Let's Face It, We All Live In The Same Creative Ghetto

Writing about or from personal experience is rewarded more in many writing programs than “imagined” experience” or genre. Some of the critics of genre fiction in workshops believe genre fiction is easier to write, requires less imagination, and is not as “serious” as literary fiction. I’ve seen that in action, I’ve heard people say it, I’ve seen someone get up and walk out of an AWP session I moderated on Genre Writers in Academia because they were “protesting” the fact that we were even given a panel in the first place. Funny thing is that within a few years, my next genre panel had to be scheduled in a giant conference room because the audience for it was huge.

—Anthony Neil Smith, author of Choke On Your Lies and All The Young Warriors, English Department Chair, Southwest Minnesota State University

I'm a reader.

Yeah, I'm a writer, too,  but I'm of the Stephen King school of writing where being a reader comes first because great writing is what inspired me to create my own stories. I'm never without a book. In fact, on a given day I have two or three on me in case I burn through my primary read midway through my lunch break.  I read everything, I don't discriminate between “genres” and receive just as much satisfaction and pleasure reading a Chuck Wendig or Megan Abbott novel as I do reading Jonathan Franzen (yeah, I read and enjoy Franzen) or Jennifer Egan. In fact, in the past few years I've come to the opinion that there really isn't any such thing as genre, and sometimes a story needs to be set where all of the characters have superpowers, or feature a scumbag junkie, or take place on another planet where human beings are at war with the native population.

And maybe it was my own naivete, or I had my head up my ass, but I used to believe the majority of readers/writers held the same attitude. But then I started reading Nick Mamatas' live tweets from this year's AWP. (By the way, if you're not following Mamatas on Twitter, you should be. The man is probably one of the funniest authors on the 140 character social network.) I was paying particular attention to this year's genre panel. As I should have expected, most of the speakers were vaguely insulting in regards to genre and teaching it in their classrooms. I won't say I was insulted, but I will say certain statements stung a bit. Because let's face it, over the past twenty some odd years, writers such as Cormac McCarthy, Margret Atwood, and Steve Erickson have all heavily incorporated genre elements into their writing. Hell, I'll up the ante with all three and just flat out call them genre writers. Yes, the language and plotting are beautifully written and elegant to read, but let's face it, McCarthy has spent a lifetime writing westerns and crime novels, and Atwood and Erickson are sci-fi writers. And trust me, I'm not trying to be insulting when I say this, I'm just calling a spade a spade.

But from those live tweets, the idea of this column was born.

...When I was growing up, I read Poe, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Peter Straub - those were the folks who made me think I wanted to be a writer, because of the way that the worlds they adduced thrilled and frightened me. Then I trained in classically-minded writing programs, at Princeton and Iowa, where "genre" elements weren't in favor or even generally acceptable. Now that I'm an older writer and more independent of my formal education, I'm eager to use the full range of my interests and enthusiasms, and the full range of dramatic effects that are available to me as a storyteller. Plus, ghosts and monsters and so on are a blast.

—Pinckney Bendict, author of Miracle Boy and Other Stories and Town Smokes, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

What this column was originally meant to be was a defense of genre fiction in all its forms: crime, horror, science fiction, transgressive fiction, fantasy, and all the little subgenres that have popped up over the last fifty years. I was going to point out how vital so much of it is, how much artistry goes into actually crafting a well wrought genre narrative. I planned on using McCarthy, Atwood, and Erickson as the paragons of what genre fiction could be, and offer examples of how writers who are typically considered “literary,” such as Chabon, Egan, Lethem, Percy, Saunders, Yu, and Russell have fully embraced “genre." I even went so far as to contact writers who I respect and enjoy reading, such as Anthony Neil Smith, Pinckney Bendict, Aaron Gwyn, and Dan Chaon (thus all the quotes—luckily their answers still pertain to the bulk of the piece), who also work as professors, and asked them why English and creative writing departments so often discouraged students from studying and writing genre fiction.

Yeah, it was going to be one hell of an impassioned little column.

There are tens of thousands of people in the world who want to be writers. And if you're earning money for your writing... you know what? You've won the fucking lottery.

