Let Me Digress

Kathryn Hore - Writer

Category: Unsolicited opinion (page 1 of 19)

Spoiler Alert

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that my social media feeds include a lot of nerdy geeky types. You know, considering I’m one of that particular SFF loving, comic-book reading, pop-culture enjoying, fandom participating, fanfiction obsessing, book nerd crew.

And in case you didn’t notice, the world of geeky fandom has kind of blown up over the last week with the release of the latest Marvel superhero flick which kind of, well –

SPOILER ALERT

– kills everyone in the entire history of the MCU, as last as far as I can tell.

Or not. I haven’t actually seen it as yet. With two kids under 6, a full time info governance career, my own writing pursuits and the usual domestic/life/family things to be done, I don’t get to the movies so much anymore. I’m the type of person who has to schedule in downtime – I’m serious here, 3-4 nights a week between 9.45-10.30pm I have literally calendared “do nothing but stare at a screen playing mindless entertainment”. It’s probably not a good sign when you start scheduling relaxation into your calendar. It’s undoubtedly worse when you regularly skip it to get work done.

Personal life-choices aside, I will eventually get to see the latest Avengers flick in which everyone dies – spoiler alert? – but it won’t be until it turns up on a streaming or download service of some kind, so we’re talking some while away yet.

In the meantime, my social media feeds are filled with friends and acquaintances and those weird randoms I must’ve followed for some reason once, but can’t remember now who they are or why I wanted their trivia in my feed, and who are all currently posting exactly the same thing:

Just seen the Avengers – OMG! NO SPOILERS! DON’T READ ANY SPOILERS!

Because apparently it’s no longer merely a sin to spoil plot twists in pop cultural products for other people, but it’s now some kind of geek-fandom sin to just spoil it for yourself.

Hmmm.

So for all you MCU lovers, and for all you lovers of cinema in general – and books and any other story-telling medium – who like to go in fresh and unspoiled, I wanted to tell you something. Know what I did? Deliberately did within barely a few hours of the latest Avengers flick hitting the worldwide cinemas?

I googled “Infinity War spoilers” and ventured out to the internet to read every damn spoiler for the movie I could lay my hands on.

See, I love a good spoiler. I often enjoy a movie more if I go in prepared for what I’m about to see. Perhaps that’s because I like to think about the pop culture I’m consuming within its broader cultural context – blame that old cultural studies honours year of mine back in the “yay postmodernism!” 90s – or maybe it’s just because I don’t have time to waste on something that doesn’t pay out, so I want to know in advance it’s worth it. But I certainly like to go in knowing what’s going to happen.

It can be a useful thing to be happy with spoilers. I’m one of those Australians who loves Game of Thrones but who’s not prepared to give Bad Old Uncle Murdoch a single red-cent, so I won’t subscribe to his pay TV channel to see it fresh. Instead, I wait until the season ends and buy it to download, after everyone else has already watched it. But as the season plays for the first time I do read all the recaps of each episode and follow what’s happening as it happens. I’m full up with spoilers by the time I get to actually watching it for myself.

And I’ll let you into a wee secret: not once in my entire history of seeking out spoilers have I ever experienced a moment of consuming pop culture where I felt I had a lesser viewing, reading or entertainment experience for knowing what was going to happen. I enjoy it all as equally as if I’d gone in blind. Every second of it. Indeed, I’d argue I enjoy it more.

Maybe it’s just me. Going by the reams of internet “no spoilers!” obsessives cluttering up my feeds at the moment, I’m pretty certain I’m in a minority on this.

As I’m of a generation which grew up without the internet – I didn’t get my first email address until I was a post-graduate student, that’s how old I am – there are movies I have seen where I went in entirely unspoiled, and I’ve tried to recall if it made a difference. I guessed the twist to The Sixth Sense while watching it (I’m a huge fan of ghost stories and the “he’s actually dead the whole time” twist appears in several major ghost tales, so I was actively on the lookout for it), but I loved that film regardless. I grew up watching The Sting, so can’t remember a time when I didn’t know all the twists and turns of that one.

I didn’t know or foresee the twist at the end of The Usual Suspects, and I adore that film, but would I really have loved it any less for knowing? I’ve watched it, just as I have the others above, multiple times since first seeing it, and I love it the same on each repeated viewing.

