Peter Straub asks: What about genre?

A quick outside link to an article by Peter Straub, bestselling author of Ghost Story and a couple of collaborations with Stephen King, discussing the matter of genre. If there’s one category of writer even more touchy about genre than science fiction people, it’s probably horror writers.

Straub says…

Just for beginners, let’s admit that literary fiction is a genre, too, shall we? Expectations guide its readers, that of respect for consensus reality and the poignancy of seemingly ordinary lives, of sensitive character-drawing and vivid scene-painting, of the reversals and conflicts characteristic of the several sub-genres of literary fiction.

Link to the full article.

I’ve touched on this subject several times already in a blog that hasn’t yet seen two dozen posts, and that’s because I’ve gone through three periods of writing in my life, each time in a different style. As a teen I wrote horror/supernatural stories influenced by Twilight Zone (both the TV show and the magazine), somewhere halfway between the short fiction of Harlan Ellison and Stephen King. In my twenties I wrote more straightforward stuff meant to be “literary” but couldn’t stop myself from adding strange flourishes that might have been postmodernist or magical realist, or might now be called slipstream or “new weird.” Now I’m writing science fiction, but with a great emphasis on people, relationships, internal thoughts or feelings, as compared to “spaceships, aliens and planets” kind of science fiction.

Having come out the other side of these transformations myself, I realize: The same kinds of ideas and surprises have always interested me, and in a sense I’ve always written about the same things. The settings and the clothing are different, and that’s the biggest thing “genre” really is. How is everything dressed up?

I suspect most writers wish the boundaries of any given genre were more flexible.

Science Fiction Academy

I haven’t posted here in several months, nearly half a year. It’s not from a lack of interest in what I started writing about here (recent reading and writing for the most part), rather from a desire to focus more on actually doing those things, and worry less about blogging on the subjects, for now.

I’ve been reading a ton — fiction, nonfiction, magazines — and listening to a lot of audiobooks as usual (the old commute), and working very hard on writing fiction. As I blogged earlier, I’ve gone through earlier stretches of intense focus on fiction writing in my life, but since I got started working on electronic music and my Hypnos record label, that had been completely set aside until just over a year ago.

Partly this grew out of the joy of discovering some great new science fiction writers, and also rediscovering some of the books I loved earlier in my life. Partly also, it’s been a response to a nagging sense I’ve had for a long time that sooner or later, I would start writing fiction again. I didn’t want to get back to doing it the way I did in my twenties, with a focus on “straight” literary fiction with a slightly experimental or surreal angle. This, I realized later, was my way of trying to have my cake and eat it too — enable myself to write about “weird” concepts and yet occupy the same accepted and respected literary mainstream of my big heroes like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Coming back to things after a long break, I realized it was important to me to work on the kind of stuff I enjoy reading and watching. My favorite books and films, and the writers and filmmakers I most idolized, occupied a more “fantastic” corner of storytelling. This could include science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even surrealism or absurdism.

In practice I’ve mostly zeroed-in on science fiction stories, though I’ve dabbled with stuff that could be called urban fantasy or occult/supernatural horror. This feels right to me, and I’ve come up with some stories that I love and feel enthusiastic about in a way that never happened with my earlier writing efforts, toward which I felt a sort of detached aesthetic regard that might barely be called admiration.

Also I think the stuff I’m writing is pretty good. I feel better about my chances of getting published now than I did before. It doesn’t feel like buying a lottery ticket when I send out a story to a magazine, more like playing a round of solitaire. OK, I might be more likely to lose than to win at this point, but at least I feel like my chances are better than astronomical.

One thing I’m doing, aside from questioning all assumptions as a writers of words and builder of stories, is trying to shore up my fundamental base of understanding the genres I’m interested in, science fiction in particular. I’ve undertaken a sort of self-study course to reexamine some of the works I loved before, and more importantly to check out the many classics I’d never yet read. This sort of self-taught course in SCIFI 101 has been instructive, but not always in the ways I would have expected. There have been books I’ve read and said “Wow, how could I have waited so long to discover this?” and others I’ve read and wanted to stop before the end, thinking to myself, “What the hell is this crap? Who decided this was a classic?”

