Sunday, May 06, 2007

Genre-bending with Marta Acosta

Marta Acosta is the author of the Happy Hour at Casa Dracula and its follow-up, Midnight Brunch (released last month). Both books use humor and sharp writing to move beyond the usual vampire novel to become something more. She’s a frequent commenter here at Bookseller Chick and also runs her own blog full of insightful comments, parodies of new or coming soon books, and great links.

The following is an essay she wrote just for this blog on the trials and tribulations of bridging the genre/literature divide:

There is a deep divide between genre readers and literary fiction readers. Literary fiction readers have filled that divide with water and added some alligators for fun. Genre fiction fans are happy to stand on their side shrieking, "Borrring!" and throwing rocks. Anyone who attempts to cross back and forth is likely to be knocked out with a rock and gnawed on by gators.

You see them bloodied and crawling around in the muck, weakly claiming that genre novels can be literary, and literary novels can fall into genre categories.

Because I grew up feral in the wilds of the public library, I never learned the rules about books. No human explained that literary fiction was superior and distinct from genre fiction; no one cautioned me against the acute boredom of a thick literary tome. I consumed science fiction, mysteries, literary novels, stories about animals, gothics, biographies, contemporary fiction, and how-to books. Just as I learned to follow the trail of a new hardback through the stacks, I also learned that there were good books and terrible books in every section.

Off I went to college and I was shocked to learn that commercial fiction were tacky, genre books were laughable. I hid my love of sci-fi and fantasy like dirty polyester sheets. My fellow creative writing students and I wrote short stories about tragedy and anguish. We had wonderful vocabularies and were skilled with a thesaurus. Our stories had important symbolism. We wrote in present-tense, third person, and we read our fiction aloud in flat, disaffected voices so that the words were paramount. We accepted the brutal criticism of our peers and professors. We were dedicated to improving our skills.

Yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had doubts. I loved clean, concise prose, but it never fit comfortably. Sometimes I would see "bad" writing -- florid, violet, quilted, curlicued -- and it made my heart zing.

I once took a seminar in British theatre and our professor asked a student from Shreveport what he had thought about a drawing room comedy that we'd seen. The student, far more mature than the rest of us, calmly gazed at the professor and then drawled, "As a virile young black man, I could not relate." We all laughed, but his words keep coming back to me over the years. He made no apology for not relating.

After college, I returned to my feral reading habits, enjoying whatever struck my mood. When I finally returned to writing, I discovered the divided camps. I'm not as compliant now as when I was young. I won't declare loyalty for one side over the other. So I'm in the moat with other uncommitted authors. We dodge the flying rocks and use them to keep those gators at bay.

The majority of people on either side relate to their worlds; they've got no motivation to create common ground. I keep hoping that people with influence will see how ridiculous this ditch is and call in a crew to fill it. With time, others might be tempted to explore beyond their comfort zones and who knows what exciting things will happen then.

Some genre-bending novels for your consideration:

The Yiddish Policeman's Union: Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon' new novel is both a fantasy and a crime novel. What if Alaska had been given as a homeland to the Jewish people?

To Say Nothing of the Dog: Connie Willis's sci-fi homage to P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome. Time travel, Victoriana, and mishaps.

The Road: Cormac McCarthy envisions a post-apocalyptic world -- it's literary, but with cannibals!

American Gods: Neil Gaiman's novel is a road trip gone bad, an exploration of American identity and landscape, and a supernatural thriller.

Tree of Hands: Ruth Rendell's books transcend the mystery genre. This story about mental illness and child abduction is creepy, dark, and beautifully written.

What genre-bending books can you think of?

7 comments:

Chris said...

I don't know what the big deal is either. If you read something and you like it, good for you, no matter what category it happens to be in.

Crystallyn said...

I was at a writing/publishing conference this weekend and this distinction was evident. No one talked about genre per se, other than to sideways mention it as "genre" as though it wasn't serious and no one would be terribly interested in it. Memoir, poetry, journalistic writing, creative nonfiction and literary fiction was acceptable fodder for discussion but you never heard anything about scifi, romance, horror or fantasy. Mystery and thriller seemed to just cross the line into being acceptable. I thought this was odd considering we were at a publishing conference and genre fiction sells a hell of a lot of books for those editors and publishers. When people asked, I didn't mention that in addition to other more "acceptable" writing, that I was working on a real passion--a fantasy fiction piece. I'm ashamed to admit that I was rather embarrassed, but when i that networking situation and trying to make an impression, well...

It also made me sad that despite the success of more fantasy and scifi in the media that in the book world it still isn't taken seriously. As any fantasy or scifi writer will tell you, to create an entire world that is believable for the reader is far harder of a task than just sitting down to tell a story.

Stephanie said...

Marta,

I was just discussing this divide yesterday! I was positing that perhaps the insults to genre writers makes them band closer together in forming communities. I feel that for all that literary authors appear at some events in proximity they're not friendly together like mystery or romance authors.

Thanks for the list of books! I'm going to check several of these out (except The Road, which I've read).

I'm sure I could add more to the list if this damn coffee would kick in!

Robin L. said...

I think Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books are fun genre benders - both mysteries and SFF. I love Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody books - both mystery and romance. And I thought The Historian combined literary fiction and horror. :)

Thanks for posting this!

Marjorie Liu said...

Snobs are snobs. Nothing you can do about it, except be happy, follow what you love -- and, if you're lucky, laugh all the way to the bank.

As for genre-bending, anything by Angela Carter gets my vote. Literary, delerious, fantastical -- you name it, she's got it.

bhadd said...

Finnegans Wake be so bending I think. Mortals had a CIA twist, too.

The Hood Company

franQ said...

Hearing all this talk of the new Chabon release makes me a little sad…

A year ago, I would have been thrilled and probably obtained an advanced reading copy. He’s been my “favorite” author since I first read his debut novel THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH back in the early 90s.

But I can no longer support the work of an author who has no regard for the story and characters that put him on the literary map.

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a film version of MOP coming out later this year… Written and directed by the guy who brought us DODGEBALL, in which he’s CHANGED 85% of Chabon’s original story.
And the sad part is… Michael Chabon himself APPROVED of the script!

WHY would he do this? I can only think of one possible answer: $$

If you are a Chabon fan, esp MOP, I suggest you do NOT see this movie. You will be sadly disappointed at the COMPLETE removal of the gay character, Arthur Lecomte, and the fabrication of a romantic love triangle between Art Bechstein, Jane Bellwether, and a bi-sexual Cleveland Arning. And really, what is MOP without the presence of Phlox Lombardi? Alas, she’s barely in it.