Friday, April 17, 2009

Genre No More

The time has come for horror writers, fantasy writers, science fiction writers, romance writers, and other writers of so-called niche writing to stop calling what we do genre writing. What does that word mean anyway? Genre. It's an apology. It's a sign we let the popular kids put on our back. It's the red-faced shame we feel when our parents whip open the door to the bedroom and find us writing genre into an old sweat sock while we desperately try to hide the open glossy pages of our favorite horror or fantasy magazine.

You know, I think the stuff that passingfor high literature these days constitutes its own genre. Let's call a neurosis a neurosis, or in my case, let's not.

I'm currently fighting my way through a novel by Richard Ford, one of those literary guys whose books are read by a niche, and maybe gets taught in college classes, but will probably be forgotten when the next literary love child comes along, and I'm amazed at his lack of economy and these meaningless details and passages that go blah, blah, blah.

Pulitizer Award Winning Ford, of course, was the literary type trying to redefine the novel. He looked for a level of reality that would have made Warhol shave his head and join a monastery. Reminds me of the guy who made a six hour film about a fly crawling over a woman's naked body.

Let me quote one of Ford's characters, probably speaking for Ford hmself: "If it's literature's job to tell the truth about these moments (significant or at least meaningful life episodes) , it usually fails, in my opinion, and it's the writer's fault for falling into such conventions. I tried to explain all this to my students at Berkshire College, using Joyce's ephiphanies as a good example of the falsehood."

So what do we call this high fallutin' genre that seems to have captured the hearts and minds, and corrupted the souls of so many MFA candidates and professorial staffs? 

Let's call it the novel that isn't a novel, the story that doesn't follow convention and seeks to express itself regardless of the entertainment value. It's enlightenment spread across the testicles like Ben-Gay (or Icy-Hot)..take your pick. Let's call it AvanteGardeInABox

Me? I'm gonna go play with the other nerds. I want stories that have beginnings, middles, and ends...I want epiphanies. I want to eat popcorn as I read and feel like when I close a book cover that I haven't just read something being forced upon me by Dick Cheney at a literary Gitmo.

So from now on, when one of those literary types tries to shove you into a niche and comment on your crass commercialism by identifying you as a genre writer.....turn a ferocious eye on them and say: "Oh yeah???!!!  You, too!"

Then run like hell and go read a comic book.



29 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

You know you're right. I definitely consider literary fic a genre in to itself. And often not a very exciting one. But we could always coopt the genre title the way gays have the word "Queer." We'll start calling each other "genre dog," and "hey genre," but if any literary writer uses that term on us we'll get incensed. What do you think?

Stewart Sternberg said...

That's perfect. I think I'll hang out at a nearby college and start sauntering.

Angie said...

Well of course "literary" is a genre. I've been calling it that for twenty-some years at least. :) I think it's more the literary snobs who don't like being called "genre" than the people whose fiction actually sells and is enjoyed.

I'm with you -- I want people to read and like my work. I want it to be understandable, to communicate, to be reasonably accessible. I have no patience for writers who snob on about how their audience "doesn't understand" them. Hey, dude, if they don't understand then they're not your audience. If only six people understand your work, then you have an audience of six. Have fun with that.

Angie

miller580 said...

It is very easy for "genre" (for the sake of this writing genre=popular fiction) writers to look at mfa’ers and graduates of writing programs, and the rest of the “literary” community and say…”look at them…how snooty...how snobby” and “they might win such and such prize today but in six months they will be forgotten.” It is easy because much of the time it’s true. I know the snooty MFA’ers. I've shaken hands with the snobs. I’ve met the anti-genre crowd and drank with them.

But keep this in mind, it is important for us as writers to write what is important to us. If it is important for one to write the avante gard and fade off into obscurity, then great…we all need writers like that. Whether we care to admit it or not we all need these writers to play with form and technique. To deny this, is to then deny the relevance of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and dare I say it Hemingway. All these writers played with form and technique and by doing so, helped advance writing in general.

I believe that the hardest thing to do in life is to look at our own belief structure with a critical eye. To look at oneself from the “other” point of view. As a member of the “literary” writing community, (and I am labeled that why? We will return to that question another day) I know that the “genre” bias exists. In fact, I recently attended a writer’s conference where on one panel four people discussed how they work hard in their fiction workshops to shut down “genre” writing. And you know what I did? I defended “genre,” I defended vampires, and wizards, two-bit thugs, private dicks, and lonely, beautiful successful women who meet the “perfect” guy. I defended the idea that they (genre writers) all had stories to be told and audiences that wanted to read them.

