To the Nay Sayers

In which I look at the denigration of genre fiction.

I met a woman once who asked me why romances could be so popular when they all told the same story. Oh, sure, some elements are the same–a man, a woman and a happy ending (and even that’s not necessarily true any more. The popularity of LGBTQ books is growing and welcome, as are erotica books)–but the journey is different in each. It’s what the characters learn on that journey and how they grow that make every story unique. She scoffed at my explanation and dismissed my notions as uninformed. I listened to her politely with a smile set on my face, then changed the subject. After all there’s no use arguing with someone who clearly had never read romance, had no intention of reading romance, yet has strong opinions on it.

All genre fiction tends to suffer from its reputation (although I would argue romance suffers more than its fair share). Maybe because all genre fiction follows formulae and for some reason people think a formula means no creativity. Heck, Joseph Campbell broke all stories down to one formula (the Hero’s Journey), which then Chirstopher Vogler laid out for writers in his best selling and fascinating book The Writer’s Journey. So it’s easy for pretentious people to dismiss entire genres of books as unoriginal or written by hacks. Those people are wrong. Yes, not all genres will appeal to everyone. I, for example, don’t like to read horror or police procedurals, but that’s a matter of taste, not a reflection of quality. I can look at the trailers for a film and know if I want to see it. A lot of times those are the films that end up winning the awards. I just don’t like that type, but as I said, that’s taste, not quality. I also don’t like red wine, black coffee, brandy, or much chocolate.

The more I think about why genre fiction is popular and why the some or the populace regards it as less than literary, the more I realize it’s about how the books make you feel and the messages they send. Even within genre fiction there is some I don’t like to read. I dislike the heavy, angsty, emotional story. I love a good romp. I love a lighter tone. Even with a high body count, I love a lighter tone (Yes, such books exist. Death and destruction with a light tone. My favorite.). It doesn’t mean that serious events don’t occur in the story; it just means I don’t need to take Xanax when I’ve finished the story. I have read some of what is called literary fiction that has made me want to gauge my eyes out after slitting my wrists. I like the romps, the adventures, the humor, the uplifting endings (doesn’t mean not sad; that means that the human spirit wins at the end. Heck, I cried at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. And Toy Story 3. Sobbed at that one.). It’s about how I felt as I read the story.cute-super-hero-clip-art-superhero-boy

And the message. Stephen King once said that genre fiction was the place where values are tested for society to ponder (Or something like that. I tried to find the real quote with no success.). I agree with him. Genre fiction is where the protagonists face circumstances that test their beliefs. If they choose rightly, they are heroes. If not, they become tragic victims. This idea is pervasive in our modern culture: “You underestimate the power of the Dark Side”; “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities”;“The thing about a hero, is even when it doesn’t look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, he’s going to keep digging, he’s going to keep trying to do right and make up for what’s gone before, just because that’s who he is.”  (That last one is Joss Whedon, in case you didn’t recognize it)

I like heroes. And villains for those heroes to fight against. Because I want to leave a story cheering, even if I’m crying. And in real life I like the heroes who do the right thing daily without fanfare or capes or parades or even fighting.

–Gabi

Books I’m reading now:

How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove

Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Azkaban by JK Rowling

 

When Was the Last Time You Cried at a Book?

Have you ever reacted to something—a character, a sentence, an event—in a novel? I mean that gut feeling you get when you read something that produces a visceral reaction? Something that makes you cheer, or cry, or become angry or frustrated? I hope so. That’s part of the joys of reading for me. But have you ever wondered why you reacted as you have? More and more I’m convinced that when you have such a reaction it’s because you’ve hit “theme” in your book.

 

I love talking about theme. I think it’s a vestigial trait from my teaching days. Theme, very simply, is what the author is saying about a universal truth (as long as truth is relative—some people believe eating animals is a sin and others enjoy hamburgers). The author comes to his or her novel with his or her own life views and often can’t help but express what they believe in their writing.

 

For example, I often write about the honor in doing the right thing. That doing the right thing, no matter how unpleasant or what the cost, is a noble goal. In my stories I’ve had characters become outlaws because they believe in doing the right thing. Society is wrong, and they can’t go along with society because it would diminish them as human beings. The loss of honor is a greater tragedy than following the rules.

 

I could give a whole lecture on Theme (and have!), but I recently I was thinking that when I react to something in a book or movie it’s because whatever it is has hit upon my own person universal truth. Another example: in the Dr Who series, the Doctor takes away Donna’s memories and incredible knowledge to save her life (long story—watch the show; it’s fantastic). He decides he can never see her again because of the danger that he would bring to her if she remembered him. He loves her (not as a lover, but as a dear friend), and because he loves her he’d rather give her up than put her in danger. I sobbed at these episodes. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever cried harder than watching the entire Dr. Who series. Now, we’re in the Doctor’s point of view, and I’d wager that Donna would make a different decision, but it doesn’t matter. I can completely relate to the choice made by the Doctor. Because it’s one of my universal truths. I’d rather know someone I love is safe and never see them again, than put their lives in danger. (And it’s a stupid game I play with myself. What if we had a huge natural disaster that separated me forever from my daughters who live on the other side of the country? I would rather know they are safe than have them make the effort to try to find me. Yeah, it’s one of those crazy thoughts that go all too often through my head. Here’s one for you if you want to play along: Aliens suddenly come down to gather humans to save the race from certain death on this planet, but they can only take a certain number. Do you go? Welcome to the world in my head.)

 

So next time you react to something you’ve seen or read, think about it a moment. What created such a strong reaction from you? And I’m not just talking positive emotions. Want an exercise in frustration and anger? Watch or read Game of Thrones. What an experience.

 

–Gabi

 

Books I’m reading now:

A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin (re-reading)

Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare