Thursday, February 18, 2016

Why Genre Fiction Is Better Than Mainstream Fiction

That title is my opening salvo, bound to be contested by writers invested in believing that the mainstream literary realistic fiction that they compose is not itself actually a genre. It is a genre: the genre that refuses to label itself as such. Because to do so would mean that it is not inherently superior to the "genre fiction" so derided by critics, and self-anointed Literary Critics & Arbiters Of Taste, who deal only with mainstream literary realistic fiction.

Mainstream literary linear-narrative fiction is a genre. It just happens to be the privileged genre. Privilege is where you don't have to defend your existence, and wherein your tropes and idiosyncrasies are taken as normative rather than highlighted as Other, as exotic. It is the no-genre genre, often written in what has been called the no-style style: that bland form straightforward linear prose that is storytelling stripped down to plot without digression, cinematic description without interesting lighting, and characterization more often based on type than idiosyncrasy (although "the eccentric best friend" is such a cliché that it's become a literary trope on its own). Even when mainstream literally fiction is written in a more poetic style, rather than the no-style style it is identifiable by those other characteristics.

Here's another salvo: The quality of writing and storytelling, overall, is often much better in "genre fiction," story per story, than is the case in literary "realistic" fiction. One may place numerous examples side by side and, barring personal taste regarding what you find exciting to read, just on the quality of writing alone many examples of genre novels are better-written than many in the mainstream. Writing that has substance as well as style. There is contemporary science fiction writing that is far more original in terms of style and narrative experiment than anything on the literary best-seller list.

Ignoring for the moment that "realism" in the novel is itself a construct, itself contested as a construct, itself subject to fashions of style and trends of subject matter: in fact the conventions of the Romantic/Victorian "realistic" novel were exactly what such writers as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and even E.M. Forster rebelled against. That was at the root of the Modernist literary rebellion, after all. When Woolf used interior monologue and stream-of-consciousness in her fiction, it is precisely a reaction against the stifling mannerisms of the staid literary novel. As much as I think Willa Cather did in fact write one or two examples of the Great American Novel (I would nominate some of Stephen King's less supernatural fiction as well); as much as I agree that Jane Austen, Henry James, and Edith Wharton were great stylists who brought to life characters that we all still care about; as much as I agree that Victor Hugo was a great, great writer of fiction which he intended to be realistic in its depiction of natural and psychological life, real dialogue, and characters true in motivation to the psychology of real people: as much as all of that is true, once you've absorbed the literary innovations of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and, yes, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Samuel Beckett, you can't go back. You can't stuff those horses back in their barns.

What most critics of the contemporary literary novel do is pay lip-service to the artistic greatness of those older Moderns, while in practice rolling back every new idea they brought to the writer's table. The literary novel these days owes more to Henry James and Jane Austen, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, than any other writers. Even writers such as Mark Twain are considered to be genre writers, and not taken seriously as Authors; which is proven by the typical reverence paid to Huckleberry Finn as one of the Great American Novels, but looking askance at most of the rest of Twain's explorations, such as Letters from the Earth.

In response to critics who like to dismiss this literary-critical dispute as having been settled long ago, I retort that obviously it's not, else the Critics of the Literary Novel wouldn't feel a need to keep setting up straw men to knock down, on the on the topic genre quality. Those self-anointed Critics who would present themselves as the gatekeepers of literary merit and literary taste are fond of building canons, of lists of Great Books, and debating what works should be included in The Canon, and which should be rejected. Meanwhile the average voracious reader just keeps reading whatever they can get their hands on; as always.

Literature remains an artifice. It is art, but it is also artifice. It is made by artists, but also by artisans. It is a made thing, like a sculpture, a painting, a beautiful building. (Music and dance are a bit different, as artforms, because they also involve time. Duration is part of their performance, and they must be performed.) Literature is neither inherently natural or realistic: "naturalism" is itself artifice.

Some of the rise of no-style no-genre fiction can be blamed, and has been, on the increasing professionalization of literature: the authors and critics who make their living by working in academia, or in hosting and teaching writer's workshops, make up a de facto professional class. Writers exist outside the professional-writer mainstream, of course. And it can be argued that writing styles, genres, and indeed approach, stretch across all other boundaries between writers. But professionalism does have an influence on writing style. Robert Bly lamented as early as the 1970s that writer's workshops (which even he taught; you gotta pay the bills) had generated a stylistic (no-style?) sameness among so many poets, in terms of both approach and content. How many MFA programs in writing are there now? Several hundred, scattered around the nation and world? Lots of people write; more than ever. That's only a bad thing if there are more imitators of the sameness than not.

As to the quality of genre fiction writing, I find writers like Gregory Benford, a physicist who writes "hard science fiction," i.e. SF based on speculative science from astrophysics to biology, to be stylists of a high order. Sometimes it's as though the writing style is part of the experience, which style at its best ought to be, enhancing the reading by getting you deeper into the ideas organically. Not telling you about the ideas, but embodying them. Other hard SF writers who have stylistic chops include Kate Wilhelm, Greg Bear, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, and several others I could name. The point here is that SF is not just about the ideas, it's about exploring the ideas in a literary way, with prose that involves the reader. The language envelops and immerses one rather than just being a tale told. On the fantasy side of the speculative fiction genre, great stylists include Patricia Mckillop, Neil Gaiman, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien, whose works helped establish the modern genre.

I would add Charles Williams, a friend of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, one of The Inklings, whose "spiritual fantasy" novel are amazing works of fantastic fiction. In Descent Into Hell, one of his characters is gradually losing his mind in a kind of spiritual/psychological damnation, and the way Williams describes his inner world is compelling and frightening. His novel All Hallow's Eve is a masterpiece, beginning when the protagonist and hero of the novel has just died, and finds herself in an astral version of her beloved city. Throughout this novel, Williams' prose is amazing, perfectly tuned to the emotional pitch of the characters yet original and strange.

I could go with several examples. Suffice to say, one of the reasons I read speculative fiction is because it is a literature of ideas, yet if those ideas were told in the no-style style, they would be dry and boring indeed. The storytelling matters greatly.

I have few grand conclusions to offer, and I know the salvos I have shot across the bows of mainstream literary criticism will be greeted equally with derision and agreement. I do believe it's more than just a matter of taste and preference, though. I believe that it matters how you tell a story. And I further believe that the manner of the telling should reflect what is being told. That is the whole point of literary style, it seems to me.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Writing: On Not Being Able to Fit Into the Boxes

I have difficulty even seeing, much less respecting and obeying, what some writers and editors feel are hard-and-fast lines between poetry, prose, nonfiction, creative writing, and essay. To me those all blend together. The most interesting books I read tend to be like the Japanese ideal of zuihitsu, "following the brush," the great exemplars of which style are Essays In Idleness and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. The American writers who have given us journal-books that move easily between prose, poetry, poetic prose, prose-poetry, and creative nonfiction essay, are who really stay with me. Andrew Schimmel, Gary Snyder, Paul Blackburn's The Journals, which I have only recently discovered, to my great delight.

I love the form of haibun, which is the form Basho's travel journal books are written, with alternating prose and haiku sections, on some pages just a single poem, on other pages a formal haibun which is a prose description of a moment or subject followed by a haiku on the same moment or subject but from yet a different direction. In not irrelevant ways, the haibun is my ideal form for writing.

I see when literary publishers offer open reading periods, during which anyone can submit a manuscript or collection, that they often create fixed categories for acceptance. You have to submit through the Poetry gate, or the Fiction gate, or the Nonfiction gate. But what if your manuscript moves between all of these? What if there is no real distinction, or boundary between them, in your writings? Where do submit them? I often feel a kind of decision paralysis in the face of such categorical requirements, and end up not submitting anything anywhere. Because inevitably I'll place my manuscript in the wrong box, and be automatically rejected.

The fact is, my best writing is All-of-the-above. The writing of mine that I like best, perhaps I should more truthfully say. The stuff that I write that excites me doesn't live within the boxes of Prose or Poetry, but tend to be Prose-AND-Poetry. I readily grant that there are lots of editors who just don't know what to do with that. I'm sure I've caused more than one headache which led to rejection. (There is also the issue that when you read a certain genre, yo bring presuppositions—one hesitates to say prejudices—to one's reading, and things that don't go along the usual trails get rejected not because they're bad but because they are not comprehended.)

Well, I don't want to make editors' jobs harder, and I'm not trying to be difficult, AND it seems to me that the rigid categories between writing genres are in fact a barrier rather than an aide. They are illusory, and often arbitrary, and even occasionally rather dismissive.

Because the one genre I don't really write in, and have no real "feel" for writing in the genre that doesn't like to be called a genre, namely, mainstream literary linear-narrative prose fiction. I have written in that non-genre-genre, an have even been published in it. It is just that it seems like an artificial construct to me, like nothing real at all. Virginia Woolf was right: life is not lived as a neatly-arranged linear prose narrative, as consciousness is both more diffuse and more Brownian (nay, distractible) than the artificial construct of linear narrative pretends it is. And not just Woolf says this, but Albert Einstein, whose spacetime theories strongly imply that everything is always happening all at once, and time itself is a constructed fiction of consciousness that we make up to be able to cope with time.

It's very likely that I will only rarely ever get published. (And thank you ever so much to those sympathetic editors who have been willing to take risks on my behalf!) I just can't seem to stay in the boxes.

