How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, er, Genre

Actually, it did start with the bomb.

Novel #1 (the homeless wonder) left my brain as a literary work, in which characters are guided by their prophetic dreams, sometimes to do things like build nuclear bombs out of smoke detectors and car parts and commit a little terrorism. Perhaps oddly, none of this struck me as fantastic or science-fictional. I do believe that dreams can show us things, and I do believe in the ingenuity of properly motivated and educated people. But the novel was widely seen as SF by literary folks (perhaps explaining its unsold status, but that is another story). This irked me, because I didn’t want my book shelved alongside sword-toting elves.

Sometime lately I realized that although I was once a literary snob, sneering over my spectacles into the genre ghetto, concerned with “respectability,” now I tend toward snobbery of another flavor. Or at least I have been seeing the (permeable, imprecise) distinction between literary and genre more clearly, and I have been seeing it in a way that makes me proud to live, for the most part, on the SF side of the wall.

Because I just read it, Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake will be unfairly singled out in this post as an example of what I mean. It is certainly not the only book to suffer from an uncomfortable blend of genre and literary sensibilities, nor is it even a bad book. I kind of recommend it. Read it if (as I was) you’re traveling standby and end up waiting in an airport for six hours. But the book left me with an odd taste in my mouth, and it wasn’t sadness or lemon cake.

The book focuses on Rose, who as a child develops the ability to taste the emotions of food preparers, starting with her mother’s sadness. The SF element is presented matter-of-factly. It is a Real Thing, and the solidness of that aspect plants a foot in the fantasy realm.

And yet. The book’s real focus is Rose’s unbelievably distant family: her adulterous mother, withdrawn father, and even more withdrawn–to the point of barely speaking to Rose–brother. Rose’s emotional balance as she grows up is far more important than her superpower. (Which, incidentally, is almost totally negative for her. Why, I wonder, did she so rarely taste happiness?) And so the other foot stands in a literary place.

Two things make this work feel literary rather than genre. One <SPOILER> is the way Rose’s brother turning into a chair is handled. Even though it is a Real Thing, to me it feels like a metaphor. He was reclusive; he retreated; he disappeared into the furniture. </SPOILER>

The other is the scope of the story, the stakes. Reading through the book I kept collecting clues that ratcheted up my expectations. For example, Rose’s father avoids hospitals. Even when his kids are born, even when they’re sick. His avoidance is so huge that it ratcheted up the stakes and my expectations. I just knew that something AWESOME was coming. But it didn’t come. All I got was a sense of his character.

I realize that this sounds pretty negative toward literary fiction, so let me add that, of course, there are a great many masterpieces of literary literature, in which Things Happen and stakes-raising promises are fulfilled and the reader is left satisfied. But in literary fiction I think the other kind of story is more allowed. Things don’t have to happen. Characters don’t even have to change. And I feel like stories that straddle the border often retreat into that literary area where resolution is not required, rather than do the hard work of living up to the expectations they create and firing the guns they set on mantelpieces.

Which is disappointing. And so I will stay awhile in the genre ghetto, where the parties are louder, and the stories are bigger than the magic fish that got away, and the squids on the mantelpieces always squirt their ink by tale’s end.

I’d like to think that my writing does these things. I’d like to think that’s why my literary readers decided my novel was SF: that they were blown away by Things happening and promises fulfilled. If that puts my work on a genre shelf, then there it will sit.

Hopefully without any dragons on the cover.

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