Scott Southard, keeper of a blog of literary musings, wrote a humorous post on literary genres, and the factionalism they encourage, that got me thinking about how I choose to answer the question “So what do you write?”
I generally say “literary fiction.”
I can’t not say that. Almost all of my published short stories, and certainly my first novel, fall easily into that category. Most of them are contemporary, realistic, and concerned with the inner life of a plausible human being. Also, I don’t mind saying it. It puts me in company with artists who get nominated for major prizes, and one of the terrible secrets of me is that I am, in fact, a major league snob.
Still, note: I said most.
The first short story I ever got into print, and the only one I’ve been paid for so far, was a science fiction yarn about a man whose nanotech implants force him to commit heinous crimes against his will. My new novel is a historical thriller about a cop investigating a well connected serial killer in Nazi Germany. Though my concerns about the inner lives of plausible characters remain, these stories retain their generic trappings.
When I think of what genre means to me, I think that the ones we’re conventionally told are important (the one’s dividing the sections of a Barnes and Noble) are the ones least relevant to the work that I do. I trained as an actor, and to me, those genres are nothing more than a series of props and costumes that I try on. They shape things in their way, but they don’t dictate. There’s still something essential underneath, a set of concerns, interests, and fetishes, that are mine. How do we classify what’s underneath the trappings?
Northrop Frye to the rescue:
“There are two halves to literary experience, then. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with, and demands that we keep looking steadily at them both.” (The Educated Imagination, 97-98)
Frye later names the two dreams the wish-fulfillment dream and the anxiety dream. Wish-Fulfillment dreams may have high stakes, but the action seldom veers seriously into unpleasantness. The goodies win. The baddies lose. And usually someone gets married, or at least laid, by the end. Paperback romances are wish fulfillment stories, but so are Twlight, James Bond books, Tom Clancy novels, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and many other stories both reviled and beloved. Anxiety dreams are satires and tragedies, mostly. The dreamer might root for the main character, but certainly wouldn’t want to be the main character. The action has similarly high stakes, but often heads toward grim, painful territory. If good people win, they do so at a cost that makes it look more like a loss. And bad people often as not go on, never facing justice. If anything, they may come out slightly ahead. Or sometimes, the antagonist isn’t bad. It’s often just someone, or a system of someones, or some arrangement of life’s circumstances that don’t give a damn about the protagonist. Such dreams include Catch-22, 1984, Crime and Punishment, Lolita, King Lear, Babbitt, and other tales both beloved and reviled.
Taken all in all, I’ve always responded more deeply to anxiety dreams than to wish fulfillment. I like a good adventure story as much as the next guy, but I don’t feel an impulse to write them. (Even if I start out writing wish-fulfillment, I usually not satisfied unless the protagonist suffers hugely, questions his belief system, and wins only an ambiguous victory at great personal cost.) If I could respond to the question “What do you write?” with “I write anxiety dreams” without having to recite a blog-post length explanation, I’d do it.
Actually, I guess I just did!