argument could be extended to inductively prove that there was no work that was the first science fiction work, because if there were a first, the genre didn’t exist before it, and if there was no first work, there is no science fiction at all.

My friends, I have the perfect case study.

Sr. Weasel is obsessed with the X-Men. His love started in his youth, with comic books, and the comics grew with him. Whenever there’s a lull in conversation that’s where his brain defaults. I admit that, even though I enjoy comics, I don’t fully understand what spurs a grown man to fill his home with action figures. We have five full - sized posters framed on our living room wall. Jane Foster’s Thor, Storm v. Colossus, a Sentinel, The Dark Phoenix, and for myself, She-Hulk.

Childish, right? But this man is very much an adult. He’s a child clinical psychologist who specializes in OCD and tic disorders. He is responsible for most of the household revenue, he is running his own business, and he’s a conscientious spouse and father. He has sooooo many spreadsheets. He’s one of the most “adult” people I know.

So, I asked him. It went like this:

Me: I have a question that I will almost certainly regret asking.
Him: jumps up and down on the balls of his feet Please let it be about X-Men. Please let it be about X-Men!
Me: (sigh) It’s about X-Men. What about the X-Men appeals to you as an adult?

After a 90-minute conversation (sigh), I have synthesized his responses for our edification.

  • Relates to the profound sense of alienation and rejection based on personal identity (linked to experiences as an adolescent, mostly for being a nerd)

  • Pushes him to think more critically about social justice issues, including race and gender. Example given: The moment he discovered that “Xavier is Martin Luther King, Jr. and Magneto is Malcom X” parallel was ignorant and reductionist spurred him to develop a more nuanced understanding of MLK and other racial justice leaders

  • The X-Men put the lie to the idea that “the arc of the moral universe bends always toward justice.” Out of all the Marvel characters, the absolute worst things happen to the X-Men because of who they are. Evil often triumphs. Relates this to being liberal in real life and watching evil triumph despite our best efforts.

  • Even when the X-men set aside a whole country (Krakoa) and just want to be left to themselves, people still hunt them down just to fuck with them. They will forever be hated for what they are and they will never be able to escape persecution (reflects reality.)

  • BUT despite this bleak reality, the serial nature of comics gives us always another chance to dust ourselves off and fight again***

  • The X-Men take a very clear and consistent stance on right vs. wrong. Discrimination based on immutable identity is wrong. Always wrong.

  • The thing that sets the X-Men apart - their unique abilities - is also their greatest strength. He admits this is a bit juvenile but still feels good to read

  • The women are incredibly powerful. Enjoys that throughout its history as a comic run, X-Men has gotten a lot of things right including women with a high degree of agency. Enjoys critiquing what they have gotten wrong. (Can confirm: Storm is a badass.)

  • Pure escapism

***I relate this to Derrick Bell’s assertion that despite the inevitability of white supremacy, “in the struggle lies liberation.” The X-Men reflect how the struggle for justice is, in itself, liberating (that’s MY observation.)

You could argue that one or two of these things are a bit adolescent, but this strikes me as a pretty sophisticated and adult analysis overall.

Besides, I write fiction. Science fiction romance, the two ‘‘lowest’’ genres combined. Being a writer is basically playing in a sandbox. My action figures live on paper. So I have room to talk. And I take my writing just as seriously as he takes his X-Men - that’s the subject he’s afraid to bring up.

In my personal opinion, the best literary fiction is the best genre fiction. Even stuff like Dickens’ Bleak House fits the crime genre. When someone can deliver a nail-biting, page-turning plot imbued with depth and meaning and meditations on the human condition, I am sent.

But not so great with the tools.


Yeahhh we kinda pretend nothing happened before Giant Size X-Men. But if you haven’t seen Storm in a mohawk shank Callisto and then with no powers whatsoever wrest leadership from that asshole Cyclops, ooh, you’re missing out!

