I once asked YA fantasy author Tamora Pierce how she dealt with writing genre work in a literary scene that often devalues any work not considered “literary,” read non-speculative. She just waved a hand dismissively. “I try not to pay too much attention to the navel-gazers,” she told me.
Seattle is a good town for me because the voices of the navel-gazers have been turned down to a dull roar. Sure, sometimes I see stuff that fills me with righteous rage, like Small Press Distribution’s impressive lumping together of all the genres:
Our emphasis is on contemporary poetry, non-mainstream fiction, literary translations and literary or arts-oriented criticism and literary nonfiction. (We don’t carry genre publishers—thrillers, sci-fi, romance; self-help or “inspirational” books; technical or academic specialty publications; children’s books; or monthly or weekly ad-driven glossy magazines.)
…and then I want to scream about the “literary” and “non-mainstream” fiction that is technically science fiction, fantasy, or has overly supernatural elements that they probably consider canon: George Orwell’s 1984. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I could go on. There’s a whole soapbox in the corner of my office dedicated to my rant about why “comics” should be preferred nomenclature over “graphic novel,” particularly as someone who writes short comics…”graphic short stories”…what. the hell. academia. Aaand I’m back. Moving on.
My point here is not O Damn The Mainstream, It Ignores Us Sometimes. I want to talk about things that genre fiction can do, sneakily or overtly, that are really neat. There’s been plenty of discussion about how hero’s journey stories help us conceptualize our own journeys or provide catharsis… There’s been talk of how, by looking and things that are not human, we can have a better concept of what it means to be human… But today, I want to talk about the ability of genre fiction to tell a deeply personal story, sort of the counterpoint to the “escapism” that science fiction and fantasy are often accused of being.
My Goddard advisor Susan Kim first got me looking at how genre stories can be personal in a workshop about the movie High Noon.
High Noon, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is the tale of a sheriff of a small town who knows the outlaws are comin’ in on the noon train and is desperately searching for allies to help him fight them. A lot about High Noon tips genre conventions on their collective ears: the women are active, smart participants in the story; the sheriff can’t find anyone to help him; and the end is not a O.K. Corral-style gunfight, but rather a guerrilla warfare situation with a lot of running and hiding.
Here’s the kicker: Carl Foreman, the writer of High Noon, was blacklisted for Communism while he was writing the film. He knew would never make another movie in Hollywood, or really anywhere in 1950s America. So he wrote an intensely personal story. Foreman, like his protagonist, was on a desperate search for allies, and found none. In the film, the sheriff lives against all odds; perhaps Foreman was doing his best to give himself a hopeful ending as well. Foreman moved to England and kept writing, producing ten films. In 1956, with another blacklisted writer, he wrote Bridge Over the River Kwai, a film that would win the 1957 Best Picture Oscar with nary a mention of either of the screenwriters’ names. Foreman’s influence in the British film community continued for many years; even if he “had to leave town,” as the sheriff does in High Noon, he did okay elsewhere.
Sometimes the personal in genre fiction is pretty blatant, like Phillip K. Dick wrestling with his mystic (or religious…or hallucinogenic…or psychotic…depends who you ask) experiences on the page. Themes from his personal life show up in many of his novels, but particularly VALIS. Check out this comic by R. Crumb for more details.
What I find interesting about Dick’s work is that not only does he have some directly autobiographical novels like VALIS, but the themes that he obsessed with in his personal life echo through all of his work. Sure, you say, most people write about what obsesses them. But Dick couldn’t have expressed what was happening to him without delving into alternate realities, dystopian drugs, and psychic entities. In my estimation, there is a lot of human experience that needs extraordinary circumstances to be told. Dick didn’t just need to write a drug novel, for example. (Although he did write a lot about drugs…however, his so-called “classic LSD novel,” The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, was written before he’d ever taken LSD. So make of that what you will.) Dick needed to write from his personal experience of reality, or lack thereof.
And in more recent literature, I just read the first trade paperback of Kelly Sue Deconnick’s run on Captain Marvel. It’s the story of Carol Danvers, former head of S.H.I.E.L.D., who has become super-powered through an accident involving the former Captain Marvel. She spends the story arc figuring out how and if she wants to take on the mantle (and specifically the name) of Captain Marvel. Danvers ends up getting connected with her heritage (in the form of a mentor and a team of WWII female pilots) and coming to the place where she’s ready to go forth and Captain.
What does this have to do with Kelly Sue, though? Somehow, the tale of a woman figuring out how she fits in and can hold power in a traditionally male-dominated industry seems relevant. Deconnick has had to deal with more than her fair share of shit for being a woman writing comics, particularly for the Big Two, particularly since she is married to a man who also writes for Marvel. Of course she’d been writing for years before her marriage, but still people consider her career to be some sort of remora-fish of her husband’s. It’s truly appalling. Here, I’ll let her rant about it for me.
In conclusion, I submit that genre writing is no less personal than prose without speculative elements. It’s yet another way to do what poet Nikky Finney calls “coming in through the window,” and in come in through the window of your (life, obsessions, emotions) in order to get them on the page rather than busting down the door.