Monday, April 23, 2012

A Rant On Literature

There's been a few things the last few days that have pushed this to the forefront of my mind, but the final straw was today when I received a package in the mail. At first, I had no idea what it was. Then I opened up and saw the "Alligator Juniper" label on the front cover and I remembered.

A while back (last October) I entered a short story contest. I got the notification in February that the story hadn't been selected for publication. Following a brief firestorm I ignited due to my ... hostile relationship with what gets called "literary fiction," this was basically a slap in the face.

I'm a person of many dislikes. I make them all known. Chief among them is stupid people. A few rungs below that, is what gets considered "literary fiction." Now, this is not some kind of artificial distinction that I myself make. Over the course of my education, this is something that was beat into my skull; there is literature with a "Capital L", which is special. Lit fic, it gets called. Then there's lower case literature, which is another way to say "genre fiction." I'm a genre fiction writer. I enjoy writing genre fiction, but it hasn't always been that way.

I was cheated in high school. Think of all the books you read in high school - 1984 (or Nineteen-Eighty Four, if you go by the original cover), Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Animal Farm, and others. The only one of those I read was Animal Farm, and that was back in 10th grade. From 7th grade (both years) up through to my senior year, I only read one of those novels. I don't remember any other major reading assignments unless it came from one of the outdated textbooks (I have trouble remembering that time at all; following graduation the depression stick smacked me so hard that I just cannot remember anything that happened before it. I lost the will to live for an entire year. I still don't remember people who say they knew me back in high school - I look at my friends list and at my former classmates, but the only thing on my mind is "Who the hell are these people?")  I didn't get a chance to read any kind of major literature at all until I was in college.

When I was in college, I was first introduced to the concept of "Capital L" literature. This literature is books that "deal with human themes" and "speak to humans at a deeper level." Like The Violent Bear it Away, which did indeed speak to me, or Waiting for Godot. Capital L literature was literature that incorporated symbolism, that made use of religious metaphors and pulled elements from other great sources of "Capital L" literature. It was stuff that captured the true, distilled essence of human futility and suffering, and really, cheerful stuff that just made you want to drive your car off of cliff. I was depressed at the time (I would actually rotate; periods of normality, periods of productive hypomania, and periods of really deep depression), so like I said, this stuff about futility, about suffering, and the distilled essence of "yep. I think I'm going to take up drinking now after heaving read that" really did speak to me.

Around this time, I picked up an interest in science fiction. It was because of my bad experience with fantasy that I was avoiding the genre; I originally started working in fantasy. My first few original stories were fantasy stories. Following the bad experiences, I started looking for something else. I'm still not entirely sure how I fell into the science fiction genre - I'm pretty sure it was video games that pulled me here, but then, I've always been a sucker for a big idea and science fiction as a genre is the genre of big ideas - but it was around the time that I was going through that very rough period (the year I don't remember much of). I wanted to write a "meaningful science fiction" story that would take everything I'd learned that made "lit fic" meaningful and then stuff it in a science fiction context. At the time, I considered it "my magnum opus" (look, I was just turning 20 at the time. If you don't look back at some things you did growing up and cringe, you didn't grow up. That level of arrogance always makes me cringe, and it's one of the reasons why I try not to talk a lot about my hobbies and why I don't like talking about my book. I don't mind other people doing it, but I don't like doing it myself). It turned out about as well as you could expect: it was overwrought, it was a mess, it was too much trying to be too much with too little purpose. "Who is your audience," I was asked. Well, my audience was the smart people who would never read it anyway because I refused to budge from defining it as science fiction.

