Storyville: What Literary Fiction Can Teach You About Genre Fiction
I just got back from teaching at the University of Iowa at their Summer Writing Festival, which is always a great time. My classes—Dark Fiction: Writing Horror and How to Write a Popular, Successful Genre Novel—both went over well. And I feel like so much of this topic, where genre fiction meets literary fiction, is fresh in my head, so let’s sit down and talk about this. More specifically, how can literary fiction teach you about genre fiction?
WHAT MY MFA GAVE ME
Do you need an MFA in order to write? Of course not. But, I will say that I read a lot of books that I KNOW I wouldn’t have picked up if they hadn’t been assigned to me. I had certain preconceived notions about Toni Morrison, for example, and wow, did she blow me away. Beloved is a haunting novel, with shocking violence, and it was a fantastic read. I got to enjoy Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which was entirely original and unique. I definitely was not the same author after having read The Road, Outer Dark, and Blood Meridian—all by Cormac McCarthy. His dense, lyrical prose is both beautiful and horrific. I took a new look at Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates—and guess what? I loved them both. I got to discuss Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson in great detail, one of my favorite collections. And I discovered Mary Gaitskill, and her collection, Bad Behavior. (If you’ve seen the movie, Secretary, starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, it’s based on her story by the same name.) In other words, in addition to the craft lessons and individual conversations with my professors, I read a number of books that I definitely wouldn’t have read on my own. And that influenced my writing in a number of ways. Let me explain.
While some people have called my work “purple” in the past, I have to disagree. To ME, “purple prose” is needlessly overwritten, flowery language that is melodramatic, and without purpose. Done RIGHT (as I hopefully am, with my writing) dense, lyrical prose can be a benefit. When it comes to genre fiction, sure, you can give us McDonald’s—the same expected flavors, no matter what city we’re in—nothing surprising, or risky. Filling, but rarely any different. And that’s okay! There are many standard narratives, series, protagonists, and stories that I’ve loved over the years in fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime. BUT, if you want to stand out, if you want to do something special, you have to take chances. One way, is with your prose. That doesn’t mean I can’t use the word “red”—not every place demands “merlot” or “crimson” or “vermilion.” Sometimes it just needs to be red.
While most of us aren’t Cormac McCarthy, and never will be, take a look at this passage from Blood Meridian, which has taken chances and pushed the language to extremes:
Now driving in a wild frieze of headlong horses with eyes walled and teeth cropped and naked riders with clusters of arrows clenched in their jaws and their shields winking in the dust and up the far side of the ruined ranks in a piping of boneflutes and dropping down off the sides of their mounts with one heel hung in the withers strap and their short bows flexing beneath the outstretched necks of the ponies until they had circled the company and cut their ranks in two and then rising up again like funhouse figures, some with nightmare faces painted on their breasts, riding down the unhorsed Saxons and spearing and clubbing them and leaping from their mounts with knives and running about on the ground with a peculiar bandylegged trot like creatures driven to alien forms of locomotion and stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, head, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows.
That's intense, and not for everyone, for sure.
Here is another example, although not quite as dense. Launching the new weird movement, Perdido Street Station by China Mieville is a book that showcases the best of fantasy, science fiction AND horror. But the opening to this book could have been in just about any genre—thoughtful and lyrical:
Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth. It has been night for a long time. The hovels that encrust the river's edge have grown like mushrooms around me in the dark.
We pitch. We rock in a deep current.
Behind me the man tugs uneasily at his rudder and the barge corrects. Light lurches as the lantern swings. The man is afraid of me.
Nice, right? Don’t be afraid to be eloquent, to say things differently, to create strange juxtapositions. You never know what you might find. Bring that to your genre fiction, and see what happens.
