On Stranger Things and the definition of “genre”

I’ve been late in expressing my appreciation for Stranger Things. The Netflix science fiction/horror show had completed its second season two years after my initial and only review, and I didn’t comment on the third season. With the fourth and penultimate season having just aired, I got some catching up to do.

But before I talk about those kooky kids from Hawkins, I’ve got to rant fairly extensively about the use of the word genre in the world of prose fiction.

Among aspiring short story writers like myself, fiction is often divided into two broad categories – literary fiction and genre fiction. For literary fiction, think of the classic authors you were assigned to read in school – Hemingway, Parker, O’Connor, Baldwin. Think of the high-brow magazines: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s. The predominant style of writing in literary fiction is realism, although surrealism and nonlinear narratives are also prevalent. The diction tends to be erudite, the significance multi-layered.

Genre fiction is… everything that’s not literary fiction. That’s a smart-aleck comments that’s actually more or less accurate. There are really many different genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror (these three are often assigned to the umbrella category speculative fiction), mystery, romance… the list goes on. Think of the authors you read outside of class, and the few remaining popular magazines such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Can the difference between literary and genre be expressed in a single sentence? Several definitions have been offered, one I see quite often. It goes something like this:

Literary fiction focuses on character; genre fiction focuses on plot.

I absolutely hate this definition, and I want to use Stranger Things to validate my hatred.

Yeah, I’m mixing media here. For television, the literary vs. genre distinction in fiction translates into highbrow and lowbrow programming, with Downtown Abbey in the former category and The Simpsons in the latter. Few fans or critics would consider Stranger Things highbrow; its use of familiar science fiction and horror tropes makes it a genre show.

But as for focusing on plot… as I said in my initial review of the first two seasons, the plot of Stranger Things has all the complexity of a Scooby Doo cartoon. I honestly can’t provide a coherent summary of the show’s primary events; something about secret government experiments and parallel universes and dogs without faces… a group of teenagers saving the world multiple times with the aid of a girl with super-powers… oh and there’s Russians.

The plot of Stranger Things is preposterous.

Then why is this the most popular show in Netflix’s history?

It’s the characters. That aspect genre fiction and lowbrow television supposedly neglects for the sake of plot.

I’m drawn in by Eleven’s vulnerability, Mike’s heart, Will’s longing, Max’s grit, Dustin’s spastic ingenuity, Lucas’ calm intellect. Joyce and Hopper’s romance is as awkward as it is touching. The rest of the supporting cast is equally engaging. No television show has portrayed geek culture as accurately and honestly; the dialogue, relationships, and emotions, both positive and negative, are spot-on.

They are characters you root for because they are fully realized. The threats they face hardly matter; the humanity of the Hawkins gang is what’s important. I have never cheered for a fictional character as much as I did when Max ran for safety at the end of the fourth episode in the latest season.

Genre/lowbrow only cares about plot? Show me a speculative story with bad characters and I’ll stop reading halfway through. I’m hoping writers and producers take note of what makes Stranger Things so phenomenally successful and bring fully developed characters into their stories.

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