Comparative Acceptance

I had a very lively and surprising conversation with the suspense writer John Connolly on last Tuesday’s Author2Author (Oh, and be sure to catch tomorrow’s chat with screenwriter/novelist Delia Ephron). Perhaps because John’s work spans two genres (horror and suspense) we spent a great deal of time talking about genre and the various attitudes writers of one genre have about writers of another genre.

John is a friend of Lee Child, whose Jack Reacher novels land unambiguously in suspense. I was not familiar with Lee’s work when I interviewed him, but I very much enjoyed the opportunity to do so. He was charming and smart and had a very Author-ish attitude about writing. He advised writers to allow their work to evolve organically rather than strategically, thereby ensuring the quality of authenticity and originality book buyers and sellers are always looking for.

So I was surprised to hear John say that Child felt that at heart all literary writers secretly wished they could write entertaining commercial fiction, that the only reason literary writers do write literary fiction is they can’t write genre. This simply isn’t true, of course. If my hundreds of interviews have taught me nothing else, they have taught me that any writer who has had any success at all writes precisely the same thing: what he or she most likes to read.

But Child’s misperception is not a punishable offense. A literary writer might, and probably has said precisely the same thing about Lee Child regarding literary fiction. Both would be correct in a small way, because everyone seems to envy what the other one has: literary writers crave the genre writers’ sales, and genre writers crave the literary writers’ critical approval.

Fortunately, in most cases envy does not keep us from writing what we ought to write. I believe this is because some part of us understands that those people we envy don’t actually have what we believe we need. Genre writers and literary writers all have precisely the same thing, and it isn’t sales and it isn’t rave reviews in the New York Times. We have only what has been given us, and to compare it is to reject it, and to love it is to accept it – and I don’t know any writer who doesn’t love a good acceptance letter.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Life Ought To Be As It Is

A number of authors I have interviewed, particularly writers of commercial fiction, will in the course of discussing their maturation as writers mention a “first, horrible, autobiographical novel.” One writer described this first effort as the “worst novel ever written by anyone.” I thought nothing of it until I noticed that all these writers would go on to create works set in places, times, or professions (a magical land of wizards and dwarves, the Revolutionary War, international spy) with which they themselves had no personal acquaintance.

Most likely those first novels were fantasies. I do not mean the genre. Many of the best fantasy novels are not fantasies, which, to borrow from one of my favorite books, is “the attempt to correct in the mind a problem that does not exist.” And so a man remembers being a shy teenager, and remembers the boys that bullied him and the girls that wouldn’t date him, and writes a first novel in which a boy looking and sounding very much as he had exacts vengeance on his enemies and gets the girl.

The man had perceived a problem where one did not exist. He perceived the bullies as a problem and the girls not dating him as a problem. Within this perception of a problem he felt inadequate and incomplete, quite literally lacking, for if he had been enough the boys would not have bullied him and the girls would have desired him. And yet there was no problem. Everything that occurred with him, with the boys, and with the girls, occurred within the integrity of life. Everything that happened happened because of who he was and who they were and where they were and when they were. To correct this is to attempt to correct life itself, and such attempts will always feel disingenuous.

If a writer wishes to write about his own past, he has must do so to remember, which is perhaps the opposite of dismember. He must see as whole what he had seen as broken. Or, he might take a version of himself, one free of the unhappy story he had once told himself in his unhappy past, and place this avatar in some foreign land so as not to be tempted to correct that with which he is too familiar, and call this avatar his hero, for that is what he is. Now this new story feels more real than the stories of what he had really known. And so he might say, “I write about life as it ought to be,” even as he is finally writing about life as it actually is.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Value

There are writers who enjoy selling their work, and there are writers who do not. I do not mean there are writers who do not enjoy having their work bought; I mean there are writers who dislike the act of selling their work. Emily Dickinson is perhaps the patron saint of such writers. She described selling poetry as “auctioning the soul.”

I can sympathize with Dickinson, but lately, when I think of selling work, a certain word comes to mind again and again: value. It’s a word that gets used a lot in commerce. “How much is something worth?” we ask. “Well,” we answer, “what’s its value?” When a writer decides it is time to sell her work, I believe she should focus on its value, though not in monetary terms. She needn’t, as Dickinson bemoaned, auction her soul.

To understand the value of your work you must love that work as both a writer and a reader. For instance, in my reading life I have been inspired by other writers’ work. I have also been entertained, amused, excited, scared, thrilled, informed, and outraged. Yet what I value most is the experience of being inspired by something I have read. I have measured in my heart the distance between where I was before I was inspired and where I was after. To deny the value of the distance I traveled would be like denying I love my wife and children.

And so I write essays and stories that seek to inspire the reader. I also wish to entertain the reader, and amuse the reader, and inform the reader—but mostly I want to inspire the reader. If I feel I have been successful in this, then I know why someone would buy it. Someone would buy it for the same reason I would buy it. When I offer my work for sale, I am not asking anyone to assign a value to me. I am really not a part of the equation. Instead, I am looking for readers and editors who value this experience as much as I do. In this way, if I am honest, selling my work is not an auction but an invitation to party I would be delighted to attend.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Ask A Pro

It was the second writer’s conference I had ever attended, I had just cracked thirty, and I had published exactly three poems in my life. For lunch, I joined some fellow attendees for an informal chat session known as “Ask a Pro.” The idea was that we, the non-pros, could sit down with an actual flesh and bones published writer and ask him or her whatever Writers Digest or Poet’s and Writers hadn’t been able to answer.

The room filled up, but I did not see a pro, only a session leader. I assumed the actual pro would be arriving soon. In the mean time, the session leader began by going around the room and asking each of us what we wrote. “Historical Romance,” came the first answer. “Thrillers.” “Science Fiction.” “WWII Suspense.” “Time Travel Romance.” And then me.

“I guess I write literary fiction.”

The woman sitting next to me asked, “What’s that?”

This is a very uncomfortable question to answer, especially at a writer’s conference where you assume everyone knows what literary fiction is. It is very easy to sound like a snob as you talk about style and theme and meaning. With this in mind, I carefully described what I thought constituted literary fiction. This began a lively of discussion, one in which I became the accidental fulcrum around which the question of literary vs. commercial fiction turned. Admittedly, I don’t usually mind being the fulcrum in a discussion, so I imagine I played this role with a certain unearned authority. But why not? I liked to talk to people, and I particularly liked talking to them about writing.

Once this subject was depleted, a gentleman about one generation my senior turned to me and asked, “What about humor in fiction? Do you think it’s okay to use humor?”

He blinked at me with a student’s eager anticipation. “Dear lord,” I thought. “He thinks I’m the pro.”

I told him I thought it was perfectly fine to use humor in fiction, and that lots of my favorite writers, from Nabokov to Hemingway to Shakespeare, used humor to great effect. I felt a little guilty advising him. I believed what I said, but I didn’t believe I had earned the right to say it. I’d come to this session for the same reason he had: to ask a pro. I certainly hadn’t come to ask advice from someone like me.

He thanked me all the same, and he seemed greatly relieved by my answer, and I thought, “It can’t be that simple, can it? Someone else has to give you that title.”

There was no one in that room I could ask that question of but me.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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The Whole Planet

At some point today (if it hasn’t already occurred), the new issue of Author will go live, included in which is my interview with Lev Grossman. Besides being the book critic for TIME magazine, Lev is the author of the bestselling YA fantasy genre-bender The Magicians, and its sequel, The Magician King.

Lev is also the son of the award-winning poet and professor Allen Grossman, as well as the novelist/critic/professor Judith Grossman. As Lev put it in his interview, in order to write The Magicians, his third novel but his first in the fantasy genre, he had to “come out” to himself as a lover of magic and monsters. After all, he was raised in a temple to literature, where writing about wizards – not ironic wizards, not metaphorical wizards, but actual wizards – can be seen as a kind of heresy.

Good thing he did. I love that which gets called literature. In fact, if I were to call anywhere home, both as a reader and as a writer, it would be literature. But to me, if literature has but one aspiration it should be to remind readers that life is worth living no matter any circumstantial evidence to the contrary—and the only life worth living is one that most pleases he who is doing the living.

And anyway, I dislike all these genres. I know we need them to sell books, and a bookstore, virtual or otherwise, is a big place, so there’s no going back. But could anyone put you into a genre? They could put your career into a genre, your ethnicity into a genre, perhaps your religious beliefs into a genre—but what about you? All of you? Where do you really belong but here in the great, open bookstore known as Planet Earth? Only the whole of Planet Earth will suffice for the whole of you—not this city, not this family, not this genre—because like Lev Grossman you reserve the right to change your mind, and when you do, the rest of Planet Earth will be waiting for you.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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The Newest Branch

In my interview with William Gibson, the iconoclastic godfather of cyberpunk talks a lot about genre – nearly to the exclusion of all else. It had never been his intention to be a science fiction writer, but when Neuromancer, his debut novel, won science fiction’s three top awards, his fate was sealed. In talking to him, it seemed to me that he has wrestled off and on with this fact ever since.

Gibson puts it well, I think, when he says in the interview that the unspoken truth about genres is that each is expected to provide the same thrill over and over again. This is not to say that genre writers must provide the same thrill, but I think it is hard to argue that readers often expect a particular experience when they pick up particular types of books. Which has a lot to do with why they sell so well. Many of us are creatures of habit, and habit requires a certain level of predictability.

I do not think there is anything artistically wrong with writing to the expectations of a genre. If you love the swoon of a traditional romance, and you would love to provide that same swoon over and over again—more power to you. You will be happy, your readers will be happy, and God knows your publisher and agent will be happy.

What I decline to accept is the notion that one must write to the expectations of a genre if one’s work falls within that genre’s narrative terrain. To me, this is just fear, and a decidedly narrow view of people in general. Genres merely represent the discovery of one idea, or a branch within the tree of fiction, an idea fertile enough that it can be more or less replicated thousands of times. But branches always beget other branches and other branches and so on, all of which might in turn become genres of their own. To believe otherwise is to believe that human beings never want to grow or change.

We mustn’t be fooled by our own stubbornness. Yes, people will eat the same thing, read the same thing, watch the same thing over and over again. That is because they have found something that has made them happy and everyone wants to be happy. But remember, people don’t actually want to repeat themselves, they only want to be happy, and it often requires one brave soul, perhaps someone just like you, to reveal a new version of an old idea, a new way to be happy.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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