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.

Your writer’s story – different to the one you imagined

Our times are generating many more writers than demand can bear. This is due to better education, improved health and longevity, technology, inflated egos in the age of “me first,” and due to our eternal quest for immortality. This ambition to be a writer begins in our formative years and is inspired by our favourite writers. As a teenager, I was greatly influenced by Greene, Steinbeck and Hemingway; I dreamt of sending manuscripts out into the world where they would become best-sellers and make me a reclusive millionaire. I would hide out in some remote island and submit more manuscripts and continue to dazzle the world with my brilliance until I was invited to a cold capital in Europe to accept the Nobel Prize. And I would refuse that honour, making me an enigmatic figure like Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Pasternak or J.D. Salinger. It was nice to dream!

The reality, even back then, was different. I had chosen to gloss over the private demons my literary heroes had to overcome in order to achieve their fame: dual lives, alcoholism, drug addiction, persecution, shell-shock (called PTSD today), hypertension, depression, divorce, estrangement, chronic pain, and suicide staring out of the barrel of a gun. Not forgetting the early struggles with rejection and penury that they each triumphed over. These trials gave impetus to their work and are mentioned only in discreet biographies, not on the glossy covers of their books.

My writer’s story turned out differently to my idealized dream. For instance, I didn’t imagine that after hacking away at this craft in my early twenties in a developing country where English was a second language, and after having a handful of stories published, I would pack up my authorly tools and try something easier to earn a living – Greene, Steinbeck et al, be damned! I never realized that the “other living” would come so easily, and earn such a handsome income, that I wouldn’t bother with the writing game again for another twenty years. I didn’t realize that it would be the curse of “guilt” that would bring me back to reopen the dusty toolbox and start to catch up to where the literary world had evolved in the intervening years.

Once “Take Two” started however, the stories and novels came easily, and are likely to continue into the future, health permitting. It was like a dam had burst and all that had been stored for years just gushed out. But the publishing landscape had changed, drastically. Prizes sold books now. And the prize money was cornered among the “1% of the 1%” in the literary hierarchy. There was no middle class in publishing anymore – there was a huge gulf between self-published and best-seller, and the only way to bridge the two was with a stroke of luck.

But with every closing door there were others opening. There were now many ways in which to be published, I discovered, thanks to evolving technology that had finally demolished the dominant publishing model of eons, which was: publish a large quantity of paper books on ancient printing presses until unit costs become affordable, ship them across the land in trucks into stores that can’t keep track of them, receive most of them back after awhile to be shredded, then start the cycle again, and hope like hell that grants institutions continue to support this inefficiency in the interest of promoting the arts. That was the model under which my heroes had thrived, and now it was dying, supplanted by DIY publishing, POD, electronic media, subscriptions services, free story sites, social media, and blogs like the one you are reading. And my heroes were dead too.

I enthusiastically tried all the models available, traditional and new, and discovered that they all had their pros and cons, but as their readerships’ were distinct, this lack of homogeneity helped plaster me all over the map, assuaging my guilt for having neglected “the gift.” There was also no way I could hide out in a remote island, I realized;  I had to be front and centre in the global public domain (a.k.a. the Internet, which also never existed during the time of my literary heroes) selling my wares like a shoe salesman.  I even started a small publishing house, using the new technology, and have helped bring other writers into print, ones who may have been sitting for years in the slush piles of the Big Five ( or is it Four, now – hard to keep track!). The joy of bringing others’ work into the world, to watch them stand on the podium reading from their debut novel at their book’s launch gives me immense satisfaction. I was doing my bit to restore the middle class in publishing. And I finally faced the darker side too: the rejection, the shrunken revenue streams, the even further shrunken attention spans, and the need for that other source of income to fuel this one. None of this had been part of my teenage dream.

And so I have accepted that my writer’s story is different from the one I had visualized in my youth– creative visualizers, take note: it doesn’t always turn out the way you paint it in your mind. But it can be a damn sight more interesting and surprising. Why go on a trip where every stopover is carefully laid out, predictable and boring? Where would the thrill of the unexpected lie? Isn’t that what we try to create in our work – the unexpected?

So dear Reader, what was your writer’s dream, and how did it pan out?

The Immigrant Story – has it peaked?

Immigrant stories, or traveller’s tales, have been told for ages. From Homer’s Odyssey, to Dante’s travels across the various other•worlds, to Pilgrim’s Progress, to Michener’s tales of mass immigration, to the tales of displacements taking place after wars and ethnic conflicts, to the recent flood of “Asian immigrant comes to North America” books, we have been engaged, entertained, educated and enlightened with these “quest” stories and novels.

