The Beauty of the Literary Genre

I’m currently reading The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin. It’s a literary novel about a rather aimless engineer who falls into a job reconstructing car accidents for insurance companies and lawyers as they battle it out in court over fault and blame. The topic itself sounds rather dull, but the novel is really about the interaction between the main character and the other two primary characters in the story, not the job. Thankfully. The novel unfolds slowly with the main character, Ellis, working a new accident scene with his boss, Boggs. Later, Arvin amps up the intrigue by introducing Heather, Boggs wife, and the sad story of Ellis’ half brother. These elements all combine to create an interesting, if not typical, literary novel.

Unlike its brethren and better-selling genres such as romance and thrillers, literary novels are the slow boil of the writing world. They can seem particularly aimless at first blush because they take time to build to the plot, and they can often feel like a Seinfeld episode in the beginning because they appear to be about nothing, but to me, especially since I write in the genre myself, they are the most rewarding novels. That slow boil usually reveals a rich story full of interesting characters, some that become so real to me that I often feel like we’re old friends.

Most of my favorite novels are literary ones because I enjoy stepping into the lives of the characters and getting to know them at a higher level than I do when I read other genres. For thrillers, the plot usually drives the story, and it’s rare that I get to know the characters on the same level I would in a literary novel. There are some exceptions such as Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series. Likewise, science fiction, another favorite of mine, typically focuses on the world building rather than the characters. Thrillers and science fiction novels are certainly enjoyable, but neither quenches my thirst for character development like the literary genre.

Despite my affinity for the genre, I realize that it’s not for everyone. Most readers prefer the fast pace of a thriller or other elements of a story that are prototypical of other genres. I don’t know the exact numbers, but literary lingers on the low end of the reader interest spectrum despite the fact that most classics are literary and most of us had to read them in school. It almost seems like a lost art, but I’d take a literary novel any day over any other genre because watching the characters develop in that slow boil is one of the most rewarding things for me as a reader. Now, excuse me while I go see what Ellis is up to.

Perspective Shifting

Karen Connelly wrote an interesting article in support of her latest novel, The Change Room, which in and of itself sounds compelling. In the article she talks about how she started the novel one way based on her own biases but completely shifted her perspective after she spent some time researching the subject of her novel, sex workers. She started with the idea that being a sex worker was a dour, depressing job fraught with emotional scars and mental instability. The result was a rather bleak novel.

After she spent some time researching her subject, she put the first draft in the proverbial drawer and simply wrote another more enlightening story that became The Change Room. The new novel depicted sex work in a very different light, one that many would refuse to accept or believe. I haven’t read any reviews on the the novel, but I bet it’s only a matter of time before someone accuses Ms. Connelly of glorifying sex work, and I doubt such criticism would be limited to one side of the ridiculous political spectrum because each end would see their devil in the details.

No doubt sex work has a dark underbelly that should concern us all, but that’s not the point of this post. What’s intriguing about Ms. Connelly’s experience is how her ingrained biases pushed her in one direction and her research pulled her in another. In the end, logic and creativity won out, and that’s the beauty of being a writer. Being able to explore different perspectives and present readers with said perspectives is one of the greatest joys of writing. Let’s face it, a novel that simply chronicles the mundane and plays out in a way that caters to everyone’s inherent biases makes for dull reading. Certainly, writers shouldn’t focus on changing everyone’s mind about a topic or issue, but they shouldn’t shy away from challenging social norms and group think either.

Everyone has biases. By virtue of having lived, biases form naturally. Some are simple such as a preference for a food. Others are more wide-ranging and potentially dangerous such as a dislike for another race or culture. The inclination for these biases cannot be denied, but awareness of them is essential to growing as a human being. Writers often play off these preferences by assigning similar attributes to their characters and putting them in the context of a story. It’s only through this experimentation that we can challenge social norms and, hopefully, shift perspectives.