Some science fiction and mystery and so on are formulaic. And formulaic genre fiction may be entertaining, but it generally doesn’t have much of lasting value, much that you can’t get from dozens of other things written to that same formula. Which I suspect is part of why genre fiction is often looked down upon, although not all genre fiction is formulaic.

And which is, as far as I can tell, a totally separate issue from what age audience it is for.

I think it is relevant because the original claim was that genre fiction is juvenile because it lacks depth.

I guess it depends on how we define formulaic. All stories signal to the reader in some manner what they should expect from the book they are reading, and good writing rewards the reader by giving them what they expect in a way they didn’t expect.

I’m reading this book by George Saunders called A Swim in A Pond in the Rain. It’s a close analysis of Russian short stories. Chekhov et. al. Literary fiction. You can see all the ways the author manipulates the reader and lays the groundwork for what is to come. A former mentor preaches that genre fiction came to a “surprising but inevitable” conclusion, but is that not what Chekhov delivers in In the Cart? It couldn’t have ended any other way. (spoiler! It’s depressing.)

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. What’s the difference between Chekhov and, say, a romance novel? In the right hands, maybe nothing. Maybe it just really comes down to skill. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m still pondering.

When Robert Redford was asked to be in Captain America The Winter Soldier, he was reluctant, because in his mind comic book superhero films were something he dismissed as not his kind of thing, childish if you will. He had an outdated idea of what they were, not seeing what they had evolved into. But then when the Directors told him it was actually an espionage story, he saw a way in, as it was the kind of movie he had done many times before.

Genres are just settings, neither for a particular generation, nor against. The stories they tell are what matters, and they are timeless, able to fit anywhere.

Speaking of Redford, consider westerns: you can do a kid-friendly white-hat-vs-black-hat story, possibly with singing cowboys doing rope tricks; but you can also do an Oscar-nominated drama built around shades-of-grey characters — just like you could do a movie with plenty of light comedy, and do another movie as a brutal tale of rape and revenge.

Sure, they’d all feature quick-draw gunslingers who ride around on horseback and ain’t never heard tell of an aircraft carrier; but there’s no mistaking a William Witney serial about the adventures of Red Ryder for Quentin Tarantino’s signature schtick.

You’re righter than you think. Historians have named a library’s worth of “first” science fiction works. Anybody who wants to make a name in the field can propose another and be equally certain that people will take a good case seriously. That’s because the genre of science fiction didn’t exist before the genre of science fiction was invented.

Am I being circular? No, not really. Verne and Wells and their contemporaries never thought of writing science fiction. They wrote mainstream fiction that explored the technological advances they saw around them every day. They cheated by extrapolating that technology a bit farther than contemporary reality but that wasn’t seen as a distinction from the exaggerations of other forms of adventure fiction.

Gernsback codified scientific romances and gave writers a structure into which they could place works that had few outlets elsewhere. That’s why he’s so critical to the history of the genre, even though the original works he published were vastly inferior to the mainstream stories that preceded them. Without his structure, the genre could not take form and improve.

Moving this from the Whedon thread:

A smidge off-topic, but I don’t think children’s books/movies that are well done can ever be considered off limits to adults. I was a bit too old for The Outsiders and Judy Blume books when they became popular. Last year, I decided it was high time to correct this deficiency, and I read The Outsiders and Are you there God? It’s Me, Margaret . I loved them both.

I’ve heard people use the phrase “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” and I always thought it sounded cheesy. Now? I tear up just a little bit.

Sure, some science fiction and mysteries are formulaic. So are some historical dramas, or whatever it is people mean when they refer to “literature” as a genre. “Serious works” aren’t immune to Sturgeon’s Law. It’s as absurd to criticize science fiction because some of it is formulaic, as it is to criticize books with green bindings because some of them are formulaic.

Agreed Chronos, this is a key point. Although named in the first post, I decry the writing-off of genre. The world of sci-fi and fantasy is replete with wonders. China Mievlieel is a great start or go back to PKD. Who do you need is a better question that what do you want.