Sunday, July 28, 2013

To Genre, Or Not To Genre

I’ve been thinking a lot about genre lately.

Specifically, genre as it relates to the speculative fiction we write here at the Scribblerati, as well as my Work in Progress, To Kill the Goddess.

Exhibit #1

It all started while reading Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This was a recommendation by my editor (I’ve made a habit of asking her what’s good) and I read it over our Fourth of July vacation to San Francisco.

In case you’re not familiar with it, Life After Life is a story about this woman – Ursula – who is reborn into the same body every time she dies. Each life is a redo, starting in the 1920s, and going through World War II or beyond, assuming she lives that long.

It was a fascinating story – mostly. Sometimes she made terrible choices and the story was hard to read, other times she chose better and the book was fun. But the longer it went on, and the more times Ursula died, it became… tedious. This is not to say it was a bad book, or that it was poorly written, because it was none of those things, but the author shied away from getting into why Ursula kept being reborn. What was the point of it all? Was there intent behind this miracle? Was there a lesson to be learned? A change to be made?

None of those questions were answered, and maybe I’m reaching here, but I think I know why. The answer to those questions would have taken the book out of the realm of literary fiction and into genre.

Exhibit #2

My own writing has been coming along quite nicely. I finished a new draft based on my editor’s comments, and now I’m making one last cleanup pass before I send it back to her. The process has taken about six months, which is longer than I’d hoped, but not as long as I’d feared. During that time, I’ve become a whole new writer. I’ve refined and honed my style, vastly improved my self-editing, but the most important thing I’ve learned is how to focus the story around character.

Character, is entirely what Life after Life was about. Ursula was the same character throughout the book, but her character changed (impressive, eh?). In regards to my own work, To Kill the Goddess has (I hope) become as much about the characters in it as it is about the fantastic world they live in, or the terrible/exciting events taking place around them.

A confession

I have – and this is an entirely unexpected development – thought about giving up writing speculative fiction.

It is, I think, a bit of snootiness, and a notion that will fade with time, but there is merit behind the thought. I still think about those cool sci-fi/fantasy things that used to completely melt my butter, but the more I think about character, the less I think about the facets of my story that make it genre.

I see now why so many choose to write literary fiction. There is a purity there, a laser focus on character that can so easily get buried within the fantastic elements of genre.

Genre, whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, or something in between, allows the writer to confront their characters with challenges entirely outside the experience of our normal lives.

If I wasn’t writing genre, I could never so completely turn my characters’ lives upside down, not in any sort of way that wasn’t retreading events we’re all intimately familiar with (e.g. World War II), or turning it into a historical fantasy. Genre lets me tell a story that is fresh, engaging, and exciting.

Could I tell a fresh, engaging, and exciting story without writing genre?


And I might even do that someday.

But I could never write To Kill the Goddess that way.


Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I think part of the draw of genre for me is to try and focus on characters and their drives, surrounded by the trappings of genre. In general, a book or a story happens because of fantastic things happening to characters, be those things lottery wins, car accidents, unicorns, or fairy wars.

You do raise a valid concern. A lot people will absolutely not read something if they realize it's science fiction or fantasy, and that bothers me. I see it at the library, not every day, but enough. So genre and accessibility, false constructs that they are, do have relations.

Shawn Enderlin said...

Thanks for the comment, Jennifer. And I like your point about fantastic things applying to much of what people would NOT consider to be genre. For some reason the Bourne Identity and it's sequels come to mind. They are really just sci fi in the trappings of spy/suspense.

Lisa said...

My sweetie suggested that maybe when it's ready I should send my new story cycle to literary rather than speculative journals. I see said sweetie's point, but really, I want to live among the freaks and geeks.