Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Helicopter Must Crash

I’m reading a book by Benjamin Percy, called Thrill Me (Essays on Fiction) and so far it’s, well, thrilling me (thanks for the recommendation Nicola). Although I own several of his books like Red Moon and The Dead Lands in my literally eight-foot tall reading stack (the place where good books go to be buried until an undisclosed future time when I’ll actually read them), I haven’t read much of his work (he also writes comics, too). But, what I’ve read so far in Thrill Me is really connecting with me on a personal level. Part of this connection is that I like to read and write horror—and many specific examples in Percy’s book are about writing by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Cormack McCarthy—all favorites of mine.
But, a particular section of his book made me light up, and it’s all about this quote: “If a story does not contain an exploding helicopter, an editor will not publish it, no matter how pretty its sentences and orgasmic its epiphany may be.” He also goes on to say “…helicopter is an inclusive term that may refer but is not limited to giant sharks, robots with laser eyes, pirates, poltergeists, were-kittens….” [Gratuitous helicopter explosion]
Of course, my book Sunlight (still in second revision, headed to a third) contains, you guessed it, an exploding helicopter, with lots of fire, shrieking monsters, and gunfire. Conclusion: There is commercial hope for my writing yet. I’m also thinking about a were-kitten trilogy, FYI.
In one of my recent grad school writing classes I was assigned the book After Dark by Haruki Murakami. This book takes place on one evening, between midnight and seven a.m., and has a sometimes surreal and dreamlike quality. It mostly focuses on a girl main character (Mari) who hangs out at a Denny’s and gets involved with some other characters whose world is the night: prostitutes, Chinese gangsters, young rock musicians, etc. There are a lot of things I liked about this book: style of prose, commentary and deep thoughts about the human condition (so intellectually stimulating), likeable characters (my favorite was a female ex-wrestler), and at times some very cool, surreal moments.

What it didn’t have, for my personal sensibilities as a reader and writer, was a driving plot or explicit action. This book had a lot of great things to say, the writing was superb, but specifically there was a plot that I expected (based on the commercial books I read, the movies I watch) that never unfolded. In the story there is a phone that belongs to a man who beats up a Chinese prostitute… and other characters in the book end up with this phone… and there is plenty of danger implied. Having the phone could be construed (by the Chinese gangsters who manage the beaten prostitute) as a direct connection to the beating—so in my mind I was expecting a danger filled plot, where mistaken identity puts the main character(s) in danger, running for their lives. But that never happened. In other words, there was no helicopter, and it certainly did not explode.
I guess what I’m really exploring here is the difference between commercial and literary fiction. Although I read some literary fiction, and appreciate, admire and strive for high quality prose writing, my true heart as a reader and writer defaults to plot-driven (commercial/genre) fiction. I want something to happen, or a bunch of somethings, something to keep the pages turning for the reader, wondering what happens next.
One of the inspirations for my book Sunlight was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (and it makes me happy when some of my “test” readers so far have pointed out some similarities to McCarthy's book.) In particular, after reading The Road—a book I could not put down for how well it was structured, how beautifully it was written, how suspenseful—I asked “but where were the monsters?” And thus started my desire to write a similar story, but with monsters brought prominently forward, where they deserve to be.
For you as a reader, if you had to choose a book with either: strong, wonderful writing where not much happens--or an exciting, page flipping plot—which would it be? And do the two have to be exclusive?
For you writers out there, I ask, does your story have a helicopter crash? A fifty-story tall monster stomping on military tanks? A kick-ass unicorn battling cave trolls? Maybe it should.


For your gratification, here are more helicopter explosions: Get to the Choppa!


Melissa Arbuckle said...

I'm contemplating this idea of literary vs. commercial fiction. I've never considered it before, but I think I tend toward the literary novels that delve into characters and their spiritual journey in ways that leave me wondering as a reader why I even liked the book at all. I think it touches on ideas about nostalgia, poignancy, wistfulness, and melancholy. I get to the end of the book and think ... what just happened, I need to read this whole thing again.

One of my favorite books ever was Kafka by the Shore, also by Haruki Murakami.

Mark Teats said...

Melissa, thanks for your comment. I haven't read a lot of Murakami, but in spite of my using After Dark as an example here, I would say I still enjoyed the book and have no regrets about having read it--and I would like to read more work by him. The writing was gorgeous, and I did care about the characters--I just wanted MORE to be happening--which is probably my personal preference (genre over literary) at work.