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Around the Web with Jessica Zellers

*Originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of RA News.*

In some circles there is a prejudice against fiction in general and genre fiction in particular. According to this perspective, fiction is just a tool for recreation or escapism. It's a frivolous pursuit, without the gravitas of nonfiction.

I suppose there's some truth there. I do read fiction to get away from the real world, and it is my favorite form of recreation.  Sometimes I feed my brain with fluffy novels that have the nutritional equivalent of bubblegum. I am completely okay with that, because entertainment is as important as education.

But it is ridiculous to assume that all novels are trivial. Take a look at the powerful photograph at the start of this piece about protesters in Thailand. In the wake of Thailand's recent military coup, people are demonstrating their resistance by using the same three-fingered salute that Katniss Everdeen used to protest her government. A genre novel written for teenagers is influencing a widespread military protest. That's hardly trivial. 

"A genre novel written for teenagers is influencing a widespread military protest. That’s hardly trivial."

The resistance in Thailand forms an elegant retort to a recent article in Slate, which contends that Young Adult literature is too insubstantial to be suitable for adults. By that logic I ought to get rid of my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Fortunately, readers and librarians decried the Slate article with a strong defense of YA. Of the overwhelming number of articles I saw, my favorite was this piece by S. E. Smith. Smith frames the discussion in generational terms, and offers an excellent definition of young adult novels: "YA, at its heart, whether it's fantasy, mystery, contemporary, romance, or literary, is about growing up, finding boundaries, and discovering who you are."

The principal of a high school in Florida certainly understands the power and potential of books. Cory Doctorow's novel Little Brother was slated to be the title for One School/One Book summer reading program. Rather than risk exposing students to a book that encourages people to question authority, the principal cancelled the whole program. Apparently he has no sense of irony.

It's not just YA books that are scorned. Another perennial whipping boy is women's fiction. An article in the Boston Globe makes a strong case that book covers are part of the problem. It's hard to take a book seriously when its cover shows lipstick or heels. On the flip side, it's hard to take women characters seriously when they exist only in relation to the male protagonists. This is especially pervasive in Science Fiction, writes author Kari Sperring. As a child, she identified with fully developed female characters like Uhura from Star Trek and Rydra Wong from Samuel R Delany's Babel 17. But as she grew older, she realized that strong women were the exception to the rule: "For every Rydra, there were 40 interchangeable space babes, screaming, being patronized, being handed out as prizes."

I'm going to hope a woman wins George R. R. Martin's "Murder you for Charity" contest. The grand prize is to be included in A Song of Ice and Fire. That character will be in no danger of being a passive and forgettable bystander and best of all, that character will die a horribly unspeakable death. Granted, she'll die in the process of being fully developed, but that's par for the course in Martin's books. Better to be a murdered and memorable character than a forgettable secondary character.

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Jessica Zellers is a Collection Development Librarian with the Mid-Continent Public Library. She has a weakness for fat Russian novels.