Thursday, February 28, 2008

Who Wins

One blog I read through my aggregator is The Rejector ("I don't hate you. I just hate your query letter.") and she had an interesting post yesterday (read: post I find fascinating in its dissimilarity to the way I see things) about The Academy Awards.

It got me thinking about genres in general, and back to the disagreements I've had with a couple of readers about relative values of genre fiction.

Here's basically how I feel about genres in novels, movies, and food.

I believe that there's excellent writing and storytelling that transcends genre, and it's often called "literary fiction" when it does so. There are so many examples of this. Gregory Maguire springs to mind, but there are plentiful historical examples as well. Lewis Carroll?

But with writing that's similar to what's typical within a genre, I fall back on a food analogy.

Sometimes I like to eat candy and sweets. Sometimes, I want an actual meal, but I feel more like a cheeseburger than a platter of steamed asparagus. Likewise, sometimes I might read typical genre fiction.

There's nothing wrong with it! There's tremendous creativity in speculative fiction, and sometimes really ground-breaking stuff starts there and works its way into more mainstream discussion.

I haven't seen every movie nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, in any given year. But I usually make an effort to see a few of them, including the one that wins, even if they fall well outside what I would normally choose to see on a rare night out at the movies (escapism and fun is what I'm typically looking for in a movie, not an uncomfortable challenge).

But the fact remains that when I've seen a really good movie, even if I found it uncomfortable at the time or unappealing in advance, I'm never sorry afterwards.

And after I eat a good, healthy meal, my body feels enriched and well-nourished.

It is likewise with fiction for me. I hated Madame Bovary. Hated it! But I've read it several times, and it sticks with me in a healthy-meal kind of way. It took Flaubert 10 years to write that first chapter.

Is there not some objective difference between writing like that and a mass market thriller/mystery/western/romance/fantasy/chick lit novel that an author churned out in a few weeks of work?

All can be good writing, all can be valuable contributions to society. But there is, I believe, in art, a level that speaks to greater human truths rather than just moments of entertainment. (Obviously, a love/sex analogy also springs to my mind here, as well as some examples from within the art world.)

There's nothing wrong with seeking entertainment, or with seeking to provide it.

But I'm glad that there are people out there who are looking beyond a clever punchline, a contagious chemistry, a cool special effect. I'm glad that there are writers and artists and filmmakers who strive to make minds open and grow in new and exciting ways, to serve nutritious food.

(In case you were wondering, I love that mixed metaphor. It's my little inside joke, me not taking myself too seriously. That's my sense of humor, poking fun at myself, but I'm sure most of you know that by now!)

Does anyone really think that Spiderman 3 deserved to win Best Picture, just because a lot of people saw it? I guess so.

Edited to clarify: The Rejector seems to be suggesting that it's pure Academy snobbishness that the year's highest grossing film (I'll take her word for it that it's Spiderman 3) wasn't nominated for best picture.

My point isn't really about genre, or even length of time it takes to create. It's that I don't believe that commercial success is the sole indicator of what's good.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Writing Update

I've been reading a lot of (literary) agent blogs lately, as motivation and education. They do a lot of contests, and I am excited to participate. But I want to be ready with a completed novel and solid query before I start submitting anything.

This year's NaNo project, The Really Good Guy, was not my first attempt at a novel. I intend to finish that book, and I intend for it to be really good. So while I pluck away at it as the mood strikes, and I have very good notes for what I want to change and where/how I want it to grow, it's not my primary writing focus right now. I don't want to push on through a finishing/polishing/revising process when I'm not feeling passionate about the work, just to have it "done." I want it done right, which means that I need a little more practice at this whole novel-writing gig before I go back to work on The Really Good Guy full time. It's too important to me for it to be my training novel.

In the meantime, I'm back at work on an earlier attempt at a novel, Seek Ye First. Long-time blog readers might have read early chapters of an early draft of this one, before I petered out a few years ago. I had trouble finding my character's voice, and was uninspired by the mystery. (This was a real problem, in what was supposed to be a "cozy mystery" novel.)

As Paul and I were working down in our basement last week, I was moving around both my writing references and my Agatha Christie collection, when, bam! Inspiration. I've been working on parts of this book subconsciously for a while now, and have been having more success with the main character's voice. The mystery, however, is only now coming into focus and beginning to excite me. So we'll see where this goes! I'm not revising; I'm starting over from scratch. I keep telling myself that I'm not throwing all that previous hard work away; it's all there in my head somewhere, enriching this new draft. I hope.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Motivational Reading

I have always been a book addict. When I was a child and punishment proved necessary, my mother would send me to my room, but only after removing whichever books I happened to be reading at the time. Or, worse, she'd send me outside to play. Without my book. In college, I did not allow myself any non-assigned fiction during the semester, because I knew that I'd just get lost in a book and neglect my studies (which, frankly, didn't need any more neglecting).

Balance was not impossible for me, just challenging. I was, after all, successful in a career for ten years, and it wasn't the sort of career that smiled upon the reading of novels at work.

After Ellie was born, I suddenly had no time to read, and I didn't pick up a single novel for six months. I underwent a lot of major life changes during that period, including becoming a mother, having a Very Sick Child, and temporarily leaving my career, but perhaps the simple fact that I was not reading was the most damaging to me.

So when Ellie was six months old, I joined a friend's book club, and it felt like I had surfaced for air. I quickly found time to read not just the selected books, but other fiction too. Sure, I slept less, but it was worth it. Oh, so very worth it. Eventually, I started a second book club, which has a completely different feel and reads very different books. In both groups, we rotating "hosting" duties every month - though we don't always meet at our homes - and the host selects the book. Here's what my two book clubs read in 2007. Can you guess which one I joined and which one I started up from scratch?

Book Club One
A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
Nice Girls Finish First by Alesia Holliday
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Book Club Two
Night by Elie Wiesel
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Birds of America: Stories by Lorrie Moore
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dangerous Life of Altar Boys by Chris Fuhrman
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Bearing Witness by Michael A. Kahn
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

I'm not giving up either book club (though I might miss a few titles here and there) but I'm thinking I might try to dial the reading back a little, in order to squeeze in more time for the sleeping and the writing, and probably the exercising, too. Alas. Perhaps Newsweek, Parents, and - gasp - television will have to feel the pruning shears.