Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Promises, Promises: A Genre's Obligation

GENRE FICTION IS a term used to delineate a particular family within the social construct of story. Referred to as category fiction by many publishers, it has had a polarizing effect on critics and a confusing one on emerging writers.

Many critics like to draw a deep line in the sand representing story, the one side being considered literary or character-driven and thus somehow purer in intent than its category cousins; the other side being plot-driven and thus with an outcome that is more managed and predictable.

These arguments are lovingly expounded in refereed scholarly journals, where the goal is not merely publication but as an establishment of the kinds of research and scholarship associated with, ta da! tenure. How simple it would be to classify literary fiction as a family of its own. Indeed, many writers of genre/category fiction produce work that is invited to the literary equivalent of dining at the same table with the literary writers.

My argument here has to do with intent. A writer who writes to be literary often isn't. Worse, in the process of writing literarily, the writer becomes boring. A writer who takes on a specific family or genre, say a mystery (because I have a lovely example in mind) may push the genre (family) conventions to such an extent that the work becomes literary.

Almost a generation ago, Kenneth Milar, writing as Ross Macdonald, produced a mystery novel, The Underground Man, that was accorded a review on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. The review, written by Eudora Welty, proclaimed the novel to be literary, and lo! Ross Macdonald, who had earned a Ph.D. in English Lit, suddenly became a literary writer and his subsequent mystery novels were shelved along with literature as well as with mystery/suspense.

Just recently, Richard Powers, an unquestioned literary writer, produced a novel, The Echo Maker, that owes considerable of its energy and development to my subject at hand, which is genre promise. Without venturing to spoil the surprises inherent in this compelling and fascinating novel, author Powers went significantly beyond the who-done-it aspects of the mystery novel, well past the why it--the crime--was done in the first place, and into as intense an investigation of every major character as has been done. Period. Many novels investigate such existential issues as truth and faith and belief, but Powers actually takes on the concept of what the self is, how you or I or anyone else for that matter relates to self. Powers not only asks who am I but what am I.

One of the characters in The Echo Maker sustains a trauma that in some ways approximates the brain trauma suffered by the ABC reporter Bob Woodruff while covering the Iraq war. Powers's character has to cope with the Capgras Syndrome, in which he comes to suspect that the persons closest to him in his circle of family and friends are impostors. Even this could be highly commercialized as a concept, but Powers seems incapable of such commercialism, instead working his wonders through the characters he introduces into this culture. One is the protagonist's sister, who after a time comes to doubt her own sense of self because her brother is suspicious of her. Another major player in the novel, a neurobiologist, in a real sense loses his sense of self-hood as a direct result of dealing with the protagonist and attempting to help him achieve the kind of accepting frame of mind we readers come to recognize as recovery.

Genre promise is the totality of what the readers of a particular family of fiction expect when visiting. In the case of a mystery, they expect a significant crime, often a murder, just as often more than one murder. They expect a puzzle and someone who is set on solving the puzzle, the mystery; someone who can fit the clues together to produce the answer, the who-done-it? There is implicit competition in the reader's wish to outguess the detective, being first to conclude who the murderer is.

Just as families intermarry, fiction families can blend to a significant new take on an old theme. One of the best of the intermarriers is Michael Chabon, whose latest, The Yiddish Policeman's Union,
takes us beyond hardboiled detective fiction and into a world as amazing in its own way as Richard Powers is in The Echo Maker.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union has as a backstory the notion that Israel failed and now the Jewish homeland has been moved to Alaska. Chabon does this with a brio and panache that does something all fiction is supposed to do, that genre fiction must do--it holds forth a promise.

Chabon's promise--in everything he writes--is plausible chaos.

What is your promise as you sit at your computer or your pad and pen to write? What is your intent? It is not always easy or advisable to have an intent in mind at the beginning, thinking being a notorious troublemaker in its own right.

So then, how to begin?

Imagine thought as a large pinata, and yourself as the blindfolded artist, swinging from instinct, memory, and parts of yourself that see beyond the blindfold.

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