Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Why The Divide In Writing Culture Bugs Me

This is copyright Marvel comics, was drawn by Al Milgrom and written by Jim Shooter and was taken from Secret Wars II which was terrible in that awe-inspiring genuinely entertaining fashion that is so much rarer than actual quality.

Desiccated, right?

For about a year now, I've been reading blog posts and articles by literary writers on genre fiction and genre writers on literary fiction. These works are inevitably rooted in envy of sales on one hand and respect from the literary establishment on the other.

There are a lot of them. Try doing a search on any variation on the theme of 'genre vs. literary.' Regardless of the personal and professional virtues of the writers who produce them, they are all creepy, gross, defensive, disingenuous, and irritating as fuck.

I've been trying to write about this for some time, and yesterday I said, "Fuck it, I'm never going to nail down a coherent statement on this subject. I may as well just lance the boil, squirt a little pus, and be on my way."

The result was creepy, gross, defensive, disingenuous, and irritating as fuck.

It was also one the most widely-viewed post I've put up since I mocked Ken Ham. Nick Mamatas was the one who first pointed me in the direction of this little cultural divide, so I sent him a tweet blaming him for the post. He put it up on his blog, and lo! they came.

So now I feel as if I have to explain what I was actually saying rather than simply venting. Thanks oodles, Nick. I wonder if this will be consigned to the same dustbin containing all my other attempts at the subject...

So now let me be creepy, gross, defensive, disingenuous, and irritating as fuck in a way that conveys something.

These days, most fiction is produced by people who have been trained in one of two ways -- academia and the workshop and convention circuit. This is the actual divide between literary and genre fiction.

I've done some of both. I'm not the only one. But usually, people wind up falling fairly clearly into one camp or another. My experience has been that I'm literary to genre people, and genre to literary people.

This is uncomfortable. It makes me nervous.

And to see the stupid crap that people are posting makes me wonder if I might not be doing exactly the wrong things with my writing, at least so far as acquiring an audience goes.

Here's the thing -- the division between  academic and genre writing education is damaging American letters. The conflict may be described in brief as, "Story is everything," which sometimes degrades to, "Anything but story is bad," versus, "Story is nothing," or, in a spirit more generous to if contemptuous of the reader, "Story is a regrettable necessity."

(That last one generates a lot of sleepy in the middle brow.)

These statements give me the fucking hives. Readers are perfectly capable of enjoying a work based on its prose, its contents, or any number of reasons other than story. Nonfiction outsells fiction by a radical margin, story freaks. But to dismiss story is to dismiss the most natural, elegant, and effective means of composing a work of fiction that there's ever been. What kind of idiot would do that?

("I'm not interested in story," or, "If there isn't a story in it, I can't read it," are both perfectly reasonable statements, though.)

What has had a more unfortunate effect is the systematization of training. While it's a mistake to say that writing can't be taught, what we are seeing is a couple of generations of writing that has more to do with classrooms and workshops than with life as lived. People think, "I'll be a writer," and then they get their training, and then they start reeling out the manuscripts. A lot of writers have one good book in them, and a lot of them go on to have careers.

There really are a lot of good books out there. I am not denying it. I'm not complaining about a lack of good books. I'm complaining about a lack of exciting books. Great books. Books that provoke arguments, books that people make you read. Books fit to place on a shelf next to the classics.

What I think I'm really missing these days is not so much the quality of the writing as a certain expansiveness both in fiction and in the persons of the writers themselves, and I think part of the problem is that the cultural role of the writer as hero has vanished. I had an exchange with a pal the other day, and we agreed that John Irving was the last culturally big writer.


Fiction itself has a more trivial role in the world than it did when I was growing up, and this process of diminution has been going on since the introduction of radio.

Maybe it's not the writing that's bugging me. Maybe it's the way the world works, and I'm just all hopped up on it because I'm entering the market and I wish I could entertain more spectacular fantasies for myself.

Honestly, it's time to reel in my notions of what writing is and should be, and accept that fiction is a marginal occupation, a marginal pursuit, and that to suggest that writers have some kind of significant role as custodians of our cultural dreams is arrogant and ludicrous.

But still, this low-level background chatter of lit versus genre just irks me. Part of it is that everyone who's complaining? Seems to me they are experiencing appropriate sales and critical regard, and that makes me wonder if maybe my judgment is off, and that makes me nervous. I'm taking it way too personally. I should probably get a hobby, like lawn bowling or something.

Or maybe I should just stop clicking the links on Nick's site and Googling 'Genre vs. Literature.'

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