Tuesday, August 02, 2011
A genre writer accepts himself by Will Lavender
A genre writer accepts himself
How one novelist with literary ambitions learned to stop worrying and love the thriller
BY WILL LAVENDER
I used to think genre fiction was for the slow-minded. Page turners, potboilers, pulp -- none of that interested me. That was for folks who liked their novels rubber-banded and soft-backed, who finished two books a year and read everything aloud.
There is a war against popularity in many MFA programs in America, and in my 20s, I was on the front lines. I wrote literary fiction, the only work serious and relevant enough to be worth my time. I cut my blue jeans off at the knees and called everything ironic. I read John Banville's "The Sea" by an actual sea. I wrote the kinds of hard-bitten, muscular novelettes young men are supposed to become famous for writing.
For a short time I morphed into John Ashbery; at 25, I was sort of a Michael Chabon lite. All the while I was tunneling outward across the sediment of recent American letters, digging hard for something worthwhile to say in my own stale fiction. Being original -- or even, God forbid, honest -- didn't interest me in the least. Instead I tried on disguises, trying to cobble my fiction together out of different styles and contexts. Words like "urgency" and "vitality" were my catchphrases.
I flailed, hilariously, to be sure my writing could not be confused with mere entertainment. I went through an experimental phase; I grew the requisite chin beard. I wrote text upside down, scribbled counterpoint in the margins. Every story I wrote contained footnotes. I was like John Gardner's Grendel: forever posturing, transforming the world with words but changing nothing.
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Seems like he's still got the chin-beard, Ed. This guy is just taking the opportunity to spruik his new book. It seems he's adopted yet another cliched pose: the former literary type who is now defiantly in the gutter with the pulps. Is this really still an issue in 2011?
Good writing is good writing and any serious reader figures that out soon enough. I don't think the old prejudice against genre writers is really still that prevalent. Good genre writers get plenty of respect, even in academia.
I’m in an MFA program now and was very pleased to see how many of the teachers there were very familiar with some of my favorite “genre” writers (had actually read them). I’m there attempting something non-crime (I won’t call it literary except by mistake) and have no idea if what I finish will ever be publishable (probably not), but I’m enjoying the process because of all the writers I haven’t read in the past I’m getting to read through assignments and recommendations. A few certainly walk the fine line between genre and that other type, but so it goes. I’m also there as a career change. I hope to teach someday. Having lost my job(s) to outsourcing, there isn’t much left for a 55 year old curmudgeon ... I’m too cranky to drive a cab, but I would enjoy teaching writing some day (if I can find a job), especially since I owe my ass to a creative writing teacher in North Dakota who introduced me to George V. Higgins (an author who hated being called a “crime writer”). Higgins’ is one of the names my teachers in the MFA program knew well and had read. Personally, I find the non-crime stuff much harder to write (for myself) ... but I’m experimenting with styles I’m not used to (first person, for one thing). I tend to read more non-crime than crime, but some of the crime I’ve read, especially over the last few years, was more than just “good writing” ... it was often as good if not better than most of what I read in the non-crime “genre”(?). (Whitmer’s Pike, Kostoff’s Late Rain, Harris’ The Chieu Hoi Saloon (and pretty much anything Scott Wolven pens). That said, there have been a few writers I learned about through the program who have knocked my socks off; both non-crime.
I think Matthew nailed it: Good writing is good writing.
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