Sunday, January 22, 2012

If You Liked It Then You Shoulda Put a Vampire In It

I took an online writing workshop through the magazine Barrelhouse this past fall, and one of the things I was hoping to get into with my instructors and fellow students was what genre amounts to in the writing market of today. My opinion was previously that since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, then building with Harry Potter and, later, Twilight and all the accompanying vampire television, fantasy fiction has become much more of a mainstream proposition, no longer restricted to social misfits and obese owners of comic book stores with stained shirts, but something you can read on the subway without people thinking badly of you. Then I stumbled on this page on Wikipedia, and learned that apparently everybody is reading fantasy on the subway, and has been for many years, and has maybe just been putting false book jackets for Philip Roth over that Ken Follett novel. Which made me wonder ever more why the literary community disdained genre fiction. I think it has something to do with the taint of money against the porcelain posterior of art, the idea that popularity means you haven't written something lasting and worthwhile. I tend to believe exactly the opposite, because I think it matters if people like it. Especially if gigantic numbers of people like it.

In any case, I had thought that genre writers were rather maligned among the literary community, and while I think this is still probably true for writers who are deep inside the boundaries of the genre (i.e. high fantasy, hard science fiction), genre bleeds over into literary fiction in ways I hadn't really guessed. I was told by one of the workshop leaders that agents had taken to suggesting, "Put a vampire in it!" for lit-fic that they didn't think was yet worth selling. Shudder. And once I started looking for genre fiction in the lit community, I found that Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood are sometimes considered more genre authors than straight literary authors, which enormously surprised me. 

I'm much more familiar with Atwood, and yeah, she writes a good amount of speculative fiction. Probably her most famous work is The Handmaid's Tale, which stands immediately next to 1984, is Venus to Orwell's Mars. But she's also written a number of novels that aren't speculative at all, that are about women and friendships and woe in the present day, and there's no doubt to me that her work falls firmly into the category of literary fiction. 

I have all sorts of questions about this sticky subject - whether genre fiction can only be acceptable to book snobs if it's in a literary-fiction shell, where the dividing line is between something that's Fantasy and something that's Literary With Fantastic Elements, why something that so plainly has worth is deemed worthless by so many in the literary community. Whether the derision has changed since LotR, or whether the shooing-in of genre elements is about dollar signs on the part of the agent rather than a concession about available quality. Why the community bothers to hold up Cormac McCarthy as an example of its broad-mindedness when it could just as well be reading Ursula LeGuin and calling it even. I could spend all day brooding over this. 

But that was a really, really long way of saying that I'm struggling with the genre problem in my work. Right now, you see, I'm working on a horror novel. Or at least, I conceptualized it as a horror novel. In fact, I put in a bunch of silly horror tropes at the outset. My "monster" has residence under the stairs. I collected a group of young characters and put them in a lodge way out in the woods. The call is coming from inside the house. At some point I hope to have someone say she'll be right back. Etc. This tickled me pink when I started erecting the structure of it, because I LOVE horror fiction, especially when it's extremely well-done and is nevertheless idiotically gory. (Drag Me to Hell is a perfect example of this kind of thing, a wonderfully made movie that tosses buckets of gunk at the screen and wants you to laugh about it.) I wanted to write a really excellent horror book that had silly cliches snuck into it so that intelligent consumers of genre fiction would read my book and wink and say "I see what you did there." I hoped it would tickle them as much as it did me. 

The problem is, my writing is getting better.  

I'm stepping away from the self that worries about sounding arrogant to tell you this. My writing is getting better. Last night I wrote a few thousand words that, when I was finished, I read over and shivered; it was exactly what I wanted to say, beautiful sentences that didn't need editing. 
The room inside was dustless, with fresh pink and white gerberas on the little table under the window. A faint clean-linen aroma emanated from the canopy bed, on which was arranged a panoply of stuffed animals, their friendly blank eyes and funny colors only grim in the context of this room. An enormous, elaborate dollhouse stood open on the right-side wall. A downsized dresser stood against another wall, a blue satin jewelry box the sole object on its surface. Elaine knew that a plastic ballerina crouched inside, en pointe on a spring. A nightlight glowed under the drapery of the bed.
I'm writing much more carefully now than in times past, working on a sentence-by-sentence basis rather than just writing a lot, sloppily, and coming back later to fix it during the editing process. I never wind up with more than a few really splendid sentences that way, and by writing with total intention now, I end up with whole paragraphs of fiction that makes me proud to read it instead of just baseline getting-my-point-across stuff. It is much, much harder, slower and more exasperating, but oh, is it ever better. 

So I'm writing a really beautiful horror book. A book with emotional impact and difficult truths. But it's still a horror book, and of all genre fiction, I think horror is the least likely ever to be respectable, the way certain swaths of fantasy fiction have become respectable. 

So. What am I writing here? I am not denying that horror fiction can be beautifully written, by any means. But I find myself asking what literary fiction actually means, and why I'm so convinced that I can't write it, because that level of quality is what I'm striving to write day after day. It just also has a monster under the stairs. If I was writing a literary novel about this subject, I would emphasize that the book is about time, and the fucked-up-ed-ness of time and those who can manipulate it. But then I'd be writing a whole different book, a philosophical sort of thing that was more primarily about how humans perceive time than about how this group of characters copes with an evil little girl who can alter it. I'll think about the big philosophical stuff, and I'll maybe encourage my readers to do so while reading, but topically I'm much more interested in writing about the evil little girl than about the big stuff. 

Perhaps that's what makes this a genre book rather than a literary book. Writing about the evil girl rather than writing about the concept. I do have an idea for a conceptual book, but it's in the future, after I've become a much better writer than I am now. At the moment I just want to know what Clara's going to do next. 

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