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Monday, February 15, 2016


The lawyers call you to tell you you're doomed.
There's no recourse. You have to start all over again.
But the task is Sisyphean. Why even bother?
Life goes on. Does it? I'm afraid of good days
because they're always followed by soul-killers,
days you look at the knife block in the kitchen
and wonder. I can never seem to have a good day
without being slapped down the very next day.
Some tepid creek of dull everyday shallow streams
would seem preferable. But I don't seem able to take
that route, either. I'm not wired for ordinary.
You end up all alone, because no one wants to hear it anymore.
Can't really blame them, although it's tempting.
Who wants to hang out with a perpetual loser blocked
by gods who want to keep him stuck till he dries up
and blows away. Driving out alone into the desert
and waiting to die seems like a welcoming option.
My life is a Samuel Beckett laugh-riot of prisons.
I can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on.
It would be a lot funnier if you weren't living it.
I'm looking right now. This bleak window opens on
black and white and dismal grey, an apartment backyard
overlooking an industrial backyard and main street
which birds and squirrels don't bother to name.
Names are temporary, and change with the inhabitants.
My life is a hotel room in which I never stay anywhere,
there's nowhere to stay. I lost everything
and that's not enough. Do I even get to tell people?
No, that why lies an endless circle of ridiculous maimings,
none of them more visible than the invisible disability
I can neither manage nor convince anyone is real.
Like there's a point. Push that boulder up the mountain,
it will just roll back down again. Why bother

Here's a thought: since you're going to end up there anyway,
just head for the desert now. You're going to die there,
so why wait. It's just masochistic to stay where the world
has let you know how much it hates you being there. Go.
Don't even bother to wrap up affairs. Just go. Those who are left
can have the dregs that no one wants. Savor freedom.
Part of the samurai's code was, When you know you're going to die,
you can do anything.
So go. Let the boulders roll where they will.
Nothing to stop you. Why do you hesitate? Do you so cling
to this hateful existence that you would rather stay and suffer
rather than be free? The bars of the cage hold your eyes
but the cage door is open. You just have to turn your head to see it.
Last time I lived in this place it was just the same.
Here I am back in that same cage, clinging to those same bars.
This time, I'll notice the door. I'll let go of the boulder.
I'll just walk out and disappear into the void.
Like the nothingness before and after the Universe, why wait.

I can't cope with limbo. That's all.
I just need to know something's happening.
I've spent far too much time, this past era,
waiting on other people's agendas who forget mine.
I just need to feel like things are moving forward
at a rate faster than geologic.

It's about feeling like anyone has heard. It's like
a basic need, a mammary need, to feel like you're not shouting
down a well for no reason, not even getting an echo back.
It's like there's a void of silence around your heart.
Nothing can get through, be heard, be present. Time shifts
into its slowest gear when silence replaces sympathy.
Oh we are needy. We are clingy in our need, and fearful.

The entire reason for being is to not be alone.

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Monday, February 08, 2016

Creativity: Observing Improvisation

Observations on making art in the moment of making it:

When I'm improvising music, or playing music in general, I'm often making lots of decisions about what to do in the moment. The fallacy that many intellectuals have about the improvisation process, though, is that this requires verbal cognition. It doesn't. It's a profoundly non-verbal sort of process. Making art for me is not an intellectual puzzle-solving game-theory process; you can only analyze it that way afterwards, not during. Words are the very last tool in use to guide or distribute the process of improvising in the moment. Even when I improvise a poem in the moment, the words are the product, not the tool; which perhaps accounts for why so many of my poems are sequences-of-images.

Many writers I know cripple themselves by revising as they write, rather than dumping it all onto the page and editing it later. If you bring in the inner critic or the inner editor too soon, all too often the creative spark is what gets lost, and the result is often very dry, very cerebral. It may be very interesting to the intellect alone, but it won't endure in the somatic or sensual memory.

That's the problem with almost all verbally-directed cerebrally-dominated art-making: its products don't endure in the emotional, somatic, or psychological memories, just in the intellectual. (Not neglecting that many intellectuals conflate the intellect as being all of psychology, when it is in fact only a small element.) Writing a poem in a fixed form is a fascinating intellectual game, but I can only think of two or three sestinas or villanelles I've ever read that stayed with me; the rest are all forgotten, more form than substance. Machaut wrote memorable villanelles a few hundred years ago; Neil Gaiman write the most memorable sestina I can recall about ten years ago. And that's about it.

The only poetic form I regularly write in is haiku, which is a hugely open-ended form emphasizing how images lead to emotional responses; it's actually a very emotive form. When you see an ironic or humorous poem in the 5-7-5 syllable form, that's actually NOT a haiku (unless it's in the mode of Issa); it's a senryu, or something else, not actually a haiku. Again, the prevalence of the haijin (haiku writer) state of mind in my poetry might account for why so many of my poems are sequences-of-images. It's a natural form and style to me, made even more so by time and experience.

When I was improvising music yesterday to play along with a silent film I wasn't stopping and thinking about what I was going to do. There was no outline. There was response in-the-moment. The big thing that many people forget, who are not experienced improvisors, is that every decision that happens is not thought out beforehand. There's no time for verbal analysis. You just go. Improvising music is in fact a very non-verbal process. Analysis, by critics and music theorists, of what happens later, is by contrast a very verbal process. But it's not that way in the moment of making. Critics and theorists (and artists who are cerebrally dominant) would do well to remember that distinction. It's a very important one.

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