MORE COMPLICATED CONCEPTS
Another example of genre meeting literary is Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. There is a scene toward the end that is just stunning, the Crawler unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But it’s not just the creature, it’s the way it’s described, and the concept he is trying to explain:
As I adjusted to the light, the Crawler kept changing at a lightning pace, as if to mock my ability to comprehend it. It was a figure within a series of refracted panes of glass. It was a series of layers in the shape of an archway. It was a great sluglike monster ringed by satellites of even odder creatures. It was a glistening star. My eyes kept glancing off of it as if an optic nerve was not enough.
I could quote a few pages here, to really show you have different this is, but maybe you should just go buy the book.
And let’s revisit Perdido Street Station, to see how Mieville describes the Weavers:
Within a few generations, he had explained to Rudgutter, the Weavers evolved from virtually mindless predators into aestheticians of astonishing intellectual and materio-thaumaturgic power, superintelligent alien minds who no longer used their webs to catch prey, but were attuned to them as objects of beauty disentanglable from the fabric of reality itself. Their spinnerets had become specialized extradimensional glands that Wove patterns in with the world. The world which was, for them, a web. Old stories told how Weavers would kill each other over aesthetic disagreements, such as whether it was prettier to destroy an army of a thousand men or to leave it be, or whether a particular dandelion should or should not be plucked. For a Weaver, to think was to think aesthetically. To act—to Weave—was to bring about more pleasing patterns. They did not eat physical food: they seemed to subsist on the appreciation of beauty.
That’s some crazy stuff there, right? I love it.
What literary fiction does conceptually is ask questions, not answer them, getting you the reader to think about your place in the world, in the universe, and then man’s place, and so many other heavy, deep, layered questions. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Can we evolve? Are we alone? Again, this is not exclusive to literary fiction, some of the more thoughtful genre authors do this as well. Think about those authors, and what they’ve contributed to their genres. Bradbury and Asimov, Lehane and Thompson, King and Barker, Gaiman and Martin. They all take chances, and push the story—they risk more.
EXPECTED VS. UNEXPECTED
I think one of the aspects of genre fiction is that each genre has certain expectations, right? With a horror story, you expect terror and horror, to be scared, quite often with gruesome scenes, violence, and gore. With fantasy, you expect epic sagas, world-building and class warfare, politics and culture. With science fiction there has to be science of course, technology, usually showing us some land that is far in the future. And of course crime needs a crime, and mystery, noir a certain atmosphere. I imagine formulaic plots and stories that don’t try too hard to do anything more. Again, I’m making some broad brush stokes here. The authors, stories, and novels that I’m most drawn to are in genre fiction, but done in ways that surprise me, that don’t have the same old plots, monsters, and outcomes.
You could do worse than to read All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones, a novel that is categorized as suspense, but does so much more. Sheriff Jim Doe is an American Indian, and that is the first of many choices Jones makes that help this novel to enter new territory. There are surreal moments, where we aren’t sure what’s truth, and what’s perception. We have tornados and firemen in disguise, children kidnapped, and three FBI agents that continuously compromise the case, get lost in the bizarre narrative, villains shadows that leer off of every page. If you think Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs were good books, this takes those stories and expands and evolves with every turn of the page. The opening to this novel haunts me to this day, the mixture of language, setting, and plot so visceral and haunting that I sometimes picture the children as I try to fall asleep, even though I haven’t read this books in months. Jones takes chances, goes deeper, layer after layer, emotion on top of dysfunction dipped in tension. There is nothing obvious about this novel, that’s for sure. Why do you think he teaches at several different universities—undergraduate classes, as well as MFA programs? Because he knows what he’s doing—and students are excited to hear what he has to say.
So in my opinion, the best ways that literary fiction can inform your genre fiction is through dense, layered prose; by creating more complicated concepts; and by helping you make unexpected choices. You can turn your nose up at the “classics” if you want, but you’re making a mistake. There is a reason these authors are still taught in universities across the United States. Read Carver, Cheever, Vonnegut, and Atwood—but also read Woodrell, Evenson, Gay, Minor, and Erickson. The most exciting work these days, in my opinion, is at the intersection of genre and lit, between realistic and supernatural, where minimalist and maximalist intersect.
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