I'm Tired of Genre Fiction. Gimme the Weird Stuff.
Header image: Begotten
A few years ago I read and reviewed Blake Butler’s 300,000,000 for Electric Literature. I couldn’t get my head around it. At times during my reading I felt lost, weirded-out, even physically ill. My review speaks to this confusion, like someone walking out of a haunted house that’s actually haunted. It thrilled me, but I wasn’t sure if I liked it.
Since then, I’ve been having trouble enjoying “straightforward” books. I haven’t done the deep work of figuring out whether or not I’m a born contrarian, but I don’t even like reading books that are typically understood (by a majority of people, of course) to be “good.” Plots, characterization, pacing, all of it seemed boring to me, all of a sudden.
This may have taken root as a consequence of my freelance editing business. As it picked up, I came to enjoy boring narratives, sloppy writing, wild tonal shifts, slim characterization, over-characterization, digressions, truncations, and so on. When I say that I “enjoyed” those things, I’m not being cute. I genuinely came to be more interested in mistakes and bullshit than in what we’d consider to be typically “good” stories.
I come from the world of genre fiction. There are very specific rules for this kind of stuff. Really smart people have outlined these rules. While there is without a doubt great writing found within these constrictions, they’re still constricted. Suddenly, I couldn’t read genre books. Oh God, the detective is getting in too deep. Oh Lord, the conman is hitting the casino holding the mob’s money. Fuck me, the retired assassin is going in for one last job.
I also come from a world of low pretense. I hate pretentious shit. If something ever feels to me like somebody is blowing smoke or full of hot air, I turn off. Jesus Christ, is that person seriously writing a book made of nothing but questions? Shoot me in the face, are we really going to watch an entire movie of someone cooking dinner? Spare me, are we going to listen to Mike Patton eat that dinner for a whole album?
The combination of these two feelings led me to not like very many things. How are you going to dislike the boring aspects of genre and then balk at the perhaps overly adventurous qualities of the avant garde?
Eventually I turned my “pretentious” filter off, and found a lot of things to like. But why is this stuff likeable? Never one to be content with simply enjoying things, I began to wonder. This shit doesn’t conform to any of Joseph Campbell’s rules for mythology. In a lot of them, there is no hero, and no real arc for the characters to follow. Why do I enjoy these strange things so much?
I read You With Your Memory Are Dead by Gary J. Shipley. The story, maybe apocryphal, about the creation of this thing, is that Shipley sat in a room watching the film Begotten on repeat. Now that’s a fucked up movie. It’s black and white, it’s got a lot of symbolism, it’s creepy. Look it up on Youtube. Anyway, let me give you an excerpt from this thing, from the beginning. The excerpt could really be from any point in the book, but here we go:
When starving tributaries search organs the air has fed on for days.
And I breathe the air of image, the nothing that’s something when it’s gone.
And the space around me drained of seducements.
You get the idea. What exactly is going on here? I don’t mean literally, because obviously none of this is meant to be taken literally. But what are these words doing?
Here’s an excerpt from a book I enjoyed, called Flamingos by Grant Maierhofer (picked at random to prove my point):
I’ve been offered escape, time will tell. The building yes, as you said, could come closest because of the dust, but even that has its warming effect. I tried to overwhelm mystelf. I tried to win out and lay placid under all the paperwork till it bled. Nothing doing. No chance.
Besides being totally awesome, what does that mean?
I’m not particularly interested in where this style comes from, and to be honest, I’m not even all that interested in what it’s trying to say. I’m interested in why I find it interesting in the first place. Which, of course, is a kind of weird question to ask. Why do we like anything?
I suppose a better way to put it would be “Why, in light of all of these stories, and with the position of story within our culture so firm, would I take to these anti-narratives that seem more interested in creating a feeling than in telling a story?”
What’s going on, where suddenly story is no longer interesting? Does it have to do with how we’re living? Our day to day lives are increasingly chaotic and banal. We’re living in a strange hyperreal hellscape. These books are taking us to an actual different place.
One thing that struck me, upon trying to read Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, is that it sounds a lot like these strange books. I wonder if there isn’t some kind of similarly rebellious, sort-of-Marxist undertones to this weird writing that I’ve become so fond of. There’s no manifesto that I know of, so I’m not entirely sure.
Genre fiction sells, and selling is good, because people have to make a living. Most folks who buy books are doing so at an airport, because they’re fucking bored. Therefore it stands to reason that our whole discourse about what’s “good” or not revolves around whether it’s able to sell. I think that’s sort of a bummer. I don’t really care whether or not you can sell. I like that certain writing makes me feel things. It’s almost like “good” and “bad” have been co-opted by capitalism to mean different things. I prefer “interesting” or “not-interesting” (which is not the same as boring).
I don’t know if there’s any real value in investigating why I like the things I like, but it’s something I think about quite often. And these books are examples of works of art that shy away from convention while still creating a real impact. Give them a look. Maybe there are different places we can go.
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