Saturday, April 12, 2008

Parsing the Genre-Bound

The more I see of the genre-bound, the more I find to dislike about them.  They are the inverse of imaginative.  Most are tiny ego-ridden martinets determined to control the world by sarcasm and passive aggression. Most are depressive losers, unsocialized and dysfunctional in their flab, propellor beanies, and Hawaiian shirts.  They are desperate to belong and fancy themselves misunderstood geniuses and brilliant iconoclastic nonconformists, even though their every word and gesture is calculated to thwart a larger world that barely notices them.  Their strict conformity to genre patterns, their insular reference system, and their tree-house club code talk ensure they never grow up, never join the real world, and never have to be judged by any standards worthy of aspiration.  Elevating the unprofessional and denigrating mass appeal, they are as divisive and irrelevant as any arch academic.  
The chip of bitter resentment on their shoulder is that of an infant who cannot hold center stage 24 hours a day, and their conventions are the social equivalent of a tantrum.  By all means keep genre apart from mainstream writing; there is good reason it has been shunted to one small backwater.

I recant.

Yes, I once worked the genre fields. In my defense I can only say that there was no choice. I am not rich, did not have my way paid through an Ivy League school, and I am not related by blood or money to a New York City publisher. I did not even get to college, having had no money, so I did not even serve apprenticeship as a first reader or New Yorker fact checker.

Worse, I am from the Lauren Highlands of Western Pennsylvania. That makes me an Appalachian hick. Ask any metropolitan New Yorker. Might as well wear bib overalls without a shirt or shoes and chew on a piece of straw once I’ve admitted such lowly origins.

Which would be okay, marginally, if my grandfather had been a senator, or my father had delivered bribes in smoke-filled back rooms for a political machine in a big city.

Without such a pedigree, though, I was forced to go the genre route if I wanted to become a writer. Forced, in fact, to read all the hard-boiled noir and wild pulp fiction and Golden Age SF and High Fantasy and splatterpunk Horror I could get my hands on. To learn craft I had to pay attention to George Scithers as he grumbled about marks on paper, and I had to bone up on all of Harlan Ellison’s story introductions so I could learn how Lester del Rey grew him from a bean and how Silverbob could write twenty stories a day without pausing for a beer, or how John W. Campbell coached stories out of a snot-nosed Asimov, or the way Heinlein bullied his way to bestsellerdom, or how Clarke wrote from Sri Lanka and Bradbury wrote a story a week and had to rent typewriter time at the public library for a dime an hour so he could submit one every Saturday morning.

It was hell but the indoctrination never ended. My world focused on telling stories about real people with plenty of action. Active voice, show don’t tell, and rewrite until you get the Pet Milk version; those were my lessons.

I wrote on loose leaf notebook paper, in three ring binders, using 19¢ Bics. I pounded on an old Royal manual heavier than my weekly groceries and smeared my fingers switching out used ink ribbons. I longed for an IBM Selectric so I could watch the silver ball whip around creating words but settled for a Brother electronic with interchangeable type wheels, plastic ribbon cartridges, and automatic error correction ribbons, which sure beat those little sheets of Whiteout.

Dean Koontz taught me to finish one page before moving on to the next. He also taught me to make sure the ending paid off big and was not just tacked on.

Heinlein’s rules of writing kept me finishing what I started and keeping stories on the market until sold. I vowed never to rewrite a finished story except to an editor’s request and hoped to follow RAH to the bestseller list.

Worst of all I learned to expect to be paid. Genre is a crass set of categories, focused on money instead of the honor of seeing your name in print. Genre’s insistence on writing for a certain number of pennies per word mocked the gentleman’s game writing had always been for the lucky, connected, elevated few.

There I sat, reduced to counting my words so I could figure out how many to claim if it ever came time to be paid for one of my stories. Shame does not begin to cover it. Writing was actually compared to professionalism, as if art could ever be a mere job, as if meeting deadlines and taking one’s work seriously in terms of supply and demand did not demean the artist squirming inside every writer.

Such affronts lessened the sting of rejection.

That the most popular movies and books of all time are genre only proves genre’s lowest common denominator appeal. How can a book be any good if more than a handful of the brightest academics can understand and enjoy it? How can writing be wonderful if any blue-collar working slob can read and like it?

Heinlein brought it home by stating flatly: You’re competing for beer money. He meant your stories had to appeal to the average working joe or jane more than a six pack of beer; can it get any less refined? Genre is for the masses.

And now, underpublished and contaminated by genre, all I can do is limp along telling my unrestrained stories about monsters, unreal worlds, and other childish things not found, mentioned, or even thought of in a typical upper class penthouse suite during cocktail hour’s furtive adultery.

I can but hope to entertain the masses, or at least let ‘em get away a little while. I’m forced to leave the high art to the O’Haras, the Cheevers, and the Updikes.

I recanted but, really, I can’t afford to. After all, with any luck, I might be up for a Nebula or Hugo award one of these days, or have one of my franchise ideas picked up by Tor, or best of all be the next Philip K. Dick and have dozens of my stories made into blockbuster Hollywood movies even as academics discover how philosophical and ironic I was all along.

Yeah, the more I see of the genre-bound, the more I find to dislike, but what am I supposed to do, give up show business?

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