Wednesday, September 7, 2016

But...We're Not Writing Genre Fiction!

I have nothing against genre fiction.

I love Lord of the Rings, Foundation and Empire, Star Trek and Wars. I eat up detective noir, and rate Raymond Chandler's prose up there with Dostoevsky, Dickens, Hemingway, Franzen, Kingsolver...all the literary giants. By the time I was 10 I had read all the Nancy Drew mysteries - there something stimulating about strong, resourceful young women working their way out of one nasty pickle after another. I gobbled up Lt. Chee and Sgt. Joe Leaphorn and their adventures on the Big Res. Stephen King has kept me awake more nights than I care to admit, long after I've finished whatever horrific nightmare he has depicted. And Harry Potter? I look forward to reading the entire series again someday.

But that's not the stuff I want to write.

Could I? Sure. In fact I already have I, guess. During NaNoWriMo in 2008 I wrote Bury Me With My La-Z-Boy. It's about a voodoo Papa who can't die unless he's in his La-Z-Boy rocker. When a hospital orderly is ordered to go find the man's chair, he uncovers a drug cartel operating out of the swamps and bayous of Louisiana, along with a voodoo tribe that can turn themselves into animals. It's not finished and I can't say for certain if it ever will be, but if it is it would fall into the whatever genre vampire stories inhabit. Right now our heroes are trapped in an underground crypt with a bunch of zombies and may remain there forever.

But I'm not writing this to differentiate my own writing interests from genre writers, or to position "literary fiction" as being "better" than genre fiction in any way, shape or form. Maybe what we call literary fiction is actually genre fiction in disguise. Isn'tGreat Expectations a mystery, in the end? Isn't The Brothers Karamazov a murder mystery, along with Crime and Punishment? Could we call The Poisonwood Bible a "family saga?" One Hundred Years of Solitude is as much fantasy as it is real. Doesn't David Copperfield turn out to be a romance of sorts? Lonesome Dove is a Western, right in there with Louis L'Amore. Right?

(Keep in mind that all of Dickens' work was published serially in periodicals, as was much of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Flaubert. We probably wouldn't classify anything that is being published serially in periodicals today as great literature. Could it be that what we qualify as "literary fiction" is such because it has stood the test of time?)

We all know these categories are marketing tools, in the end, just as Jazz, Rock, Country, Alt. this and that are. Without labels we have chaos. Not good.

The "Author Platform" Manifesto

For the author of novels that don't fit comfortably in any genre and aren't published by one of the biggies, it is easy to be completely overlooked. "General Fiction," along with "Contemporary Fiction" and "Literary Fiction" are, to the marketer, non-categories. The audience for these novels is difficult to pin down, unlike work that falls neatly into "Romance," "Sci-Fi," "Steampunk," etc. etc. Market research can identify the profile of genre readers from demographics down to the brand of shoe they wear and the type of soda they drink.

As a result, much of the self-marketing noise out there for indy authors is designed for genre writers. The much ballyhooed "author platform" becomes tricky to pin down in character-driven fiction, unless of course that character, like Conrad's Marlowe or Jim Harrison's Brown Dog, keeps showing up in our books.

My first published novel, Hack, is about an artist who fakes his own death to drive up the value of his paintings. After his faux-demise, he returns disguised as a Mexican playboy who takes up motorcycling to be close to the woman of his dreams who happens to be a biker.

My publisher at the time suggested I build an author platform that would appeal to Harley enthusiasts, since that's what Henry Griffin (as Paco) and his paramour, Hadley, like to ride. It was also suggested that I build an author platform that would appeal to painters, since that's what Griffin does. But painting and Harleys aren't really anything more than character traits, and you don't build a multi-book platform based on character traits unless you're going to feature the same characters over and over again in subsequent novels.

John Irving has wrestlers in at least 50% of his novels, but the stories are not about wrestling, nor would they necessarily appeal to wrestlers or their fans. In One Person features many wrestlers, and those that he tracks throughout the story are either gay or transsexual. Irving, being neither gay or transsexual, needs to balance the voice of his bi-sexual protagonist with something that he knows intimately. Wrestling, along with the familiar New England setting and the focus on community theater, provides that believable ballast.

So, it's no wonder that Irving keeps going back to  wrestling and wrestlers: he knows the territory and can write about it with authenticity. Also, if you look at his overall bibliography, you will find that the vast majority of his protagonists are artists of one sort or another: writers, playwrights, actors, novelists, musicians, even tattoo artists. There are also a number of college professors and Catholic priests. And, of course, wrestlers. While there are exceptions (the OBGYN in The Cider House Rules, or the lumberjack in Last Night at Twisted River, neither of whom are the principals, or the protagonist of The Fourth Hand).

He writes these characters because he knows them or has read about them. For example, the hand doctor in The Fourth Hand has a habit of flinging dog turds at scullers on the Charles River with a lacrosse stick while jogging. I asked him where he got that idea, and he said it was in the Cambridge news.

Nonetheless, Irving's fondness for the professional profiles of his protagonists does not an author platform make, at least according to the indy author self-marketing pundits.

This morning I had an exchange with a indy-author "publisher," that went something like this.

