Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: the shawshank redemption

I’ve mentioned before I’m currently in the submission process with my novel, The Prodigal Hour. So far it’s okay; not spectacular, but not terrible, either. Of course, “spectacular” would probably be defined as “offered representation,” and I’ll be sure to let you know when that happens. I considered talking more about the submission process itself, but I think I’m going to do so more after I’ve been offered representation, and not before.

I’m going through the process as you’d expect; search the Internet and Writers’ Market and etc. for agents who are either actively seeking new clients or sound like they may be vaguely interested. And then I send a query, which looks pretty much as you’d expect a query to look: intro, synopsis, bio, and out. The intro gives me some trouble, though, because that’s where I mention the title, word count, and genre of my novel, and boyhow is that last characteristic ever a trouble spot. Many might think it’s easy: time travel automatically = science fiction.

But not so fast, I say.

Because I don’t feel like I wrote a science fiction novel. I don’t generally read science fiction novels. Science fiction is all wars among and treks across the stars, and it has a long and illustrious history I don’t feel a part of. Growing up, my choices for reading material were all Dean Koontz and Stephen King pretty much straight across the board, with digressions into Douglas Adams and Christopher Stasheff. Given that among my first experiences with Stephen King was a short story called “Strawberry Spring,” after which I read Different Seasons, I always had trouble thinking of him as a ‘horror’ writer. I never read It and never got to his straight-up horror until after I’d already read “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body.”

Try showing someone with no previous knowledge of their origins the movie adaptations of The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me and then explaining to them they were both based on books by a horror writer.

Because they certainly aren’t horror stories.

Admittedly, King is a bit of an exception; he himself is pretty much as much a genre as “horror”. People buy his books for his name, not for the genre.

Few people are going to buy The Prodigal Hour for my name, and you’re probably already reading this, anyway.

So far, I’ve been calling it a techno-thriller, but even that is a bit of a misnomer. It is thrilling (well. That’s the hope, at least), but character and plot work in pretty much equal measure, and it’s certainly not just about the thrills.

I sort of understand the requirement; it determines, basically, where your book is placed on bookstores’ shelves, which is key. I rarely venture to the scifi/fantasy shelves except to grab Neil Gaiman’s newest book, and again, I’m buying the name, not the genre.

I’m also thinking ahead. This one may be about time travel, but my next two big ones are about vampires and then werewolves, and both do things with those myths I’ve never seen nor heard done before. You can lump them all into science fiction/fantasy, I suppose, but I certainly wouldn’t, and I honestly think publishers and booksellers do more harm than good in categorizing books. Yesterday, Mitzi Szereto wrote about how publishers label books and how those labels can affect their sales, specifically related to erotica.

One of the things that’s gotten me thinking about this, too, are the writers who write stories that seem pretty categorically genre but whose books are not placed there. Lethem started out writing mostly weird science fiction tales. Crichton’s got Jurassic Park and Timeline, at least, not to mention Sphere and The Andromeda Strain. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was narrated by a dead girl, while Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife seems like science fantasy.

And then there’s Michael Chabon. He just won a Hugo for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The Hugo is a major award so known for science fiction that, when a handful of fantasy novels won (including JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Gaiman’s American Gods), some controversy got stirred up.

I haven’t heard any such controversy about the award having gone to Chabon’s novel, which is mostly an alternate history set in the present (I haven’t read the book. I tried. Got about twenty pages in before I gave up on it). But Chabon is an author with both mass appeal and a Pulitzer under his belt, and, in fact, more so than controversy, the win has mainly stirred up discussion like here, where IO9 asks which mainstream authors its readers would like to see write science fiction.

Personally, I don’t want any mainstream authors to deign to write anything they don’t enjoy. Personally, I’d like someone to point out, hey, wait a minute, twenty of the twenty-five movies with the highest worldwide gross ever have been genre movies, and, arguably, science fiction or fantasy movies. The only exceptions are Titanic, Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and The Da Vinci Code, the last two of which are certainly genre movies (adventure and thriller, respectively) even if not science fiction or fantasy.

Seems like it’s mainstream to me.

It’s like people expect good entertainment from all media until they hit books, and then some weirdo mechanism steps in and says that it must be “literature” to be any good while preventing the memory that the whole reason Shakespeare is awesome is because he wrote swordfights and fairies and witches so damned well into really exciting stories.

Caught this article on the New York Times site this morning. Seems to be a day or so old, and it’s supposed to be about a movie that takes place in academia, but the article seems to be about how strange it is for a fiction writer to work in Hollywood, and what a difficult time of it said fiction writer would have.

I actually get that, at least considering the author in question, one Mark Jude Poirier. I’ve never actually heard of Poirier, but he’s apparently got two short story collections and two novels under his belt, and he studied at both the University of Iowa and Johns Hopkins, both of which have renowned writing programs, though the article doesn’t mention what Poirier studied. It does mention what Poirier writes about, to some degree:

His published writing, which also includes a second story collection, “Unsung Heroes of American Industry” (2001), and a second novel, “Modern Ranch Living” (2004), is distinguished by good, dry jokes, a fine appreciation of messy families (he is one of 11 children), a tremendous affection for teenagers and losers, and a strange fascination with amusement-park rides. Only the last is missing from “Smart People.”

I could see why that might not work in a movie, or at least might become one of those pointless, “character-driven” pieces that inevitably come up for Oscars. Rafferty uses this dichotomy, though, to make some blanket statements:

But mostly nothing happens, except in the sense that novelists and short-story writers understand. For them moving a character from not knowing that he’s unhappy to sort of acknowledging it qualifies as a pretty momentous event.

And that may be why so few writers of fiction manage to succeed, or even to be minimally comfortable, in Hollywood. There was a time when the studios, hankering for prestige, would throw money at well-known literary figures and set them to work on projects to which their actual talents were almost risibly irrelevant: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Nathanael West, William Faulkner, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, among others, all did their stints and went home, for the most part, baffled. (Playwrights, with their expertise in dramatic construction and ingrained audience-pleasing instincts, usually fared better.)

These days Hollywood — even “independent” Hollywood — doesn’t frequently come calling on novelists of any literary stature. John Sayles, who directs his own screenplays, has had a productive career, and Richard Price and Larry McMurtry get work too, but it’s a short list. Producers care less about prestige than about marketable stories, and what in the world do fiction writers know about stories?

The fact that “not knowing that he’s unhappy to sort of acknowledging it qualifies as a pretty momentous event” for many current writers of short stories and novels is I think, for the most part, why some many current short stories and novels suck worse than a gaping chest wound and are crappier than a sewage treatment facility.

I can’t argue with Rafferty’s list of writers of the golden age, nor with the quality of their output; I’ve often said that the best thing William Faulkner ever wrote was The Big Sleep, and the thing about it was that Ray Chandler had already done all the heavy lifting for him. Most successful novel adaptations weren’t written by their novelists; The Shawshank Redemption was written by Frank Darabont, and Jo Rowling hasn’t touched any of the Harry Potter scripts (well. Except to approve them). There are a few writers I can think of who do both successfully: Alex Garland (The Beach), David Benioff, and Neil Gaiman are, roughly, it, but the thing about them is that each seem to have an understanding that, for stories to work, something must happen and someone must change.

If nothing happens and nobody changes, is it really a story?

Or is it actually just a handful of competently composed sentences, told by idiots full of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing?

I’d argue most fiction is the latter, nowadays. Which I suppose makes Rafferty right, in his way, but for all the wrong reasons.