Mixing Genres in Fiction

I have always felt boxed in by the definition of “genre” when it comes to writing fiction. Why be bound by the rules of a craft when that craft itself is in a state of evolution, and where tomorrow’s rules may be today’s exploratory scribbling?

When I sat down to compile my new short story collection, Crossing Limbo, I drew from stories written over the last ten years, written with long time intervals between each piece. Therefore, the stories didn’t resemble each other. When I wrote each piece I hadn’t the intention that they would ever become part of a collection, which usually requires a common theme and genre. I guess I had been scanning too many book stores which had “mystery stories,” “YA” and “fairy tales,” categorizing the shelves, and reading copious quantities of Alfred Hitchcock’s terror magazines to draw the conclusion that stories accrete to specific genres. I wrote my pieces whenever something had intrigued me at the time, and I selected the appropriate voice and genre that gave my subject matter the greatest expression.

Therefore, when I wanted to write about greed, I thought I would make the narrator a dog who is observing this weakness in humans; when I wanted to portray an Arab Spring, I put myself in the shoes of the bad dictator to understand his take on the approaching “bad season”; when I wanted to check out the seductive world of swingers, I had an inexperienced housewife naively enter the club to experience its shock impact; when I wanted to explore predation on the internet, I created a fictional chat line; when I wanted to write about disadvantaged immigrants, I chose the voice of one who had fallen on the wrong side of the track through no fault of his own; when I thought “ romance,” I thought how neat would it be to explore this ephemeral state with two candidates at extreme ends of the game of love: a tantric sex instructor and a sexless corporate executive. You can see where this is going… Before long, I had a mixed bag of stories that included the genres of magic realism, suspense, crime, erotica, romance and everything else that I could lump under the broad umbrella of “literary fiction.” Who was going to buy this?

Then I said to myself, had I written a novel, I wouldn’t have been able to cover such a broad expanse of human experience without writing the next War & Peace. With short stories, I could get in deep and get out quickly and move onto the next, and readers would take that as par for the course. Besides, in these speeded-up times, the short story is supposed to be the replacement to the novel, just as the 140-byte Twitter line is supposed to replace the 420-byte Facebook post. Neither of these things have happened yet, but we are told to anticipate them. So I pitched my collection with this “deep and quick” angle in view and my publisher bought it. The editor added that even though the genres varied, the theme was consistent: dark literature about people traversing their personal limbo towards redemption. I hadn’t thought of that!

So I have this cocktail of a book coming out shortly, and I am hoping that readers will appreciate the different genres, although I suspect that some form of selection will take place and the audience will divide and gravitate to different stories based on individual taste. However, I am hoping that bibliophiles, who devour everything, will find a smorgasbord in this collection instead of just Indian Curry, Japanese Sushi, or Italian Pasta, and that it will satisfy their diverse tastes. And I look forward, somewhat in trepidation, to the reaction afterwards from all camps. Any book, once released, takes a life of its own. All the writer can do is reflect on the hours of engagement he had with it, akin to raising a child, and wishing it well when it leaves the nest.

Never correspond with your readers, unless invited

I have been asked whether I ever correspond with my readers. Well, naturally we writers do, especially when we are so embroiled in social media these days. Writers automatically seek an audience, that’s why we write, so when someone writes back to us and refers to our writing, our interest is aroused, our vanity is stoked, and our bubble of loneliness is punctured.

But what happens when a writer takes a reader unawares and initiates the conversation? I am guilty of this act of commission, and after three lessons, I decided to discontinue this practice. The first incident occurred when a reader gave one of my books a score 1 on a scale 1(poor) to 5(excellent). This particular book had been enjoying an average reader score of 4 on Goodreads, so I was curious as to why this reader had found the book so weak. As she hadn’t written comments to support her rating, I was itching to find out more. So I wrote to her asking why she had scored my book so poorly, and could she provide some constructive feedback. I never received a reply. The second time, I encountered an independent reviewer who said that another one of my books needed stronger editing. As I had self-published that particular book, I wrote to this reviewer to ask for pointers on where I could improve. I never heard back. On the third and final occasion, I stumbled upon a social media group that had been discussing my books in a positive way. I wrote to thank the lead member of the group, and asked for her view on a controversial point in one of my books; I thought an enthusiastic and engaged reader would be able to provide me a new perspective on this point. Silence was the reply.

To say that my self-confidence was shaken was an understatement. But after the air returned to my deflated ego, I tried to figure out why I had been treated so shabbily. Then a few things became clear to me. I am a fiction writer. I create worlds in which the writer is absent, only his characters exist. Fiction writers are not intrusive, and their voices emerge through the mouths of their creations; readers draw their own inferences from what is laid down on the page, sometimes, obviously, sometimes opaquely. Therefore, my sudden presence “in the flesh” must have been alarming – like a dead man come to life, and one who had been snooping on the conversations others had been having about him! I had betrayed the trust of the storyteller, where the story is more important than the teller.

In the age of social media, self-publishing, and shameless self-promotion, writers are pushed towards breaking the wall that exists between them and readers, and towards making contact with the “other side.” Some say it’s the “new way,” that readers buy the writer and not the story. That may be so for commercial survival, and even then, commercial writers work with their publicists to create a persona and all communication with readers is carefully scripted and routed via one’s literary agent or publisher – an even greater wall of separation.   Yet, readers seem to be more comfortable with this “fictitious” form of correspondence than with a message from the heart.

