Writing for the Love of Writing

I can be pretty damned sarcastic (I know how surprised you must be to read that).  But there are times when I want to be completely and totally honest.  And this is one of those times.

Last night, I had the great good fortune to participate in a reading with other members of my MSc class in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.  Over the past three semesters, we’ve been together an awful lot.  We’re a small class, which means that most of us know each other quite well.  When I came to Edinburgh, I was a tad nervous to be in a group of other writers.  I’ve heard of courses where writers compete against other, even come to hate each other because everyone else seems to be a threat.  Thank God, that was not the case with this course.  What I’ve found is a kind, loyal group of incredibly intelligent, talented people, ready to embrace each other’s work as well as provide criticism, understanding and, at times, commiseration.  Trying to become a writer is not easy; it can be a thankless job and few of us will be able to make our livings at it.  It matters a great deal to be surrounded by people who truly love what they do, and who are willing to support each other in the pursuit of a creativity that is simply not as readily rewarded in mainstream society as business acumen or financial prowess.

So last night, after an exceptional day of panels concerning the business side of literature, we got together and read our own work.  In a pub, naturally; we at least fulfill that stereotype.  Now, I do not particularly enjoy spoken word events.  They can range on the spectrum from generally entertaining to mind-numbingly boring.  At the worst, they can be pretentious celebrations of some very undeserved egos.  Every once in a while, you come across an excellent reader or writer, but I admit that I have taken to avoiding them.  Not so last night.

Having come through several semesters of at times painful workshops, I was grateful to hear stories I had never heard, and some that I had.  Grateful to the camaraderie expressed every time someone else took the stage, and grateful just to be sitting with such a spectacular group of people.  I will be shocked if every single one of us doesn’t manage to make a go of being a professional writer.  MSc programs sometimes get a bad rap for being writing factories, producing generic ‘literary’ novelists.  I can say with certainty that this particular program has not done that.  We are all so incredibly different in our interests, in our styles, in the way we approach writing.  This is a result, I believe, of particularly good instructors, but also of our own desires, our own independence.

We were told of the importance of having a community.  What I learned last night was that we do not have to go looking for that community.  It’s right there next to you, in the person you’ve argued with, got drunk with, laughed with, commiserated with.  We have formed our own community and I, for one, am immensely grateful to be a part of it.  And I can say that honestly, without sarcasm or cynicism.

One Genre to Rule Them All…

How to be a douche in two easy lessons

As my friends are well aware, I am a total snob.  I’m a film snob, a literature snob, and, most recently (due to my sudden interest in Nietzsche, that syphilitic genius), a philosophy snob.  I watch movies with long names and long takes, like Last Year at Marienbad and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.  I read Thomas Pynchon for fun.  I like Baudrillard and Foucault and words like ‘signification’ and ‘heteronormative structures’.  I write douchey posts on my blog, like this one.

But …

I also like terrible B-movies, slasher flicks, sappy romantic comedies and things in which Bruce Willis or Vin Diesel blows shit up.  And I read genre books: crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy and their subgenres, steampunk, cyberpunk, even the occasional romance novel.  I do not like contemporary literary fiction as a rule.  Everything recent that I’ve taken interest in usually turns out to be what would be broadly classified as ‘genre’ fiction.  You know, genre.  That thing that snobs are not supposed to like.  That thing that is repetitive and has rules and is, like, generic and stuff.  That section of literature (or film, or art) that is not ‘serious’.

Recently, a furor broke out over the BBC’s World Book Night last month.  Lead by Stephen Hunt (an excellent steampunkish author), a group of fantasy/sci-fi writers responded to what they perceived as the BBC’s anti-genre attitude.  I believe the phrase ‘sneering derogatory tone’ was used.  The BBC of course denies that they sneered at genre fiction. (Hunt’s original post can be found here: Stephen Hunt vs BBC , the BBC’s response according to The Guardian here: BBC Denies Sneering at Genre Fiction ).

I did not see the program, so I really can’t comment on how right or wrong the sci-fi authors or the BBC are.  Being that an opinion is much easier to hold if not hampered by the facts (thank you, Mark Twain), I choose to side with the authors.  But the point that this whole debate makes is one that keeps coming back to me: what’s the matter with genre?

What is it about so-called genre fiction that makes folks like the literati over at the BBC sneer? I use the BBC specifically, but this extends to a whole section of writers, readers, professors and intellectuals.  Why is To the Lighthouse literature, and Farewell My Lovely not? I once took a whole class in 20th Century Crime Fiction at a university known for its stalwart dedication to the canon of English literature.  Why is this debate still going on?

Warhol, like him or hate him, made great strides in making pop culture art.  Thomas Pynchon wrote a potboiler, a steampunk novel, an adventure story.  Cormac McCarthy writes westerns, but no literary critic will admit that he’s working in the tradition of Zane Grey.  Robert Louis Stevenson is taught as canonical, but lest we forget that he was a genre author: horror (Jekyll and Hyde) , adventure (Kidnapped, Treasure Island), historical fantasy (The Master of Ballantrae).  Dickens was a popular writer who got published in monthly installments in magazines.  Jane Austen, let’s face it, wrote chick lit.

I blame the Modernists.  Before Virginia Woolf et al began venerating themselves, novels were largely modes of entertainment.  They were a popular medium intended for a wide audience longing for a three volume escape from mundanity.  They were TV for the middle classes.  The best ones (for my money, Dickens, Hardy and Thackeray, but that’s debatable) were entertaining first; the depth of their subjects, their political commentary and social consciences were a marvelous addition.  The Modernists made the novel deep as a cave and just as dangerous.  They gave it a greater social conscience, and moved it towards real political efficacy, but in the process lost sight of entertainment value.  We read Ulysses because it’s important, but is it fun?

This is not to say that there is no place for intellectual books.  I love intellectual books.  I also don’t want to be bored by something just because it’s ‘important’.  Anti-intellectualism is a terrible thing, but sometimes I get the sense that intellectuals are looking to cordon themselves off from the rest of the world, to look down their noses at something just because it does not fit into an arbitrary criteria of ‘art’.  The fact is that literary fiction is as much a genre as anything else: there’s BAD literary fiction, and there’s good.  We just slap the phrase ‘literary’ on it and suddenly it’s a tome worthy of the New York Review of Books.  Good genre fiction is difficult; it requires as much skill, as much intelligence and attention to detail as any other work of art.  Entertaining people is hard work.  So, basically, we all need to get our heads out of our own asses and realize that literature is a slippery category.  Besides, some literary fiction could be improved by a dirigible or two.