I know. How hard was that to do, right? In one view, it is very easy to do. The numbers don’t lie. The few readers that are left love these forms. In another aspect, it is very difficult to do. It is difficult because “genre” makes it difficult. Let the record show, that while I defended “genre” in this forum, I did not defend the writers of “genre.”

So now, let me turn the mirror back on the genre writer, and ask you to look at your community with a critical eye. Ask yourself why so many writers who work in a writing program or have graduated from a writing program dislike “genre?”

Could it be that so many “genre” writers publish books without much consideration to the craft or the writing process? Could it be that so many “genre” writers make tons of money publishing second draft quality prose while their (the literary writer’s) work fades into obscurity because the marketing arms of major publishers thought the plot was too complex for a 2 hour film hence was not marketable, enough? Could it be that publishers turn to untrained writers (Stephanie Meyers) to publish because in the big business world of publishing, there is no time for revision and craft—only thinly veiled plotlines of the last “big hit” and movie deals and toy dolls and action figures?

Can you at least understand their reasons?

Think about how many books you have read in the “genre” of your choice. Think about how many of them were poorly written. If you tell me that they all have been great…then I say you are not being honest with yourself. Horror writers…Twilight? Really? Please make your argument of how stellar that prose was. I’ll wait.

That’s what I thought.

But I would be remiss if I only went after one writer, so here is another. While I love the concepts and “story” behind The Davinci Code, I thought the dialogue was trite and amateurish. I thought that at least one third of the book could have been cut for expediency of plot development. (To put this in perspective, I would bet a Pulitzer that Stewart would argue that half to two-thirds of the prose should be cut.)

I have not met a serious writer who disagrees. Why, because I can open the book, and show examples of poor writing. Writing that might have been fixed if the “genre” publishing community chose revise and edit and (dare I say it) expect and publish prose that challenged the reader (just a little).

What “Genre” (generally speaking) has done is dumbed itself down for the reader. Don’t believe it? Then look at F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was a “genre” writer. He was commercially successful (in the beginning anyway). Yet he wrote technically sound prose. (Stewart, I expect you to argue this a little…as I expect that argument from any one in the “Less is more: School of Hemingway)

In a debate with a Stephanie Meyer fan (who admits to the poor writing skills of the author) I made the “dumbing down” argument and she was upset by the comment. She told me, “I need to remember that she was writing for junior high and high school girls.” I stood by my statement and told her that when I was in junior high and high school, we were reading the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I told her that Tolkien didn’t dumb it down, and every dork in junior high was reading the book. To that she conceded, only after arguing that readers are easily lost if they have to work too hard. Hence, “genre’s” argument is people are stupid so keep it really, really simple?

Am I saying all “genre” writers are bad writers. Not at all. In fact I think that there are bad writers in all fields of prose. And a lot of them get published, and published often. What I am saying is that it is easy to attack the literary field because they make it easy. But it is just as easy to attack the “genre” field.

I argue that as writers we should first come to agreement that there is a place in the reading world for both schools of thought. Then we need to come together and look for ways to improve both sides. For example, in my class, we read the classics as prescribed by academia, but we also read GOOD “genre” fiction. In fact I will be reading a passage in class tomorrow from The Ruins.

I will be reading this because in my opinion, some of the prose addresses my chief complaint. It takes “genre” (in this case horror) and integrates solid writing. It uses showing and telling, it develops its characters beyond the stock archetypes demanded by the genre all the while moving the plot forward. (Yes, I acknowledge that some might argue that at times the prose is over written and indulgent…and I concede that argument.) Another excellent example where craft meets genre is the novel Case Studies by Kate Atkinson. This novel is a more complex detective novel that utilizes the archetypes and tropes of the “genre” yet, how do I say this without insulting anyone…it is well crafted. It contained complicated characters in not so standard predicaments yet I never forgot that I was reading a “detective” novel.

OK, I’ve gone on far too long. In conclusion, can’t we all get along?

BTW, we as writer's need to come to terms with the term "Genre" Remember this is a term used by the B & N's of the world so they can organize their stores. And in these categories along with YA and horror and romance lies the term literary.

Maybe we should call ourselves what we in reality are. Profit Centers and the tax deductions.

But that is a topic for another day.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Jesus. It's always about sex with you, isn't it Jim? Sex this and sex that. Wait...um...

You make several interesting points and validate numerous others. One comment you wrote that made me cringe was the idea that we are trying to appeal to as many as the vanishing readers as are left. You're right. There is a dying of the market that would have made Dylan rewrite the phrase about the dying of the light. And from that perspective it makes it frightening to think about what will be and is accepted for publication in the name of the profit motive.

