Monday, November 19, 2007

Signs, Signs Everywhere Signs

There has been quite an interesting thread or threads about various features of writing going on at Sarahlynn's blog. I've posted a few comments, but I keep feeling like I have way more to say than what I should put in a comment. By "feature" I mean something like a piece's structure, characters, plot, writing style, genre.

I am not a big fan of stereotypes. I have long fought against the labels that people like to assign to categorize the people around them. In many ways it makes it easier on us to deal with the world to be able to break it down into small but meaningful chunks. Most of my work as a software developer is doing just that--breaking large, hard problems down into small pieces of logic that is easily written, understood, combined, debugged, etc. To do that you have to make decisions about abstract problems ("I want to order a pizza online") and be able to break it up into meaningful components that can interact (a virtual storefront, an order slip, a pizza, a customer). I'm starting to sound like the intro to an object oriented programming book. This approach works well for code (and probably other complex things too--electronics, consumer goods of all types, etc). It is horrible for people. To apply a label to a person boxes them in, and tries to make them fit into a preformed package. I do not fit the stereotypes of many labels you could apply to me--what you think of if I say I'm blonde, catholic, a software engineer, etc, does not define who I am. I take great pride in shattering those tiny boxes that others would have me live in.

I feel much the same way about various "genres" of fiction. Romance, Sci-Fi, Mysteries, Westerns, Literary Fiction. Those labels do not define the boundaries of the writing that falls under them. To say that literary fiction focuses on character development seems to imply that characters are not developed in books with other labels. To assume that romance implies nothing but brainless sex trivializes the exploration of emotions, relationships, and yes, sexual experience of humanity. I do not feel that I move in "literary circles", because, as I've said many times before, I frequently feel that my opinions are not shared and are frequently denigrated by those who do. I have found worthwhile and thought-provoking material among every "genre" that I've read. There's also a whole lot of crap.

I loved the Time Traveler's Wife. Let's see, the primary topic is a love story, with plenty of sex. Is it shelved with the romances? Nope. Erotica? Nope. The main character does quite a bit of time travelling (duh), so is it a sci-fi? Nope. It has an unorthodox structure--not strictly chronological. It falls under a lot of labels, so it's given the default--literary fiction. Another book to ponder in the category of literary fiction (or maybe it's classical literature, who knows) is the classic Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. Where does that one fall? Let's see, we have a man gallavanting through time with a series of ghosts--SciFi/Fantasy? And yet, it's never shelved next to Robert Jordan or Stephen King.

In my (possibly unshared) opinion, the labels that you apply to writing are not more meaningful than the labels that you apply to people. You can either define yourself by them, adn box yourself inside someone's proscribed idea of what the label means, or you can treat it as another sticker or an easy way to shelve your work, and ignore that there's anything else to it.


Amanda said...

I've talked to authors and read an agent's blog. The publisher usually is the one to define the work as this or that based on where they feel they will get the most sales. I agree with you on the character development statement. In fact, if you ask most romance writers, they would say that their works are more character driven than plot driven. I could probably go on for hours but I think I'll just leave it with a "Right on!".

Sarahlynn said...

Amanda's right that it's usually the publisher who puts the label on a piece of fiction; it's part of the packaging to see how they think the book will sell the most copies. A great example of this is Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. Those novels could be characterized a number of ways: fantasy, historical fiction, popular fiction, etc., but are packaged and sold as romances because that's where the publisher thought the largest market would be (according to Gabaldon's personal website).

There are definitely writers who set out to write a genre story, just as there are readers who set out to read genre fiction ("I like fantasy," or "I feel like reading a good whodunnit today."). But a lot of writers, and I include myself in this, usually, just set out to tell the story that's in our heads, without worrying too much about what the target market might look like. I find that's the best way for me to write, to tell the story that I want to tell without it getting cluttered up by my assumptions about what will sell, or what people want to hear, or which agents accept which types of stories.

In the NaNo LitFic forum the other day, a fantasy writer asked what "literary fiction" means, and someone else replied that it's a label that gets put on really good writing, regardless of its genre. So some extent, I think that's true - but if so, it sounds really pretentious to aspire to write that way!

As for all romances being about mindless sex, I have not found that to be the case. In fact, some romances I've read involve no sex whatsoever: on or off the page. The book I'm writing now has quite a lot of sex in it. But this book isn't really a romance, and it's not erotica either. It's just: fiction. Literary fiction, if I'm choosing a label for NaNoWriMo (which, at this point, was the only reason to choose a label at all) because, traditionally, stories that are more about what goes on within the character rather than their interactions with others are often called literary fiction. In the case of my current WIP, there could be no characters other than the title character without changing the story arc - but it would be pretty boring to read, I bet!

I don't think that saying that literary fiction focuses on character development implies that characters are not developed in other genres. In fact, I said quite the opposite in my post and in comments.

In fact, I said almost this exact thing in one of my posts: "I have found worthwhile and thought-provoking material among every "genre" that I've read. There's also a whole lot of crap."

So of course we agree. The difference is that I don't keep denigrating writers of a particular type of fiction, or those who read it, study it, and discuss it.