Do Genre Fiction Classics Receive the Respect They Deserve? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks


Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.


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Do you think genre books receive the respect they deserve, even if they are considered classics?

Star Divider

Even though many classic books are what one would consider genre fiction (for example, Sherlock Holmes mysteries or the Hornblower naval adventures), I would argue that many of these books do not receive as much respect as one might think they would, considering their “classic” status. After all, when one thinks of the classic books typically taught in high schools and even in colleges, genre fiction does not often make the cut. Rather, books like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, and Of Mice and Men continue to define the American educational experience, even as the teaching of classics in schools has been placed under increasing scrutiny. It is far less common to see a book like The Hobbit or And Then There Were None regularly placed on a school reading list. And, since high school is the one place many Americans will have their first (and perhaps last) taste of the classics, these reading experiences define for many what a classic book is.

Aside from the issue of school reading lists, we must also consider the canon. Of course, many people vehemently dislike and disagree with the canon, but its legacy carries on, and people do still tend to use it as a way to measure the value of a book. Readers often conflate the canon and the classics, but the two are actually separate categories or lists. The canon (supposedly) exists on a higher plane. It is the body of works that is believed to have been influential in shaping Western culture (if there is such a thing). In other words, these books are understood to have had large-scale effects on the culture and they are the works that other influential authors would have drawn upon in creating their own work. There is actually no official list of the canon, but generally accepted authors include Socrates, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Joyce. Female writers have traditionally included only a few names such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Charlotte Brontë. Genre fiction writers are not as likely to be included in lists of the canon.

Classics are, in a way, considered a step below the canon. They are believed to be important and “timeless” and worth reading as a depiction of the “universal human experience.” But they are not seen as influential as something like Shakespeare. I would argue, however, that genre fiction classics are still considered a step below even the classics. The mere fact that one usually has to add a descriptor to talk about genre fiction classics suggests that they are not held in as high regard. The Red Badge of Courage might be a classic. And The Catcher in the Rye might be a classic. But something like The Lord of the Rings might often be referred to as a “fantasy classic.” It is seen as influential and important in its own genre, but is not accorded quite the same status a regular old “classic.”

Perhaps most telling, however, is the fact that many readers of classic genre fiction do not even realize they are reading classics at all. It is not uncommon to see someone say that they “hate the classics” and that “classics are too difficult” and “school made them hate classics.” And yet, many of these classic-hating individuals have actually read and enjoyed classics! Books such Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Jane Eyre, The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, and The Scarlet Pimpernel are beloved by many readers who are convinced they would never pick up or like a classic book. The way classics are taught in school has apparently left scores of readers with the idea that 1) children’s and genre fiction cannot be classics and 2) that anything they find enjoyable cannot be a classic, either!

Of course, many people hate the very idea of the canon and of classics in general. These labels are usually very exclusionary and they do not adequately reflect the many amazing writings by women and people of color. The idea of the canon and the classics persists, however, affecting the way people continue to talk and think about books, and their relative merits. And, right now, these labels, along with the way they are taught in high schools, serve to suggest that classics of genre fiction are not quite at the same level as the other classics.

11 thoughts on “Do Genre Fiction Classics Receive the Respect They Deserve? (Classic Remarks)

  1. Linda I PagesandPapers says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post! I’ve actually never though about this issue but I think it all comes down to the question what actually makes a classic. It’s such a fuzzy term anyway so maybe teachers should emphasise more strongly that classics is actually a broad category.


    • Krysta says:

      So true! There’s no official definition of classic and people have their own criteria! I know some people who think a book has to be at least 10 years old, for example, for classic consideration, but it’s not like that’s part of the definition taught in school.

      I also think we can forget that books become classics for different reasons. Sometimes a book was just the first to do something or it’s otherwise historically significant, but it’s not necessarily a great story.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    Interesting how there’s a distinction between classics and canon – I’ve never thought of it that way but it makes sense!

    I had to study To Kill a Mockingbird and Fahrenheit 451 in school, alongside Shakespeare, so I always had the impression that they were the same, just that some classics were more understandable than others!


    • Krysta says:

      I think most high schools focus more on the classics and then the canon becomes more relevant in college. But also less relevant because I think most college professors are aware that the canon has been in question for decades now. In my personal experience, it’s often general readers and not academics who are the most fervent about retaining the canon.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark says:

    I fully intend to take part in one of these properly someday, perhaps tomorrow, but this question I could not possibly answer. Because I’ve noticed something about myself: I cannot determine genre.

    I tried once to arrange my books by genre and gave up less than ten books in. I think in many ways the classic distinction between tragedy and comedy was best – and I would probably swap the term ‘tragedy’ for ‘drama’, as not all non-comedic works are “tragic”. Still, I’d resolve it further: both ‘comedy’ and ‘drama’ are human – that’s the only “genre” I can see.

    Harry Potter is it fantasy? Mystery? To me it’s a human drama (and even still, there are comedic elements. There is magic and all, sure; but it’s still, ultimately, a story of the human struggle against adversity – addressing racism, identity and more. The Stars My Destination, my favourite “sci-fi” novel, and based on The Count of Monte Cristo, for sure has space travel, and teleportation, but it’s a story of revenge and corruption of the “soul”. No less a drama for it’s setting, no less human.

    Of course, I’m not suggesting that if you looked at my bookshelf, you wouldn’t find a trend towards certain genres more than others – merely that I cannot tell you, myself, what that trend is. I look at all my books and see a collection of drama and comedy, a collection of reflections on the human condition. That is all.


    • Krysta says:

      I think you’ve hit on a great point! We like to try to label things and put them in little boxes, but not everything fits in a box! In fact, a lot of books I call “fantasy” because they have unicorns and dragons or whatever actually often tend to contain a mystery, romance, and drama/action, as well! This is partly the reason I’m skeptical of the new trend for libraries (school libraries in particular, I believe) to sort by genre. I think it would be overwhelming and perhaps impossible to try to categorize every book in the building into a neat little box.

      Liked by 1 person

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