It’s caused me to think differently about the relative merits of some names that occupy mostly equal levels in the pantheon of big science fiction names. I mean, if you post a request on some public message board for recommendations of what science fiction classics you ought to read, you’ll get a lot of people suggesting the obvious Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury stuff, as well as plenty of Niven and Anthony and Dick and Sagan and Haldeman, and you know what? Some of that stuff stands up really well, and some of it doesn’t. Some of the ideas are really fresh, and some is quite stale. Some of it is very good writing, and some of it is excruciating on a sentence level. Interestingly, some of the guys with the best “big ideas” write some of the worst sentences and most cringe-worthy dialogue, while a guy who’s a better wordsmith might be lacking in the “sense of wonder” department.

As I continue plodding away through my own Science Fiction Academy, I’ve reached a point where I feel like I know only a little, but enough to start asserting opinions, pushing a certain point of view. That’s what I’m going to work on here for a while, a piece-by-piece reporting of what I’ve learned and how I assess some of the major books and big-name writers of the science fiction genre (and other related styles), possibly with occasional diversions into lessons from movies, TV or even art. I’ll tag these entries with Science Fiction Academy, as well as with the relevant names and titles.

I’ll also start to give some more specifics of the stories I’m working on writing.

Red Dragon and the Queen of Angels

I’ve seen the movie Silence of the Lambs many times, and the movie Manhunter once, but haven’t previously read any work by Thomas Harris. Manhunter is based on Harris’s third novel Red Dragon which was more recently re-made into a film of the same name starring Ed Norton.

I’m now listening to the audiobook of Red Dragon and I’m pretty impressed with it. Harris’s style is simple, kind of terse and unornamented, more of a gritty detective story than a horror story in terms of feel, but there are these incredibly hard-hitting and awful scenes of horror interspersed throughout. The horror feels real, though, not supernatural or make-believe. I haven’t enjoyed a new fiction author discovery as much since Robert Charles Wilson a few years ago, and I look forward to reading Harris’s later books, though I’ve heard Hannibal is not quite as good and Hannibal Rising is fairly questionable. OK, let’s just say I’m looking forward to finishing this one up, and then reading Silence of the Lambs.

Just recently finished Queen of Angels by Greg Bear and found it a challenging, thought-provoking piece of science fiction, quite different in style from the other Greg Bear works I’ve read. Though definitely a science fiction story, this one feels more literary and sort of poetic than his other stuff, though maybe closest to Blood Music. An interesting story focusing on distortions of the mind, and questions of consciousness and soul, both human and artificial. I’ll probably want to pick this up again in a year or two and go through it once more, as it’s fairly thick with ideas.

Another Ridley Scott Alien

Wow, great news! Ridley Scott has signed on to do an Alien prequel!

More info here

Alien poster
Alien poster

Scott directed only the original 1979 Alien film, and each of the 4 in the series have been made by different directors, but Ridley Scott is definitely the one of the four directors (Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet) I’d most like to see try another Alien installment.

From what I’ve read, though, apparently no Sigourney Weaver as Ripley this time. Of course, she’s about to turn 60 and so running around in your panties no longer works quite like it did 30 years ago.

ripley

I’m almost as excited about this upcoming movie fun as about the two Hobbit movies coming up.

Words Out: A New Hope

Most of these blog entries have been about books I’ve read recently, or crazy authors I’ve enjoyed, but my earlier-this-week blog entry “Words in, words out” said a bit about my own writing, at least the earlier stage of that.

So when we left off, I had left off my own fiction writing between the time I was almost thirty, and more recently (I’m forty-three now) when I’d decided I was interested in picking it back up.

I didn’t just grab a pen and paper, or computer word process, and get started spewing words. I spent quite a bit of time daydreaming and planning, re-reading some of my earlier work, and thinking about what kind of work I felt motivated to create. Those early stories (and novels and poems) were mostly straight “literary” fiction, that is, stories about people being serious, joking around, relating to each other, and… feeling ways about stuff. Some of them, the ones that remained interesting to me, were more experimental, or looked at reality through a different lens.

pen-paper

I thought about the books and stories I’d most enjoyed reading, simply as a reader, not as a writer comparing himself or looking for inspiration. Then I considered, aside from what I most enjoyed as a spectator of good writing, what sort of stories would it excite me to create?