As I’ve done more development work for my novel, Pine Mountain, I’ve realized that there are a lot of biases at play. Each of the characters is burdened with his or her own preconceived notions about the world around him or her. The protagonist, Eric, is at his core a good person, but he struggles with how he views his hometown despite all of the things that have changed since he left. On the other hand, Bobby, his brother-in-law and his primary foil in the novel, clings to a darker view of the world that seems at times out of place and harmful in many ways. I have yet to determine how (or if) these two characters will evolve in the novel, but there will certainly be moments where the readers will be faced with uncomfortable situations, which I hope will make them stop and consider another point of view.

That being said, any novel is a byproduct of the writer’s biases as well. Just like Ms. Connelly started her book in one way only to shelve it and go in a completely different direction, I hope I have the courage to do the same should it play out that way for this story. Shifting perspectives doesn’t just apply to readers. It applies to writers as well. That’s what makes it all fun and rewarding.

The Lull in the Storm

Sometimes, writing is like breathing – it just happens, but on occasion, it’s like pushing through the 23rd mile in marathon – laborious and painful. Every time I begin a project, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning opening presents, but soon after, when the dreadful middle rounds the bend, I feel like that same kid on Christmas evening, morose because all the fun is over. ┬áThe solitary nature of writing doesn’t help. No one wants to hear about your half-completed manuscript that’s stuck in the mud somewhere in the depths of your computer files. Such work is uninteresting since even you, the creator who adores it, found it unworthy of completing.

The good news is that I’ve completed more than I have not, but there are a couple of manuscripts that sit half finished in my files. Re-visiting them feels like walking through a ghost town of half-constructed houses. I keep telling myself that I will go back and finish them someday, but that day has yet to arrive. What happened to them? Why did I abandon them like one would abandon an overheated, inert car on the side of the freeway?

The answer lies in the creative storm that begat them. Oftentimes, an idea strikes and the concept of the story takes on a life of its own. The characters write the story themselves. I become the characters in many ways and feel my way through the story. I feel a connection with the character that builds on and keeps the momentum going, but if I suddenly lose that connection, the story begins to drag until I get to a point that it no longer makes sense to keep working on it. I need a break.

My very first novel, one that I began writing in 1997, fell victim to this aberration. That novel still sits in the cob-webbed corner of my files unfinished. I fell in love with the idea on a drive from Atlanta to Memphis one evening and began writing in earnest once I returned home. This went on for weeks until I suddenly hated my main character. I felt he was too harsh and cynical and all I had written reflected this degenerative attitude. It felt like too much work to re-write the pages I had written, so I saved it one last time and put it on the shelf. Over the years, it has gone mostly untouched, but occasionally, I take it off the shelf, blow off the layer of dust that has accumulated and re-read it in hopes that I will find a way to make it worthy of my time. I’ve dabbled with the story, but it remains much the same as it was two decades ago.

Most recently, I had another novel that got stuck in the mud. I haven’t decided if or when I will get back to it. The story bogged down in the middle, and I realized I was trying to do too much with it. I love the concept and hope I can figure out how to make it work, but I haven’t touched the story in a year. Once I finish Into the Caldera, I may go back to it. Or maybe not.

It’s easy to get enamored with the latest new idea and my mind can get distracted and off-task when it comes to my current work. I tend to go with the flow when it comes to writing – write whatever strikes my fancy. This approach leaves a lot to be desired when I’m trying to finish a novel. It’s even harder to deal with when I’m in the editing phase as I am now. When I should be hunkering down and editing, I’m often writing other things. Editing is boring and I certainly need to break the monotony with some other creative outlet, but editing requires focus, too.

I take solace in the fact that I still enjoy the process overall. I’ve been focused on my regular writing regimen for five years now. I’m still learning a lot and I’m still developing as a writer. Next month, I will attend the first residential writing workshop in a six-month program designed to help me improve my writing. I don’t expect it to rid me of these lulls in the creative process, but it may provide me with some ideas to help me get past them.