There's a an outfit that calls itself SOOP (Something or Other Publishing). The proprietor asked me if I would like to list my latest novel, The Healing of Howard Brown, on his site. So I had a look. This is how I responded to his solicitation:

Hi W - checked out the marketplace. Now, imagine my bewilderment: there is no category for adult literary fiction. Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens, even Jonathan Franzen have no place for their stories on your site. Neither do I, nor do any of the thousands of MFA graduates with wonderful novels outside of the commercial realms of the big publishers. I understand the perception that the market for self-published books is all non and/or genre fiction. But there are legions of boomers out there that are tired of the thirty-something female fiction foisted upon us by the big publishers. opportunity? Maybe?
And this is how he responded:

Thank you so much for pointing this out. We will add the category "Adult Literary Fiction" and you can be the first one to post your book :)
We'll see if this actually happens. Meanwhile, I'm exploring angles that I hope will help potential readers of The Healing of Howard Brown broaden their experience and awareness of the overall themes of the story, which is, from what I can gather, how an author platform is supposed to work.

The Authenticity Trap

One of my PLU mentors, after reading a draft of Howard (much of which is set in Louisiana) asked me if I ever had any experience in the South, and in particular with Southern African Americans. He wanted to know if I was really qualified to write about such things, perhaps because he knew I hailed from lily white Marin County. It was a question of authenticity.

Of course, if an author's stories had to be born of direct experience, genres like sci-fi, fantasy and their many sub-genres would not exist. Neither would Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm or 1984. Thus, authenticity begs the question: where does direct experience stop and the imagination begin? Are dreams and visions less authentic than conscious experience?

In Ned Hayes' bestselling novel The Eagle Tree, the protagonist is an adolescent that is, as they say, "on the spectrum." Written in first person, the story portrays the thought processes and behaviors of an autistic adolescent so convincingly that we can't help but think the author himself must have, at one time, been on the spectrum. I don't know. Ned may be a science nerd, but I can't imagine that he was flapping his hands in front of his face at age 14.

The same could be said of many novels with unusual narrators. Forrest Gump, the original novel by Winston Groom, comes to mind, as does Walker Percy's habitation of Alison, the mental ward escapee,  in The Second Coming.

What my PLU mentor did NOT ask regarding Howard was whether I had any direct experience with mental illness. Maybe he assumed that I must, given my penchant for drooling, shuffling around the campus talking to myself, and accosting strangers with rotten watermelons. Insofar as authenticity is concerned, such a question would have been far more relevant than my experience with Southerners.

Oddly enough, in his "faculty review" of Howard, my mentor wrote:

The Healing of Howard Brown is a capacious and energetic narrative of self-discovery, delivered with an authentic voice that is supple, smart, somber, witty, ironic, self-revealing, self-doubting, and wonderfully lyrical. Themes of family, trust and responsibility to others, the national as well as personal past, and the life of the spirit resound throughout, with a cultural resonance involving class and race, the North and the South, the definition of masculine identity, and, centrally, the nature of mature love in a multitude of relationships-husband-wife, brother-sister, and father-son....
To this I added: the face of a debilitating mental illness that runs like a poison vein through the family tree.

It wasn't until after I went through the process of trying to describe the novel that it occurred to me that the central theme - or as Irving might posit, the "what-if" question - is about the notion that the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree," and that if one is to lead a mindful, fully aware and responsible life, one might do well to take a hard look at that tree. It's easy, and lazy, to assume that everybody is consciously in control of their own behavior all the time. When we assume that, it's just as easy to label those that misbehave as "problem children," and, later, "bitches," and "assholes" that are out to get us and revel in attempts to make our lives miserable.

Howard's sister, Sisi, is just such a misunderstood character. She's bipolar, BPD, and, later, psychotic. Neither I, my real sister, my father or my mother were any of these things (as far as I know). We've had our struggles with other demons, with clinical depression at the core, but I've not had any direct, ongoing experience with anybody that suffers from these maladies. I've researched them extensively, of course, just as Irving researched hand transplants in The Fourth Hand and AIDS in In One Person, and as I suspect Ned Hayes did when writing The Eagle Tree.

Does that mean I'm not qualified to write "crazy" characters? Howard has his drug addiction, his pixie dust seizures, and all sorts of other delusions and hallucinations. Jack Sublette has an unnamed intellectual disability. Alcoholics and misfits hang off the family tree like Christmas ornaments. Oh, and there are some sane characters too...for the sake of juxtaposition.

So, if there's any platform to build upon, it has something to do with mental illness and all it's anti-social outgrowths, from racism to homophobia, and what have you. And having the heart to deal with it all compassionately.

Platform bullshit aside, I suspect that all fiction writers prize a good story, well told, whether it's a western, a romance, or a LGBT erotic vampire steampunk fantasy. And, while the world of independent authors is rife with folks that think they can make a living by plugging pre-built characters into genre-based templates (and there are many that are doing just that) that's not what I, or I suspect most of the thousand or so writers that will graduate with an MFA this year, have in mind.

1 comment:

  1. Good article, Jeb. Reminds me of the workshop at RWW last year on "Literary vs. Genre fiction."


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