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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, April 28, 2005

the walled compound of genre

Not a very productive day so far (it's 3:10 p.m.). I woke with back pain--a more severe version of pain I started feeling yesterday sometime. It was not relieved by stretching, so I took an Ibuprofen and booked an appointment at the chiropractor.

Did my usual 2 pages of The Twelve Caesars, then keyed more notes from When Prophecy Fails. I checked a couple of blogs, and linked my way on to one called Paperback Writer by a woman who, writing under 5 different names, churns out several novels a year of different genres (the ones I saw on her website were all sci-fi). Her real name seems to be Lynn Viehl. With 28 novels published, she's a seasoned pro. I always experience mixed feelings when I confront prolific professional writers like this. One part of me feels envy at their success: they're earning a living, even a good living, through creative writing. Another part of me feels, even though I have plenty of writing ability, alien to their world: I can't be like them. I've tried.

I can't be like them because I'm not like them. For one thing, I have no more interest in writing their books than I do in reading them. When I walk through a bookstore, I see fiction shelves stuffed with the output of writers like Lynn Viehl--genre works dashed off by proficient, creative people who can deliver a publishable manuscript in a short time. When I say "genre works" I don't mean any disparagement, since virtually all fiction belongs in some genre or other (my favorite novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, would nowadays be filed under the "coming of age story" genre). But what the book world now calls genre fiction--the stuff racked under the genre signs at the store, such as "mystery", "science fiction", "romance", and so on--is characterized, in my opinion, by two defining qualities:

1. faithfulness to the conventions of their stated genre

2. an avoidance of new insights at the thematic level of the book

They are conventional works not only in respect of their form, but in respect of their meaning. We read conventional genre books to be told the same thing again that we've been told before by other, similar books--books in the same genre. We're the little kids who want to hear the same story again and again (for me it was "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and The World of Pooh).

I think what I'm saying is that these books can be written quickly by proficient authors because they are like miners working an already discovered and developed seam. The other kind of novel, the serious or literary work, is by a writer who is more like a prospector, looking for a new seam of ore. It's risky and time-consuming. Usually it doesn't pay off. But sometimes it does--and then it really does. These writers don't know in advance exactly what they're trying to say: they look, they dig. What they come up with costs them something--sometimes a lot. They suffer for it. This is art.

In storytelling, convention is a convenience, but to me convention can't be the be-all and end-all of the exercise. At that point writing has become merely an industrial product, like soft drinks, toothpaste, or microwave popcorn. From the writer's standpoint it's a pleasant, fun job. But that's all it is. To the extent that it's merely conventional, I'm not interested--not as a reader, not as a writer.

It's not that I can't be conventional, it's that, deep down, I don't want to. When I open a genre book I get a bored, impatient feeling: been there, done that. The characters don't stand for anything I recognize as myself. They have "passions" and "desires", but these don't feel authentic. "Such-and-such a character has this passion because her mother was killed when she was a child." Okay. I ask: Why was her mother killed? Not, What was the motive of the killer, but What is the meaning of this event? What is its significance? This is where the typical genre book does not go. The genre writer can say, "We don't need to know that", meaning, we don't need to know that in order to have a story full of sound and fury, action and adventure. But as human beings that's exactly what we do need to know.

The genre writer stays within the walled compound of the convention. I can't. My output and earnings might be low, and my audience small, but I can't stay there.

Don't fence me in.

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