So does it really spoil anything to know the twist, or plot points, or who dies in advance? I’d argue not.

Now, I’ve been talking mostly about movies here, with a bit of TV thrown in. But when it comes to books, I don’t seek out the spoilers so actively. Someone’s suggested to me in the past that perhaps I don’t invest as much in movies as I do in books, so I’m still going in unspoiled when my fiction is prose and written down on the page. But I’d argue it’s actually because I don’t read that many modern books, especially ones that rely on twists or unexpected plot points. It also takes me longer to commit to a novel than it does to a TV show or film, so I’m not as emotionally engaged when I start a novel and it’s not until I’m well into it that I’ll be interested in finding out spoilers. I also love to re-read novels, and read classic novels, that I already know intimately, so for much of my reading I’m long spoiled already.

So did I really enjoy The Count of Monte Cristo the less for knowing who was behind all those masks and schemes right up front, simply because the book is over 170 years old? (Though I did see a Spoiler Alert posted for it in an online forum once. Seriously people, I think a book dating to the 19th century is probably beyond the spoiler alert requirement.) Do I somehow have less of a reading experience as a twenty-first century reader for knowing ahead of time that Wickham is a cad in Pride and Prejudice, long before Lizzy realises? For knowing that dissolute Sydney Carton gives up his life in heroic sacrifice so Charles and Lucie can be together in A Tale of Two Cities? For knowing that Gatsby dies well before the end?

I’ve never gone into most books fresh and unspoiled. I go in knowing their plots well in advance and loving them for it. And I don’t see how that enjoyment changes just because I’m reading a modern works or watching new films, or TV, or other stories regardless of medium, where it’s technically possible to be unspoiled. I still like to know what I’m in for.

So I’ll say it, loud and proud – I love a good spoiler.

Still, one thoughtful anecdote, to end…

Many years ago, I was going out with a chap who’d grown up loathing Shakespeare. No, I don’t understand it either, and its probably unsurprising our relationship didn’t last the distance, but the fact is he’d actively avoided having anything to do with Shakespeare-related stuff all his life. Until he went out with me and I dragged him to the theatre on a regular basis. For his 30th birthday I took him to see a production of Hamlet. And because of the way he’d grown up, he had no idea what it was about. Not a single clue of any character, plot point or thematic emphasis at all. At the age of 30, this chap was watching Hamlet for the very first time and went in totally cold and unspoiled, if also cynical about the likelihood of enjoyment of it.

I have never in my life seen anyone grip the arms of their chair the way that chap did through the climax of Hamlet. He cried at the death of Ophelia. When Hamlet and Laetres are fighting, and Gertrude picks up the poisoned drink, he literally burst out loud to say “oh god, no, don’t”. This guy was the literal personification of “edge of the seat”. The sheer tension and terror he experienced watching it – and it probably helped it was a very fine production with excellent acting and direction – was amazing for me to witness sitting next to him, and the chance to watch something like Hamlet fresh, without any prior cultural knowledge, as an adult, is an experience I don’t think many in our society have.

So maybe there is something in avoiding spoilers after all.

It still won’t stop me seeking them out at every given opportunity….

Why hello there, 2018

This writing lark is a fickle business. I fizzled out on NaNoWriMo 2017 because my heart was with a different project and I just couldn’t devote the thinking time to the NaNo one, let alone the writing time to it.

Then December hits, I play around late one night with an old manuscript idea from a few years back because I’m too tired to do anything serious, kind of figure out where the scene was going, and…

…next thing I know, I’ve written 65k words on a new project in five weeks.

Bad first draft words, obviously. Not good words, not by any stretch. And I’m still not quite finished the story yet, so I’m ploughing on until I do, get a full Draft Zero down on the page to kick of 2018. It’s a nice way to start the year, if entirely unplanned, because frankly the last thing I need is yet another long-form writing project to think about.

But hey, whatever works.

