Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More about genre and literature

I've had a few more thoughts about genre since I blogged last, and one of them is, why is genre so popular? It seems obvious to me that it's because genre helps people find the kinds of books they like.

If you like, for example, mysteries, you will probably find other books in the mystery section of the bookstore that you will also enjoy. Genre makes it easy to find more of the same.

So what's the downside of genre? Well, sameness, but sameness that isn't quite the same.

Let's say you read a book and you really liked it, so you think, I want to read another book just like the one I just read, and you choose another book of the same genre, and it seems to have a lot of things in common with the book you liked, but it doesn't really do it for you. It seems the same on the surface, but it isn't as satisfying on a deeper level.

So then you seek out more books by the author of the book you liked, and if you're lucky, all of that author's work is similar. Now if you're that author, and you have a following, do you want to surprise your faithful readers with something very different? Probably not. But what if you're sick of writing the same old thing, or you've said all you really had to say about it, but your readers expect more of the same, so you grind out more. You see what I'm getting at here. After awhile your heart just isn't in it anymore and your readers will know that (most of them) and they will complain. Of course they'll also complain if you give them an unpleasant surprise by writing something very different from your usual. But if they're going to complain anyway, you might as well write what you want.

Which reminds me of a dream I had a few years ago, and I know I digress, but hey! it's my blog to blather in. One night, after a particularly unpleasant experience with an "expert" in the publishing industry who told me I would never find a publisher, a voice came to me in a dream. It said: "You're f*cked anyway, so you might as well write what you want." And so I did.

But back to genre...

When I was young and impressionable, I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. It remained my very favorite book for decades, and I reread it half a dozen times at least. But when I went looking for more books like that one, I was frustrated. I read a lot of fantasy books, and they were OK, but it seemed that so many of them just threw in a few ogres and trolls and elves and wizards and thought that was enough. But Lord of the Rings had something that none of the others did, and I still can't articulate just what that was, except to say that it had soul. It touched something very deep, and it took me on a journey that taught me things I wasn't conscious of learning at the time. It was a book I loved walking around in.

What grabbed me and wouldn't let go was the message of the book, and by message I don't mean something you can define in 25 words or less. Part of it is meaning. Part of it is the emotional journey. If a book takes you somewhere and you return to your everyday world moved, enlightened, renewed, with new ideas, new perspectives, and a new appreciation of life, you've found a great book, and it has nothing to do with ogres and trolls.

So how do you find those books? Very difficult. Genre books may contain all the trimmings of a book you loved--ogres and trolls, a hero's journey, a central love story, a space adventure--but have none of the heart.

Some people believe that to find heart, you have to read literature, but I have read a lot of so-called literary fiction, and some of it has heart, and some of it doesn't. People say that literature is "difficult," which means, I suppose, that the meaning isn't spelled out for you, that you may have to work at it a little. Which is fine if there really is meaning there and the author understands it enough to make it accessible. But so much literary fiction, at least what I've read, is more about obfuscation than clarity--an Emperor's New Clothes thing. If you don't see the deep meaning in this abstruse work, it's because you're not "refined" enough to perceive it. To which I say, Nope, the Emperor is buck nekkid!

I tend to plug away at genre because, at the very least it's entertaining, and sometimes I do run across a genre story that has that deep undercurrent. I know right away when that happens, because I become engrossed in the book, when I'm not reading it I'm still thinking about it, and I mull it over and revisit it after I've finished it. Sometimes it's just because the world the author has made in that book is fun to be in, and sometimes it's because I enjoy hangin' with the characters, but it's also because on some level that book is doing me good.

And that's why I read in the first place.

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