I realized I wanted to create new worlds, different worlds from this real one, not only different in the sense of having imagined people in them, walking around and worrying about concerns exactly like the concerns of the people in this real world. I mean entirely different worlds, different concerns, different rules. I want to imagine wider possibilities. It excites me to imagine a future in which our world is different, things have changed in ways that are sometimes shocking, at least interesting.

In the end I decided I can write whatever I want but I also need to consider what kind of “markets” (a really seedy and overly commercial-sounding word, to most people, but one writers throw about and mean nothing worse by it than “places I might send my stories) to consider. That means slotting the work a genre and I guess I’d say we’re talking about Science Fiction here.

Dune

Now, the irritating ass-hole voice in the back of my mind complained a little bit. I mean the arrogant jerk who majored in Literature (big “L”) in college, and who, despite really loving Harlan Ellison and Frank Herbert and assorted others, still kinda felt like Science Fiction was a sort of less-serious, less-literary genre. This discussion has come up a few times before, on the Hypnos Forum (a discussion board related to my record label, Hypnos Recordings) where there are many sci-fi fans including one who’s an editor at Asimov’s. This came up before I was writing, and I was acknowledging that voice in the back of my own mind when it came to the regard of science fiction from a reader’s point of view, not as a writer. But I can’t help think back to it, and halfway try to talk myself out of getting involved in it, knowing that the little condescending, snobby voice is there in the back of my head.

Dangerous Visions

In the end, I decided the little voice can just get over itself, and I will follow what my gut tells me is right. The truth is, I get as excited about a good new science fiction movie as about any other kind of movie. Most of my favorite TV shows (Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Star Trek, etc.) are science fiction. More and more, when I think about reading a book for pure enjoyment, I think of something like Greg Bear or Gregory Benford, or more recently Robert J. Sawyer or Stephen Baxter or especially Robert Charles Wilson. I’ve recently become infatuated with Greg Egan, only to find that at times his books are infuriatingly, willfully unfriendly to the reader… but I’m as excited to explore the rest of his work as I am about any other writer I can think of.

Spin

Undoubtedly I’ll write some things that sci-fi purists may look at and say “Hmm, not enough spaceships,” and I’ll have to figure out what to do with some of my stories. But when the first subjects I want to write about include artificial intelligence and robotics and life extension and simulated reality, and the environments I want to explore include the future Earth, outer space, and other planets, I become increasingly comfortable just settling into that genre and starting to explore.

I’ve written about fifteen stories in a very short time, some just a first draft, and a couple of them nearly finished. I’ve plotted out a connected story cycle, begun to lay-out one novel, and made notes toward a few other novel ideas. I’m writing better, more quickly, and with greater pleasure than at any time before, and I feel I’ve just started again. The things I’m writing now are more considered, more mature, and certainly more geared toward a readership outside of my own brain, than what I did when I was younger. I like the idea of having stories published at some point, but I’m also enjoying the process of getting the words out and then carefully re-working and polishing them, so I won’t hurry the whole “publication chase” aspect. It seems to me that if the writing is good, then the possibility of getting things into magazines will follow. I think it is a real flaw of many writers, certainly was a flaw of mine when I was younger, to push the whole “must get published, must get published!” overdrive with much greater energy and priority than what SHOULD be one’s primary motive, “must get better, must do the best work possible.”

Before too long I’ll start to be more specific about some of the things I’m working on and planning, and may even post a little word-blurb excerpt of actual written fiction, at some point. But the above gets us up to date, as far as the whole “Words Out” side of things.

We want our artists to be crazy

Last week I read an interview with Thomas Ligotti (who, in case you don’t know, if a very interesting, uncompromising and very strange writer of psychological horror fiction. I’d read about Ligotti before, but in the course of reading this interview I realized a very high percentage of the creative people I’ve admired are somewhere between “troubled” and “completely nuts.”

Just look at who else I’ve written about in this short-lived blog… Hemingway (suicidal alcoholic), Fitzgerald (depressive alcoholic), Philip K. Dick (who, let’s just say, has a five paragraph section under the heading “mental health” in his Wikipedia entry), and now Ligotti. For a catalog of Ligotti’s psychological troubles I’ll leave you to read the above-linked article, if you’re interested.