It has made me revise my 2018 working plan, though. So, here’s my current whiteboard:

Yeah, I know, the image is a bit unclear, but that’s deliberate. There’s a few scribbled notes on there that are my thinking/planing I wanted to have blurred out for the rest of the world. But to give you a thrust of the main bits, these are my writing goals for 2018:

Long Form projects –

  1. Continue querying/subbing the completed MS (a.k.a. The Cards One), trying to find a nice publishing home for it. This will take as long as it takes.
  2. Finish Draft Zero of new project (a.k.a. The Thief One), however bad the words, just get it down on the page and then let it sit and percolate untouched for a while. D0 to be completed before the end of Jan.
  3. Finish editing/redrafting to Draft 2~3 of the current WIP (a.k.a. The City One), getting it to the point where I can seek professional feedback/structural editing feedback so as to identify where to focus efforts on the next draft after that – work on it through Feb/March, and maybe another cut in July/Aug, depending on time taken for other projects.
  4. Edit/redraft/polish the Novella (a.k.a. The Library One) that was originally drafted in 2016-2017, and submit it to an already identified novella market in Sep/Oct. Work to begin in March(ish), after Project 3 editing round 1 is done.
  5. Either – 5(a) redraft The Thief One to a coherent, sensible, readable-by-others Draft One which can be shown to peers for feedback, or 5(b) work on redrafting of The City One after professional feedback received – timing entirely depends on the other projects above
  6. Bonus Project #1: if there’s time, finish Draft Zero of a full length manuscript version of a novella written 5~6 years ago (a.k.a. The Western One)
  7. Bonus Project #2: start thinking about the other contemporary story that’s been kicking about in my head for a while (a.k.a. The Wedding One) for possible initial drafting in 2019

Will I get time to do all of the above? No fucking way, folks. But I think I will get through a good chunk. I’ll finish this Draft Zero of The Thief One I’m on a current roll with. I’ll finish editing The City One and hopefully get it to a point where I can seek detailed professional feedback. And The Cards One, the completed manuscript, will continue to be sent out to the publishing & agenting world with fingers crossed throughout the year.

I really really really want to finish the Novella – The Library One – but I’m feeling a bit dodgy about the overall plot at the moment and it really needs some concerted thinking time attached. We’ll just have to see how that goes.

And none of this makes any room for short fiction, which I’ve been promising myself I’ll get back to writing more seriously soon, because while I have a couple of short stories lined up for publication in the next few months, and while I have a couple of others waiting to hear back from possible publications, I really want to be submitting more stories more often to more markets. Publishing short stories is a numbers game. You’ve just got to keep sending stuff out there.

But I’m a lover of novels at heart, reading them and writing them, and so short fic keeps getting pushed out the way. Ah well. I’ll try to squeeze some in through the year somewhere.

Right, that’s my year planned. Not counting my professional full time day job, being a mother to my two little kiddies, one of whom starts 3yo kinder this year and the other starts primary school, squeezing in exercise and trying to achieve some physical health goals, plus occasionally remembering to see my family every now and then.

So, you know, 2018 looks busy. Lucky I work best that way…

 

Ready for NaNoWriMo?

I am. Oh, I so am. Which means I’m so totally not, but I’m hyped for it anyway, because I love NaNoWriMo and will do it any year it can possibly be slotted into the work schedule.

I’ve no idea how I’ll manage it this year. I’m working full time, have two kids under 5 and a whole host of writing projects on the go. But there’s a novel I’ve been trying to knock off the first draft of for some months now and this is a good excuse to focus. I’ve 30k words already written, so if I can get 50k more in a month – and that’s a mighty big near impossible if – I figure I’ll pretty much have completed the thing. Bad first draft thing, anyway. Which is what NaNo is all about, really. Bad first drafts.

And I’ve said before just how much I love writing bad first drafts.

In terms of writing, 2017 for me has been about polishing up the final draft of the major WIP, gaining some professional editorial feedback, and starting to  shop it out to the world. I also wanted to get a few more short stories out there, which I’ve managed to do, with a couple of acceptances in the publishing queue for 2018. But those short stories were already drafted, and the full length manuscript is almost five years in the making, so it’s been a while since I was really focussed on writing new, new, new words onto the page.

Since I sat staring at that blank page waiting for me to fill it up, I mean.

