Vito is a fellow professor at Delaware County Community College, a friend, and a phenomenal writer. His comments here concerning literary versus genre fiction are enlightening, though I might add that many pieces of classic “literary fiction” were originally meant to be pieces of marketable genre fiction. Possibly we call it “literary” today because language changes so much over time.
I might also claim that literary fiction does not always necessarily deal with the ordinary. Though subtlety, theme, and word-craft might be more of the focus in a piece of literary fiction, it still has a plot (unless a slice of life vignette, and even those follow most of the staples of plot if they are going to be read).
If I might at this juncture, I would claim that I am one of those unfortunate oddballs who sort of does both. I write genre fiction with extra attention paid to line craft and diction. My “genre” friends call me “The Professor” because I am so focused on grammatical and syntactical principles (even when I bend and break them), and my “literary” friends (often fellow professors…not Vito…he has been a pillar of support since I have had the pleasure…) see me as incredibly rough around the edges, a plot hound who writes gratuitous violence and “shock-symmetry.”
And by the way…Vito’s stories are absolutely gripping, so don’t let him fool you when he claims that some literary fiction depends too much upon describing the light creeping under the door or the quality of the manufacture of the curtains.
Either way, whether “genre” is on one side of the ring and “literary” stands leering at the other, I believe the theme here brought to the forefront by Professor Vito Gulla is to tell a good story! Damn it!
So Vito Gulla, pick out a plot, put up a marker, and etch something into the stone!
A Club That Would Have Me for a Member
Michael asked me to contribute to his blog a few months ago, and as a twenty-seven year old punk who has dreams of joining the great literary pantheon, I didn’t know that I was the best person to ask. Michael writes horror and writes it well, and I write something his audience, at least from a synopsis, wouldn’t be too interested in.
I write what they call literary fiction, a term that’s as redundant as can be, and I’m probably the kind of guy that most genre writers think is too pretentious and ambitious for his own good. But I’m also the guy who has little time for intellectuals who are thrilled by the sound of their own verbal flatulence. Every time I read something out of the little magazines, those bigname, hardly read university-funded literary journals, I have the urge to burn the pages and stab out my eyes.
I prefer to think that I just write fiction, but I know that everything these days has to be divided and sub-divided to fit neatly on the shelf. But literary fiction, as far as genres go, doesn’t really have a set of conventions to follow. In fact, it could be a western or a space opera, a drama or a comedy, a mystery or a thriller. So really, what separates it from anything else? And there’s only one thing people ever say: the prose.
But to me, that’s a pretty poor reason to lump together such disparate texts. I would even say, that good prose should be a given. I don’t give a damn what you write: You should always aim to write beautifully. It’s the reason a lot of us get into the game in the first place. It’s the euphony of one word eliding into another. It’s using the rhetorical device that best captures your intention. It’s finding “le mot juste.”
At least, it is to me.
But there’s one more way to describe literary fiction: boring. Literary fiction, in most cases, isn’t about the extraordinary. It’s about the ordinary, the things we do everyday, the small,
quiet spaces we share with one another–but I don’t think it needs to be be boring either. The reason why people thumb their nose at the “genre” is because literary writers tend to be too busy describing the light that creeps through the doorway to tell a story.
Literary writers, especially those who almost wholly consume the works of Faulkner and Woolf and Joyce and the like, fail to notice that though the masters have beautiful prose, they understood structure too. Ulysses, a novel that is trendy to hate anymore, isn’t plotless or boring. Joyce takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. (Using Homer’s structure doesn’t hurt either.) Every turn has an obstacle, a conflict, a problem. Even when the book is at its most experimental and difficult, there’s a story there. Molly Bloom’s soliloquy has more conflict and beauty on one page than many literary novels have from cover to cover.
And of course, Ulysses is not alone. Novels like The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises or The Crying of Lot 49 or Love in The Time of Cholera or Song of Solomon all have plots and follow the typical three-act structure. Sure, some of these may deviate from our expectations in places, but overall, these stories are still stories. And they’re never once boring.
But anymore, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule in literary fiction. For every Murakami or Cormac McCarthy or Junot Diaz or Philip Roth, there seems to be one hundred other writers who only know how to describe. That’s very discouraging as a reader.
On the flip side, there’s genre fiction, and the thing about reading genre fiction is that it’s often all the same. If you walked into a bookstore and picked up two out of the many thrillers on display, you would probably see, just from the cover, a similar picture on the front and a description of a story that would be completely interchangeable between them. Rough and tumble hero Jack or John fights corruption/conspiracy–will he survive? And very rarely are the characters or plot all that different once you open it up. But worst of all is the prose.
Many writers of genre fiction seem careless in their diction choices. Sentences are not crafted and considered but slapped out on the keyboard in order to reveal the story (though in many cases that too is sadly just as hackneyed and trite). Look at a writer like Stephanie Meyer.
Her prose is staler than day old bread and lacks any depth or nuance. Furthermore, her use of punctuation is just as lazy. It’s hard not to pass through a page without finding a plethora of dash ems, a mark reserved for emphasis, but if every sentence requires emphasis, then that effect becomes numbing and needless, no longer serving a purpose. And frankly, her tale of choosing supernatural boyfriends isn’t all that thrilling or empowering either.
So what’s a writer to do?
If you love both beauty and story, it seems like you’re fucked. As I said already, we have a few that carry on the tradition in the literary world (and those that do so in genre like Raymond Chandler or Richard Matheson), but it’s something that has been bothering me for sometime now. These distinctions, these categories that we make up are largely arbitrary. I don’t really care what a story is about anymore: I care that it’s well-crafted and meaningful. But we use these categories to define what the text should be rather than what it can be.
It’s dangerous for any art to be so far up its own ass. MFAs come out of their programs and criticize genre writers because they can’t write a clean and proper sentence, but those same MFAs don’t recognize that they themselves are often clueless how to create a plot. They think order and structure limits their freedom. (It doesn’t.) Just because you’re writing about ordinary people living ordinary lives doesn’t mean your story need be aimless. And we have the genre
writers, who say turn off your brain and enjoy the ride, but don’t recognize that’s fucking stupid. Half the fun is giving the text the courtesy of an analysis, exploring its potential meaning. It’s the
reason we come back to it.
If there’s one thing I can recommend to the writer of any genre, read outside yourself, pick up a book and learn from it. Who gives a shit that the story appeals to you. I’m not fond of love stories or horror, but that’s because a lot of those novels decide to do the same thing that everyone else is doing. Yet, I’ll still pick one up. Stephen King, a writer of good prose and probably the most prolific and talented writer of horror ever, in On Writing, explains that we learn from both the bad and the good. Bad books teach us what not to do; good books teach us what to aspire to do. And if you look at King’s reading list from that year you’ll notice he doesn’t solely read ghost and monster stories. There’s a hell of a lot of Faulkner too.
So don’t aim to be one thing: Be what you need to be at that moment to tell the best story you can. Let the marketing people worry about where you fit on the shelf.