Friday, May 21st, 2010

So Do You Write Fantasy or Literary Fiction or Oh God What Does That Even Mean

This is one of those questions that if I were an old Infocom text adventure game like Zork I would say I DON’T UNDERSTAND THAT.

And the cursor would just sit there blinking, and you (meaning me) would have to think of some other question. But we don’t all have the luxury of being old Infocom text adventure games do we?

Unfortunately to answer this question — which admittedly nobody has actually asked me — I will first have to go through all that David Copperfield kind of crap.

I come from literary stock. My parents are both English professors. My father taught at Brandeis and then Johns Hopkins, my mom taught at Smith and UC Irvine and a bunch of other places.

It’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to explain what that actually meant to a small person being raised by those parents. We were a very literary household. My father in particular is pretty much the most literary person you can imagine. He won a MacArthur Fellowship. He won a Bollingen Prize. He didn’t win them for curing leprosy. He won them for reading, writing and talking about books, mostly poetry, all day every day.

Books were what you talked about in our house (or mostly you listened to your parents talk about them). All the time. Literature was what was important in life. Even more important than crushing your enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women. Although that was right up there.

It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but one day you’ll run into one of my dad’s former students or colleagues and I promise you they’ll back me up on this, to the hilt.

The children of the household, while embracing (to various degrees) the ideology of the ruling class, maintained an underground resistance movement as well. The activities of the resistance consisted of consuming massive amounts of science fiction and fantasy in book, comic book, movie and video game form. We were occasionally exposed, and then we were beaten about the head and neck with heavy sighs and then drowned in our own shame.

But we persevered. Vive la resistance.

Blah blah blah high school college graduate school. I grew up, but my cultural life was still divided down the middle: great books, nerdy stuff. Both sides churned away with great intensity in different spheres in my brain that were hermetically sealed off from each other. It was like East and West Berlin.

And yet, per this fascinating geopolitical allegory, sometimes insurgent political elements blackened their faces and army-crawled under the razor wire from one side to the other. Lieber. Dick. Gibson. (Alan) Moore. Gaiman. Sterling. Stephenson (whose Snow Crash I wore to tatters, and I didn’t even skip the Sumerian neurolinguistic shit!) Link. Lethem (whose Gun With Occasional Music I bought in 1994 with a gift certificate won in a trivia contest at a bookstore in New Haven.) Chabon. Etc. These people wrote science fiction and fantasy with a technical skill and intellectual and emotional azithromycin generic and trade name force that made it difficult to contain them within the non-literary containment facility with which I had been provided.

The key moment for me was actually reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This is a psychological thriller, not a genre I have any particular affinity for, but it was powerfully written and thought-through (and ably published by Knopf) with an utter disregard for genre categories. It is neither fish nor fowl — it is some super-powered fish-fowl, possessed of both submarine and aerial capabilities.

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Cue the whistling intro to the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change.”

(Side note: I used to be a bit obsessed with Donna Tartt. This is partly because she is a fantastic writer, and partly because the author photo for The Secret History looked like this:

Then last year I went to a book party for Jay McInerney, where I had no business being, since I hadn’t read the book, and in fact had glibly panned his last one, and one thing led to another and suddenly I was being introduced to Donna Tartt.

Reader, she is not that beautiful. She is much much more so. Look at her eyes man. Just look at them.)

What Tartt started, Susanna Clarke finished. When I finished Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell I calmly closed the book, swept the 18-month-old draft of my novel in progress into the trash, and started The Magicians. The wall had collapsed. It was like that moment in Swords in the Mist when the barrier cliff separating the Inner and Outer Seas of Newhon collapses, and the waters flow into each other. Or the bit at the end (spoiler alert) of Remembrance of Things Past when Marcel realizes (I think, I never got that far) that Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way are basically pretty much the same way.

Either way I lost something; the ability to see literary fiction and genre fiction as anything other than fiction. That sense went dead in me. Certain conventions and expectations applied and were in play, but ultimately they were just texts on a continuum. This sounds wonky and graduate-student-y, but it’s what happened. It’s not even that the two had stopped fighting each other. But the resistance had come up from underground. They lived on the same plane.

It’s not a huge deal. I get that bookstores have to shelve them in different places. I respect the harsh realities of retail bookselling. I’m always curious where The Magicians will turn up, but either aisle is fine. Probably it reflects some unconscious Oedipal rage at my dad, or something (cue uncomfortable laughter), but I just don’t have the ability to make those distinctions anymore.