But then Nik Korpon posted an article GQ put out about what they considered to be the top twenty books published in the 21st century so far. (By the way, I'm by no means calling out Korpon; Nik's one of my favorite emerging novelists, and if you haven't read him yet, remedy that.) The list was fairly typical with no real surprises; nothing that made me say, “Wow, are you fucking kidding me? ” But, needless to say, most of the books were diffidently “literary." Then I start reading through the comments in the thread, and you know what? Some of them were fairly insulting. (Once again, not calling anybody out, because the bulk of the comments were from writers I respect and read on a fairly regular basis.) I, of course, threw my two cents in and moved on.

But then I started thinking about it, and what I started thinking was, how were any of these comments different from what was being said at the genre panel at AWP? How were these writers who were running down other writers any different than the people who stomped out of Anthony Neil Smith's genre panel with their panties in a bunch “protesting” the fact that genre was included on the AWP program?

The answer is, they're not. Not one damn bit.

I'm going to go on a bit of rant now. (Not that this whole piece hasn't been a rant already.) But If you're a writer—and it doesn't matter what you write, whether you're a critic, novelist, short story writer, poet, whatever—and somebody out there, whether it's a website or magazine or book publisher thinks what you're doing is worth publishing, do you know how lucky you are? There are tens of thousands of people in the world who want to be writers. And if you're earning money for your writing—even if it's only three or four hundred bucks a month—you know what? You've won the fucking lottery.

If you make a living at this business, holy shit, you are the 1%, and you should be hella proud of it.

And if you are one of the proverbial lottery winners, it seems kind of stupid to waste your time and energy running down the other lottery winners. In fact, when you do this, and you're doing it because they write in genre like sci-fi or literary fiction (once again, folks, I'm calling a spade a spade, literary fiction is a genre), isn't it kind of the same as putting someone down because of their race or religion?

And if you're one of the tens of thousands of people who want to be a writer, shouldn't you be sitting in front of the machine working on your craft as opposed to talking shit on social media or at writers conferences?

Teaching genre fiction—I've never done this. I usually don't let my fiction writing students write it (I have a clause in my syllabus: no zombies, no werewolves, no vampires, no dragons). But I'm "evolving on the issue," as our President likes to say. When you have Justin Cronin and Ben Percy doing vampires/werewolves as literately (whatever that means) as McCarthy does cowboys, lines start to blur.

—Aaron Gwyn, author of Dog on the Cross and The World Beneath, Associate Professor,  University of North Carolina, Charlotte

So how do we get past the petty bullshit? How do we get past constantly running down other writers? From the academic end, it's just like Aaron says, with novelists such as Percy or Cronin churning out quality fiction which contains fantastic or gritty elements, academia is going to take notice, and there'll be a shift in what's being taught to our college trained storytellers. Of course, the shift has already begun with writers such as Stephen Graham Jones, Brian Evenson, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Alan Heathcock, Smith, Benedict, and Gwyn who are more open minded, and willing to take “risks” in their own fiction, and pass along their techniques to their students to help them realize that as Benedict said, “...ghosts and monsters and so on are a blast.”

Also, let's have students move beyond writing from “experience," and have them embrace Faulkner's idea on the matter: Write from experience—but keep a very broad definition of experience.

But what about the rest of us? The guys and gals soldiering away while working a day job? For me the answer is simple: whatever genre of writing you fell in love with and inspired you to start making your own stories, keep loving that genre, keep writing, keep creating. But, if all you're doing is reading within that genre, knock that shit off. Go read something else, anything else. Because the fact is, if all you're doing is reading in that one narrow corner of the universe, you're missing out on some truly great storytelling. And the second thing, try writing outside of your genre. Write a sci-fi story, write erotica, write a story about some dude dying of cancer—and do it on a regular basis. Set a goal for yourself that for every two or three projects you complete, complete one that's outside of your comfort zone.