It wasn't an ugly book. There was a lot going for it. The fact that there was so much going for it is one of the reasons why it failed at what it set out to do. Symbolism is something you can't intentionally cram in a story - at least, not to the degree that I attempted, anyway. Lemuria remains one of my favorite books, and even if it's not likely to see the light of day in the near future, it did have the side effect of being the original birthplace of Cyan Brooklyn, who would become one of the tertiary characters in The Blue Pimpernel. Who is your audience for The Blue Pimpernel? Well, it's YA lit, but anyone who likes superheroes, or likes hard science fiction, or is just tired of seeing White male leads, will enjoy the book. I had an audience for this one. At the time, I considered this book to be inferior to Lemuria simply because Lemuria was so damn overwrought and had all of the trappings of "Capital L" Literature, where as The Blue Pimpernel did not, being "just a story." As my views have changed, and I've adopted a more hostile position towards "Capital L" Literature and the elitism that perpetuates it, I've switched them around. I think The Blue Pimpernel is the better story, despite being genre fiction, simply because the only thing I'm trying to do with it is tell a story. Somewhere in my mind, Capital L Literature had stopped being about the story and started being about the message that it was sending.

Why was I so dead set on writing a "Great science fiction story" and then making sure it was science fiction? Overlooking the youthful ignorance in thinking that I even could write a book that'd get me noticed, I wanted to do it because I knew about the science fiction ghetto. I wanted to prove that you could transcend it. I wanted to show that science fiction, the genre of big ideas, can be every bit the symbolism hunt and crossword puzzle that "Lit fic" is. It can have a ending so dark and depressing you'll want to throw yourself at the nearest bottle with renewed vigor.

Obviously, looking back, I can see that I'd never get me anywhere even if, by some long shot, the novel would get noticed. Furthermore, I made the mistake of gearing the novel as a dystopia - dystopias are the "Capital L" Literature that I knew you could use as a framing device to show how hopeless and meaningless the world actually is.

Since I started treating my bipolar, and since I've embraced transhumanism and the Enlightenment, I've made almost a 180-degree turn. I don't want to write "Capital L" Literature. I fought with depression for most of my adult life so far. I don't want to be told that my life sucks. I know it does. I don't want to be told I'm worthless, because I've told myself that for years. I look back at dystopia - a genre that I'm actually half-way decent working in - and see all of the different problems in it now that I didn't see before. Despite my mocking, sometimes cynical tone, I'm very idealistic. I have hope for the future, and I have hope that technology will make our lives better. This is why I'm transhumanist. This is why I'm an abolitionist. This is why I'm pro-uplifting. My idealism just did not mesh with the essence of what I've been taught that "Capital L" Literature stood for. And so, rather than sacrifice my idealism, which is one of the things that makes me happy, I sacrificed "Capital L" Literature, instead.

I am not the only person who makes this distinction. This distinction between "Capital L" literature and lowly "genre fiction" is, like I said, something that's been taught to me. It's something that I've grown up in. Books were always about "what message is the author sending", whether it was high school (the few things I remember were discussing Animal Farm and it's message) or College (the symbolism hunt is something that I engaged in college. What did the author mean here? Could this character be a stand in for Jesus? It was like a crossword puzzle at the time; this is how you read books. Like crossword puzzles, trying to fit together the pieces to understand what the author was really driving at). It works like this:

This is one of my favorite macros, because it's true(r than most others). I am both an English teacher and an author now, so I can see it from both ways. At the time I was writing Lemuria, I was gearing it towards the symbolism hunt. So many things crammed in there; that was what made a book Great. That and a miserably dreary, soul-crushingly bleak ending. 

