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  • Wilson Whitlow

Killer Nashville’s 16th Annual Writers’ Conference, Aug 18-22, 2022

Having studied literature in college and having been raised on the likes of Dostoyevsky, Joyce, James, Woolf, et. al., I was trained to look down my nose at genre fiction. Genre fiction, as it goes, lacks seriousness, falls into tropes, is formulaic, and is marked by distinctly unremarkable prose. OK, that’s probably true for the majority of books written for the mass market since the days of Grub Street. Books, like all human products, will vary in quality and significance. Most will fall into obscurity; some will endure and have life and relevancy beyond our time. Although I can’t say which, I can say confidently that many of the books that will remain relevant in the next century will be genre books, just as Agatha Christie, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allen Poe stories and novels remain relevant today.


And much of the critique of genre fiction misses an essential point: that being what has evolved into so-called “literary fiction” is also a genre with its own rules, conventions, and expectations. If the writer of cozy mysteries leans on convention and is terrified of alienating her audience, I don’t see how this does not equally apply to the author of elegantly written, character-focused tomes. Surely the literary writer knows that her readership would no-doubt drop their monocles in their martinis if she dared put out a technothriller.


As for me, I got into genre fiction for two main reasons. First, I like these books a lot, particularly science fiction and children’s fantasies. Second, they helped teach me how to write. I’m not talking about writing fine lines of prose – beautiful sentences, paragraphs, and pages – but rather how to write and think about the underlying architecture of narrative so that you can create and sustain interest across hundreds of pages and manage to deliver the reader somewhere emotionally. This is a task that much literary fiction fails at. I have read many beautifully written novels that I have stopped reading at the three-quarter mark simply because I was bored. It was pretty clear that the author wasn’t going to tell me something I didn’t already know about the world, and I didn’t much care about her beautifully drawn characters who seemed to meander through thickets of prose.


All this to say that good and bad can take different forms, and there are writers out there that can write a fantastic, thought-provoking, and thoroughly engaging novel in any genre. Many, many will try, and some will actually do it.


And another point, which I think is worth bearing in mind, is that these genre writers are writing what they want to write, and from what I’ve observed at Killer Nashville, some are even happy doing it. Others, amazingly, even make a living at it. It seems peevish to tear down genre when it can deliver to writers and readers a rare commodity: actual enjoyment.


Naturally, nothing is as simple as that, and it’s worth wondering whether enjoyment is or should be the true object of literature, or any art. I don’t think so, but I also don’t think that books should not be enjoyable. That is, the thoughtful writer walks a tight rope balancing on one side “enjoyment” and on the other “truth” and knows in each case that they are both incomplete, both transitory, both contradictory, both probably illusory, but by constantly seeking both in the same place – by insisting that they can be found in the same place – she seeks to unearth an experience that surpasses form. This basic problem has no more to do with genre than it has with the fundamental problem of expressing experience in a symbolic language. Ultimately, writing itself is a medium full of rules, conventions, and devices designed and refined over millennia to allow us to communicate complex ideas to one another.


At this level, it seems ridiculous to argue that the narrative form of mystery, for instance, is any less valid than that of character study to communicate something about the human condition, and the former may even be more effective because it fronts the special conditions of a species of experience, that of investigation, one that can be particular in its details but universal in its metaphorical significance. This is something Jorge Luis Borges recognized, and his admiration for mystery and horror was not misplaced, for he recognized that the mystery writer and the horror writer were engaged in a symbolic exploration of the mind, an exploration made possible by the conditions of their form.


In this regard, writing in genre is a matter of a writer choosing a narrative vehicle that is most appropriate for the ideas and emotion she wants to explore. The forms in the garden of fiction are thus multifarious and better thought of as coexisting in a wild meadow where seeds sprout where they fall rather than in an English garden where the divisions between tulips and chrysanthemums are policed by critics, publishers, and category geeks and their sheers. It’s unfortunate, for instance, that an author is forced to change names in order to explore experience in a new narrative form, but that is one of the consequences of the way we have divided up the world of fiction.


Yet we are stuck for the moment with these constructed divisions we call “genre” and I use this language just as I chafe against it. In this, the idea of genre itself encapsulates one of the trenchant problems of thought that language propagates but also is uniquely suited to hack at. It is this: the world we create in language isn’t the world that is, but language is perhaps the best tool that we have found, aside from mathematics (which is itself another, special language) to see and understand the world. The more we look at the bigger picture, the more quibbles about genre fade, and the more we see fiction for what it is at bottom: a special kind of language that deals in unreality in order to explore reality. The character study is no more real than science fiction; both are made up and both are equally speculations on the nature and the meaning of human experience.

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