Add to that list some of my other favorite creative inspirations, for example painters –Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo — and a pattern begins to emerge. One begins to wonder, do individuals of the sensitive nature who might excel at creation just naturally have a hard time in life due to that sensitivity? Or is it that unbalanced, obsessive people have more time or energy to focus upon their creative work, and are thus more likely to be productive and to succeed? Or is there something in the inward searching all creative artists must undertake that is somehow troubling or corrosive to one’s happiness in the long term?

I really don’t know the answer to this. It does seem, though, that a quick rundown of my list of favorite poets, artists, composers and so on, yields a rate of incidence of psychological problems greater than what’s seen in the general population.

Picking this back up again

Probably 99.99995% of new blogs never make it fast the initial few posts, I’m sure. I never quite established the habit of visiting here every day, and sort of forgot about it, but I’m going to take another stab at posting here.

The purpose of this blog, as I said at the beginning, is to talk a bit about my own recent writing and reading (and I include audiobook listening when I say “reading”).

So, to quickly catch up from where I left off, halfway through Eye in the Sky

The second half of that early Philip K. Dick novel was slightly better than the first. As I haven’t read a Dick novel since probably the late 80s, this has got me thinking, “Is he just one of those writers that’s better in theory than in reality?” I mean, his concepts are interesting, but the writing…

On the other hand, this is an early book of his, certainly not considered one of his better works. So I’ll just set it aside, and certainly NOT be in a hurry to read Dr. Futurity or Solar Lottery any time soon.

At some point, I’ll give another look at one of the books from his last decade.

I’ll keep this short, and try to make shorter, less ambitious posts in the future (at least until I establish a routine of posting here) so I’ll be more likely to keep posting regularly. I’m sure this blog’s many readers are saying in unison, “Sounds great, Griffin!”

More Dick

OK, I’m somewhere past the halfway point of Eye in the Sky, the Philip K. Dick audiobook I’ve been listening to. I said before that I felt Phil Dick was more of an “idea guy” than a prose stylist and that has only been reinforced by this book.

Yes, his writing became more sophisticated and careful later in his career, and I suspect these early novels of his were written in a quick rush of a week or two, just for the money. But still, the quality of the writing is very poor. Sentence after sentence follows precisely the same template.

“Flinching wildly, she set the glass down on the table…”

“Ducking suddenly, he turned to his wife and said…”

“Blinking incredulously, Hamilton tried to think of the right words…”

Almost very sentence starts with someone verbing something adverbially. Ugh. It becomes pretty distracting after a while.

Eye in the Sky, by Philip K. Dick

At any given time I’m usually reading (at least) one book, and listening to an audiobook during my commute.  Sometimes I work on similar books for “reading” and “listening” at the same time, but most often I try to go down different paths with the two books.

Right now, I’m listening to Philip K. Dick’s The Eye in the Sky.

cov-eyesky-v-2001.jpg

It’s one of Dick’s earlier novels, in fact arguably the earliest one that really had that provocative Phildick quality. It was first published in 1957, and the super-quickie plot summary is as follows: Following an industrial lab accident, an out-of-work engineer finds himself, along with his wife and a few others, catapulted into an alternate world of Old Testament religious fundamentalism, where prayer and miracles and plagues of locusts are part of daily life.

Philip K. Dick is one of those writers I find interesting enough to think about and talk about, but I don’t actually find myself reading his work very often. I think he’s more notable for his ideas, for pushing the envelope and questioning assumptions, than for his actual writing. Certainly he’s a beloved name in the realm of science fiction, but he’s one of those writers whose books are more interesting in summary than they actually read on the page.

Still, I’d say he has a lot of value even as just a provocateur. And Dick was certainly one of the more interesting personalities or “characters” in science fiction when I was growing up, along with Harlan Ellison.

Speaking of Philip K. Dick, there’s a Dick biography by Lawrence Sutin that is one of the more interesting author bios I’ve ever read. It’s focused quite a bit on Dick’s late-life religious/metaphysical/psychotic experiences, hence the title Divine Invasions.

I’m no more than 1/4 of the way through this audiobook so I’ll write more about it later. Just wanted to write a little something about it, as I’m having fun revisiting a writer I think about a lot, and regard highly, but don’t actually read often enough.