That being said, I think we should return to the concept that historically writing and reading are elite practices only recently (industrial age) truly made accessible to the masses. Perhaps the literary group is defending themselves because they want to stay separated from non-reading working class America and beyond. Perhaps the literary people are separating themselves because as standards drop more and more people can become writers with a click of the mouse. This is not always a good thing, as we've seen from the insipid messages on facebook and twitter, but it means that as more people have access to our reading audience through technology, perhaps what we do as craftsman becomes less and less special. perhaps we lose the thing that makes us artists.

We need the Medici family to rise again and once more recognize the necessity that is art. Thank God for the funds for human endowment and thank god that groups has been able to beat off the hordes who argue that the artistic streak in culture doesn't need to be protected.

Finally. Yes, there are many writers adn many stories that do not deserve publishing. Yes, there are many times writers we both know throw up their hands after reading something and ask how it is that they themselves are not being published and carried through the streets as the next coming of Ayn Rand's little brother with the hare-lip.

No argument.

You bring up some important points and enrich this conversation. We need to break down our cliques and talk more don't we? When I read that line about the writer crowing about shutting down input from genre writers though, it showed me we have a long way to go.

Now, where's my damned sweat sock.

miller580 said...

I think I misspoke...or mistyped. They were not shutting down input from genre writers in workshops but were persuading would be genre writers to steer away. I know this might be splitting hare lips but there is a small difference.

So that we are clear, not once did any of the group discuss the commercial side of things. They only addressed the caliber of writing. So, I don't think this is of financial jealousy. But in a way, we all know it is (at least a little).

I agree we are still a ways away from sitting at a table and opening the lines of communication. While the anti-genre rhetoric is high, just as high is the anti-literary sentiment as demonstrated in the responses here.

But like our president, I have hope. I have faith in my ideas and I believe we can all sit down without preconditions and work things out.

So what is my idea.
Step one: do away with the term genre. Lets be post-genre. Lets redefine the lines.

Step two: I say that those who practice the craft of fiction take back that art of writing. If you want to write about vampires, then write the best damn vampire story. If you are a sucker for romance...step up and write great romance. Only with good writing do we expose the hacks and word whores.

It's not hard to do. Study good stories, study bad stories. Know your genre and write well. Don't fall for the if you can't beat them, join them mentality. I say if you can't beat them, then try harder. Can we take back our art? I say, YES WE CAN.

dramatic pause.

YES WE CAN

Okay, is that plagiarism? Or is my rant simply imitation?

Step three: Start new presses and publish good stuff people want to read. Find marketing people who like good writing and let them market the work.

It won't be easy. But anything worth doing is worth doing right.

Remember, we are a post-genre generation!

Stewart Sternberg said...

I'm willing to begin, to take that first gesture. Joe, I don't know if you're out there reading this, I don't care, but dammit...the next time I see you, I'm planting a kiss on those MFA lips of yours and spreading the love.

What do you think, Jim? Kum-by-ya????

Angie said...

Miller -- wow, where to start?

First, you say you're being fair, that you're acknowledging good and bad writers on both sides of the line, but in your actual examples you held up the best of literary writers (although frankly I could never get through Joyce) and the worst of the popular genre writers. That's like making an architectural comparison by pointing to the Taj Mahal as representing Indian architecture and the most horrific of the McMansions as representing American architecture. And then adding, "Oh, but there are good and bad examples of both types, of course." Umm, yeah.

And it's interesting how so many of the really good writers of genre get sucked up and claimed by the literary community. "Oh, but that's not really genre!" they say, clutching A Handmaid's Tale to their breasts. Heck, they'll do it with entire subgenres -- "No, no! Magic Realism isn't even close to fantasy! It's far too good!" [eyeroll]

Funny how easy it is for people to maintain their lines between "quality" and "trash" if they do their best to instantly co-opt any quality which appears on the trash side of the line.

Sure, it's easy to point to the mega-selling books which are crap from the POV of craftsmanship, but the emotional impact of id-writing, regardless of the level of skill shown by the writer, is a whole other topic. There's plenty of good writing on the genre side; what you're really grouching about here is the horrible taste of the reading public, and there I'll certainly agree with you.

By the way, Twilight isn't horror and was never meant to be. It's a YA romance, or at least it's trying, kind of.