Writers who have never had the immigrant experience have also delved into their ancestral pasts to bring us stories of their forebears who first crossed oceans and founded new homes. There is a parallel with the story of life in these tales, where every day is a new journey that holds surprises, reversals and rewards. But have we had enough? This stuff is so close to reality and reality has always been hard to stomach, especially for this generation that is only licking the dregs of the rewards of the previous one due to a flattened, connected and decaying planet. The immigrant story makes us remember, not forget.

Bring on the entertainment they say – give us vampires and goblins and magicians and super•heroes. Give us situations so unreal that they can be safely relegated to fantasy and escapism. Throw in some graphics, sound and movement, and animate the experience; get us into the story and let us become a character, let us choose the ending – better yet, make it into a video game or a movie and we might be able to palate it. And above all, make us laugh. Make us forget.

Being an immigrant and writing what I know, and wanting to cover a part of history and culture that has been somewhat underrepresented in literature, I have frequently returned to the immigrant story over these last dozen years, producing three novels and many short stories in that genre. It is a journey into memory and into acceptance, sometimes painful, sometimes rewarding, but always enlightening. However, I am finding the demographics of those who read these stories to be shifting and are now found in two segments (a) those in my cohort or older who are trying to remember, and (b) the very young •teenagers • who are looking for clues to their origins. The middle tier has vanished – they either do not read anymore or read only to escape or are playing those video games • and I would so like to see them return.

As I get my next collection of immigrant stories, Paradise Revisited, ready for mass consumption (or should that be selective consumption?) I have to ask myself whether this will be the last in this genre and whether I too should wise up (grow up?) and move on to new fields. Wipe out memory and create fantasy. Or write about what happens when the traveller has put down his roots and travels no more. Will stories of fantasy or of stasis be as interesting? Will my heart and soul be engaged in this new crop of “entertainments?”

An interesting inflection point in the writing journey, and indeed, the journey of life…

A good story will be told – ultimately!

Writing gurus advise us not to despair when the rejection slips pile up, they urge us to keep going back to the well and digging deeper until a real gem pops out, for after all, “a good story must be told”. After a while, this sounds like another feel•good•ism to sooth the battered writer toiling away into insanity and an early death. It is tempting to say, “Stuff the gurus,” stash the pen, switch off the computer and take up golf. But something happened to me recently to reinforce this sage message that perhaps a good story will be told, even after 30 years.

Thirty years ago, when I was a young and callow fellow and lived in a country renowned for its beautiful beaches, hospitable people, empty coffers, and peace (yes, we had peace back then, before all the separatist struggles began), I wrote a story in anger to expose youth prostitution going on in the country, fuelled by western money. Wealthy middle•aged male tourists from the developed west were swooping down on our sunny third•world island and procuring young boys for their pleasure and taking them back home, while providing their families with money and material goods like tee shirts, bell bottoms and boom boxes to feed starved material appetites and sooth fears. I also happened to travel to Western Europe at the time and meet some of these kids who were now on the “other side,” ostensibly the side of milk and honey. Instead, they were living half•lives in dead•end jobs, some without legal immigration status and some still in bondage to their pedophile puppet•masters. So I wrote my story in anger and sent it to the national radio station to be read on “This Week’s Short Story” a very popular program, on which I’d successfully had some of my earlier stories read. This story was, as anticipated, rejected on the premise that it was “not good for tourism.”

I left the old country soon thereafter, had many adventures abroad, and lost the story in the intervening years. Three years ago, when I moved to Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, I found the original in a box of old souvenirs, a faded foolscap paper with my former cursive handwriting to remind and shame me for deteriorating to a fowl scratch after I bought a computer. I polished my lost•and•found story and included it in a novel (which also remains unpublished to this date, but I hope, will appear in print shortly) and it was cut out by the editor as “the piece did not fit.”

Every time I showed my orphan story to the literati, they liked it, but no one wanted to publish it. Then recently, I was invited to submit a non•fiction piece to a travel anthology. I submitted an account of a soft adventure trip I once took to the Arctic Circle in Finland in the month of February. In the same submission, I asked the editor, somewhat surreptitiously, whether she would consider this “other piece,” which was, ah… not quite travelogue material, but anti•tourist, in fact. To my surprise the editor not only accepted my 30 year•old story but changed its title to read “Number One” in the local vernacular. The story is to be published shortly.

So the writing gurus must be right, after all. A good story will be told, by hook or by crook. I offer this story•within•a•story as hope to my fellow scribes who toil in the dark waiting to be discovered. I also hope that the rest of my stories and novels don’t take thirty years apiece to come out; although that would leave me in royalties for the next five hundred years, I may never live long enough to enjoy a single penny. And that will be another story worth telling, perhaps!