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.
- 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?