You also have an issue with the publishing industry, and there I'll agree with you as well. It's ludicrous that mediocre books by celebrities get seven-digit advances, and the huge marketing campaigns to go with them, while good writers (of whichever genre) who actually know a thing or two about craftsmanship go unpublished, or struggle in the low-hanging midlist, which is where cuts are being made these days. Publishing works on the blockbuster model; they'd rather have fifty "Meh" books and one that sells a bazillion copies than fifty-one "Good" books, any of which have a chance of becoming very popular. They defend themselves by saying that it's the blockbusters which fund all the others, but that's only because their model is set up that way. But again, as with the devouring of badly-written garbage by the readers, the worship of the blockbuster by the publishers isn't the fault of any writers, no matter their genre; your guns are way off-target here.

I also agree with you that there's no excuse for YA books being badly written. Just because kids and teenagers have no patience for experimental whatever (heck, I don't either) doesn't mean they don't understand or enjoy a solidly-written book with some interesting new ideas and well-crafted prose. If Ms. Meyer could only write, I'd still have issues with the core ideas in her books, but at least I wouldn't wince every time I hear her name. :/

Oh, and can you sit there and tell me with a straight typeface that there aren't similarly lousy writers in the lit genre? o_O I'll bet cookies that there are just as many baby lit writers banging out horribly written crap -- which if anything is worse because they're trying to be obscure, mistakenly believing as they do that the whole point of lit writing is to be understood by as few people as possible -- as there are baby genre writers who bang out the latest clone of Tolkien or Star Trek or Twilight. And I'll bet that some of those really bad baby writers get their stuff published somewhere, even if they're self-publishing or getting a slot in some new online mag whose editor just graduated last week. Again, comparing your grand old masters with our fumbling newbies is ridiculously uneven. Going after Meyer is shooting a lame, blind duck wrapped in masking tape and tossed into a barrel. :/

I agree with you that editing isn't what it was. There's a rash of criticism going around the other genres about typos and obvious glitches in published books. If the publishers don't have the time or money for a decent copyedit then it's not surprising that larger issues (like cutting out a pointless subplot, for example) aren't always addressed when they should be. But again, you're criticizing the writers when it's the publishers who should be taking the heat.

Do I think there's room for literary writing? Of course. I don't always care for it, but then I hardly read any mysteries, or any contemporary romance, and I've never read a Western. What I have much less patience with is the elitist snobs who've tried to convince me all my life that the kind of writing I enjoy and produce is somehow lesser. And yes, it sounds like the people you talked to were shutting down genre in their workshops. Even if they didn't actually throw out genre writers, making a critique group hostile to genre is just as effective. I need to be able to trust that my critiquers are honestly trying to help me improve my writing, that they'll set aside their personal preferences and give me honest feedback on my craftsmanship, yes, but that they won't be trying to "hint" that the genre I write in is only fit for wiping their butts.

Whether the people you met were actively snarky and sarcastic, or whether they took the "gentler" tack of going all Kind Mentor with Sweet Smiles and comforting shoulder pats as they explained to the genre writers that, "Really, dear, you're so much better than this," and "You have so much talent -- why do you waste it like this? I really want to understand," and cetera, hostility is hostility even when it's hiding behind a passive-agressive mask. I certainly wouldn't stay in a critique group which allowed that kind of crap, and I doubt many other writers would either, unless of course they were either literary writers who agreed with the crap, or baby genre writers who were still hesitant and unsure of themselves and let themselves be led and persuaded. :/

Yes, there's definitely anti-literary sentiment. But I honestly believe the anti-genre came and comes first. The literary crowd has its chance to net pretty much everyone in junior high and high school, where the canon of the English department is 90% literary. We have English teachers hammering at us, telling us that the stuff we like to read is trash and this is what we should enjoy, waving around some impenetrable volume most teenagers would gnaw off a leg to avoid. We get the eyerolls and the sneering and the sarcasm and the marked-down grades if we choose the "wrong" book for a book report or analysis or term paper. (I once got marked down by my teacher for my choice of book, despite the fact that she'd had to approve it. :P ) And even after we've left school, anyone who reads a lot will keep running into the Guardians of the Purity who'll come along, whether on a blog or at a bus stop or in a bookstore, and criticize their choices, whether it's with debate or open mockery or just a disgusted twist of the lips. They're always there, and whenever we've forgotten that we're under fire, someone comes along and reminds us.

Most people I know don't really care what anyone else reads or writes. If you read the same kinds of fiction I do, that's great and we can talk about it. If you don't, that's cool and we can either talk about something else, or drift away and find other book-friends. If you write the kind of fiction I like then I'll read it. If you don't, then I'll read someone else. I don't write nasty letters or make snarky blog posts, though, about every writer who produces fiction in a genre I don't care for. People only notice the folks reading and writing "the other stuff" when they've been attacked.

When one of those other writers or readers comes around and tells us how wrong we are, or how putrid our taste is, then we'll get nasty and fight back. And if we're attacked often enough, over a long enough period of time, yes, snarking back at the Other out of self-defense will become a habit.

