Monday, May 17, 2010

Tuxedo Man: A Writing Journal: Part Four

Genre novels are the potato chips of the literary world. Readers buy them for the same reason noshers pick up a package of chips: they seek a particular and familiar experience with strong simple flavors and with just enough difference between successive bites (or novels) to maintain interest. This has, of course, nothing to do with literary quality. The writing in some genre novels is as fresh and brilliant as the work of any literary novelist. But structurally, in general, genre novels provide affirmation; literary novels provide challenge, asking and answering the deeper questions of our common life, illuminating society, morality, and relationship. On the other hand, you can take the genre form and use it as a container for anything you like. It's also true that genre tends to sell better, and so if you want to make a decent living writing fiction, genre is the obvious, if somewhat shameful, choice.

I write genre, but I'm also interested in ideas, and also in the possibilities of an expanded idea of genre. The late, wonderfully gifted, mystery writer Nicolas Freeling wrote a book of essays in which he contended that much of literature had to do with some crime or other: much of Shakespeare, for example, as well as Dickens, Hawthorne, and Dostoevsky, are tales of betrayal, fraud or murder. Crime gives a writer a ready-made plot, which few can resist. And readers like it.

The risk, of course, is that you will write a book that is not as popular as plain vanilla genre nor visible to the refined literary world because it's genre, hence trash. You just have to learn to live with this.

So there are two sets of ideas that interest me, and which I've tried I've explored in the novels. The first is about the underlying nature of reality. In the West, most people think this is an answered question. Science has nailed this down: it's all particles and the laws governing particles, the Universe is made of dead matter, we are biological machines, and if you don't like it, tough. It's Reality. Even people in our culture who retain some religious belief tend to accept this without really thinking about it. Most American religion seems to me to be social and tribal, or a branch of the self-help movement. It typically does not challenge the prevailing ontological consensus.

Which has a few problems. If you say that nothing is Real unless it can be analyzed, observed, and verified according to the rules of science, then it's hard for you the explain (1) why something like ninety per cent of the mass-energy in the universe is completely unobservable, the so-called dark matter; and (2) why at least two things that almost all normal humans believe are the very foundations of reality resist observation in this way: love and pain. I'm not a professional philosopher and so can't formulate sustainable arguments against the prevailing view, but my sense is that in the present age the wheels are starting to come off the Enlightenment. There's stuff we can't explain and many are starting to suspect are beyond explanation by human means. (Those interested in this line of thought should take a look at John Horgan's The End of Science.)

What these lacunae do is open up some interesting fictional space. Magical realism is an established literary genre, and fantasy (vampires, magicians and the like) is an established subliterary genre, but what I tried to do is suggest that even a realistic novel can throw some light on this ontological question. Maybe the psyche is real in just the way electromagnetism is real, and maybe it has capacities and qualities that we've ignored since the Enlightenment gave us power over a big part of nature? Anyway, it amuses me, and I hope it amuses some readers.

The second idea is deracination. The world now is characterized by vast movements of peoples. This means that the person stranded in a foreign nation and culture is a much more common phenomenon than heretofore. Also more common is the person of mixed inheritance, one of whom, for example, is the President of the U.S. Deracination sets up all kinds of psychic tensions and releases a lot of creativity and causes a lot of pain. These are all interesting to the novelist. If you read my stuff you see that many of the major characters are deracinated in some way, cut off from their natal culture or mixed in some way.

It's not easy to introduce ideas like this in novels, especially genre novels, which tend to be idea-free, like potato chips. You want to avoid the didactic, but you also can't afford to lose the reader. It's something of a struggle.

Next: more about memory

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not easy to introduce these ideas in genre novels, but is what make your novels exceptional - there is the tension of the suspense, but there is lots to think about along the way, making it a rich experience. The 3 Jimmy Paz books are my favourite detective novels ever - most of the genre don't hold me, seems I get bored with too pure a potato chip.
Just got A Good Son - can't wait.