So I’m hanging out for NaNo this year. There’s something entirely freeing about throwing words onto a page and not needing to worry about how good they are or it they’ll make sense to anybody other than myself. Stephen King, in his oft-quoted memoir/book of writing advice, On Writing, talks of the first draft being a ‘closed door’ draft. It’s just for him. The redrafting process is about opening the door, turning that bad first draft into something readable by other people, but initially, no-one else is allowed in the metaphoric room. Screenwriters I know call it the vomit draft. The best writing advice I ever received from a creative writing teacher was to allow myself to write badly.

Even this year’s Nobel winner, Kazuko Ishiguro, went the bad first draft route with his most celebrated work, Remains of the Day. Four weeks of focused, obsessive, putting words onto the page. “…and at the end of it I had more or less the entire novel down: though of course a lot more time would be required to write it all up properly, the vital imaginative breakthroughs had all come…”

So there you go. Maybe it wasn’t officially NaNoWriMo, but it was effectively the same process. And Ishiguro scored a Nobel for his efforts.

This will be the third time I’ve attempted it. The first, I got to about 45k and was well on track, when a publisher asked me to submit something and I had to switch gears right at the end of the month. The second time, I got the 50k and then some, yay, and now I’m just going back to that manuscript and pulling it together into something interesting. I’m thinking I might even redraft and refine that one further.

Third time lucky. I have less time this year and I can in no way imagine managing to write a full 50k, but I’ll give it a damn good go. And after a year of editing and revising and redrafting and submitting, I’m looking forward to going back to a bad first draft for a few weeks, writing just to please me.

So if you’re doing it to, come buddy up – here’s me: https://nanowrimo.org/participants/kahmelb

And after NaNo, I’ll be refreshed and ready to get back into the actual hard work once of redrafts and edits and rewriting for an audience of other people.

So. The female Dr Who thing.

I have opinions on the new Dr Who announcement, specifically on the Dr being a chick, and just because I haven’t watched the show for some years doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to shout my opinions into the cyber-void like the rest of the geek-minded world.

So, here goes. As a feminist and as a proud geek, I have only one thing to say: I don’t give a fuck whether the new Dr Who regenerates as a man or as a woman.

As a storyteller, however, I think Jodie Whittaker’s casting is just fab. 🙂

Let’s just stop and dissect that a little:

As a feminist, I don’t give a fuck

This might seem a little counter-intuitive, but the fact is, hiring a woman as the lead in a long-running television show is not actually going to advance the cause of feminism in any meaningful way. No, seriously. Nobody is going to earn equal pay, break through any glass ceilings, gain respect for unpaid, domestic or caring vocational callings, or suffer less from systematic, structural gendered inequalities, simply because Dr Who now possesses a vag.

And yes, I know, I know, “representation matters”. Sure. It’s nice. We all like it. I just don’t actually think it matters that much. I grew up watching Ripley, Sarah Conner, Buffy, even Leia held her own, despite being like the only woman in the entire damn galaxy.

I don’t think these fictional characters taught me women could kick-arse. I already knew women could kick arse. But I loved seeing it on the screen, I loved seeing me – or an idealised, wannabe, fantasy me, because let’s face it, I was never going to fight terminators or vampires or aliens in reality and if I did, I wouldn’t be the one still standing at the end of the night.

I am really happy there’s another awesome strong female lead on the tele for today’s young girls to watch and cheer for. Woohoo, cool, you go girls. I just don’t think that makes much of a difference when it comes to breaking down the systematic and structural gendered inequalities inherent in our culture, politics and economics.

As a proud geek, I don’t give a fuck

As a geek, all I want is to see someone awesome in the role of the Doctor. Peter Capaldi was perfect. And Jodi Whittaker looks like she’ll be awesome too. Excellent. I think they chose well. But as a geek, I didn’t care right, left or centre if they hired male or female or beyond the binary for the role. There were some excellent male possibilities who, as a geek, I would’ve been quite happy to see in the role of the Doctor. That’s all I have to say on that matter.

As a storyteller, the Dr being a woman is the Best. Thing. Ever.

But as a storyteller now, making Dr Who a woman is a wonderful, long-overdue, awesome move that I am cheering to see.

It’s like this: any fictional character who’s physical presence is not in any way inherent or permanent, does not need to be bound by binary gender concepts, and should absolutely not be tied down to a single gender type. And considering the Doctor’s personality has altered with every regeneration, so his character changes every time, there is absolutely no storytelling reason for the Doctor not to be a woman.