If you want to end the war, go back and tell the literary folks to knock it off. Or at least, to target their barbs and japes and eyerolls to specific books rather than entire (other) genres. You want to dissect Twilight, I'll be there with my scalpel. Or check out the Black Dagger Brotherhood, another great example of a romance series with some excellent ideas and a lot of id-appeal, but horribly executed; I'll join you in dissecting that one too. But if you want to sneer at romance as a genre, I'll be throwing those grenades right back at you, and so will most other romance readers.

Start new presses and publish good stuff people want to read. Find marketing people who like good writing and let them market the work.Good luck. No, seriously. If you can manage to start up a new press, with decent marketing and distribution, focusing on good writing for any genre (including literary) then I'll be the first to stand up and applaud. And maybe submit a thing or two. So long as our choices are between New York, the home of the blockbuster, or the small presses, where 2000 sales is a major bestseller and the owner/editor might or might not know what a semicolon is for, we'll just have to do the best we can with what we have.

Angie

Stewart Sternberg said...

Outstanding response Angie....I watch the ball sail and bounce on Jim's side of the net, eager to hear the debate continue.

miller580 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
miller580 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
miller580 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
miller580 said...

Angie,

Thanks for your response. It seems that we are in agreement for the most part, but it seems that we are missing the mark in a few places. But I think that it is more of a misunderstanding of intent than it is fundamental disagreement. So I thought I would directly respond to the parts that stood out most for me.

“First, you say you're being fair, that you're acknowledging good and bad writers on both sides of the line, but in your actual examples you held up the best of literary writers (although frankly I could never get through Joyce) and the worst of the popular genre writers.”Two points here, technically your right. I was making an argument and I went with the strongest support of my argument. Which is technically how it is supposed to be done. Had I chosen the weakest support for my argument, then my writing would have been weak sauce.

On the other hand, I feel that your critique of my examples is a little off. By that I mean, if you take what I wrote out of context, then I can see an argument that I compared Joyce, Eliot, and Hemingway to Meyers and Brown.

However, let’s look at these examples in context. In context, I mentioned the “best of literary” (Joyce, Eliot, and Hemingway) to make the point that their work (from more than 75 years ago) still influences many writers in nearly all genres today. It is necessary to mention as well, that if I had chosen second-rate literary writers or terrible literary writers, then the point of inspiration would have been lost because nobody would have heard of them.

As for my use of Meyers and Brown, in context, my point was to illustrate and give example to my arguments of bad genre writing. And the fact that you agree with my assessment of Meyers, kinda demonstrates that using her as an example of what I find bad in Genre writing was accurate. Had I used a good genre writer and made the same type of claims, do you think my point would have been received?

That said, I contend that taken in context, both my statements are fair.

"And then adding, "Oh, but there are good and bad examples of both types, of course." Except, I never said what you have quoted. Overall, the implication is there, and I stand by my belief that there are good and bad writers in ALL prose. However, what you have quoted me as directly saying is inaccurate. Unfortunately, I’m a jerk like that.

“And it's interesting how so many of the really good writers of genre get sucked up and claimed by the literary community. "Oh, but that's not really genre!" they say, clutching A Handmaid's Tale to their breasts. Heck, they'll do it with entire subgenres -- "No, no! Magic Realism isn't even close to fantasy! It's far too good!" I’m not sure if you’re implying that I share this opinion. I have not once made that claim. Last I checked, Poe and Stoker and Shelley still preside in the horror section of B&N. (All though they might also be in the classics section).

However, I might disagree with you on classifying magical realism as fantasy, but not on the grounds of literary vs. genre. I would argue the fact that (according to wikipedia) magical realism, is an artistic genre in which magical elements or illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic or even "normal" setting. Fanatasy (again according to wikipedia) is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. Fantasy is generally distinguished from science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of technological and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three (collectively known as speculative fiction). In popular culture, the genre of fantasy is dominated by its Medievalist form, especially since the worldwide success of the Lord of the Rings and other Middle-earth related books by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The main difference being “normal” and “realistic” vs. “medievalist” forms. But then, I am not a scholar in either genre and wish to not argue that point.


"By the way, Twilight isn't horror and was never meant to be. It's a YA romance, or at least it's trying, kind of."Technically speaking, the novel has vampires in it. By my claiming that it is horror is not a stretch. Yes, it has romance in it, but so does Anne Rice. And I think her fans might be a bit upset if you claim that she isn’t of the horror genre. That said, I think we can agree that the book is a YA romance that has elements of horror. Do we agree?


