Monday, February 4, 2013

The Death of Genre, Really?

Welcome to our discussion of Donald Maass's book, Writing 21st Century Fiction. We're jumping into the second chapter, "The Death of Genre." Don't let a little thing like not having read the chapter keep you from speaking up. We love a lively discussion around here.

Don't cue up the band or buy the confetti yet. Genre isn't dead-dead, just mostly dead--and maybe not even that dead.

In other words, I had to read this chapter a few times to discover what Maass is really saying about genre, dead or otherwise.

The first challenge to this chapter is sifting through terms Maass has created to talk about fiction. Let's see if I can't get us all on the same page.

Out-of-category novels are written by genre novelists but sell better than most. These books are sold off of large piles in the front of the bookstores and warehouse stores, and the authors are no longer authors but "brands."

I don't fit in this category. I sure hope you do. (Would you like to endorse my novel?)

But we all want to know how to get to this magical place of hardcovers with pallets of our books on display. Maass explains how our novels might earn this out-of-category status:

Deconstrust out-of-category novels and certain common factors emerge: characters we immediately care about, unique worlds, universal human experiences, high tension, plot layers, parallels, reversals, symbols, strong themes. But there's also an X factor: such fiction is personal, meaning that it directly reflects the author's own experience. p. 8

In that case, any novel directly reflecting my life would be sorted into the snooze category (I was born a poor white girl in the Hog Capital of the World), but that's not what he means. Maass doesn't intend for us to write memoirs disguised as novels. He intends for us to mine our preoccupations, our fears, lessons learned, flaws we find impossible to conquer and give them to our unsuspecting characters.

This is what makes our novels personal, our struggles in the skin of someone who's way more interesting than we are. (Maas doesn't actually say the part about the characters being way more interesting than us. That's a Patti Bonus Nugget.)

You've all probably done this--either consciously or not--when deciding what to write about. My newest novel--Goodness & Mercy--comes from my questions about the character of God, specifically His mercy. Can His mercy feel like a knife to the heart or come at an inconvenient time? My characters wrestle with the question in their story world, but so do I. The stories in this way are very personal.

Just to be clear, out-of-category novels are still genre novels, but "they use their category conventions merely as a framework. [Writers] erect inside them stories that express that which defines not their characters, but their authors." I can't help but think of Latayne's Later-Day Cipher, a murder mystery a la Dan Brown (if he were a better writer) within the culture of Mormonism. For Latayne, this novel is deeply personal as she draws on her own life and study in Mormonism. Not only is the story personal, it's highly redemptive, poetic, and chilling. The story also confirms Maass's point that "high-impact fiction requires high courage."

Another distinction Maass makes is between genre blending and genre transending. Genre blending will sound familiar to you because it's nearly the norm. We find  literary crime, historical espionage, and paranormal anything on bookstore and library shelves everywhere. Add to that time-traveling historical romance and urban fantasy. Oh, and sci-fi westerns. It's all out there. Transcending genre, I think, (this is where his distinctions muddy a bit for me) is another way to say out-of-category fiction results (impact and sales) that is not genre bound. These are tough to classify novels that connect powerfully with readers.

This is why Maass thinks so:

Perhaps in part because they have fewer rules to follow, they must rely more on universal techniques and stay truer to their inner compasses. Without genre crutches to lean on they must walk the walk of true novelists. You can call them genre-bending if you like, but I call them genre-transcending. while they may establish a new category, that are genuine fiction masters. p. 12

Fiction master. I like the sound of that. In the end, Maass is saying that it really doesn't matter where we land on the continuum between genre fiction and literary. What matters is fulfilling the purpose of fiction, taking the reader to a story world that immerses them in a new reality, characters that are relatable with dreams and desires not too distant from ours, answers to truths sought by the reader and truths that rock an unsuspecting reader's world, and lastly, a story that captures our age but manages to be timeless.

I don't think Maass meant to confuse us with terms but to cheer us on to slay the genre monster with our writing: "The death of genre will come for you on the day that you cut yourself loose from your fears. When you stop writing like you think you are supposed to and start writing in the way that only you can, then you will discover the impact you can have." p. 16

And so, genre may be a thing in our minds that we either cling to or cast off. But Maass in no manner letting  us off the hook as novelists. I hear a call to excellence. I intend to answer.

Discussion Questions:

  • Why do you believe genre fiction is here to stay...or not?
  • In what ways have you made your fiction personal?
  • What great mystery dogs you? How could you explore it in story form?
  • What's your favorite line from this chapter?
  • Invent a genre blend you haven't seen yet.
  • What will you take from this chapter to improve your storytelling?


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Yes! I love the last quote. Kind of reminds me of throwing off all that hinders and running that race set out before us.