But, like I said, I am not the only person who makes this distinction, nor does this distinction begin or end with me. In my creative writing class, genre writing was off limits. It was looked down upon as not being real writing. I found this out the hard way when I submitted a science fiction/western and made the mistake of calling it such. I was told "Good story, but it's genre writing, so it doesn't count." I learned in my lit classes that "genre writing" was the "lower-case l" literature, as opposed to stuff like Lord of the Flies or The Handmaid's Tale, which were "Capital L" Literature. I've read things from more than a few science fiction and fantasy authors that confirm it. For instance, from Terry Prachett:
"[My agent] said 'You have a murder mystery up there, you have a horror book up there, you have all kinds of genres on the bestseller shelf, why not Terry Pratchett's book?' And the response was 'We don't let them out of the science fiction section'"
And my own person story about my short story submission to Alligator Juniper. I put a lot of effort into a story that, as far as I could tell, really didn't fit in any genre that I could immediate see (mystery was the closest that I could find, but there were heavy elements of something that resembled fantasy even though it wasn't directly fantasy because nothing was confirmed, so I went with Magical Realism instead). In the submission letter, Identified the story as a Mystery/Magical Realism short story. I carefully wrote it, doing a metric pantston of research before hand about the culture of the South, especially in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where it was set, and about the legends, the myths, and the ghost stories surrounding the area. I submitted the story after one minor revision due to grammatical mistakes. I was told by my readers it was a good story. My mom commented that it was one of the better ones that I've wrote, but while I appreciate my mom's input, there's a reason you don't trust family members or friends when they tell you your stuff is decent. Still, I was careful with it, I put everything I had into that story (I hated it, too. Fantasy is not my thing, so I tried to focus more on the characters, including one of my favorite characters I made, Naomi St. Creed, a half-African and half-Indian character who's sort of like Sherlock Holmes but with more people skills). I submitted it, not really expecting to win, but hoping that maybe I could get an honorable mention in the magazine or something. Just getting published would've been a victory for me at the time.

That February I got the letter that the story had been rejected. Nothing shocking; I didn't really expect to win major awards my first time out. However, as I read through the letter, something struck me. They were telling me all of the things that were good about the story, all of the things they liked. The letter seemed to boil down to "You story was an excellent story and we had a lot of fun reading it and judging it." It was followed with, "However, we don't publish genre fiction."

I didn't lose anything because I wrote a crappy story, not if the letter is to be believed. I lost because I made the mistake of trying to find a classification for it, and giving it a genre, and thereby telling them it was genre writing.

I feel my hostility towards "Capital L" Literature is well earned. I am bitter towards it, because I identify so closely with my genre of choice and with my writings more importantly, being told that my writings are a lesser quality not because they may have mistakes or not be very good, but simply because they're "genre" is an insult. If that's the worst you've got, then no, you don't deserve respect. And neither does the crap that you pedal, the depressing, soul-crushingly bleak "Capital L" Literature that, really, belongs in a genre anyway ("1984" and "Brave New World" are both science fiction novels. So is "The Handmaid's Tale"). I resent it being given a special place. It's not the fault of the authors or even the books themselves, but I still resent it earning this special spot. It's like the Oscar snubbing a comic book movie simply because it's a comic book movie, regardless how well Heath Ledger performed as the Joker.

To that degree, one can say I am proud of the fact that I reject this stuff. After trying to be like it for so long, and trying to write it for so long, I've finally see that there's no use in it. I'll keep my big ideas. I'll keep my future, my robots and cloning, my technology and my philosophical implications of animal uplifting and mind uploading. You won't find this stuff in "Capital L" Literature, because "Capital L" Literature doesn't deal with the "big questions" that genre writing does. "Capital L" Literature is not the genre for ideas. It's not so much a genre as it is a narrow field of books that academics select from because they appeal to the "symbolism crossword hunt" or whatever reason it happens to be. I resent the books and I resent the genre, and most of all, I resent the academics behind it. I'm not the only one who draws the artificial line between "Capital L" Literature and "lower-case l" literature/genre writing. In fact, I'd rather not draw the line at all. But it's there, and I'd be foolish not to at least make note of it.

I no longer have any desire to transcend the line. I don't care about "meaningful human themes" or "the symbolism crossword hunt" anymore. I just want to tell a damn good story, with believable characters, and explore big, medium, and little ideas. That's all that I'm looking for anymore.
And that's what I'm aiming for with my next set of books that I'm working on: Entropy, the second Blue Pimpernel novel, and Speed of Thought, the working title for a book that seeks the answer to (the not so big question of): What would (vehicle) racing look like if the pilots were immortal and didn't have to fear death?

The answer to that question, by the way - is it'd be incredibly strange and incredibly dangerous. But then, no story would be good unless it were incredibly strange and incredibly dangerous for the protagonist(s). And telling a good story is more important than the symbolism hunt.

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