"You also have an issue with the publishing industry, and there I'll agree with you as well." And I am sure we can talk for hours on the subject.

"But again, as with the devouring of badly-written garbage by the readers, the worship of the blockbuster by the publishers isn't the fault of any writers, no matter their genre; your guns are way off-target here."If I was actually blaming only the writers, then I’d agree with you here, except I do put blame on the publishing industry—“because the marketing arms of major publishers thought the plot was too complex for a 2 hour film hence was not marketable, enough? Could it be that publishers turn to untrained writers (Stephanie Meyers) to publish because in the big business world of publishing, there is no time for revision and craft—only thinly veiled plotlines of the last “big hit” and movie deals and toy dolls and action figures?” But as I have tried to make clear, my beef isn’t with the product being written, it is the quality of the writing that I rally against.


“Oh, and can you sit there and tell me with a straight typeface that there aren't similarly lousy writers in the lit genre?”No I can’t, nor did I try. There are tons of them—I would argue that there are probably more horrible lit writers—but they are obscure and bitterly unpublished…remember? On the other hand, there are a few examples of horrible genre writer’s making “wallstreet” money and everyone knows their name. I confess, they are easy targets and I took a shot.

"And I'll bet that some of those really bad baby writers get their stuff published somewhere, even if they're self-publishing or getting a slot in some new online mag whose editor just graduated last week." Yep, you’re right. But remember, both sides are guilty of that. Anyone can be a publisher, all you need is a html for dummies book.

“Again, comparing your grand old masters with our fumbling newbies is ridiculously uneven.
Going after Meyer is shooting a lame, blind duck wrapped in masking tape and tossed into a barrel. :/”
Again, I never compared the two. Each mention was to show examples to two separate points I was making.

However, as far as Meyer is concerned, you are absolutely right. I went after Meyer because she was easy—because she was common ground. We all can agree that her quality of prose is subpar. When I suggest that we look at bad writing to see what can be done to improve it, then I believe she is a poster child for that.

By the way, I did notice that you failed to recognize that I used Scott Smith’s The Ruins as an example of good genre that I use in the classroom. I mention this because I feel like my good and bad examples were used against me. So if I have the score correct, I used Joyce, when discussing the need of the Avante Garde for all writers, I used Meyer, when I needed an example of bad genre, I used Smith, when citing an example of good genre, I didn’t give examples of bad lit writers, because they are obscure and bitterly unpublished. However, I did offer up a critique of Fitzgerald being overwritten at times. So I kinda think that’s fair. Do I have the scorecard right?


“But again, you're criticizing the writers when it's the publishers who should be taking the heat.”Here I disagree. While I have criticized the writers, I have placed a good portion of the blame on the publishing industry. “because I can open the book, and show examples of poor writing. Writing that might have been fixed if the “genre” publishing community chose revise and edit and (dare I say it) expect and publish prose that challenged the reader (just a little).”

”Yes, there's definitely anti-literary sentiment. But I honestly believe the anti-genre came and comes first…If you want to end the war, go back and tell the literary folks to knock it off. Or at least, to target their barbs and japes and eyerolls to specific books rather than entire (other) genres.”I have done it. And I fight on behalf of genre nearly every day. But you know what. I can’t do it alone. Do I sneer at romance? No. I don’t read it, but then I don’t read a lot of things. Romance, from what I know is a huge market. And I’ll be perfectly honest, if I could write it, I would create a pseudonym and give it a shot. But that genre requires a discipline I don’t have.

Look, I understand your anger. I’ve been on the receiving end of that anger. And I have dished out the return fire. And it has gotten us nowhere. So today I say who cares who started what first. If we are to move on, then we need to look forward. My point is that being divisive is not going to help. Just as I stood up in front of 30 people who wanted to rail against genre, I too shall stand up to those who want rail against literary—because there is room at the table for all.

All I am trying to say is that we as writers…all of us…need to take back the art and craft of writing. We need to write better and put the hacks out to pasture. Why should Stephanie Meyer make the big bucks AND ruin the reputation of the YA romance with elements of horror genre? Don’t you think that good writers should find that success? I think we can do it. We just have to fight for it.

If we keep fighting amongst ourselves, then the Stephanies and Dans will keep sneaking in the bad, and the massive marketing machines will churn and brainwash the masses to buy their subpar work.

On a positive note, things are starting to change. Believe it or not, there are writing programs now that teach “genre” novel writing. It’s a step. Academia is not inflexible, they have heard the cry. It’s time to put aside our differences, and work together, without preconditions. If a lit person gets snarky, be better than that and talk them over to our “post-genre” table.

BTW Stewart...I can't tell you how much I miss this.

