Just been thinking about the kind of books that I want to write, and why I’m having so much trouble writing. Realized that part of the problem is with my skillset. Because of my background in genre fiction, I’m most used to books that have both an internal arc and an external arc. For instance, Dune‘s internal arc is about Paul growing up and coming into his power, while its external arc is about surviving and f***ing up the Emperor and the Harkonnen.
Although the internal arc is an integral part of the structure of most genre novels (i.e. Paul cannot defeat the Emperor until he’s grown up), it usually doesn’t take center stage. It’s the nature of genre fiction to spend most of its time on the external arc.
However, I’ve begun to find that the external arc interests me less and less. When I read a fight scene or a heist scene or a magic-casting scene, my eyes instantly glaze over. Like, what’s the point? What exactly is happening? Who cares how well someone shoots a fictional deathray at a fictional robot? What does that have to do with anything?
My problem, though, is that I’m still programmed to write books where the external arc takes center stage.
So far, I’ve managed to get around this through a series of shortcuts and dodges. Basically, I write books that’re full of knavery and manipulation (i.e. where the external arc is stuff that I can enjoy).
However, I’ve recently come up against the limits of that technique. I’ve embarked upon several stories in a row where there really is no good external arc. Stories where the internal arc really needs to be the main thing going on. And each time I start writing one of these stories, my characters eventually flail around, because I’m not quite sure how to dramatize their internal struggle.
Anyway, not sure about the solution to this, but now that I’ve diagnosed it, I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon enough.
Every time I write anything about the world of academic creative writing, people will post comments that are all like, “Yeah, right on, Rahul! Those guys only write awful books about old white male professors who want to fuck their students!* You need to stick it to all that boringness!”
Whereas, I’m like…ehh…that’s not really what I was talking about. What I object to with regards to the world of literary fiction is the careerism of it all. Being a literary writer is a profession: it has education requirements and career rungs and entry-level positions and all those other professional accouterments. And none of that really feels like it has anything to do with writing good fiction.
However, I do think that plenty of literary fiction is pretty good. For instance, I’ve enjoyed books by Aimee Bender, David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz, Meg Wolitzer, Michael Chabon, Claire Messud, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, T.C. Boyle, Adelle Waldman, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and plenty of other products of the MFA system. If you write a certain kind of fiction in the United States, then you’re probably going to end up getting an MFA. Most literary fiction is bad, of course, but I just don’t read the bad stuff.
And, on the other hand, it’s not like the genre shelves are chock-a-block with original and exciting work. If you went to Barnes and Noble and pulled a random volume off the shelf, it’d be pretty depressing. Most genre novels consist of an extremely tiny variation on some other successful novel: “Instead of making kids fight to the death in an arena, my book makes them have spellcasting duels to the death” or “Instead of being torn between a vampire boyfriend and a werewolf boyfriend, my protagonist is torn between a mermaid boyfriend and a wereshark boyfriend” or “Instead of having to fight against an evil, tyrannical empire of space-Communists, my heroic space-captain has to fight off a caliphate of space-Islamicists!”**
I mean, this stuff is hardly the promised land.
Also, if you don’t like literary fiction, then what are you saying? That you don’t like realist narratives that are about peoples’ ordinary lives? That seems odd. I feel like I shouldn’t even need to say this, but…there are things that realism can do that non-realism cannot do. And if you never read any realism, then you will never encounter those very awesome things. (For instance, no secondary-world setting is ever going to be as detailed or evocative as the Burma in Orwell’s Burmese Days, because secondary world settings always feel so…constructed. There’s nothing in a secondary world setting that doesn’t mean something.)
Actually, I’ve recently had a revelation with regards to genre fiction. About five years ago, I made a purposeful decision to mostly read non-SFF work. I reasoned that I was already very well-versed in the genre and that I needed to catch up with everything else. But I’ve always sort of wondered if I was maybe forcing myself to like literary fiction. I mean, I liked Proust, but isn’t it possible that I’d like the newest Neal Stephenson even more? In that case, my whole reading life would be a lie!
But then I read ten highly-acclaimed recently-published genre novels over the break over the Christmas break. And half of them were pretty mediocre. Of the ones that were good, only three (The Magicians, Drowning Girl, and Redemption In Indigo) really hit what I’d call my quality threshold: the minimum level of awesomeness that I am looking for in fiction.
Immediately after finishing this project, I started reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, which is super ‘literary’***: it’s a family epic about four sisters in 1930s Japan. And I’m liking it at least as much as I enjoyed any of the genre novels (well, okay, not as much as I liked The Magicians).
So there, my preferences are at least somewhat real.
*One of my favorite novels of all time, Stoner, is a sad-professor-sleeps-with-student story.
**Actually, if “Horatio Hornblower fights Islamic fundamentalists in space” has not been written yet, then someone needs to write it and pitch it to Baen immediately!
