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.

The Artist’s Career Progression

There is a progression in a successful artist’s career. First, toiling (for several years, sometimes) in the trenches to reach base camp, then beginning the climb up the mountain of fame, then reaching a point on the gradient where a magic elevator suddenly appears and creates an inverse tipping point that starts to hurtle the artist to the pinnacle with no further effort required on his part. Finally, a period of success-building-upon-success, of walking on clouds, until disability or death intervenes to close that chapter. The last period is the posthumous one, when the artist’s work in enshrined and cleverly marketed to keep his spirit and estate alive.

Take our Joe, a budding writer, who writes some pretty decent stuff but who has to compete with every other Tom, Dick and Harry, along with Ann, Meg and Sally who are also writing pretty decent stuff. Joe meets Mike, an influential person in publishing, at a bar, where they both get drunk and wax lyrical over everything from Homer to Hitler, and realize that they have a lot in common. “I’m going to help you… hic,” says Mike, as they stagger homewards. Mike keeps his promise, and Joe gets a publishing contract from a decent publishing house. Unknown to Joe, he has arrived at base camp. Mike exercises some marketing muscle and introduces Joe to a movie director. Film rights, foreign rights and a literary prize follow. Joe is on his way, leaving his cohorts in the dust of self-publishing where he too once worked his heart out; he is now into cleaner air. He churns out a book per year, easy to do now that he does not have to worry about earning a living elsewhere. His publisher, and his agent (yes, he needs an agent now, and an agent sees value in Joe at this point) realize that to keep Joe’s books moving, he has to be in the news; therefore, more literary prizes, more film deals, foreign translations, and a couple of celebrity romances (and failures) should be part of the continuing life of Joe. When anyone is thinking of holding a literary conference or organizing a literary awards gala, they must invite Joe. Our Joe is on that magic elevator ascending the mountain. Now he does not have to think of ideas for his next book – his publicist (yes, he has one of those now too) and his script development team (fancy!) provide him with what he needs to write. His publisher will even fly him to the locale of his next book so that he can immerse himself in the scenes he is going to write about. Joe is now at the “walking on clouds” stage. Sounds familiar? I think you get it, so we can skip describing the “posthumous stage.” And this story is not quite fiction, for a chosen few in every generation have done it.

But that is not the main point of this article. The main point is that the pinnacle is the most important stage, and it must be defended at all costs and made to last as long as possible. When Joe has reached the top of the mountain, and when anyone thinks of literature, they must think only of Joe. His social calendar must be overflowing and he must decline a number of invitations so that his “decline factor” will create even more mystique and increase Joe’s appearance fee at future events. Meanwhile, Tom, Dick and Harry, and Ann Meg and Sally will be still waiting hungrily for their call to climb the mountain, churning out angst-ridden tomes, that if only someone had the time to read, would probably be far more authentic than Joe’s scripted deliveries. At this point, Joe’s management team will further determine that in order to extend the life of their “product” they need to create barriers to entry; therefore subtle attempts will be made to keep Tom & Team, and Ann and Associates or anyone creating “Joe’s look-alike literature,” or “better than Joe’s literature” out of the running until targeted returns on investment in Joe are met. Upstart attempts to dislodge Joe off his pedestal will be…ah…resisted. Creative destruction is healthy for society, but not for those who have their investment in the incumbent cash-cow.

That “the cream rises to the top” is true in this business as in any other. And once there, it stays at the top until death or disability renders the cream no longer edible, and investors have to either go into the posthumous stage of the artist or go looking for new talent development.

And then, the next Joe (or probably even Tom, Dick or Harry, or Ann, Meg or Sally, if they are not too old and beaten by then) will be waiting in a bar, scanning the crowds for Magnanimous Mike to start their climb up the mountain…

How to write the next literary novel

A fellow writer asked me what it would take to write the next literary novel. I searched through my notes, gathered after wondering for many years in literary wastelands, and came up with these Ten Commandments (caveat emptor: I take no responsibility for the success or failure of your novel):

1) Do away with plot. Plots are superfluous and distract from the language.

2) Create metaphors within metaphors within metaphors…

3) Deliberately obfuscate the flow of the narrative. Forget about beginnings, middles, and ends. Start at the end and go to the beginning. Or better yet, start in the middle and go both ways, testing your reader who wouldn’t know if you are coming or going.