But more – not only does it make storytelling sense for the Doctor to be a woman in some regenerations, by not having a female Doctor at least once or twice in the show’s history, a huge storytelling opportunity is missed.

Why do we tell stories? Why do we consume (watch/read/listen) to them? One of the reasons must be to explore, who we are, individually, collectively, and what makes us so, internally, also externally, our broader context and our self. Subjectivity and objectivity. All that jazz. A character like the Doctor, who is not tied to a specific physical presence, who regenerates into someone new every few years, offers immense scope to explore and investigate such concepts. Indeed, every time the Doctor regenerated back when I watched it, there was always a sense of discovering who this new Doctor was, and him working this out through his interactions with others. It’ll be interesting to see how this is influenced by the change in gender.

It made me think of Richard Morgan‘s Takeshi Kovac’s series, of which I am a huge fan (far more so than I am a Dr Who fan, actually). In Kovac’s world, digitised personalities slip on and off ‘sleeves’ – physical bodies – with startling ease. Only once, in the first book, does he wear a female sleeve, and it’s a pretty brutal end to that physical presence, but I always thought Morgan did that switch in gender exceedingly well, and I always wished he’d have explored this more.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a criticism of that book series. I don’t think it was necessary for Morgan to go down that path and it wasn’t really the point of the books. He chose not to, no problemo. But for me personally, I would have found it interesting to explore Kovacs as a female. To explore, too, gender post the binary in a world where physical presence is fleeting and sexuality potentially fluid. It’s fleetingly touched on, when Kovacs pretends to be a hetero woman in a male sleeve, but he chooses not to go there in any major way. For me, that leaves a whole host of storytelling territory untouched that would have been fascinating.

Anyhoo, there’s no law that says an author must explore the storytelling territory I personally find interesting, and maybe that’s why I’m a writer, because I have interests and areas I want to explore in fiction, so I write the stuff myself. And I will always, *always* adore one of Morgan’s other books, Black Man, (Thirteen in the US) for it’s final few pages (well, for lots of reasons, but its ending too), when the hyper-masculine 13 meets a female 13 and is totally thrown to understand that his gender perhaps does not necessarily make much difference.

Anyway. I’ve digressed. Again.

In short, I love that the new Doctor is female, but not for the reasons you might think. Or maybe they are. Either way, I might just give it a watch again.

Or I might just go read Morgan’s books again.

Or maybe go write something of my own to explore issues of gender and sexuality when not tied to a single physical presence.

 

 

Game of Definitions

So I’ve begun 2017 by trying to define what I mean when I think “literary fiction”.

Well actually, I’ve begun 2017 by railing on social media against the state of modern global politics and sobbing into my coffee every time I open up the news media of a morning, but that aside, for the purposes of this site, let’s just say I’ve begun by considering definitions of otherwise ill-defined genres.

As must be obvious with barely a cursory glance at this site, I’ve got an interest in genre, genre theory, and the intersections of genres that might otherwise not be considered natural bond-mates. I’m particularly interested in the hierarchies of genre and cultural assumptions that go along with that, you know, what’s supposedly good, bad or a likely to turn up on the Bad Sex award nomination list. Plus, why they’re considered such, who gets to make such judgements (the cultural assumptions, I mean, not the literary bad sex awards) and why broad-based attitudes towards certain genres prevail.

It’s probably a hangover of my undergrad uni days back in the 90s, when the idea of the Dead White Male canon was being constantly critiqued in literary theory circles and there was me, a bright and innocent new undergrad, going totally wide-eyed and gaping at this thing called Deconstruction. Wow. Or maybe it’s just because reading genre has always been my first passion and even when I pick up something undoubtedly literary, it’s for reasons usually more associated with genre reading – the plot sounds good, the story is interesting, a couple of the characters seem pretty badass. Not because it’s been critically acclaimed as a fine piece of high quality literary writing, because frankly nothing sounds more dull than a book that has fine prose but bugger all else to recommend it. You’ve got to do something with all that quality writing on the line. Make it count with some equally quality story, you know?

