Dispatches | April 30, 2012

Good writing, I posit, is like pornography: you know it when you see it. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s not that good, well, at least you’re reading. As a child, I devoured crap sci-fi and Dragonlance novels like they were a precious commodity of laser-guns and sorcery that might one day dry up like a salted slug. Even when I was taught that good writing was about character and feeling and that hard to grasp, tenuous human condition – not entirely plot or concept driven – I still wanted something to happen in the story; someone, please, die, or kill someone, or take up arms against your oppressor. Move, people. Get frightened by that ghost that actually is a ghost. Is that guy sleeping with your wife? You ought to punch him in the face.

I find it odd that I enjoy the works of Jane Austen, because very little happens in her novels besides, gasp, Mr. Wickham being naughty again and Mr. Darcy is scowling and everyone whispering behind their lace-gloved hands, but I chalk up the affection to a middle-school obsession with gossip. Or maybe I’m a product of years of schooling that have ingrained in me appreciation of things I normally would not seek out on my own. Though I still hate Great Expectations with a furor normally reserved for child-murderers, I can see why it’s in the canon, and why I was forced to read it in five different classes.

In March, Michael Nye wrote a blog for TMR that defined, I think very well, the MFA story: they’re often character sketches, and they avoid “cinematic plots” and “violence and melodrama”. I suppose we see enough of that on our screens and, as literary writers, we are supposed to avoid what is un-real. Our lives, to make a generalization, are not bodice-ripping romances, noir detective novels, or boogey-man-under-the-bed nightmares (if yours is, congratulations! And call me – I’m bored). I’m not entirely sure what literary fiction is “supposed” to be, and a definition would be disastrous, but it is something that we can recognize when we read it, and in terms of speculative stories, it’s a suggestion of internal struggle; the ghost is not a real ghost, it’s the narrators mind slipping off its shelf.

I was really pleased when reading The Missouri Review’s 2011 Winter issue to see an interview with one of my favorite authors, China Mieville, whose novel Perdido Street Station was a whirlwind of weird, steampunk and drug culture that I devoured one pleasant weekend and have not forgotten the thrill. The interview is smart, not least because Mieville tackles the question that speculative, genre-defying authors have to face when lit mags and publishers question their target audience: is this for the dum-dums who just like to read about explosions and blood, or is this a language piece? Does it have a deeper meaning once we’re done wading through the bodies?

To be frank, it’s patently unfair that writers who indulge strangeness have to justify their work to either audience as if it was something new that had not been done before, something that has to carve its face into the Mount Rushmore of ‘acceptable’ literature. The world, after all, is a very strange place, and we think and speak in metaphor, calling on the abstract to better understand the real. Thank heavens we don’t have to dig up Mary Shelley’s body and have her defend Frankenstein to us: After all, Mary, did you really need to use a man made of dead parts? Couldn’t you have had your infamous doctor give his wife some bad medicine, and have a baby come out deformed? It would probably make more sense if the kid grew up, instead of the well-articulated five year old monster with greater powers of self-reflection than I can never hope for. Yet it’s that monstrous body we imagine, sewn up of dead parts, that sticks with our imagination and frightens us still today, that same body that could not be so dreadful, so pitiful, unless that gruesomeness is there.

I always wonder about the lyrical pieces, which I confess to enjoy and even dabble in, but when nothing happens except the movement of language I feel somewhat cheated at the end. An entire story of a man staring at a ketchup packet thinking about the thrill of hum-dummery in what is prose-attempted blank verse? Sure, it’s a neat exercise, but I’d probably remember it more if he got up and talked to someone. Or punched someone in the face.

To say that the literary world is crossing its fingers to ward away the evil of fantasy and science fiction is a gross misrepresentation, of course, since many fine magazines will publish weird fiction, and some are entirely dedicated to stories of princess and princes, witches and magic (Thanks, Fairy Tale Review!). But there is an unspoken backing away, a narrowing of eyes, a baited breath when the stories come up: Is this the kind of thing we publish? And, if so, will we be defined by the weird, open up the floodgates of myth and violence and hyperbolic romance.

The one writer I not-so-secretly adore but whose name is something of a dirty word in certain communities, best-selling writer of weird Stephen King, is at the crux of my debate. For some reason or another, possibly because the literary writer should not be enjoyed by the masses but only for a select few trained to understand good work, and because literary fiction just isn’t supposed to sell that much, he is that throw-away author we avoid when looking at one another’s dating profiles: “He READS, best-girlfriend Suzie-Q! And not trite like Stephen King!”. I always wonder if people who revile him have actually sat down and read one of his stories or if they know he’s the go-to bad writer they can easily tick off and everyone knows who you’re talking about. And why does everyone think he’s terrible? I think he’s a pretty damn good writer with attention to language and lyricism, tempered by a masculine Americanism that is fearless and unapologetic, and a sense for the weird, that the ghost can be our internal struggles to overcome trauma. But dammit, the ghost is often still a ghost, and it might tear out your spleen if you don’t struggle against it. And let’s face it, it’s fun.

Lately, the big sellers have been Vampire romances, werewolf romances, boy-wizard-against-thinly-veiled-Nazism, and a girl with a bow caught between two boys and a dystopian future that seeks to destroy her. And yes, most if not all of them are poorly written because we don’t give children enough reading comprehension credit, but the stories themselves, taken at face value, are pretty good. Not so much the vampire romance, but the others have merit. People love these things, and it’s not because it’s anything new, but there has always been a place in our imagination for weird, for wary science fiction and romance and overly-masculine brutes spitting tobacco while holstering their old-timey pistol. I’m hoping the popularity of these stories bleeds upward, that this trend continues, and we, with our steady pens and quick minds, can take these stories further, muddle them, and make something better than high school girl can’t decide between brunette or blond, oh, and one of them happens to have fangs. But he doesn’t bite, no. Not before marriage.