No Elves Allowed

I had a conversation with a friend from my MFA program today. We’re both reading slightly different stream-of-consciousness novels and wondering how everyone started re-writing Mrs. Dalloway. I feel like so much of what I read in the program is derivative of something else – Hemingway, Faulkner, Pynchon, Woolf (although, funnily enough, not Proust or Tolstoy). Everyone’s writing realistic fiction, trying to frame events that we’ve all experienced first- or at most, second-hand with a voice that makes them sound relevant and urgent and more important than anything in real life.

The whole “voice” question comes up all the time in our studies, and in things related to our studies. In the magazine I edit, I had one editor question the “voice” of a first-person essay because she didn’t think that the author’s “voice” matched the actual story of her own experience. Seriously, that’s fucked up.

And it occurred to me that when I’m reading genre fiction, I almost never worry about voice. For that matter, I don’t worry about a whole lot of the conventions of “literary” fiction, because all that matters when you’re reading a genre story is the story. This is why books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sell bazillions of copies, even though everyone in the world acknowledges that they’re barely literate rubbish: people like the stories they tell.

I haven’t read either of the books above, because I like my story to come passably well-written as well as thought-provoking, so I end up reading really good sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and magical realism authors, and I always end up thinking “I would love to write like this.”

Did I mention I’m getting my MFA? And you’d think that, since I’m in a program specifically meant to make me into a better writer, I’d have a chance to hone and perfect that, right? The problem is that there are good mentors in our program – mentors who are attentive readers, willing to give really in-depth, line-edit feedback to my writing. There are also mentors who really like experimental writing and genre fiction. There is precious little overlap.

Many of the mentors claim that they don’t “understand” the conventions of genre fiction, but I’m not sure that they’re any different than the “conventions” of any other kind of fiction. Tell a good story. Have compelling characters. Build some tension. Does it matter exactly how vampires work? No. Everyone who’s ever written a successful vampire book has made up their own rules, but as long as those rules are consistent within themselves, no one minds. Does it matter whether your fairies (or, if you insist, faeries) are good or evil? Nope. Whether robots are our friends or enemies (or both)? Not a bit. Whether the aliens can pass for human? Nah.

What I’ve always loved about genre fiction is the way it explores what it means to be human by juxtaposing humans with other things and thinking about those differences. I’m not convinced that humans are the strongest, smartest, most compassionate species in the galaxy (which is how we’re always portrayed, which, as a trope, embarrasses me) but I like thinking about what makes me human as opposed to robot or vampire or elf queen. Because when I think about what makes people human, I get to think of all people at the same time. All races, all genders, all religions, all classes and nationalities. They’re all included.

Maybe I’d have liked Hemingway if there’d been more spaceships and fewer guys fishing. Maybe Faulkner would have appealed more to me if there’d been less racial tension and more species tension. Maybe I’d like Woolf more if there were fewer first-world problems, and more multiverse problems.

Tell Me a Story

I’ve started the process of writing my thesis paper for school. I’ve taken as my subject “the future of narrative,” except that, as a paper title, it will be capitalized.

When one starts out to talk about where something is going, what is the first thing one does? That’s right – talk about where it’s been. And it turns out that humans communicate primarily through storytelling, and always have. Think about your typical day. You get up, and maybe you turn on the radio or television to catch the news and traffic before heading out for work. Do the news and radio presenters give you long lists of undifferentiated information? Well, if it’s traffic, yes. Or weather. And sports scores. But all that other stuff? It’s all stories. Narratives about something that happened to somebody, and sometimes what that somebody did about it. Then you go to work or school and talk to your friends or co-workers. How do you talk to them? You tell them stories about things you’ve done or seen or thought about since you saw them last. Then you get home, and if you live with someone, you tell them the story about how your day went. If you don’t, you might call up a friend or two and the whole tribe of you will exchange stories. Or you might watch television – the non-literary narrative device. And, if you’re like me, before you go to sleep, you read a book. My entire day, from beginning to end, is steeped in story.

Now that I think about it, there’s a feature in our tiny town’s local paper that both intrigues and infuriates me – you probably have something similar in your local paper. It’s the police blotter, a place where all the calls to law enforcement are catalogued without any editorial. While it’s interesting to know whether my neighbors have also gotten their mail stolen, I want to know the stories behind these calls.

Here’s a sample:

Jan. 1

1:35 a.m.: A Boulder Creek resident reported that her live-in boyfriend had covered her mouth with one hand and used the other to try to choke her during an argument. The boyfriend had fled by the time deputies arrived at the scene.

What were they arguing about? How long had they lived together? Is this the first time they’ve called the police? How old are they? What happened after the police left?

I need story so much that when I’m bored out in public, I make up stories about the people around me. People at restaurants, people attending the same meeting I’m in, nobody’s safe. And, if asked, I’ll certainly share those stories, even if they’re about you.

Narrative is certainly changing. As technology moves ahead, it enables humans to offload some of the intellectual work of remembering a given story thread, so that stories can be told over longer periods of time. First writing made it possible to save stories for later, kind of like raisins are grapes someone saved for later, which makes the written word the raisin of narrative. Just go with it. Scrolls meant that we could have stories of any length – just start a fresh scroll when you get to the end of the one you’re on now. And whoever uses up the end of a scroll had better get out a new one, because no one likes to sit down at the writing desk and find they’re without a scroll. Not cool. Then books allowed for longer narratives in less space. Then, eons later, electronic media allowed books to take up almost no room at all.

Just wait. Next time, I’ll tell you more about where narrative is going. First, I have to go talk to some of my neighbors. Someone owes me a story.