Now you're probably asking yourself, will any of this stop writers running down other writers? Are we all going to join hands and sing kumbaya, my lord, kumbaya? No, probably not; there's just too many petty assholes in the world for that to happen. But the next time you decide to shit in someone's cereal bowl because your dumb ass thinks whatever you're writing is better than what the guy or gal at the top of the bestseller list is, stop yourself, and really think. Is what you're about to say or write going to make you seem clever or witty? Or does it make you sound like a jealous douchebag?

Last but not least—and this goes for both academics and non—we all occupy this little creative ghetto called literature, and it can be a tough fucking neighborhood to live in, and I think all of us need to remember that chances are we're never getting out of this neighborhood and into that big deluxe apartment in the sky occupied by folks like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, so maybe we should all stop rubbing our next door neighbor's nose in shit every chance we get.

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Comments

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago May 21, 2013 - 8:30am

Good article.  At the end of the day it all comes down to one thing--good writing is good writing.  It doesn't matter if your characters are genteel southern lawyers or disgruntled urban cops that turn into werewolves, it's what you do with them that counts.

When I read I look for wisdom.  Wisdom can be found in the junkies of Hubert Selby, Jr. as well as the old world gods of Neil Gaimon.  I found plenty of wisdom in this article.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this May 21, 2013 - 8:47am

Well said, Keith. Well said. The line between literary and genre is truly bogus. There are pulp writers who had a way with words that rivals most "literary" writer, and some of the most heralded works of literature (Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five) are "genre." It's all elitist nonsense. 

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones May 21, 2013 - 8:52am

@Rob - And it's elitist bullshit on both sides of the fence that too many people buy into.

Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on May 21, 2013 - 9:21am

Bravo sir.

misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind May 21, 2013 - 2:43pm

I believe it was Mark Twain (Clemens) who is quoated to have said, "My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water."* I think this applies to what people refer to as Literary fiction and Genre fiction. Whatever one's feelings on these labels may be, to me, great books are the ones we read that stay in our hearts, and that is what makes them so amazing. 

*I could be wrong, but the meaning doesn't change!
 

EdVaughn's picture
EdVaughn from Louisville, Ky is reading a whole bunch of different stuff May 21, 2013 - 4:54pm

Great article Keith. I agree with the elitist bullshit. Seems like it happens not just in literature, but with music and movies too. It's stupid.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list May 21, 2013 - 10:55pm

Thank you! You said exactly what I have been arguing for years. In fact, I got into an argument with a professor (during lecture) about this same thing. He kept harping on about how genre fiction wasn't worth reading (and that nothing written within the last 40 years was worth reading), so I started asking him about all of the novels we consider literary greats, but are clearly genre. I threw out the names of Ray Bradburry (SciFi), Jane Austen (Romance), Shakespeare (Comedy/Historical Fiction/Tragedy), Bram Stoker (Horror), DH Lawrence (Erotica), and the list goes on. I pointed out that he can't say we won't consider some of our modern books to be literary greats in 60 years.

My professor told me that I didn't understand, and clearly didn't have an eye for what made something an elevated literary work. He would argue that the only fiction worth reading is Nabakov, Kafka, Faulkner, Joyce, and Hemingway. Anyway, I don't get it. He's right. I love to read anything I can get my hands on, and don't see the problem. If the book is entertaining/good then it doesn't matter what its genre is (literary or otherwise). My book collection is ecclectic at best, and I'd like to keep it that way because at least I can't say I'm missing out on the enjoyment of it all.

C Patrick Neagle's picture
C Patrick Neagle from Hood River, Oregon is reading words, words, words May 22, 2013 - 1:01am

Indeed (and I'm right there with SammyB on the eclectic book collection; also: college English professor). But you whet my appetite. I'd actually like to see that OTHER essay--the one you started to write--too. :-)

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones May 22, 2013 - 5:39am

@C Patrick Neagle - It's about 500 words worth of notes and outline.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 29, 2013 - 8:52pm

We are in a ghetto, and instead of gangs we have genres. 

C Patrick Neagle's picture
C Patrick Neagle from Hood River, Oregon is reading words, words, words June 1, 2013 - 1:13am

@Keith: Well, get to writing. ;-)