ON GENRE FICTION: An Opinion Thing

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Last semester, I wrote a detective story. The central characters, who are detectives, are a duck and a bear. Their names are Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland, respectively. In other words, I guess you could say I have an imagination. It’s a very strange imagination, but it’s an imagination.

Not long ago, I heard the kind of thing that makes strangely imaginative people like me cringe. Someone, and I’m not going to say who, expressed the view that genre fiction is not art. That detective stories, zombie stories, and other such works of genre fiction aren’t artistically valid because they are too formulaic. As the kind of person who reads and writes genre fiction, I was quite seriously offended, frustrated, and just a little amused by this. I was particularly amused by the admission that some writers can work within genre and elevate it to literary standards.

To be really frank, a little hyperbolic, and maybe even rude, I think that’s all a load of crap. It’s elitist, it’s puritanical, and it’s anti-imaginative.

As Ursula K Le Guin put it in a recent interview, “when the characteristics of a genre are controlled, systematized, and insisted upon by publishers, or editors, or critics, they become limitations rather than possibilities.” Indeed, this insistence that there’s a boundary between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction can only create just that: a boundary. A limitation. A wall. Writers and critics may put fences up in their minds, thinking they’ll protect their minds from “genre” influences, but in the end these fences only confine their imaginations.

Of course, some writers of “literary” fiction don’t confine themselves this way. Author Glen Duncan is generally recognized as an author of “literary” fiction, but this didn’t stop him from releasing a trilogy of werewolf novels. Cormac McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road, is a bleak post-apocalyptic adventure story.

However, authors of such “literary genre” fiction will often refuse to acknowledge that they’d done anything “genre” at all. Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant features ogres, dragons, a mythic quest, and an Arthurian setting, and yet he hesitates to call it fantasy. He can call his book whatever he wants, obviously, but this introduces a little clarity to the situation: authors of “literary” fiction don’t want to isolate themselves from elements of fantasy or “genre” fiction. They just don’t want the labels attached to them. Mainstream criticism tends to associate these labels with the lowest common denominator.

“But I don’t want my novel to be associated with THOSE books,” says the hypothetical literary author, “because MINE are actually good!”

Sure, that may be paraphrased hyperbole. It’s certainly nothing any of the above authors had to say on the subject, don’t get the wrong idea. Still, the sentiment is the same, and it’s total snobbery. A fantasy novel that’s “actually good” is still a fantasy novel. Maybe those labels wouldn’t have such negative connotations among mainstream criticism if authors and critics weren’t so afraid of them in the first place. If more authors of fiction that’s “actually good” didn’t turn their noses at detectives or zombies or space operas, maybe “genre” wouldn’t be the dirty word that it is.

To me, art isn’t something we have any right to put limitations on. An artist is simply a man or woman who is passionate about their craft. Whether it’s that lovely table set you rented from Ethan Allen or the car you drove to work today, at some point, an artist is responsible at some level.

Recently I became a fan of a podcast called The Horror Show, hosted by Brian Keene, a celebrated author of the most maligned genre (second only to pornography), horror fiction. In recent episodes he revealed the deep personal connections to some of his more popular works. The Rising, his first and most popular novel, he wrote to deal with the pain of a difficult divorce and the subsequent loss of contact with his son, who was taken across the country away from him. The Rising is not only a work of art that moved me deeply and profoundly, but it’s a zombie novel. It’s actually good, too.

— Jamey Garrant

Jamey Garrant is a senior at Plattsburgh State University. He was raised by leopard people from the planet Venus, and he is a proud author and reader of genre fiction.

The AWP Conference: “Write for the joy of it. Everything else is distraction.”

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I’ve always known the writing world was big. I just didn’t know it was this big.

