I’ve been thinking an awful lot about genre lately.
Here’s a definition of the word from The American Heritage Dictionary:
- A type or class: “Emaciated famine victims … on television focused a new genre of attention on the continent” (Helen Kitchen).
- A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content: “his six String Quartets … the most important works in the genre since Beethoven’s” (Time).
- A realistic style of painting that depicts scenes from everyday life.
French, from Old French, kind, from Latin genus , gener-; see gen- in Indo-European roots
I’ve been thinking a lot about it for the past month or so because my editor is urging me to write my fourth novel as a non-mystery, which is difficult for me to get my head around. Especially since he would like it to be a novel containing my established series characters.
Now, my editor is a very smart guy who’s been in the business a long time, and it’s amazingly wonderful that he’s taking this much interest in my future as a writer, and also too I don’t take anything he suggests lightly, but this is tricky for me on a lot of levels. I’m kind of going through Kubler-Ross-esque emotional stages about it–i.e. fear, confusion, swearing, and belligerence–not necessarily in that order and indeed often simultaneously.
His arguments in favor of me taking this tack are as follows:
- He thinks my strengths are description, dialogue, and voice.
- He thinks I pretty much suck at the “procedural stuff” (though he worded it much more kindly) and is concerned because he has to keep pushing me to get more action into my stories and raise the stakes all the time and stuff.
- He thinks he could position me differently if I wrote a non-genre novel, which would be more likely to be a commercial success.
My first response during our phone call about this was to say, “yeah, but, um… I think my plots actually suck because I suck at plotting… and somehow I don’t think moving AWAY from genre is going to make that better…”
And that is a big part of it for me–I like having a known structure to mess around with. I compare it to writing a sonnet or something: there are rules, and you can stick with them or rebel against them as you so desire, but it’s mostly helpful to know that they’re there whether or not you want to follow them strictly.
But there’s also my feeling that the best writing today is happening in crime fiction–mysteries and thrillers. I’ve often said on panels and stuff that literary fiction lost me in the Eighties. I just couldn’t get behind minimalist New Yorker stories, the whole juiceless scraped-dry-bones minimalist Gordon Lish thing. I want detail, I want passion, I want big fat zaftig stuff about things that actually matter. Most of all, I want resolution. I can’t stand novels that just kind of drift around about vaporous bullshit and then wander out of the room at the end without a point. I am not much of a Proust fan, and Thomas Mann gives me hives.
In fact, I think the closest thing to summing up my idea of what makes great literature is a quote from D.H. Lawrence, even though I think his fiction is kind of dopy, too. He wrote, in his Studies in Classic American Literature:
The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral.
But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. Changes the blood first. The mind follows later, in the wake.
Now that isn’t to say that I think all crime fiction is superior to all “literary” fiction–in fact I agree with Sarah Weinman that the most important distinction we can make among books is to say that there are good ones and bad ones, and everything else really doesn’t matter in the end. But for me what is most essential about writing as an art is happening a lot more these days in genre fiction than outside it.
I do tend to blame that a bit on the MFA model of writing, though some of my best friends have done MFA programs, so it doesn’t all suck. But it just seems as though this rather artificial division between genre and non-genre has sprung up over the last couple of decades, and that the champions of contemporary standards of what has come to define “literature” have done a good deal to squeeze the life out of narrative in general.
When Sarah posted a great piece on her blog about Lev Grossman’s dismissal of Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution as “highbrow fiction being assaulted by low-brow genre,” Laura Lippman wondered:
Who benefits from the debate, that’s what I want to know? Not genre writers. Not readers. So it must be the literary writers who keep beating this dead horse. Such pieces always make me feel as if I’m an ill-behaved dog running amok in the great marble temple of literature….
“Stop her! She’s peeing on the floor! She’s drinking out of the toilet! She won’t play by the rules — except those tired genre conventions that mark her work as second-rate. Ohmigod — she’s humping Nadine Gordimer’s leg. Get her out!
Which prompted me to codify my own feelings on the subject for the first time, as follows:
I think they’re all just pissed off because they’ve turned “literature” into the kind of Filboid-Studge Latin whose precise declensions can only be enforced with Joycean pandy-bats viciously applied to the reader’s tender palms and footsoles,
and meanwhile we’re all having so much goddamn fun over here in Vibrant Street-Italian Vernacular Land it should be illegal.
Okay, I guess that covers the “belligerence” phase of my response to the idea of writing a book in which no murder takes place. Besides which I am loyal to the genre, and the people who write in it, and I’m sick of all of us getting dissed by a bunch of whiny-ass bitches who couldn’t, in my opinion, write their collective way out of a wet house of cheap cards.
(And I should probably also throw in that I can’t stand literary cocktail parties unless they are peopled with crime writers. This just feels like my tribe–as opposed to the last time I was drinking with a roomful of academician poets, back in Syracuse,
who were so humorless I ended up swilling beer in the kitchen with the insurance salesman who lived next door and was actually a pretty interesting dude.)
Also, I just have a perverse fascination with crime generally, and murder in particular. I don’t think there’s any human conundrum more morbidly intriguing than the question of why we kill each other. I want to know what that part of us is, I want to see if there’s any way to keep it from happening. I care deeply about justice, and morality, and what it all means in the end.
I was intending to base the central plot of my fourth book on the murder of a friend of my mother’s about twenty years ago. She went out to get the morning paper at the end of her driveway–in view of about eight other houses on her cul-de-sac–and was beaten to death with a baseball bat. Probably by her ex-husband or her son.
My editor asked why I want to write about baseball bats.
I ran all this by Tana French in an email soon after, because she’s a writer whose work I think is exquisite and extremely literary in the best possible way.
She wrote back:
How the hell do you plot a book without ‘Someone gets killed, someone else finds out whodunit’ to give you a structure? I’m as fond of character and dialogue and all that fancy stuff as the next girl, but without the murder mystery to bookend things, all my books would go on for thousands of pages and never get anywhere much… What does your editor have against the baseball bat?
And that’s where the “fear and confusion” Kubler-Rossity comes into this for me. I mean, I’m not saying I hate all novels in which a murder does not take place (I love Joshilyn Jackson’s work, for instance. Which does tend to be rather dark and have death here and there, but is otherwise not genre). But I don’t know if *I* could come up with a plot that actually went anywhere without the genre form to guide me. I mean, I spent twenty years (off and on) futzing around with a memoir that never gelled into a narrative, despite several hundred pages of typing and thousands of hours of agita on my part.
Plus which, to quote the late, great Brenda Ueland: “There is absolutely no evidence that I could write a good book. It might very well be the most awful weasel vomit.”
And also too, I just think it’s weird to write three books in a series that revolve around murders and then have all the same people just bop hither and yon in the fourth book without any blood spatter whatsoever, you know?
So I don’t actually have any sort of good thumping conclusion to this post, because I haven’t figured this stuff out yet. All of the above is twirling around in my head like those proverbial visions of sugar plums.
Maybe the thing to do is come up with a better mystery plot than I’ve so far managed to do, so that my editor feels more comfortable with my actually *earning* the genre pigeonhole? But everything I’m coming up with so far seems to be brimming with weasel vomit.
Oy. Feh. Vey ist mir.
What say you, ‘Ratis?