Monday, May 3, 2010

The Impulse

Usually I visit two writers' conferences a year. Bouchercon, a conference for mystery and crime writers and fans. And AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, where folks associated with college-level writing programs, mostly MFA program, gather to trade teaching ideas, pleas for literary magazines subscriptions, jealousy and misery.

I enjoy Bouchercon shitloads more. At Bouchercon, my love for fiction is constantly reinvigorated by the enthusiasm of my peers, novice and seasoned. There's community, where writers seek each other out to share news, encourage each other, and discuss the writing world. Each time I've been to Bouchercon, my instinctive introversion was thrown out the window as new writers asked for my advice, editors introduced themselves to me, and sages of the genre, like Dennis Lehane in Baltimore two years ago, passed some wisdom onto me. Walk through the halls at the Boucheron hotel and you're likely to hear laughter and larger-than-life voices. Lots of Type A personalities.

At AWP, there's a kind of hush. Some people look like they're about ready to cry. There's a huge "book sale" wherein literary magazines you've never heard of try to get to subscribe to issues featuring writers you've never heard of. Most of these mags will not be in business next year. At AWP, I get to catch up with a couple of old friends, but otherwise I'm a wallflower, silently attending mundane panels. The literary stars are basically untouchable, or they form little cliques. Sure, there's the "bar scene" and a few off-site parties, but only at night. Walk through the halls at AWP and you get ignored, or at least glared at suspiciously.

If it sounds like I'm leading up to yet another in the endless series of "genre versus literary" blogs, well, I am. There's been enough virtual blood and ink spilled regarding the supposed difference between genre and literary fiction. John Banville got in some trouble last year for suggesting at a mystery conference that his crime-genre alter ego, Benjamin Black, wrote books more quickly and easily than his Booker-Prize-winning literary self. You can really irk some people talking like that.

So I probably shouldn't, but I will. We can split hairs all day about whether "literary" is itself a genre or not (of course it is; at least, it's a collection of many genres). We can debate about the aesthetic merits of literary versus genre fiction, the degree to which one or the other is rife with clich├ęs or utilitarian writing or overblown writing or obfuscation, the entertainment value of either. We can ponder whether there is a "we" at all, or just me, writing this blog to myself.
All that's been done before.

But what I want to talk about is the literary impulse versus the genre impulse. This is observation, necessarily generalized, and it comes mostly from my experiences at these conferences and talking with friends who self-identify as either literary or genre writers.

All writers want to reach readers. All writers want to sell books and please their readership. All writers want to impress their readers. Almost all writers want to feel like they're part of a community. The notions that literary writers want to deliberately alienate readers and stay poor or unpublished just to be "different," or that genre writers want to hoard money by passing off paint-by-numbers exercises as quickly and efficiently as possible--these are all generally false suppositions generated by people who don't understand writerly impulses. We all have egos and want to be admired for our stories--or rather, we want our stories to be admired.

But I've noticed differences between how certain kinds of writers want to please or impress their readers.

There's an authorial impulse that wants nothing more than to hear from a reader: "Your novel kept me up all night. I couldn't stop turning the pages, and I couldn't turn them quickly enough. Those twists and revelations--man, I was floored. Not only that, I learned so much information about X. You're such an amazing storyteller!" Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the writer who wants to hear this kind of feedback has a genre impulse: the need to please a reader by telling as exciting a story as possible.

But there's another authorial impulse that wants most of all to hear this from a reader: "Your novel changed my life. I thought I had the world figured out, and then you just opened up this whole new way of thinking for me. Your vision is beautiful, I contemplated every sentence, and I don't think I'll ever be able to get your characters or your worldview out of my consciousness." The need to hear this feedback I'm going to call, as you might have guessed, the literary impulse.

I'm not suggesting that one is better than the other, though many do make just such a suggestion. To stereotype, some writers with a literary impulse don't understand the genre impulse. They think it's cheap, filled with gimmicks, and disposable. The sheer goal of getting people to flip pages quickly sounds to them like the worst kind of commodity fetishism. Plot is a crutch, outmoded since the Modernist era, fodder for ridicule since the Postmoderns came on the scene. The genre impulse is, to some, less about personal vision than jumping a bandwagon and stealing all its baggage.

But many genre writers don't understand the literary impulse. They think it's vain and elitist to presume that you can explode a reader's worldview. They think it's ego-maniacal and solipsistic to bore readers with endless passages of intellectual or emotional pontification. It's naval-gazing on mundane subjects. It's self-destructive self-marginalization and a complete ignorance of the publishing marketplace.

Of course these are generalizations, or at least extremes along a continuum. Most real writers fit somewhere in the middle. I know I do--and it's exactly that DMZ between these two poles that feeds my anxieties and makes me wonder who my audience is supposed to be--if anyone. Because, let's face it: the literary impulse and the genre impulse tend to attract two very different kinds of audiences, too.

You're wondering what all this has to do with conferences. Conferences show me what happens when you bring together two different masses of people, each tending to gravitate to one or the other impulse pole. And what I discover, whether demonstrably true or not, is that the genre impulse seems generally extroverted, social, and objective. It's also inclusive, less competitive, because all writers with a genre impulse draw from the same inexhaustible pool of tropes and feed an arguably ever-hungry audience.