Last week, the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It still blows my mind that I had the opportunity to go in the first place. As a “lowly” undergrad, I was able to join the ranks of established or up and coming authors, publishers, editors, agents, poets, professors–anything you can think of. Whether I was sitting in a panel, listening to experts talk about everything from revising a novel to how to get an agent to how to write new, explosive young adult fiction to how to deal with rejection, or exploring the bookfair, where thousands of literary magazines, MFA programs and publishing companies were on display, I was constantly amazed at how lucky I was to be there, and be a part of it.

Maybe I’m only on the bottom rung of the ladder, clutching a handful of unfinished manuscripts and poems in desperate need of second drafts, staring up at a world I have no idea how to break into–but that’s the thing. Every single panelist, every single “expert” out there today, was once just like me. Once upon a time, they stood where I stand now, they dreamed what I dream now, and then they worked, and they persevered, and they made it. So, maybe it was overwhelming, maybe it was intimidating, to finally acknowledge just what I’m getting myself into post-graduation, but it was also enlightening and beyond encouraging. It’s said that around 12,000 writers attend AWP each year. This fact alone promises that there is a future in writing. These people all belong to a piece of it. Who says someday I can’t too?

Some of the advice given in the panels was invaluable, and I suppose I’ll be generous and share my favourites with you, even though I might just be fueling future competition…just kidding. I wish everyone could hear some of these:

“Delve into the world. Be in your world as you write it. Don’t think ahead to getting published. Give your story the attention it deserves while writing it.”

“Voice is huge. Publishers and agents look for this. ‘Voice writing’ should dominate the first chapters of a book–find the person, and in so doing, find the story.”

“Research is key. Travel, see the places you’re writing. Go out and be among your audience group.”

“Editors and agents want their assumptions overturned. They want to be surprised. They want the story they didn’t know they were looking for. They want the piece that is considerably more curious than they are–and is working it out on the page. They want authenticity. Not (a direct quote) bullshit. Not someone writing (again, direct quote) another fucking prompt. Be honest! Be real.”

“When feeling down about constant rejections as a first-time author…don’t! Enjoy this time! Remember you are in a space of total freedom–you can do anything, go anywhere.”

“On rejection: you are not your work.”

“Revising is writing too.”

“Be polished. Your work should make you, and anyone who reads it, FEEL SOMETHING. Be urgent, alive and original!”

“Where’s the heart? What’s the heart? That’s where the story is.”

“You’ll never be the writer you want to become. It’s the writing ‘nowness’ that matters.”

“You can’t sustain inspiration. You can only court it. It happens while you’re writing. You can’t wait for it.”

“Write for the joy of it. Not for its future or its past, but its present. Get to the core of what you love, what you care about. Everything else is distraction.”

AH! I could go on forever. Just re-reading these brings back the explosion of inspiration I felt during the panels and while touring the bookfair. I alternated between taking notes and writing new chapters of the novel I’m working on. It was glorious. It was writer heaven. I hope, if you are a writer and love that you are, that someday you get the chance to have this experience too!

On top of panels, there were evening entertainments: readings in bars, slam poetry competitions, movement and writing workshops downtown Minneapolis, and so much more. (Like great opportunities for people-watching. Some writers are wonderfully weird). Basically, I’m saying that if you get the chance, GO! Don’t hesitate. Just do it. You’re a writer! AWP is an experience that reminds you to love it, to be proud of it, and what could be better than that?

-Caitlin Krahn

Caitlin Krahn is a senior Writing Arts major at SUNY Plattsburgh and is currently (desperately) trying to figure out how to write for the joy of it while somehow still managing to make money…she’s willing to take suggestions. (Seriously. Please help). 

