It is no great secret that the undergraduate English department is in a state of decline: a shrinking number of English majors, a decrease in faculty, and a reputation of unemployability and irrelevance. Much has been written about this decline. Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker piece, “The End of the English Major,” has already managed to spark two separate New York Times opinion pieces. Like much previous writing on the topic, Heller interviewed academics and students and ended up with a familiar group of diagnoses and cures. When summarized, the discussion boils down to this:
“English departments rely too heavily on the Great Books. We need to study a more diverse group of authors.”
“No. Kids these days don’t respect the canon. This emphasis on new texts and perspectives is to the detriment of the established classics.”
“No. English suffers from a reputation problem. We must do more to battle the perception that English departments are impractical, unserious, and out of touch.”
“No. Students are focused on majors with clear paths to employment and high salaries. We must better communicate career opportunities to students. English majors can still get jobs in STEM and business fields. ”
“No. Focusing on non-humanities-based careers reinforces the idea that English is a useless degree, a sideshow to more profitable pursuits.”
“No. The actual problem is our tunnel vision on the traditional study of literature. We need to incorporate disciplines like cultural studies, media studies, and women, gender, and sexuality studies.”
“No. The increased focus on secondary disciplines and pre-professional interests is driving away students who are interested in the traditional study of English.”
I list these critiques because within the discourse—Heller’s article included—there is strikingly little mention of the literature English departments ignore: genre fiction. Genre fiction, also known as “commercial fiction” or “popular fiction,” typically falls into pre-established literary genres with their own rules and styles. Think fantasy, science fiction, crime, horror, romance, young adult, and historical fiction. These genres are viewed differently from literary fiction which is typically more realistic and less defined by specific plot demands. The perception is that genre fiction books are plot-driven entertainment while literary fiction books are character-focused art. Genre fiction seemingly uses simple, accessible language whereas literary fiction is focused on complex and occasionally experimental prose. Genre fiction takes up the majority of the fiction market, yet is largely ignored by university English departments.
To get a sense of how many genre fiction courses are being offered, I reviewed the course catalogs of twenty universities for the 2021-22 academic year: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, UChicago, UPenn, Columbia, Cornell, University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Rice, Vanderbilt, Duke, Northwestern, Barnard, Williams, and Washington University in St. Louis. I selected these universities based on U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of best English graduate programs, Niche’s ranking of best undergraduate programs, and my own experience currently attending Washington University in St. Louis.
Based on these twenty colleges’ course catalogs, elite universities offered an average of 4.1 genre fiction courses in the 2021-22 academic year. On the surface, this number does not look terrible. How many genre fiction courses can English departments be expected to host, especially at small liberal arts colleges? However, with further examination, an average of 4.1 courses is absurdly small. Consider UPenn. Its College of Arts and Science has 7,146 students. In the 2021-22 academic year, 182 courses counted toward an English major. None focused on genre fiction. Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences enrolls over 4,000 students. They offer one genre fiction seminar. UCLA enrolls 25, 473 undergraduates. They offer three genre fiction courses out of 220 total English courses. UC Berkeley enrolls over 23,000 undergraduates in its College of Letters and Sciences and offers six genre courses out of 164 total English courses. These are ridiculous ratios, especially when one considers how broad a category genre fiction is. Things are marginally more encouraging at UChicago which also offers six courses but has a much smaller student body: 16,000 fewer undergraduate students than UC Berkeley. Johns Hopkins has eight courses, Harvard and Yale both have nine courses, and Cornell has ten. Even so, these numbers are deceptive. Forty-five percent of genre courses offered cover just science fiction. This is a serious over-representation in an already small pool. Detective fiction comes in second with 10.8 percent. The numbers for other popular genres are pitiful. Across twenty universities, horror gets six courses. Fantasy gets four. Historical fiction, romance, westerns, thrillers, and the vague “bestsellers” category each get one course out of twenty prominent universities. As demonstrated, English departments are wonderful places for those who love engaging with books, but only “acceptable” books.
The obvious next question is why a major category of literature is being side-lined by the most prestigious English departments in the nation. The answer is unsurprising to any student that has tried to submit a genre story in a writing seminar or was told, as I was, not to mention enjoying genre fiction to college interviewers: there is a longstanding belief that genre fiction, popular fiction, simply is not any good. It is not literature and it certainly is not worthy of study. It was made for the lowest-common-denominator, for a commercial audience, and therefore must have no literary merit nor require any real skill to create. In response to the New Yorker article, journalist and novelist Jennifer Grose tweeted, “I felt actively discouraged in my [English] department because I was not interested in the avant garde/highly intellectual writing that was in vogue at the time at my elite university. […] There seemed to be an active disdain for teaching to write or think in a way a general, non-elite audience might care about. ”
Consider the view is that the work consumed by the masses is produced by hack salesmen and offers the reader no value. It is right to exclude popular literature from academia because it is not literature at all. Mediocre bestsellers do not need improvement, but “prevention.” These oft-given reasons for keeping genre friction out of the college classroom—it is poor quality, unoriginal, and is not literary fiction—are ignorant at best and hypocritical at worst.
