Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Required Reading

In the process of preparing materials for my summer school class, Writing Genre Fiction, I began two lists, the first a laundry list of genre expectations, which is to say what readers expect when they pick up a particular category. The second list is titled One Hundred Genre Novels, which intends to be an annotated list in no particular order or chronology. It is not only a list of genre novels I think will profit the students, it is a kind of unspoken warning that one cannot merely pick a genre, then write in it, write one's way to some kind of financial solvency if not fame and fortune.

The subtitle of my One Hundred Genre Novels list is How These Novels Gave Readers What They Wanted, a bit long for a subtitle, I know, but nevertheless a direct, descriptive one.

I could begin my list with a note, a reminder that in addition to such specifics as murder, puzzle, clues, suspects, motives, and the like readers of mystery novels expect, they also want story.

Readers want story in so-called literary novels, but they are more likely to settle for simple stories in the face of philosophy or moral conundrums, or political renditions. Some readers and some critics are even willing to lump--I used that verb with a sense of irony--literary novels with genre novels, saying in effect, What the hell, the literary novel is a type of novel, and readers come to them wanting to be transported to a place, a time, a situation that will then be cut up like a frog in a high school biology lab.

It takes some writers, myself included, several shots at novel-length narratives to get a sense of what story is and what it means, and how, if you are not careful, you will do the literary equivalent of brushing your teeth with someone else' 's toothbrush--you'll use their concept for story, their sense of pacing, all without understanding what you bring to the equation. Worse yet, you run the risk of being so taken with the notion of writing entirely for yourself that you will not factor in what the reader expects when the reader takes up your work.

Do not get me wrong: Writing to please one's self is a vital step to understanding not only what story is but what you bring to it, and perhaps even why you do so.

It is a complex problem, like trying, for instance to find an apartment in Manhattan at any price. Unless you're on the extreme ends of affluence, a roommate is not merely a necessity, it is a given. More likely, several roommates, using the bed and facilities on time shares.

You have these stories you want to tell; your potential reader doesn't know about you yet and has to be sensitized to your existence. In addition, your potential reader has expectations related to anything he reads. Thus your sense of what pleases you, what you can stick with through the revision and development, has to have factored into it your having read an infinitude of narratives that are good and bad, stories you love and stories that cause you to cringe away from as a vampire cringes away from a crucifix, thrust in his face.

Reading one hundred novels, although a bit time consuming, isn't much of a deal for a wannabe writer. In fact, a writer should read at least one hundred novels of the sort he or she wants to write before even starting out, not only to pick up technique and convention but to make sure one does not needlessly reinvent the wheel.

All this necessary reading is like having your writing self inhabited with roommates beyond number. You have to negotiate around them and through them in addition to coping with the characters, landscape, and tone of your own vision.

In the real life, roommates may leave dirty dishes in the sink or forget to take leaky things out of their pockets when they use the washer and drier, they may snore, use up your peanut butter, and as one old roommate of mine did, use a particularly splendid bottle of wine I'd been saving for something better than use in a stew. But these are nothing in comparison to the roommates you have to cope with to find out who and what you are, then get it down someplace where you can do something constructive about it.

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