The literary impulse is generally introverted, competitive and subjective because writers with a genre impulse feel that they're drawing each from their own little drying wells of personal inspiration and feeding a small and finicky audience. This, you might argue, is why literary writers tend to write fewer books more slowly, and why their books are often more autobiographical and "realistic." Their impulse is to voice their subjective experience instead of the collective, iconic, idealized experience of humanity.

I'm really going to go out on a limb and suggest that many more of my genre friends were outgoing and popular in high school, just as they are now mostly great conversationalists and self-promoters. They had the pulse of the people--knew what others wanted to hear, and gave it to them. On the other hand, I know most of my literary friends were awkward loners in high school, too indrawn and contemplative, too pent up with an eagerness to prove themselves to others. They felt cut off from the concerns of the mainstream, yet secretly eager to connect with someone who felt the same strange impulses they did.

Perhaps these are the personalities that these genre and literary impulses breed from? The genre extrovert gathers everyone he can into his fold, eager to entertain and please. The literary introvert seeks out a smaller cadre of confidants, a safety zone where he can discuss how different he feels, how unique. Both of them want to be read, but, it seems to me, for very different reasons. In this sense, I think this old genre versus literary thing isn't a decision at all. It's largely a manifestation of personality.

This is probably no big news to anyone reading, but it strikes the heart of my own anxieties. When I go to Bouchercon, I often feel like a literary grump dressed in communist gray who has stowed himself aboard a Carnival cruise full of champagne and bathing suits. I know my impulses tend toward the literary, just as I know they were probably borne from that awkward, introverted teenager who needed to please people by impressing them with the depth and strangeness of his artistic expression. But the types of stories I create are genre because that's what I loved to read when I was younger, and that's what compels me to write. In my work, I'm constantly stuck right in the middle, the consummate moderate, wanting all at once to propel my story forward and yet linger on the metaphysical experience of my characters in their moments of crisis, rendered in evocative and carefully crafted prose.

This is obviously where my theory falls apart. There are probably very few writers at each extreme. Sure, Lee Child is an out-and-out genre writer, interested in little more than crafting a story that shoots the reader through the book and having another book at the readeywhen the reader is done. Whereas, say, David Foster Wallace, quite obviously a tortured loner to the end, was desperate in almost all his writing to make his vision understood. But when you throw enough of these guys and gals together, they tend to cluster near either extreme.

Here's another knot in my argument: most of the loners I knew in high schools were not readers of literary fiction (hardly anyone is, until she gets to college; and even then one gets "initiated" into a love for literary fiction, a kind of "secret society" of people who believe they feel more deeply and weirdly than the general populace). No, the loners in high school read sci-fi or fantasy, if they read anything at all. I've never been to a sci-fi or fantasy conference, so I don't know about the kinds of people who frequent them. Perhaps, then, when I say genre, I mean only mystery and romance, maybe horror.

Now I'm nitpicking, and my ideas are falling apart in my hands. I know quite a few outgoing literary writers. I know a couple deeply introverted genre writers, including the one in the mirror. My argument is little more than a whim, baseless and ephemeral. But still, when I go to those conferences, the line feels like a solid brick wall.

I'm teetering right on that wall, never sure which way to let myself fall, never quite wanting to decide. I want to please lots of people with engaging and surprising stories pulled right out of the Collective Unconscious. I want to surprise a few with my quirky personal vision and deeply-sought insights. I want it all. What a cad. What a snob. What a... writer?


Diane Weiden said...

My comment is really on a different subject but I found your blog today and enjoyed reading it. I too have experienced Bouchercon as invigorating, engaging and a lot of fun. I am not published in the mystery genre yet but that is my goal. Can you share with me if you are part of a critique group? If so, how is it best to start one as I am new to my area and do not know many writers. Thanks for any advice you can share.

Matthew McAlister said...

I've never been to any writer's conferences, but will hopefully have the opportunity to go next year.

I hate thinking of myself as one of the literary writers you've described, but I'm in that category. I'm extremely introverted around people I respect, I don't ever know what to say. I'd rather just stand around silently. I'm also extremely competitive with other writers. But around people who don't write, I could talk all day. I guess it's the fear of sounding unintelligent that's got me holding my tongue.

I don't know what kind of writer I am. That's something I hope I figure out soon.

Great blog. These are always interesting.

Derek Nikitas said...

Thanks for stopping by. I'm not part of a critique group myself, except that I'm always running one or two through the MFA classes I teach. I know some writers who've been happy getting involved with local branches of national organizations that do this sort of thing, particular Sisters in Crime, if you write mystery. Local libraries usually know about local writing groups, too. Good luck! Sorry if these are obvious answers, but they're the best I've got!

Anonymous said...

Nice post. At the beginning of every semester I stumble along trying to explain the difference between literary and genre fiction to my intro. to lit. students. They are baffled, of course, because they have never heard of literary fiction in the first place. Many of them come in not having been introduced to the concept of a canon.

I find it hard to label what I'm doing with my writing (literary? suspense? historic?) seems like other people do that for you at some point, and then in the midst of that cloud you just have to keep doing what you do well, regardless. If labels can help a writer reach readers, then who gives a flip? (Oh righ, the gloomies at AWP.)