So. Anyway. All that said, where was my point again? I think I dropped it down the back of the couch, or perhaps lost it amid three billion angry-crying political retweets that currently suffices as my twitter feed.

Literary fiction: define. Sounds like a VCE English exam question, but I was starting to put together a slab of text about fiction that crosses the literary-horror divide and realised that as much as I like to rabbit on about this stuff, I really don’t have that firm a working definition of ‘literary fiction’ as I perhaps should. So I did what any modern chick with an education and an established career in systematic research and information management does when faced with a point of personal ignorance: I googled it.

Turns out there’s a lot out there in the writing-commentary-o’sphere that don’t have a decent working definition of literary fiction either. At least going by the blogs I cyber-meandered around, I didn’t exactly get to the academic journals yet. But in my initial googling, I did find myself reading the same thing over and over again:

“Lit-Fic: it’s kind of hard to define exactly, but I know it when I see it.”

Yeah, sure you do, champ. And ain’t that just the problem?

I’ve argued many a time that quality – a subjective measure at the best of times – cannot work as a legitimate defining characteristic of literary fiction because it is simply not unique to literary fiction. Quality writing exists across all genres, from erotica to hard SciFi (or should that be the other way around?), from body horror to psychological thriller, from historical romance to swords-and-sorcery grand epic fantasy. I know there’s a contingent out there in the literary commentary world that like to tut-tut about the restraining, confining nature of genre fiction when quality writers try their hand at it (I’m looking at you, certain regular New Yorker contributors), but sorry, that’s basic prejudice from those who don’t actually read the stuff. Genre fiction is filled with writing of all qualities, from the truly exquisite and superb, to the pedestrian and mediocre, to the schlocky train-wreck, I-need-to-stop-reading-this-awful-tripe-but-can’t-look-away dreadful stuff.

What I mean is, no genre can be defined by quality or lack thereof, because there’s quality writing in all genres. There’s awful writing in all genres too. And yes, I do include Literary Fiction in that, so stop swooning and admit some LitFic is pretty damn trite at times.

Hmmm. I supposed I should give some examples. Genre fiction that is high quality. China Mieville, for starters. There’s not a genre he hasn’t ventured into so far, I don’t think. David Mitchell. Yes he bloody does write genre fic, thanks, what you think Slade House somehow wasn’t a haunted house story? Richard Price, for you crime lovers out there. Ann Leckie for some modern SciFi that examines broader questions of gender and humanity while giving us some really rip-roaring space-ship action. Or lets go back a bit in the day. Jane Austen. You don’t get to modern romance without her. Mary Shelley. Kicked off modern horror and modern scifi and the gothic. Charles Dickens. Loved to tell a good scary story, did Dickens. Ursula LeGuin. Gender and politics in space, I’ll always love her for that. Toni Morrison. Beloved was absolutely a horror novel in every way, all the more horrifying because the real horror came from what human beings did to each other, not the ghosts haunting the place. Talking of ghosts, Henry James. MR James. Or let’s get new age. Samuel R. Delany. Want some modernism with your science fiction? Hell, want some gay porn with your science fiction (and who doesn’t?), go read Delaney. Now try Octavia Butler. James Tiptree Jnr. Joanna Russ. Yeah, I’m heading into my early feminist reading lists now, so lets switch back a few centuries again. Victor Hugo. Notre Dame is a monster story, isn’t it? Alexandre Dumas. Matthew Lewis, because The Monk has some of the most gruesome body horror my undergraduate mind had ever encountered and it’s considered the height of the literary gothic. Christos Tsiolkas even. Dead Europe was a horror story, wasn’t it? Kazuo Ishiguro. Cixin Liu. Cormac McCarthy. Margo Lanagan. Shakespeare. Don’t forget him, now.

I could keep going, of course. These are just the books and authors that popped up on my kindle when I browsed it for examples. Some of these writers are unequivocally literary. Tony Morrison, for starters, is almost never described as a genre writer, she is firmly in the LitFic camp, even if Beloved is so obviously a horror story to those of us who study the genre of horror. Cormac McCarthy wrote one of the most recognised (and devastating) post-apocalyptic fictions of the last half century – The Road – and yet he’s considered a literary writer, not a speculative fiction one. Others are commonly placed more firmly in the genre camp; I’ve only ever seen Ann Leckie described as a science fiction writer, perhaps a Lit SciFi writer, or a feminist SciFi writer, but still, she’s science fiction all over. But every writer I mention, and a million more that keep popping into my head, have all written books or stories that can very firmly be placed in well-defined genre categories. And they are all fine, fine writers.

