March 1, 2013

At least we can thank God birds don’t have blogs

I don’t have any problem admitting that genre is a tiring subject to me.

This is, of course, a thought that’s stirred up by the piece that went live on the Los Angeles Review of Books yesterday, about me and genre. Genre is a lot like a fairy house to me, in that from the outside it seems big and stable and impressive, this hard, concrete structure with careful architecture and many layers; but once you walk through the door, and look at it from the inside, there are hallways that go nowhere, doors that open on blank brick walls, stairs that just wind down and down and down and never reach the bottom floor.

Once you’re inside this classification system – once you are being classified – it loses all meaning. This is probably an effect of the considerable shift in position: as Orson Welles put it, “I’m the bird, you’re the ornithologist.” There is a huge difference in thought that separates the two powers at play here – the bird and the ornithologist, so to speak – so much so that they cannot understand one another.

In other words, the language, logic, and mindset that produces writing may have almost no similarity to the language, logic, and mindset that categorizes and analyzes it. They have different priorities and are doing different things. (Regular readers of this blog know that this is a fascination of mine: how writing and reading what is written are wildly divergent processes that are very much not in communication with one another and produce very different results.)

I say this because people often assume that writers are in a constant conversation with the genre systems they work within: it’s assumed we’re in dialogue with our critics, with our own genre institution, with the tropes and clichés and trends that emerge and submerge each month. I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, for me, nothing could be further from the truth. The process that produces a writer – the gallons of inspiration and errata that go pouring into a mind to create a perspective that is capable of producing writing – is very much a group activity: writers pull from a symphony of inspirations using many players (some they’re conscious of, many they aren’t), a big, bubbling mixed soup of experiences and ideas and personalities. But the actual writing is a lonely task, done in isolation.

Writing is, in a lot of ways, a conversation with one’s self: as Gaiman wisely put it, “I write to figure out what I think about things.”

Really good writing, I think, adheres to this line of thinking. Something that genuinely explores and dissects one person’s feelings and thoughts is a profoundly affecting thing to read. It produces a sense of connection and conversation that other mediums can’t aspire to (and whether this connection is real or imagined is a favorite debate of mine).

We think of fiction as a machine, with identifiable parts and a coherent system that works to produce specific effects, and we assume that we can look at these parts and categorize the systems as different things. But fiction, and perhaps all writing, is not like that: a work is not a machine, but a personality, a perspective. The constantly-changing opinions on genre bear a striking similarity to ongoing debates in psychology, sometimes, with opinions on, say, manic-depression slowly growing to be the dominant opinion; and, maybe, that opinion on who these people are, what they do, and how they feel, will change to become something else in five years.

However, just because a psychological opinion changes does not mean the people being studied change with it, much like how birds are happily oblivious to any sea change in ornithology. Birds will continue being birds, and though the treatments and diagnoses might change, people will still have their fair share of psychological troubles.

I have read the opinions studying what I am. I have read about axes and slipstreams and uptown fiction and all manner of -punks. My fiction might have lots of stuff in it (whatever that means). And it may be easy to read (a subject on which not everyone agrees). I don’t particularly care about either of these. I suppose what I care about is that, at the end of one of my books, the reader has the feeling that they have learned something new and very definite about the world. What they have learned can vary, depending on how much they wish to read into the text, but my private and perhaps vain hope is that they have learned something significant, something with weight to it, a piece of knowledge that they can pick up and put into themselves and carry with them long after they read the book; perhaps a feeling that, if only for a moment, they opened up the world, and looked at what was in its heart.

But that, much like the genre system, is all guesswork and shadowplay. In fiction, much like life, we are afforded few certainties, and part of being a writer – and part of being a person, probably – is learning to accept that, and just get on with it.