Reflection

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This semester I decided to take the course, Literary Magazine Workshop, with Kate Moses here at SUNY Plattsburgh. I had no idea what I would be doing with/for the class, only that we would be working on the schools own literary arts magazine. It has been a great experience and pleasure working with my fellow classmates, throwing ideas around, deciding on the work and ultimately creating the magazine. I can’t say I had any idea on how to create a magazine and how much work and effort needed to be put into it at the beginning, but before I knew it, it was crunch time; we all had to settle down and edit. It is amazing to see that even after a few people look over a piece of writing and do so a few times, there could still be errors. I learned a great amount from this class. I learned that communication, hours of reading/revision, and many eyes are needed to create a magazine full of all different types of art including; photography, drama, fiction, non fiction, poetry, and multimedia. The decisions we had to make on what would be published in the magazine were hard. Many of us were torn between works of art, style, cover photo and so we had a lot of voting and discussion and came up with agreements and standards for this years Z-Platt. We decided on guidelines for submissions that were based off the previous years with a few changes and then proceeded to spread the word. We made posters and hung them up around campus, we made quarter sheets and handed them out, we presented at Coffee House and so much more. The staff of Z-Platt worked hard and made this class like it was their job and I think this years magazine shows for it.

-Jason Diebel

Jason Diebel is a Junior at SUNY Plattsburgh in the Writing Arts program and would like to thank the staff for all the hard work, Kate Moses for teaching the course and bringing it all together.

Interview with Dr. Carol Lipszyc

Interview

I was given the wonderful opportunity to interview Dr. Carol Lipszyc, an associate professor who teaches ELA courses and creative writing here at SUNY Plattsburgh. Dr. Lipszyc is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. She has recently published a book titled The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories, in which she recreates the stories of Jewish children who survived the Holocaust. This book is currently available for purchase online at Amazon.com.

Saviour_Shoes_FA_1_Photo Shoot for Saviour Shoes 

Question #1: What inspired you to be a teacher?

Answer: “I’ve been teaching for a couple of decades. I was a failed professional musician, so I decided to try teaching English as a second language. That’s how I started. I took my training at the University of Toronto where I found that I loved teaching language and all facets of language. From there, I moved onto teaching English Language Arts. I taught adults. I taught high school students, and now I’m teaching here at SUNY Plattsburgh. Teaching has helped me connect better with meeting other people’s needs aside from my own.”

Question #2: There are many different subjects for a professor to teach, why did you choose to teach English?

Answer: “I actually have my doctorate in Education, but my focus has always been on teaching writing in particular. I would not have done anything else. I’m very arts-based, so for me, I don’t think there was any choice. It’s my strength, and I really believe in heightening students’ awareness and appreciation of the written word.”

Question #3: If a student walked up to you and asked for advice on what it takes to become a professional writer, what advice would you give?

Answer: “I’ve never been able to make a living as a writer, so I am probably not the best person to give advice on professional writing. I am not able to speak of what it would be like to make a living as a journalist or a freelancer. I started out as a singer and then a songwriter. I moved from writing songs to writing poetry and then from writing poetry to prose. Generally speaking, writers have to teach as well as write to earn a steady livelihood. There is, moreover, a deeply rooted connection between teaching and writing. I have explored that in my scholarship.”

Question #4: It has been said that recent generations of students are losing interest in reading and writing. What are your thoughts on that?

Answer: “Yeah, I definitely have a couple of thoughts on this topic. I think what’s happening with contemporary students is less engagement exclusively with traditional print text, so our whole definition of reading has to change. We’re working with a generation of students who has grown up with multi-media texts, so the first thing I had to reconcile myself to is thinking: what is reading now? From my experience, I started reading classic novels at thirteen (what we think of as literary canon). So that world of reading opened up for me at a very early age. And I’m thankful for that because you can’t write well unless you read. Let’s bring it back to the current challenges – so much reading and writing is shorter in social media and so when students have to write more extensive pieces, their ideas are not necessarily linked and cohesive. Of course students are individuals and have different dispositions and affinities… As to the question – can anyone develop as a writer? Absolutely. I find that in my introduction to writing poetry class, I can provide models and work one-on-one with students and they can integrate peer feedback, and they can develop. Will I turn someone into a poet who doesn’t think metaphorically or have an aptitude for creating imagery? Maybe not so well. But students do develop in their skill and appreciation if they are respectful of the connections between reading and writing. It isn’t just, ‘I want to write, but I am not interested in reading anybody else’s work.’ No. You can’t write well without reading. And when we start writing, we imitate sometimes to learn.”