Ooo. Okay. So, how do I make my fiction personal? That is a tough question. Not because I don't know the answer, but because the answer is vulnerable. In "Paint Chips", certain things happen to my characters which have NEVER happened to me. However, parts of my past put me in the position of asking "where was God when...", "Did He care?", "What now? How do I heal?". Really, the writing (and re-writing) of that novel helped me to understand bits and pieces of my life and how God provided and protected me.

What great mystery dogs me? That's a good one. Seems like that one changes periodically. Right now, I'm trying to think and daydream about what the next life will be? How do I live with this "eternal weight of glory"? I'm exploring these mysteries in my WIP. And I'm growing so much from these investigations.

Patti Hill said...

Glad you're here today, Susie. It's quite evident that you got personal in Paint Chips. It's as you say, you don't have to go through the very experiences that your character does, but you have to remember the emotional tie-in to that moment. You did a great job.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Thank you, Patti.

Bonnie Grove said...

Honestly? I think Maass has been reading Novel Matters blog.
Love to see in print what we've been saying for the past 4 years. Yay!

Patti Hill said...

That's what I was thinking, Bonnie. Maybe we're not so far from NY as we thought. At least when thinking about story and craft.

Jennifer Major said...

Aw man! I totally didn't know we'd have to THINK this early in the day!! Okay, it's like, NOON here, but whatever...
This is going to be quite a discussion.

I've made my fiction personal by blending my family's experiences when inter-racial marriage and the absence of struggle that my parents had amid the whirlwind of disgust around them.

Jennifer Major said...

*WITH, not when. See? Too erllee for me to think.

Patti Hill said...

Jennifer: No apologies needed. It's always erllee.

Your family's experiences are unique and provide a rich pool of emotional currency. Sounds very interesting.

Jennifer Major said...

Ohhhhh, Patti, it sure was!! Angry relatives on both sides, relationships cut completely because of his colour and unbelievable accusations about his actions. Yeah, it was NOT an episode of the Walton's.

But I did marry a nice boy named John.

Patti Hill said...

You came out ahead then, Jennifer. congratulations!

Megan Sayer said...

Wow. for what it's worth, I didn't really know about genres (apart from the obvious, like western, romance, thriller) and the complex sets of rules they come with until I started reading Novel Matters. I learned - within a year - that there were rules, that I'd broken them all, that it worked anyway, and then that it didn't matter. Phew! What??

But through it, through Novel Matters, and particularly through your discussion of Bird by Bird last year, I learned to write more personal stories than I ever thought I'd be able to, and more interesting stories than I ever knew I could. Oh yes, I wrote some bad ones too. But there's something about mining new territory that means you'll never go back to being the writer you were, and I'm grateful for that. Thank you!!

Patti Hill said...

Megan: May I just say collectively that we love you for saying that. Thanks for being you. We learn from you too. We'll all be better writers, if we stick together.

Sara said...

I love genre, and definitely believe that it is here to stay. My (seemingly continual) WIP is a genre piece, but I hope for it to be transcending, rather than bound.

I wouldn't argue so much for slaying the genre beast as actualizing it . . . a lot of genre is two dimensional, but genres thrive because they speak they are simplified forms of innately human needs--romance the need for love, fantasy the need for wonder, westerns the need for adventure, etc. When writers of genre can truly fulfil what their genre is marked by, then the stories transcend . . .

(Side note: was there something odd with the posting of this post? It showed up in my Google Reader on Friday, and then when I went to comment it had disappeared. But then, GR thought it had seen it, so it didn't alert me when it came back up on Monday . . .)

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I love what he has to say about genre blending/transcending, but I don't think genre fiction will be replaced. There will always be an audience that reads for sheer enjoyment and wants a measure of predictability in stories, and there's room on the shelves for both. My favorite line is "When you stop writing like you think you are supposed to and start writing in the way that only you can, then you will discover the impact you can have." Hooray!

Marian said...

When I read genre rules I want to break them, so I simply ignore them, but then writing novels is not my livelihood.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Something has been ruminating in my brain since the detective post. People are fascinating to watch and speculate about but nothing hones the observation skills like a walk in the woods or out on the plain. Nature is so infinitely varied and subtle. Observation skills are also most in demand in seasons of suffering. In my present situation I could see God's fingerprints regularly and powerfully in the first months of the tragedy. Now, as sorrow piles on sorrow I have to look closer and be more creative in my expectation of possibilities of God's direction and action.
And once one has observed life on this level anything short of personal writing feels fake and unfaithful.

Latayne C Scott said...

Patti, m'dear, thank you for your kind comments about Latter-day Cipher. I am finding, as I write, that just about every durn thing I'm working on is torquing some genre or another.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Yay! "Walk the walk of true novelists!" Let's all do it!!!!!!!