And sorry about the deleted comments...some of the quotes were blending in with my responses and I didn't want confusion...i thinks its all good now.

miller580 said...

ok...i am done trying to fix it...there is a messed up quote. It looks fine in preview but when it is posted it is messed up. here should be a line break after the quote:

"But again, as with the devouring of badly-written garbage by the readers, the worship of the blockbuster by the publishers isn't the fault of any writers, no matter their genre; your guns are way off-target here."

but there is not. and it makes for tough reading. I apologize to the reader.

Christina said...

It would have been nice to have you as one of my college professors. I'm almost positive that I got marked down for "genre".

Christine Purcell said...

I agree that it seems a lot of popular authors don't take time to study craft. I'd even settle for a cursory look at how to edit.

And since everyone has already picked on poor Ms. Meyers, the number of adverbs in that book nearly made me spontaneously combust. Not a bad story, though (even if some did seem based on some of Anne Rice's ideas) Sigh.

And Stewart, I think we'd all like to kiss Joe on those MFA lips.

Long live the nerds!

SQT said...

*Woof* I am so out of my depth here. However, I take comfort in the fact that I am in the company who didn't like "Twilight" either. I am so sick of hearing about it from suburban moms who think I'm weird for rolling my eyes whenever they talk about it.

I also appreciate the fact that I am not the only one who dislikes obscure writing. I have tried, too many times to count, to read whatever is in vogue at the moment and wondered what was wrong with me because I didn't like it.

Oh. Maybe it wasn't me after all.

Joe Ponepinto said...

Stewart,

I certainly understand your frustration over the use of “genre” to describe some types of writing, especially when it is intended to be condescending. But I don’t think the answer is to call literary writing a genre as well. Literary is a style that isn’t restricted to a particular subject or form, which is the definition of genre writing. A literary story can also be a science fiction story (think Bradbury); it can be a western (think Annie Proulx). Frankly, any genre story can be a literary story—it’s the style that makes the difference. I’ve looked at dozens of lit journals as I search for markets for my stuff, and most of them gladly accept genre stories, provided they’re written in a literary style, rather than a formulaic one. Most lit editors love fantasy, magical realism, even (if you can believe it) romance, as long as the story is not a clich├ęd rehash of something that’s been done a thousand times before. That’s what most “literary” writers can’t stand.

And if you’re thinking that a literary work is a pretentious, convoluted style of writing in which nothing happens, check out novels like “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz (the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner), or “Motherless Brooklyn” by Jonatham Lentham (a National Book Critics Circle Award winner). There’s nothing pretentious about those books.

To me, what literary works try to do is get the reader to think, rather than react. Sometimes that means the action is mostly internal. Sometimes it means the concepts are difficult. I make no excuse for these kinds of works, because no excuse is needed. Of everything out there, literary works are the ones that seek most to comment on what it is to be human—not just to act physically, but to think and remember and feel pride and shame and all those other emotions. Sure, some of those works bore me too, but many more do not, and I’m always glad to take the chance to read them, not knowing what to expect, rather than to read the same storylines over and over because I’d rather not be challenged.

Which brings me to a topic we discussed recently . . . why do we even need literary works? If they’re not popular; if they seem to exist only to perpetuate PhD’s careers, why should anyone else care? I didn’t have a great answer when we talked, but later I realized that our culture needs some kind of standard by which to measure itself. We need to be able to point to literary writing and say, “These works are the best we have. They represent our highest values and our most profound thinking. Some of these works (Shakespeare, perhaps? Joyce? Hemingway? Rushdie?) represent the best of western civilization. That’s literary, baby. Maybe they’re not for everyone, but they are, in a sense, a symbol of who we as a people are. I’d hate to think of what we’d hold up as examples of ourselves to the world without them . . . a graphic novel perhaps? A romance classic thumbed out on someone’s cell phone? Jeez!

Joe Ponepinto said...

PS: I just read through the comments. Christine, okay! But Stewart, keep those lips to yourself!

Joe Ponepinto said...

PPS: Magical realism is not fantasy. In MR, the magic is part of a world that follows a set of rules that do not change. In fantasy, the rules can change at any time, at the author's whim.

Stewart Sternberg said...

JOE,
I will respond to your posting..but I'll start with this

"Magical realism is not fantasy. In MR, the magic is part of a world that follows a set of rules that do not change. In fantasy, the rules can change at any time, at the author's whim. "

Before all the fantasy writers pick up pitchforks and torches and start hunting for you, I would argue that the fantasy elements in a work of fantasy do not change. The author establishes a framework and then must work within that framework. They can't change according to whim.