***I will say one thing. I do feel bad about saying that classic or foreign work is part of “literary fiction.” It’s extremely unfair how modern writers of “literary fiction” have positioned themselves as the inheritors of Chekhov and Tolstoy and Hemingway and Cervantes and everybody else who wrote fiction that we still read. Because those authors didn’t really have anything to do with modern academic creative writing. Tolstoy did not go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And it’s also a bit insulting to assume that genre writers haven’t read Tolstoy. Still, I sometimes think that critics of literary fiction do also mean to criticize Tolstoy, because a lot of the criticisms that they make of literary fiction (it is self-indulgent, overwritten, meandering) are criticisms that unsophisticated readers might make of Tolstoy. If, however, you are only criticizing the modern genre of literary fiction and not the entire canon of classic fiction, then you have my apologies. Because I do think that literary fiction (the modern genre) is no more likely to be good than genre fiction.
AWP was very revelatory. I went to a bunch of the popular fiction themed panels, just because that’s a place where I have a hand in. And at a few of them, I heard genre-affiliated people rail about how they don’t get any respect and how the literary establishment should let them in. That’s not a new song, obviously. One hears it all the time on the blogs of SF writers and critics.
But at the conference, I also started to get a sense of what the literary fiction world is like. It was very interesting. There was a palpable sense of desperation hanging over the place. This was not a fan convention. Everyone there was a writer. Everyone was on the make. Everyone was hustling. Everyone was networking. And there was a very real sense that almost no one was going to “make it.” I wouldn’t say that the rhetoric was downbeat, but you just felt in the peoples’ body language and in the tenor of their conversation and in the panel titles* just how desperate people were.
And that’s the literary establishment, people. Genre fiction people rail about the “genre ghetto” as if there’s some beautiful golden metropolis on the other side of those ghetto walls. But there’s not. Literary fiction is just another slum. Overall, I wouldn’t say it’s less healthy than SF. Both sectors sell roughly the same value of books every year (as I recall, they’re both about 6% of the total publishing market…and that’s 1/3rd of the share commanded by romance novels).
Yes, literary fiction controls many of the engines that give cultural prestige to authors and works. And it does feel good to get that prestige. But it’s not everything. I mean, what does literary fiction really have that genre fiction doesn’t have? I can only name a few prizes:
50ish slots each year for short stories in the New Yorker and a few more slots in the Atlantic. These magazines reach literally one hundred times as many people as most of the top literary journals (the Paris Review, Tin House, McSweeney’s, etc) and science fiction magazines (Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, etc.) Being published in them is pretty much the only way that a short story writer can get their work in front of the eyes of someone who doesn’t normally read short stories.
Roughly 25 openings, per year, for entry-level fiction professorships (and a few more unadvertised or mid/senior-level openings).
The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
The National Book Award for Fiction
And then a few other bonus awards—NEA grants, post-graduate fellowships, etc.
The ability to foist a person’s novels onto high school and college kids.
All that stuff is great. And it’s real and concrete and wonderful, if you can get it. But who does get it? All those things go to maybe 50-100 authors a year. Everyone else has to scrabble around in the dirt, either relying on their book sales (just like genre authors) or working a day job.
I think it absolutely would be nice if some of genre fiction’s less-commercial writers were more competitive for professorships, because god knows they’re not earning a living by selling their books. And that’s a fight worth having. To a large extent, it’s a fight that’s been had. A fair number of genre writers (John Crowley, Kij Johnson, John Kessel, Nalo Hopkinson, Brian Evenson, Samuel Delany, Kit Reed) are sitting inside creative writing departments and that number will probably increase a bit in the coming decades.
But I don’t think this is a fight that’s worth getting so frothing angry about. I mean, so you’ll find it a bit harder get published in the New Yorker? So what? Most literary fiction writers will never get in there either. So you’ll find it very difficult to win major literary awards. So what? Most literary writers won’t win them either. People talk about the literary/genre divide as if there were numerous lives and livelihoods at stake. They call it a matter of segregation and ghettoization, but it’s not. Those things affected millions of people. This thing affects maybe 50 people a year. Yes, it’s sad that Cat Rambo is not competitive for professorships and that we’ll never see a Ted Chiang story in the New Yorker. But it’s also not really that big a deal**. And correcting this injustice is definitely not worth my time.
*Examples (all of these are just from Thursday morning)
Landing the Tenure-Track Job without a Book: What to Expect in the Job Market
Getting That First University Teaching Job.
Only Half as Crazy as We Seem: Exploring Unconventional Strategies for Indie Lit Startups
Literary Writers Writing Popular Fiction: What’s Up With That
What I Wish I Had Known in Grad School About the Two-Year College – (A panel about teaching in community colleges)
Sidenote: Literary authors are also guilty of this same sin. Many seem to think that all commercial fiction authors are rolling in the dough. Not true. I guarantee you that for every Tom Clancy, there are a thousand extremely frustrated military history buffs who are toiling away as insurance adjustors because their novels tanked (and for every one of those thousand, there are another thousand military history buffs who couldn’t even get their novels published)