Yet when it comes to some of the older ones, Hugo, Dumas, Lewis, even Austen or Dickens, I’m never actually sure whether they count as Literary Fiction. Literature, yes. One of the commonly accepted defining characteristics of capital-L Literature is that it has “stood the test of time”, and these guys are old, right? Hugo, Dumas, Austen, Dickens and their ilk, they’ve all been remembered, are studied, are considered classics by virtue of their age (but not only due to their age, I should hope). Hundreds of years after they were written we read and admire them still. Yet all of them were writing popular fiction in their day. All of them were writing commercial fiction in their day.

While we have no idea whether today’s LitFic will be remembered in a hundred, two hundred, four hundred years’ time. I rather suspect a good chunk of it won’t. What will be remembered might be… well, we don’t know. That’s the point. Though it does beg the question of just how much cultural production has been lost to time, fine achievements of great worth that simply didn’t hit the right cultural note at the right moment, that didn’t get seen by the right set of eyes to find its way onto a curriculum or into the review pages of a broadsheet, or onto some political banned list somewhere.

And sure, you could say that’s just what happens, not everything gets remembered. But that eclipses the arguments about who gets remembered and why, and whether marginalised voices get appropriate representation or instead it’s only the dominant hegemony which prevails and…

And that’s a whole other essay. One I probably wrote as a baby third year sometime around 1995. You know, Dead White Male canon and all that stuff.

Anyway, longevity only works as a defining characteristic when something’s already been around long enough to prove it’s going to be remembered. Like that Shakespeare fellow. It doesn’t help with defining Literary Fiction right now, or even if there is any connection between “Literature” and modern Literary Fiction. Because I’m conflating two separate categories there, aren’t I? Which is what happens when you start looking too closely at genre. On the one hand, genre is a marketing tool, basic general categories that help bookshops figure out how to arrange their shelving. That give us ways of searching for books online. On the other hand, genre is a way to interpret meaning within a morphing cultural-historical context, and that’s quite a different beast in comparison to deciding where to stick the latest David Mitchell when stocking the bookshelves.

Which means any attempt to define Literary Fiction in negatives – LitFic is not genre fic and that’s its primary definition – get complicated up by the fact that defining hard boundaries for any genre is problematic. So is Frankenstein science fiction, or horror, or gothic fiction, or literature? Is Jane Eyre romance, or gothic fiction, or women’s drama, or social commentary, or a pseudo-erotic fantasy that couldn’t get any sexier if it had actual nude scenes?

(Seriously, people. Go read Jane Eyre with your adult eyes on. Charlotte Bronte would be writing the best slash fic on AO3 if she were around today and I will always love her for it.)

I’m getting off point, so let’s just steer back a bit. Literary Fiction. Let’s recap: we can’t define it by measures of quality, because quality occurs across all genres. You could perhaps argue that quality writing is more consistent in LitFic, while other genres contain a greater percentage of works that are just, well, crap, and I might even buy that argument, but it’s still not enough. LitFic is mostly good, genre fic is good in patches. It just feels like you’re stretching there, if we’re talking definitions.

And it can’t be defined by longevity, except for those books that actually have been around for aeons, and even then we have to ask why they were remembered while others, perhaps written by more marginalised voices, were not. It can’t even be defined by what it’s not, because understanding genre and the meaning derived from genre is not as straight forward even in stories that are filled with spaceships and set in a galaxy far, far away.

So what else? Purpose? Genre fiction is written with a specifically commercial intent, to sell as much as possible, while Literary Fiction somehow has higher aims? Maybe… not.

I’m sure LitFic authors would love to be best sellers. Some of them are. David Foster Wallace, anyone? (Oh and  Infinite Jest is a SpecFic novel too, in case you’d forgotten.) But we’re talking intent, so maybe LitFic authors don’t write with a commercial intent in mind, they write to create art or meaning or some such, and publishers publish them because they’re high quality works that deserve to be published, not necessarily because they’re going to sell lots.

