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How To Insult A Genre And Offend Readers

February 21, 2014
Who is the famous author, and how did this author offend a bunch of readers?  Oddly enough, it had nothing to do with politics. (image via Wikimedia)

How is it even possible to insult a genre? I’d like to try it! (image via Wikimedia)

Each new year brings its own new literary controversy.  Two years ago, the Pulitzer Prize didn’t give an award for fiction.  Last Year Philip Roth and Elizabeth Gilbert disagreed over whether writing was “torture” or “f*cking great.”  This year, famous author Isabel Allende unintentionally offended a bunch of book readers by accidentally insulting the mystery novel genre.

In an interview with NPR, Allende made some (disparaging?) remarks about current mysteries, saying they’re “too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people. Very entertaining, but really bad people.” Allende says that her own recently released mystery novel Ripper is different than the mysteries that she is referring to.  After her interview, a bunch of mystery fans got mad, and Allende apologized.  Even worse, Allende said her controversial comments were made in jest.

I don’t know why Allende would backtrack, except for public relations purposes.  I’ve read a few mysteries from the last couple years, and I agree with Allende and almost all her points. Most of the novels were dark, and violent with really bad people involved.  The only part I disagreed with Allende was where she said the novels were very entertaining.

I’m not a fan of the fake/forced apology, especially with famous authors.  There was a time when famous authors were supposed to be controversial.  Did Dorothy Parker ever apologize for the mean things she said about public figures of her time?  Did Gore Vidal ever apologize for his mean-spirited insults?  If these literary figures never apologized (and were celebrated for making mean-spirited comments), why should Allende apologize?  Allende didn’t even insult anybody.  At worst, she insulted a genre.

I didn’t even know genres could get insulted.    I can understand not wanting to insult people (it still happens), but it should be okay to insult a genre.  A genre can’t have its feelings hurt.   Allende didn’t say mystery readers were bad people; she said the characters in the genre were bad people.  Yeesh!  If you can’t make negative comments about a genre, what can you make negative comments about?

If genre readers want to get offended by Allende’s comments, I’ll really give them something to be offended about. Every genre can get insulted and stereotyped.  For example, science fiction is a bunch of spaceships blowing each other up.  Literary fiction is a bunch of eggheads trying to impress us with vocabulary and sentence structure and really complicated metaphors.  Fantasy is a bunch of elves and wizards and barbarians and buxom women with no clothes on.  Romance is a bunch of housewife wishful thinking.  I’d keep going, but… Hold on!  I think I just got a phone call from my publicist.

Sometimes I think people aren’t really offended when they say they’re offended (but I can’t read minds, so I don’t know for sure).  I think people claim to be offended when they disagree with somebody, and that by claiming they’re offended, they don’t have to explain why they disagree; all that matters is that they’re offended.  It’s a cheap, lazy debate technique, and it stifles honest debate.  And sometimes people apologize when they shouldn’t have to apologize.

I’d love to hear what’s so offensive about saying too many mysteries are gruesome or violent or dark.  Unfortunately, I won’t get that explanation because Allende has already apologized, so the offended ones don’t have to explain why they’re offended.  I think the burden of proof should be on the person who is offended.  I know being offended is usually not a legal matter, but if people can’t logically explain why they’re offended, then I don’t think they have any business being offended.

Since Ripper is Allende’s first mystery novel, she is also being criticized for writing in a genre that she doesn’t understand.  I don’t know, but I like to see authors try something new.  Too many authors stick to the same genre and simply write the same book over and over.  Even if the book Ripper sucks, at least Allende isn’t writing the same thing all the time.

*****

I have to admit, I didn’t know anything about Isabel Allende before I heard about this controversy.  And it’s quite the controversy.  A book store in Houston called Murder by the Book has even sent back twenty signed copies of Ripper over this.  I would be offended by Murder by the Book’s overreaction, but I don’t get offended easily.  In fact, I’m tempted to buy Ripper just to show my distaste for people who get offended too easily.  The problem is that I don’t buy new books because they’re too expensive. Ugh.  I hate it when my principles clash like that.

But enough about me!  If you could accidentally offend any genre, which genre would it be?  Is it wrong to offend a genre?  Is it wrong to write a novel from a genre that you accidentally offended?  Do you think people are offended too easily?  And is asking too many questions at the end of a post offensive to you?