Genre fiction often faces criticism for its use of tropes. For a book to be considered one genre or another, certain expectations should be fulfilled. The literary-fiction crowd interprets these prerequisites as a lack of originality on the part of the author and a lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of the reader. Let us not act, however, as if literary fiction does not have its own tropes, cliches, and style. Literary fiction typically deals with realistic, internal problems. The ending is ambiguous or unhappy. The prose is complex, slow-paced, and character-focused. A man battles alcoholism (The Sun Also Rises, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Big Sur, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Lost Weekend, Under the Volcano). A writer struggles to write (The Garden of Eden, The Ghost Writer, Tropic of Capricorn, The Tenants, Less). A person dies of an illness (The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Little Women, The Grapes of Wrath, Les Misérables, The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove). A family is dysfunctional (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, The Goldfinch, Ulysses, To the Lighthouse). An adult abuses a child (The Bluest Eye, War and Peace, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, The Count of Monte Cristo, Crime and Punishment, Light in August). A middle-aged professor has an affair with a student (J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty). An old man lusts after a younger woman. (Ulysses, Lolita) A character describes everything they see out of their bedroom window. There is an ominous body of water, probably in a flashback. A drink is poured. A plate breaks. The eggs were cold. A dog barks in the distance. (Light in August, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Ulysses, All the King’s Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Madame Bovary).
By claiming literary fiction to be trope-free, we can pretend that literary fiction is not a genre in its own right. If we admit that literary fiction is a genre subject to common devices and plots, then we start running out of legitimate reasons to keep popular fiction separate. Genre fiction may be allowed into the realm of respectability if it aligns sufficiently with literary fiction norms. If it focuses on morality and politics, and the action scenes are few and far between, these books can be deemed respectable. Think Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In order to maintain literary fiction’s superior status, these books will not be considered real genre fiction. They are actually literary fiction with some fun genre set-dressing.
Consider Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. His books are by all metrics fantasy novels and are often compared to the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Pullman resists this comparison saying, “Despite the armored bears and the angels, I don’t think I’m writing fantasy […] My books are psychologically real. So I would be most flattered if I was compared to George Eliot, Jane Austen or Henry James.”
Crucially, it is the academics who decide what makes a text serious. We have stopped saying the quiet part out loud. We no longer say that only White, upper-class, college-educated, men write serious literature, yet we cling to the idea of the seriousness these authors established.
What Pullman is to fantasy, Margaret Atwood is to science fiction. Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake trilogy had her characterized as a science fiction author, but she has worked to distance herself from that community. She claims that science fiction is nothing more than “talking squids in outer space,” and tries to position herself as a writer of “speculative fiction,” which “could really happen.” And of course, since her books “could really happen,” they are not genre fiction. Both Atwood and Pullman are undeniably accomplished: award-winning and bestselling with multiple screen adaptations under their belts. Their success begs the question, what do they gain from trying to position themselves as writers of “proper literature”?
This brings us to the only real difference between literary and genre fiction: perceived seriousness. Fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin confirms this when explaining Atwood’s “arbitrarily restrictive definition” of science fiction: “She [Atwood] doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.” And Atwood’s fears were well-founded. The New York Times’s review of Oryx and Crake begins “science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L.’” This is far from the only example. When Philip K. Dick’s status as a science fiction author was questioned during an NPR discussion, author John Letham said, “people will almost always argue that something they admire isn’t part of a genre.” Genre fiction means trite, low class. So if I like this piece of writing, then it cannot possibly be genre. Another example comes from J. G. Ballard’s obituary in The New York Times which ends with his editor Robert Weil saying, “His fabulistic style led people to review his work as science fiction […] But that’s like calling ‘Brave New World’ science fiction, or ‘1984.’” I admit that 1984’s science-fiction-status is debatable, but Brave New World is science fiction no matter how you slice it. But Weil and others like him liked the book too much to comfortably call it so. Given the prevalent bias against genre work, reactions like Pullman’s and Atwood’s are understandable.
Crucially, it is the academics who decide what makes a text serious. We have stopped saying the quiet part out loud. We no longer say that only White, upper-class, college-educated, men write serious literature, yet we cling to the idea of the seriousness these authors established. We look for writers from prestigious MFA programs who can afford to develop the taste and voice that distinguishes them from simple commercial authors. We focus on seriousness without questioning if it is the most important criterion to consider when selecting the literature we study.
The English major clearly suffers from the impression of underemployment and being unmarketable, yet universities look down on genre fiction’s commercial focus.
