Monday, April 20, 2015

Literature v. Genre

Hi. My name is Evan, and I was an English major.

(Hi, Evan!)

It's been one thousand, four hundred, sixty days (give or take) since I stopped giving a shit about whether my stories qualified as high art, great literature, or worthy of being included in some tenuous, oft-shifting canon as judged by the so-called defenders of culture: college professors, editors, agents, literary journals, award committees, etc.

(Applause)

Thank you, thank you. It took me a long time to get to that point. Much longer than it should have. But hindsight is always twenty-twenty as they say.

(More applause)

You see, I love stories. All kinds of stories. High-brow, low-brow, middle-brow, uni-brow, there's a good chance I've read it, am in the middle of reading, have it on my TBR list, or will at least consider reading it. I'm not a snob that won't read so-called "genre" fiction, nor am an anti-snob who won't pick up one of the so-called "great" books.

I studied English literature in college, thinking (wrongly) that I'd learn how to tell stories. Mistake number one. A bachelor's degree in English does not give you the tools to write novels. It gives you the tools to critique a story and intentionally or unintentionally, basically teaches you how to teach English at the college level.

While an undergrad, I soaked up all the not-so-hidden biases of my teachers, taking their word as gospel that only books unpleasant and difficult to read and slow, where nothing much happened, qualified as art while books that merely entertained were dirty, low, and basically "brain candy." Impressionable youth that I was, I bought it hook, line, and sinker, and the image of the starving writer suffering for his art was some romantic ideal to aspire to. Mistake number two.

(A lot of ooohhhhs and aaahhhhs)

Give me a break--I was young.

But still, I should have known. Because early on I recognized the whole concept of "canon" was complete and utter bullshit. Don't get me wrong, my professors introduced me to a lot of wonderful stories, but consider these books below. All of them have had a lasting cultural impact. All of them I read on my own initiative. All of them I enjoyed more than anything that was ever assigned to me:

  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  • The Three Musketeers / The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
  • Noble House by James Clavell (what an effing story!)
  • Anything by John D. MacDonald or Robert B. Parker
  • Anything by Michael Crichton
The list goes on and on. Not a single professor ever assigned any of these books to me to read. All great books, all of them conspicuously absent from college syllabi.

(Sounds of outrage from the audience)

You see, I knew these were all great books. They made an impact on me. I can still remember my age, what I was doing generally at the time, how I was feeling, what I thought, when I read these books. I have re-read all of them multiple times. When I asked for The Big Sleep to be included in my course work, I was told that Chandler's contemporaries, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, were "more important" than what were just a bunch of "detective stories."

I should have known then.

(Applause)

Thank you, thank you. When I began writing in earnest, I wasn't very far removed from my college days and all this stinking thinking was still in my head. I got an idea for a haunted house horror story and I liked the characters and I had what I thought was a great idea for a twist.

But I couldn't write genre. That wasn't important enough to give my time and attention to. I could hear my professors and the ghosts of all those writers in the canon whispering (shouting) in my ears: don't do it, don't do it, you want to write great art that may or may not get read and will likely never be appreciated in your lifetime, if it's ever appreciated at all.

I struggled with just the thought of writing a horror story. But at the same time, I couldn't get the idea out of my head. Cognitive dissonance at its finest. I had to write the book, but I also wasn't allowed to write the book.

(A hush falls over the English Majors Anonymous group)

Know what saved me? All those great books I'd read on my own. You know, the ones that weren't worthy of inclusion in any of my courses because they were "genre." The ones that made an impression on me. If Crichton wasn't good enough for the professors, then it was okay for me to not be good enough either. Because these authors were "failures," I could fail too.

So I wrote The Unearthed. And then I (gasp!) wrote sequels.

These books will probably never win any awards. But I don't give a shit. Because I get emails from readers every week, telling me how much they enjoy the stories. And that beats worrying about the canon, high art, and literary intelligentsia.

A big thank you to all these great authors that inspired me to write. And an even bigger thank you to all my readers.

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