For instance, if a fantasy writer determines that vampires die in the sunlight, then that writer can't suddenly have the creature appear on the beach. Not unless there is a damned good reason for it and it fits within the framework.

The same holds for Science Fiction authors...world building requires consistency and logic. Abandoning either, in fantasy AND science fiction, means you end up with a book that is sloppy and which will insult the reader.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Allow me to also respond to this point: "Which brings me to a topic we discussed recently . . . why do we even need literary works? If they’re not popular; if they seem to exist only to perpetuate PhD’s careers, why should anyone else care? "

Your point is that we need to be able to point to them as a shining example of human achievement. Really? According to whose standards? Many of the works we deem shining examples are deemed so by a ruling or elite class. I again point to the fact that reading for leisure is for the most part only a manifestation of the industrial age.

I know I'm striking a relativistic chord, but until we have a world where value is established by the literary police according to a commission's standards, relativistic appreciation of literature is a necessary evil.

Also, keep in mind that literary criticm changes dramatically from generation to generation. Those works which might be so valued now, would be scorned in past eons, or future ones. Maybe literature is meant to be as transitory as the humans that it is aimed at.

And as for graphic novels...some of us consdier some graphic novels to be art.

Joe Ponepinto said...

Must have had too much coffee this morning. Of course fantasy writers have to stay within their framework. That's the key difference, actually. Magical realism's framework is the real world. Fantasy's framework is whatever the author wants it to be.

Joe Ponepinto said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe Ponepinto said...

Now, about your other response. We seem to be getting into several other issues here. If years, sometimes decades of study devoted to interpreting literature makes certain people “a ruling or elite class,” (if that’s what you want to call it) then so be it. That education and experience means something, if nothing more than a dedication to understanding what is difficult for most of us to understand. And by the way, the differences of opinion within that “elite” world are just as varied as outside it. No one (especially me) is saying people have to read those books or agree with those opinions. People can read and enjoy whatever they want. The choices of what’s great in literature are really just a consensus at a particular time. (At least we can agree on that.) But I do think careful, devoted study of literature counts.

And I’ve often found it interesting that years of study in medical school can make a person into a physician, and years in law school produces an attorney. Yet when someone goes to school and spends years learning the craft of writing, they somehow come out “an elite.”

Stewart Sternberg said...

JOE,
You wrote...If years, sometimes decades of study devoted to interpreting literature makes certain people “a ruling or elite class,” (if that’s what you want to call it) then so be it.

Not entirely what I meant. I'm referring to the historical divide between the wealthy and poor, with the wealthy having the time to enjoy leisure activity denied to the working class, or below the working class. For some of the elite, art and appreciation thereof, was something that could be used as evidence of their higher intellectual or spiritual class.

Like Chairman Mao, I believe everything is political. Including the history of literature.

As for the other statement about years of learning....that raises an interesting point (discarding of course what I meant about elite and the use of literature and art by an elite). If we learn about literature, dedicate ourselves to an understanding of it in its different forms, then what is the purpose? You're right, study medicine, you become a doctor. Study law, you're a lawyer. Study literature, and you run the risk of being reduced to a curiousity at a 4th of July barbecue.

The function of the study of literature is what academics is all about. We have to value that realm of society if we want it to continue or hold value. There is certainly a place for academia, it keeps inquiry alive and stands as a watchdog for our culture. And in some ways it's a sleeping giant; Hitler certainly saw the danger of the intelligencia when he burned books and arrested the free thinkers. You can hear the power of academia in the scorn of the religious or radical right, who disdainfully sneer at the universities as ivory towers where radical liberalism is on parade.

Christine Purcell said...

This interesting discussion got me thinking - do genre writers necessarily know they are writing genre?

It's easy to know whether you are writing horror or fantasy. But what about all the sub-categories?

Do all writers of mundane science fiction think to themselves "Hey, I'm going to sit down and write mundane science fiction."?

Did H.G. Wells and China Mieville think, "I'm going to write a Steam Punk novel."?

And Joe, that list you sent me on works that are considered slipstream: I read some of those and I was like what the...
Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast? Slipstream? I guess if you look at the progression from a monarchy suspended in time to Titus entering a modern world in the third novel, maybe that's slipstream. Or maybe it just came out like that because poor Mervyn Peake went insane.

Perhaps sometimes we don't even know what genre we are writing until the piece is done.

x_X_xThe Black Rabbitx_X_x said...

Stu!

Email me you old man you!


felicia.the.fishela@gmail.com

L.A. Mitchell said...

Here, here!

I want people to gobble up my words and the world I've created, not have WTF moments cloaked in silver-tongued self-indulgence.