After my experiences, I have returned to my cocoon of silence and only speak through my stories. Yes, I still remain active on social media and other online channels to announce upcoming projects (the shameless self-promotion stuff), but a serious discussion of my work will not be on the cards, unless specifically invited. This has been a hard lesson to learn, and one I thought worthy of sharing with others on the same journey.

Too much information

I was asked for my opinion on Wiki Leaks and the scandals erupting in cyberspace, where top secret documents suddenly appear to embarrass high•ranking military officials, bureaucrats and corporate barons. Are we justified in having this stuff floating around in the public domain, I was quizzed? Or should we let it all hang out and sock it to these honchos in high places who help each other out by launching wars, who cry for bailouts, and who lock the taxpayer into an “or else” hammer lock in order to fund their shenanigans under threat of terrorism or bankruptcy?

My first reaction was, “Dare anyone speak about this stuff in this day and age? Let’s see • if I am pro•Wiki Leaks, I could get on some nation’s no•fly list; if I am anti•Leaks, the hackers will block my Visa & Master Card accounts, erase me from social networking sites and punish me.” But either way, I could become famous if I go public with my plight. Hmm…

My next reaction was, “Another opinion on Wiki Leaks? Haven’t we made its owner a cult hero already with our nosiness? I mean, don’t we already know that classified stuff exists under any political system? Don’t we keep information protected via copyright, patent and trade secret laws? Aren’t writers agitating to have their copyrights protected and not splashed all over the Internet for free? Okay, and why do we have to have this leaked stuff piled on us in these digital dumpsters, filling our information intake valves faster than the garbage gushing into Toronto’s landfills? Hasn’t anyone learned that “less is more?”

Finally, I caved. “Okay, if you insist, I’ll venture an opinion, but you may not like it.” (Note to reader: Writers are opinionated people)

Disclosing information is good if it makes the world a better place, reveals injustice and leads to its correction – I’m sold on that. Enron was a good example, so was Mount Cashel. But there is a limit to disclosing information, especially if it harms people, property, or both, and especially if nothing good can be salvaged out of the disclosure. Didn’t we only recently coin that phrase “Too Much Information,” one that young people bandy around liberally these days in their text messages? For instance, if two neighbours are getting along, however tenuously, why upset the apple cart by saying to one that the other guy had once called him an asshole? Sure that’s disclosure, but does it advance progress or enhance relationships? Does it make the neighbourhood a better place? Do I need to know what my kids call me when they are mad at Dad?

So my opinion on this business: use common sense, guys! Whistle•blowing and mud•slinging are two different activities, although they both begin with a sense of frustration and a desire for change.

Oh that reminds me—I’d better check the showerhead in my washroom now. Just in case a hacker from either side of the debate, unhappy with my opinion, sneaks in a spy•cam and “captures” me on digital. The fame I have sought as a writer of strong male characters will come to me in the most sudden and unexpected way. I can imagine the instantaneous blurb on You Tube “Extra, Extra: Writer Lets It All Hang Out. Check him out • he is not as hot as his fiction!”

The Return of Fiction in the Google-era

When the towers came down in New York innocence was lost in North America, they say. People wanted only to read about news and features – they wanted facts, facts, facts…When was the next calamity going to happen, and where? Were we heading towards the end of days, and when? And whenever escape became an emotional necessity, it was sought in worlds far beyond (and therefore safe from) the present one – how about Hogwarts School for starters, or the dark and mysterious Vatican with those Da Vincian codes, or those dread•lands populated by vampires and werewolves, or a juicy murder mystery in distant Scandinavia? Mainstream fiction got sidestepped, because life had become stranger and more frightening than make•believe of the literary kind.

And now, several years on, we are drowning in facts. We Google “facts” and they are arrayed before us, from umpteen sources, with varying degrees of accuracy and bias. There is comfort in knowing that if we need the facts, they are always available, 24/7, at the click of a button. Welcome to the Factual Age, in which we get the facts, the whole facts and nothing but the facts. Boring…

I am more interested in that other world, the lost one: the one in which facts or pseudo•facts were re•arranged to fit a coherent dramatic trajectory, unleashing a moral, providing meaning and hope, allowing for triumph over adversity however trivial. A world where lies were conjured in order to illuminate a higher truth. A world that was delivered in beautiful lyrical prose conjuring imagery from life, giving us hues ranging from blue to gold, shadings from dark to light, perspectives from vulnerable to sympathetic, and action from heroic to barbaric.

The relentless onslaught of the Factual Age is similar to us being bombarded with still photographs of life, to the point that we are once more hungry for paintings to re•engage our moribund faculties, replete with the artist’s slant, bias, perspective, character, flaws, and opinion. And the artists too have gathered outside the gates with piles of their wares accumulated over the lean years since 9/11, during which output was limited to the very few, who made their handlers lots of cash by dabbling in predictable genres.

I think the pendulum will swing back now that the thirst for facts and information has been satisfied by the powerful search engines of today. I believe we will be looking for ways to convert these facts into stories that attempt to make sense out of an increasingly meaningless life rushing along at an even faster pace. I believe that those gates will soon be shoved open and that the artists will come rushing in, even giving away their wares as gifts, because sharing will have become more important to them than selling. And a grateful audience will embrace these stories again, the lost books, lost from the day the developed world lost its innocence.