Genre Trouble: Everybody is subcultural (Literary fiction is a genre too)

Until I started working with the National Novel Writing Month local community in the Twin Cities, my experience with peer-organized writing groups (as opposed to professionally led classes) had been nearly uniformly negative.

Now, I feel as if I’ve come home. And who are my compatriots? Genre writers all: science-fiction, fantasy, romance, detective fiction, horror, erotica. Now the fact of the matter is that these genres, these so-called sub-literatures, are far more representative of the whole human history of storytelling than is modern literary fiction. People have always told stories of extraordinary happenings or fantastical creatures, or the irruptions of the divine or the diabolical into ordinary life. The workaday life, the five minutes of Act 1, scene 1, is nowhere so interesting as the interruption thereof. And the fantastical, the vampires and werewolves and ghosts and mysterious strangers from the depths of Hades or the far reaches of the galaxy, come bearing the gifts of knowledge about ourselves, the things that we cannot admit in waking life about the world and how it really works.

In the next months, I’m posting excerpts from my 2009 National Novel Writing Month manuscript, The Reincarnations of Miss Anne, which is closer to its real-life (mostly historical) sources than anything else I’ve written. There’s a terror to the veil being so thin—or the mask—that separates this extended dream from real life. I finished the month of November 2009 with this monster staring me in the face and asking me the question, Quo vadis?  Where are you going?

And I honestly don’t know the answer to that question.

I look at the stories I’ve written since, and the mask is very much more translucent: iridescent and full of shifting depths, behind the smiling face of a story of once-upon-a-time. The darkness in those stories is implied; I don’t say it’s our world that I’m telling, and in fact sometimes I don’t see it until I’ve finished the telling of the tale.

Francisco Goya, one of my favorite visual artists, has an amazing range, from sunlit portraits of Spanish aristocrats, to the the least flattering royal group portrait ever painted, to the impressionistic sketches of the Disasters of War, the Capriccios,  and the famous Black Paintings—the latter limned in pale paint on the black ground of the walls of his own house. When I saw those last three, I had a moment of truth: someone else has thought these thoughts and tried to tell the truth. In that moment, I also realized the limits of classical realism. The real nightmares cannot be depicted in realistic detail; no one hangs around to catalogue the dental work of the dragon.

Literary fiction sets about the portrait of the dragon from a completely different direction: by looking at the details of ordinary life. But make no mistake about it: we’re all on the same path, pulp troubadors or academic short story writers. The same abyss yawns under all of our feet, and the ribbon of the open road unwinds under our feet, enticing us toward the horizon with the magical words, “And then…”

Everyone is subcultural, and literary fiction is a genre too.

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