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Literature vs. Genre, part MCXVIIII - Elf M. Sternberg
Literature vs. Genre, part MCXVIIII
I believe I've mentioned one of my writing teachers, Janet Burroway, here before. She has what I consider one of the best textbooks on writing fiction, the book titled simply, Writing Fiction. It is a great workingman's book, filled with good advice about characterization, concretization, and filtering. I'd forgotten the section on filtering; I'll have to go back and review any current efforts and ensure I'm not filtering my characters too much.

Filtering is when you use the word 'noticed' in a third-person context, e.g.
As Janet lay down on the grass, she noticed a cat lying on the brick wall of the park.
A punchier version would read:
Janet lay down in the cool grass. A cat lay on the park's red brink wall near her, its whiskers twitching with unexpected dreams.
In both versions, the writer is attempting to establish a relationship with the reader from somewhere inside Janet's point of view. In the first one, however, there's a microfracture where for a second we are inside the narrator's head as he tells us about what's going on inside Janet. It's no longer Janet's point of view. In the second the writer maintains (at least should be able to maintain) the notion that all the important events throughout the scene are within the sweep of Janet's senses.

My only problem with the filtering issue comes from queries. A bit of a forced example:
The cat's forepaw had seven toes. That's very odd, isn't it?
I prefer:
The cat's forepaw had seven toes, which Janet thought was very odd.
I'm not trying to get nouvea roman on the readers, but I haven't yet clearly settled how to communicate a character's emotions without telling you about them. (And yes, I just totally mangled the modes of address there. Deal.)

Okay, the aside aside, Burroway annoys me with this trite line in her section on genres:
Many-- perhaps most-- teachers of fiction writing do not accept manuscripts in genre, and I believe there's good reason for this, which is that whereas writing literary fiction can teach you how to write good genre fiction, writing genre fiction does not teach you how to write good literary fiction-- does not, in effect, teach you "how to write," by which I mean how to be original and meaningful in words. Further, dealing in the conventions and hackneyed phrases of romance, horror, fantasy, and so forth can operate as a form of personal denial, using writing as a means of avoiding rather than uncovering your real concerns.
Earlier in the same chapter she praises Ursula LeGuin, PK Dick, and William Gibson, so she has to be aware that these are writers who write "literary" novels in the genre scope.

This annoys me more than usual because while I don't consider myself as a "literary" writer, I do try to put a lot of effort into my characters and into the more ordinary questions we face as the rising tide of technology continues to surge all around us. It's especially galling this week after Slate's Ruth Franklin wrote, "Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it." Ursula K. LeGuin's hearty 'fuck you' to Franklin is funny and biting and reminds us that the "literary" novel has become a genre with conventions all its own.

(Michael Chabon is a writer who, like many of us, has come to loathe the plotless violin-moment short stories that fill the pages of The New Yorker. Although his first works are contemporary and not fantasy or SF, he has worked hard to write good genre fiction, with mixed results, but his mere interest in SF, fantasy, and alternative history utterly dismays his peers. He's also kinda cute.)

I think Burroway's simply wrong about this. What she's really saying is that if you take away the trappings of genre, you're forced to write about characters... which may be true, but it's also a bit like saying that writing exercises are more like spinach than they are cake. Burroway's message is that writing isn't fun.

But writing is fun. It's fun the way mountain biking is fun: it's full of scrapes and falls and potential skull-cracking moments, and if I don't come home with at least one blood-soaked sock I obviously didn't ride hard enough, but it's still a whole lot of fun.

To dismiss genre as a kind of writing that doesn't "teach good writing" is to discourage those of us who grew up with genre and who find it the comforting setting in which to "uncover our real concerns." I have real concerns about how and if we will survive the era when machine intelligence rivals or surpasses our own; I have real concerns about how we will treat, and be treated by, our own technology; I have real concerns about what it means to be human in an era of dividuality, cryogenics, substrate independence, ubiquitous panopticons voluntary and otherwise.

Burroway's own examples are compelling: her book is full of short stories (by many authors) about families coming unglued, daughters learning to respect their elders, and soldiers losing their souls in the grasslands of Vietnam. The Vietnam piece, "The Things They Carried," is especially powerful with its rhythmic lists of weapons and momentos, medical kits and letters from home, feelings and emotions, lists crafted with iambic pentameter and unrhymed sonnet-like lengths. The Vietnam story has currency: it's about a time and a place in history. The others aren't. I asked myself as I read them, "Is there a time and place in the Pendorverse where this story could betold and make sense?" Of course there was.

Current Mood: annoyed annoyed
Current Music: Porcupine Tree, Mellotron Scratch

4 comments or Leave a comment
intrepid_reason From: intrepid_reason Date: July 13th, 2007 05:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
"Ursula K. LeGuin's hearty 'fuck you' to Franklin is funny and biting and reminds us that the "literary" novel has become a genre with conventions all its own."

This was hilarious, I burst out laughing, right as my director walked by my office.
davidlevine From: davidlevine Date: July 13th, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
Having established that we're in Janet's head with the previous sentence "Janet lay down in the cool grass," you can say "The cat's forepaw had seven toes, which was odd" (or "seemed odd" if you prefer a stronger verb). This puts the reader in the position of "being" Janet without that narrative microfracture.
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