So to sum up: the Scorpions were an unspectacular but highly competent German hair metal band who were ultimately not best served by their poppy, MTV-friendly public image.

p.s. if you held a gun to my head, w/ or w/out occasional music, I would say fantasy

17 comments on “So Do You Write Fantasy or Literary Fiction or Oh God What Does That Even Mean

  1. M says:

    at my local bookstore, you are in literature

  2. Leigh Ann H. says:

    I really appreciate you writing about this. As someone who talks a lot with people about writers and writing, and particularly about Hugo nominations, Hugo voting, Hugo gossip, I inevitably get involved in discussions about what genre writers “think they are.” I think you probably know that what I’ll call genre fandom is fairly suspicious of “mainstream” writers publishing in their genre. At conventions like Worldcon, you can often find me ’round about 2 AM pouring drinks in the Fanzine Lounge and arguing that Margaret Atwood is not a heretic for not self-defining as a science fiction writer. I believe that a book should stand on its own merits; a book shouldn’t be denied recognition as a great work just because the writer doesn’t self-define as of the genre, or of genre fandom.

    So now we have Michael Chabon being lumped in with Atwood as “not really one of us.” I think that genre-defying fiction is the future, the good stuff — but I know many many genre fans who are firmly against that flavor of fiction and the writers producing it. I see the same sort of thing in dealing with issues of gender identity, so I’m getting used to it.

    I would encourage you to hold onto your writing identity as your own, but be gentle with the genre fans, who sometimes have problems trusting in the “us-ness” of genre-defying writers.

    PS: And the shoutout for JS & Mr. N makes me so happy I could squeal like a little girl. Loved it, though probably not as much as The Magicians. 😉

  3. don’t limit yourself. i’m quite enjoying your non-fiction. great read.

  4. In my family, at the dinner table, we told fart jokes. Whoever made Dad laugh hardest won. Oh, I’m sorry. Aren’t we sharing?

  5. Leverus says:

    You should feel free to tell a fart joke here. In fact I encourage it. Maybe I’ll make it mandatory.

  6. Leverus says:

    @Leigh Ann H. There’s definitely some clannishness, on both sides, but I get the feeling fandom is actually more accepting of writers going from literary –> genre than ‘literary’ readers are of genre writers crossing over the other way. After all they gave Chabon a Hugo. And a Nebula I think.

    Maybe I’m wrong. I heart fandom — I was at Worldcon last year — but I never know whether I’m accepted or not. Maybe I just shouldn’t worry about it.

  7. KatG says:

    Glad that you realized the wall wasn’t there. This post explains a lot about you, so thanks for sharing it. As for whether you are accepted or not in SFF fandom, yes, you are. Think of it as sort of being a facilitator for unified Germany. 🙂

  8. Susan Weinstein says:

    Hi, as a long-time book pr person, writer and fan of Magicians (I sent you early rave review from my book blog)I always liked the difficult and somewhat silly term speculative fiction. Anyway, look on the sequel. I just had a “speculative” novella published or is that science fiction?

  9. Susan Weinstein says:

    Pardon typo–it’s luck on sequel! Speaking of this genre bending, did you ever read Card’s “Seventh Son” Alvin Maker series?

  10. PaulWoodlin says:

    I don’t think SF/F fans resent literary writers writing SF/F, I think the fans resent literary writers writing SF/F and denying that it is SF/F, as if they are too good for us. At least, that describes the fans I know and myself.

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  13. Katia Lief says:

    Today I sat down and started writing (yet another)thriller, wrote a few pages, and then asked myself, “Why do I write commercial fiction?” I decided to ask The Google…and the first thing that popped up was this blog. Love it. Then I noticed that you live in Brooklyn (as do I) and then that you seem to have had a baby today! Congratulations! That’s mostly what I came here to say. Raising children in Brooklyn, and writing fiction, are good things. Boy or girl, mean or nice, smart or not-so, literary or commercial…doesn’t matter. It’s about whether the baby can wiggle its toes 😉 And just wait for that first illuminating smile…and a new book with your name on it…and a damp chubby hand on your face…and a check from your publisher that will feed the mysterious yet perfect baby you cuddle with in the middle of the night.


    Can’t wait to read The Magicians.

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