4) Throw in all the literary styles you can think of: dialogue, poetry, screenplay, Q & A, parallel scenes, songs, flashback, flash forward, oh, and bit of straight narrative so that the reader still believes that she is reading a book. Write at least one chapter as one long stream•of•consciousness sentence. Write from about five first•person points of view (of preferably the same scene) and let the reader figure out who is who. Worried this book may be unclassifiable? Who gives a damn? The literary novel makes its own rules. Show them how clever you are.

5) Create characters that are not just larger than life but physically grotesque. Their character flaws and physical defects must yawn larger than the Grand Canyon.

6) Make sure that everyone is sexually repressed but don’t have them express their sexuality—the imagination is better.

7) Invent new words. Go for sound not meaning. And you don’t need a glossary at the end of your book to explain them—if the reader doesn’t get it, too bad! He will put it down to art.

8) Write at least 1000 pages. After the publisher’s cuts, it should not be less than 500 pages. A heavy tome is always authoritative. Also the reader will never finish it, so it will remain a mountain to be conquered, a masterpiece to be returned to time and again, in frustration.

9) Don’t publicize the book. Just make sure it has some scandal attached to it (charges of nihilism, sedition or sexual deviancy would work).

10) Print a limited run of 100 copies, give them away free to people who are looking for a hook or platform to further their own literary careers, then sit back or get on with your regular writing and watch your book become the stuff of legend. Better yet, say it’s out of print and have readers scramble to get their hands on a copy.

In the end, if the reader does not understand your novel, he will put it down to the superior intellect of the writer and your work will be hailed as a classic, only to be read in small doses by scholars.

All the best with your masterpiece!

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.

Reading Fifty Books a Year – a necessary civic duty

I have always wanted to read at least fifty books a year – approximately one a week, like a chain smoker, only this habit was healthier.

During my youth, sports, studies, work, girls, dreams all got in the way of reading those fifty books a year. When I tried to squeeze books in among those “higher priorities”, I only managed a handful. When marriage and family came along, I abandoned the idea completely, sticking instead to the newspapers, TV and the odd business book that my boss tossed at me, saying, “You will read this book. It’s good for your career.” Oh yes, and I read Dr. Seuss to my children.

At the age of fifty, when family had grown and gone, and jobs had come and gone, and dreams no longer came, I realized that I was a literary illiterate; only I was honest enough to admit it among my peers. I’d walk into a giant bookstore or a library, look at all the accumulated knowledge sitting in there, and feel intimidated and diminished. I felt that I had wasted my life.

And so I finally started reading my fifty books a year, a few years ago. I have read a couple of hundred so far and I feel that I have moved a millimetre. At least I can name•drop, “Joyce? Dante? Kafka? – oh, yeah, I’ve read them. And Woolf, and Conrad and Chekov too!” I realize that I have only skimmed the surface – the more I read, the less certain I am.

But here is the $64K dilemma, and I’m not in it alone. There is a whole generation out there like me—the yuppie generation—and we still run the world, I think, even though a few Gen X’s are dislodging us quietly. Thus, should I conclude that the world is being run by a bunch of literary illiterates? Is that why we continue to have wars and stock market collapses and famine and “us against them” and crime and “have’s vs. have•nots”? We have no sense of history of man’s foibles over the centuries as told in these books, so that we could develop the common sense to avoid them. For Pete’s sake – that guy Machiavelli confessed to all of what we have committed today in the name of progress, but how many of us have read and been shaken by The Prince or The Art of War? Instead, we repeat history and say, “Oops, sorry! Didn’t know that would cause a problem.”

So my fervent prayer is that everyone of us yuppies, puppies, Gen X’s and Y’s solemnly promise to read at least fifty books a year – good books, not trashy pulp fiction where only the bad guys win, and the good guys are also thinly veiled bad guys. Hopefully, in about 50 years—if the planet lasts that long—the treasure trove of accumulated knowledge in those libraries will seep back into us again (after all, they flowed out of our predecessors when they were written) and we will have a more enlightened, less dogmatic, more caring, more sharing society, with a sense of stability drawn from history.

In the meantime, I am off to read book number 43 for this year. Given that it’s August, I am on track to reach my goal for the fourth year running. How about you?