Finally, I must address the criticism of genre fiction’s commercial aspirations. Firstly, I fail to see how an author’s intentions dictate their work’s artistic value. And secondly, authors of literary fiction also write for profit. This profit however is not money, but status. The target audience is not the man on the street. It is prize givers and professors, gatekeepers and tastemakers. This audience gives literary-fiction authors the legitimacy and seriousness essential to perpetuating the idea of “Literature with a capital L.” This audience’s existence depends upon the belief that the unwashed masses are incapable of distinguishing good and bad literature. An enlightened upper class is thus necessary to set the standard. This elitism lies at the core of genre fiction’s exclusion from the ivory tower of academia.
As demonstrated by their course offerings, English departments are only too willing to exclude the books consumed and created by the majority. There is a large divide between the books that sit on bedside tables and the books purchased the first week of the semester. Elevating the literature of a select few only perpetuates the widely-held belief that English is an esoteric degree for the rich and out of touch. The students quoted in Heller’s article echo this sentiment; a recent Harvard graduate said, “My issue as a first-gen student is I always view humanities as a passion project. You have to be affluent in order to be able to take that on and state, ‘Oh, I can pursue this, because I have the money to do whatever I want.’” The English major clearly suffers from the impression of underemployment and being unmarketable, yet universities look down on genre fiction’s commercial focus.
The case for genre fiction’s inclusion in English departments is made more compelling when considering the demand for such courses. There is serious interest in studying and learning how to create these books. I am not just talking about retirees in book clubs, but college-age or nearly college-age people—potential English majors. Despite all of the hand-wringing about how kids don’t read these days and rot their brains on social media, social media has helped energize a new generation of readers. TikTok, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube are home to wildly popular and genuinely influential communities of readers and writers engaging in a sort of grassroots amateur scholarship fueled by enthusiasm.
Young people are choosing to discuss literature without the participation points, homework, and degree they will get at the end. No authority figure is assigning discussion questions, yet people are engaging and analyzing books out of pure passion. This is the energy English departments desperately need.
A particularly impactful example of this is BookTok—the section of TikTok dedicated to discussing books. At the time of writing, the BookTok hashtag has over 117.2 billion views. This community is majorly influencing book sales and bolstering a new generation of readers. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was published in 2012. BookTok found it nine years later and in April 2021 it hit number one on The New York Times Best Seller list. At the time of writing, The Song of Achilles hashtag has over 338.5 million views. This is one example of many. Young people are reading and talking about books with serious excitement. This interest is not spawned by a single Harry Potter or Twilight-level phenomenon with an on-screen adaptation. It is led by normal people reading and recommending books.
Unsurprisingly, BookTok’s most popular genres are fantasy, science fiction, romance, young adult, and horror. Genre readers are provided no opportunities to interact with the books they love in the classroom, so they create spaces for themselves. This excitement and energy is being ignored by elite institutions. Young people are choosing to discuss literature without the participation points, homework, and degree they will get at the end. No authority figure is assigning discussion questions, yet people are engaging and analyzing books out of pure passion. This is the energy English departments desperately need.
Damningly, the prevalence of genre courses in university extension programs indicates that universities are aware of this demand. But because genre fiction is not considered worthy of a degree, this interest is ignored. If I want to study or learn to write horror, fantasy, mystery, children’s literature, or heaven-forbid romance, I will have to look elsewhere. It will not be included in an elite institution’s English department. And if I want to do it under the guidance of a teacher, I will have to shell out even more money (in addition to my college tuition). My own university offers no fantasy courses in the College of Arts and Sciences but does offer them at the University College (its extension program). The same is true at UC Berkeley and at UCLA, both of which host extension programs with robust genre fiction offerings. This is nonsensical. Universities know their English departments are thinning. They also know people want to learn about genre fiction. The solution seems obvious. Why would anyone wanting to study genre fiction saddle themselves with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for a degree that refuses to teach them what they need to learn?
Sidelining passionate students because their books of choice are not sufficiently respectable keeps English inaccessible, irrelevant, and exclusive to the point of its own suffocation.
I want to make it clear that I am not calling for the removal of the canon. My issue is not the canon’s inclusion, but the near-total exclusion of everything else. I am not refuting the traditional foundation of English major education. I am saying that this singular, un-evolving focus is foolish and damaging. By lifting the literature of the academic elite above the literature of the masses, English departments imply that the masses are unimportant and further the belief that English is a field and degree of little consequence.
I will freely admit that expanding the curriculum will not solve everything overnight. It will not combat years of constant messaging about the importance of STEM and the uselessness of the humanities (My sixth-grade math teacher lectured me and my classmates about this on a semi-regular basis). It will not shift economic realities and priorities, but that does not mean we should disregard partial solutions. Incremental progress is still progress. The inclusion of commercial fiction would help lessen the perception that English majors are unemployable, better prepare students to work in the commercial book market, and attract students deterred by current curricula. Sidelining passionate students because their books of choice are not sufficiently respectable keeps English inaccessible, irrelevant, and exclusive to the point of its own suffocation.