Only as an emerging genre writer, the most common piece of advice out there is to write the story you want to tell, that has meaning for you, and not what you think will be popular, not what you think will sell. Stephen King – as successful a genre writer as they come, lets face it –in his very well received memoir/writing manual On Writing, describes in detail how the first draft is always between him and the page only. He writes it with only one audience in mind, himself, and no other. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen from many writers and one that applies very much to myself as well. Its only in the redrafting process that the first draft is turned into something readable by others, and then it’s all about craft, elaborating and emphasising story structure and character and theme and symbolism as needed.

What I’m saying is that genre writers don’t sit down to write with purely commercial intent any more than LitFic writers do.

Which brings me to one last point. The ‘E’ word: escapism.

One of the most common ways I’ve seen of distinguishing Genre fiction from Literary fiction is by the weight of its content. Literary fiction is somehow supposed to equal deep thinking, complex concerns, introspection, characters driven by internal concerns, journeys that are more metaphorical than actual. While genre fiction is all about great big space battles in the sky with laser beams and badass action.

To which I say only this:

Bollocks.

First things first. There is nothing freakin’ wrong with reading for a bit of escapism. What with global politics as it is today, I’m tempted to go lose myself in fictional worlds on a daily basis and the only thing keeping me from doing so is because resistance is necessary.

Secondly, there might be some escapism in Genre Fic, I’ve also little doubt there is in the LitFic world too. And if you think Literary Fiction has the monopoly on writing with serious concern, you’ve clearly not read much genre fiction.

You cannot tell me the great science fiction and speculative works on our collective genre fiction bookshelves are somehow not concerned with the great questions of life and humanity. You cannot tell me that genres like cyberpunk and trans-humanism aren’t actively engaging with what it means to be human in a world where technology has come to dominate all aspects of life, when that is the very thing that defines them as genres in the first place. That the big epic fantasy novels of war and struggle between nations aren’t actively considering notions of power-politics, classism and the intersection between church and state. That horror novels aren’t bothered with examining our base fears as primal emotions driving humanity. That historical romance novels don’t give a damn about what it means to be in love at certain points in our history where gender roles and sexuality are strictly ascribed.

These stories examine all such concepts, they just do it set in the future, or the past, or other worlds, or with monsters, and use those settings and the tropes of the genres they are situated within to comment upon our current, real-life present.

Or, what, we’ll just write all that off as “high concept” and head straight into that other common LitFic definition: it’s all about character, the small introspections, while GenreFic is only interested in big externalities? Like McCarthy’s The Road was not concerned with the external world and how that impacted character? Or Morrison’s Beloved didn’t have characters situated within a very specific, very big-picture external environment, that of slavery and its lingering influence.

Plot versus character. False dichotomies don’t come any falser. Character drives all fiction. The protagonist makes choices or behaves in ways as determined by his or her character. Those choices and behaviours drive the plot. Sometime the plot is big, huge, we’re saving the world, the spaceships are blowing up, the war is global. Sometimes the plot is small and internal, the need to rekindle hope inside ourselves against the setting of a ruined world, the importance of love and friendship even in lives fated to be short. Such plots can be found across genre fiction and literary fiction both.

The characters always drive the plot. Yes, sometimes the writer gets lazy, or isn’t particularly good, and starts forcing the character into decisions or situations because they want the plot to go a certain way, but that brings us back to questions of writing quality, not distinctions of genre definition.

So where does this bring us? Two and a half thousand words of me going on about the ways literary fiction is defined in contrast to genre fiction and exactly what conclusion can I come to? I still don’t have a decent working definition of LitFic, except maybe that it’s more consistently better quality than genre fic, and even that’s questionable at best. I still can’t articulate in a couple of sentences exactly what LitFic is in the same way I can define Science Fiction or Horror or Fantasy or Crime or Romance, and I’m just as aware that those apparently easy definitions of genres can be just as problematic, the borders and boundaries between them just as murky, once you start examining in more detail, with a socio-cultural-historical eye.

In short, I have no definitive answer. LitFic is just kind of hard to define. Though I’m pretty sure I know it when I see it.

 

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