Question #5: What does reading and writing mean to you?

Answer: “Oh boy. I don’t know where to begin. I see reading and writing as deeply connected as I see teaching. I actually find that sometimes when I feel stale, I have nothing to say and can’t write, but if I read for a while and get engaged in a poem or in a narrative and the story, I’ll start writing again. Reading good writing opens up the world of writing for me.”

Question #6: When did you first realize you wanted to become a writer?

Answer: “I didn’t have that sense of myself until I started writing decent songs. Then, I thought, ‘Okay these are well-crafted songs but that doesn’t mean I can sell them.’ The first time I wrote a good poem, I got a very fresh and precise metaphor. It was then that I realized I had the capacity and imagination to write.”

Question #7: You recently published a book titled The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories. If you had to summarize the entire book in just a few words, what would those words be?

Answer: “Theme of Identity, the impact of trauma, and the agency in children as they wrestled with that trauma – these are themes that emerged. Looking back on it now, I’ve realized that what really connected me to the children and their stories was that despite their struggles during the Holocaust, many of these characters made a decision to escape, or even to find bread together to feed themselves. I didn’t realize it until afterwards, but that agency drove me to write, to choose the stories I did.”

Question #8: Is there a specific target audience for this book?

Answer: “This book is for an adult audience, but I’ve been told that it could also reach a younger adult audience like high school seniors. The book is about the experiences of younger people during the Holocaust.”

Question #9: During your reading of The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories, you mentioned being the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and how you grew up in a community with other survivors. Did this have any influence on you to become a writer and to write this book?

Answer: “Unquestionably. This book was a major life project. To be honest, I didn’t know much about how to write prose when I started. I taught myself how to write with the help of some readers as well. You can teach yourself how to write if you truly immerse yourself in the writing. As I was writing this book, there were times when I had to research the particulars (from the survivors) to create the world around the survivors, and times when I created my own characters, and times when I fleshed out the narratives. By the way, there is a whole new generation of younger writers who are writing about their grandparents and trying to uncover their history. It’s not so much about resurrecting the past as it is trying to dig up your own past to better understand it and how it has shaped you in the present. I grew up with parents who are both survivors, and there was a desire in me to understand them. I wrote a story about my father and his experiences during the war –and by me reconstructing him as a thirteen year old, I found I gained more respect for him. I could better understand him. It’s all about that understanding – approximating it… Learning about the Holocaust from this project has been a dark education – I had already been shaped by my upbringing and yet I can easily say to you that I can’t approach the subject in the same way a survivor could. They were there. There is a visceral quality to their writing. But, I possess a certain understanding because I grew up in its shadows.”

Question #10: Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview? Anything you feel others should know?

Answer: “As a writer you have to be attuned to the world around you, and you have to be honest with yourself. I was able to develop as a writer because I was able to look at what I was doing, and look at other writers who I really admired, and learn. There was a time when I looked at another writer and thought, ‘Wow, I could never do that.’ And then, in time somehow, I was able to develop. I did develop. I’m honest with myself. I integrate feedback well. I take what I can and I put aside feedback that isn’t helpful to me. You can’t delude yourself as a writer. You have to be able to take the feedback. When I was a younger woman, I used to overwrite a lot. People tried to tell me about it, and I kind of heard them, but I wasn’t able to effect the change. In time, I started to hear things and see things better. One time I turned to a friend of mine and I said, ‘Why did I write that?’ and she said, ‘Well, if you had heard it, you wouldn’t have written it.’  That’s what I’m getting at. You have to give yourself time and distance, really listen to your writing critically, listen to the line musically, the choice of words, their relationship to the whole, and work with writers and readers you trust to help you develop. That is what’s important.”

This blog post was created by Christina Rock. Christina is a senior at Plattsburgh State University, and would like to thank Dr. Carol Lipszyc for the wonderful interview.