20 Comments
  1. Hm. While I don’t think a genre itself can get offended, I think you can fairly easily offend authors and readers of certain genres. Science fiction and fantasy writers and readers are terrifically aware of that. It’s a gaffe for someone who is trying to sell a book to that market and work within that genre to show such a misunderstanding; the biggest problem I see is that the critique rests on things that are a part of the genre–“bad” people are often our criminals, and violence,darkness etc. are par for the course in many mysteries–and are sometimes used as cultural critiques. Something very similar was once said about the Southern Gothic-is in fact how it got its name. I’ve no problem with statements of taste, so long as they reflect fair criteria, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

    • I can see why people (especially those who read a lot of mysteries) would disagree with Allende about mystery novels. But to call her remarks “offensive” seems too much. Now if somebody called MY descriptions of science fiction, literary fiction, fantasy, and romance novels offensive, I might understand, but I probably won’t apologize… unless I threaten to fire myself from my own blog.

      • lol! Well, I do think that saying “offensive” might be going a bit far, but misguided and/or unfair are probably decent assessments.

        This is the first I’ve heard of the uproar, and it’s really interesting. I think she made a mistake, considering what she’s trying to sell right now, which may be why we got an apology rather than an elaboration of her remarks.

  2. Anonymous permalink

    I agree with you. However, I am hoping that Allende gave some specific examples of what formed her opinion. And possibly juxtaposed her own novel with them. It may have been a case of someone giving a general opinion which people then thought was an attack on their personal taste. If I were to inadvertently offend a genre, it would be romance novels. To me, they all seem to have basically the same plot.

    • Anonymous permalink

      I agree with you. I do quite enjoy romance novels, for what they are, but I am seriously sick of the stories being the same every time. So I’ve pretty much given up on Romance as a genre.

  3. Sorry – I had previously signed into WordPress and thought it would identify me. Guess not. I made the above comment.

    • Was that the first Anonymous comment or the second Anonymous comment, or both? As for Allende, as far as I can tell, she didn’t say which mystery novels she read in 2012 or anything specific about them, other than “dark” and “gruesome” and “awful.”

      • I was the first one. I bet Allende learned something about how (overly) sensitive fans can be to a perceived slight.

  4. I think many people do get offended too easily. I swear some people make a hobby of protesting things. As for offending a whole genre, let me try: romance books are unrealistic in their portrayal of relationships. There, now no one will buy my new bodice-ripper, Passion at 30,000 Feet. 🙂

  5. Well I agree with what you say about people (and genres!) taking offense way too easily. Whatever happened to the understanding that expressing an opinion about a genre or anything is just a matter of taste? Are readers and writers supposed to like all types of literature? The fact that I don’t like science fiction because of all of the above exploding spaceships shouldn’t offend anyone. And why can’t a writer experiment with a new genre, and even try to add new elements to it, or make it less violent, etc? I once told someone how much I hated reading silly romances and was surprised to hear her say how much she loved them. I hope she wasn’t insulted!

  6. Only genre that I really creeps me out . . . . if it is a genre . . . is so-called “inspirational” literature. Chicken Soup for the Soul, Mitch Albom books, any book with “heaven” in the title. Instead of doing what they are purported to do, such books always make me cranky and dour. Otherwise, I’ll give any genre — even bodice-ripping romance novels — a fair shake.

    • Have they made a “Chicken Soup for the Cranky, Dour Soul”? If they ever do, I’ll donate a short story I wrote called “GET OFF MY LAWN!!”

  7. I read during this week (though for the life of me I can’t remember who wrote it) that offense is taken, not given. You can’t offend people, they can only choose to be offended. Thus, the burden of proof for the offense are with them, as you point out. Taking offense because someone gave a valid opinion on your favourite genre? That’s just silly. Even if she said all people who read mystery novels are psychopaths it would still be silly for them to be offended.

    • I could understand mystery readers being offended at the “psychopath” comment, but they’d have to logically explain why they were offended and answer a series of targeted but sensitive questions before I thought about apologizing to them.

  8. To some people, “opinion” has no meaning. If you don’t agree with them, you’re wrong and therefore offense is taken. This may be reinforced by “strict” English Lit people. They tend to look down on most genres because the books aren’t good literature. I think the whole thing is silly. People like what they like. Why is it that big of an issue?

  9. I’m just so damn offended right now…

  10. My wife loves “mysteries.” I call them “murder books.” They are offensive. Action books, too. Wizard books are not offensive, unless they involve a Chosen One or the author wrote so many he died before he finished the series. Space books are okay. Love books are kind of okay but porn books are offensive. High brow black turtleneck coffee shop books are impossibly offensive. That doesn’t leave much for me. Like, five books, most of which were written prior to 1920 I need to read one of those.

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