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Animal Love and Genre Stereotypes

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It’s been a hard week. One of my cats nearly died. I won’t go into the details, but I will admit that it’s involved trips to three different vets, a lot of poop, and a lot of suffering. I had come to grips with the fact that this morning I would likely need to ask for her euthanasia. But, no, after four and a half days of dire illness, she has rallied. No little kitty will last forever, and her days are numbered, but maybe she will enjoy a little while longer.

When I try to think about writing about my pets and why I love them, I encounter whole layers of prohibition, disrespect, sentimentality, and boredom. Yet they are important enough to me that I feel compelled to include them in my literary world, or at least my communicative world. What I write about them may never achieve anything near the level of art, but I think somehow there must be ways of thinking about them that go beyond “Awww, how cute.”

Perhaps, in fact, my desire to write about animals is something akin to certain others’ devotion to genre fiction. My husband sent me this morning a short example of the frequent flailing of professors of creative writing for discouraging students from writing genre fiction—in this case science fiction. It uses a long quote by Michael Chabon expressing some outrage about how he’d been “limited” by this lack of acceptance of his favored genre in his youth.

This dissing of professors this way is a tired hobbyhorse. Genre fiction was far more disrespected before creative writing was commonly taught in universities, and creative writing professors certainly didn’t create the “limitations” Michael Chabon speaks of. That responsibility would have to lie at the feet of literature professors and literary reviewers and critics, though creative writing professors no doubt have partaken in it in their attempt to get a toehold in the academic world over the past fifty years.

However, it is also undeniably true that much genre writing—and much writing about animals—is pretty uninteresting and awful stuff.

The writing professors that I know (in composition and as well as creative writing) place “limitations” on students in order to try to avoid reading the worst of this kind of thing and to encourage students to shift away from the stereotypical thinking many of them are most familiar with. Most of us have tried a variety of strategies—and it is true that some forbid any genre element (monsters, vampires, magic of any kind, futuristic settings, etc.). Some use prohibitions about “realistic” topics as well—I once knew a composition instructor who forbade all broke-up-with-boyfriend or -girlfriend stories. Another banished all first-love stories for similar reasons. Some try less blanket warnings, like “I suggest you not use a gun in your story unless you are actually familiar with guns and know how they work.” I even knew one teacher who disallowed any student from writing about pets.

Mind you, these are from teachers who may admire Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Who may know that Paul Auster wrote Timbuktu very successfully from the point of view of a dog. Who may even think that the Harry Potter books are good. Even those professors who disallow genre elements entirely in their workshops are not unaware of exceptions in the general low quality of certain genre-like or realist-sentimental subjects.

But there’s another, little understood issue, and that is that we try to sort in order to focus our instruction somewhat. This starts, of course, with the more basic use of the word “genre” to distinguish between fiction, poetry, drama, and creative nonfiction (which also is distinguished from journalism). Slicing further, fiction becomes “literary” and “genre,” and then genre is divided further into particular genres like sci-fi, mystery, chick lit, and so on. Those genres are broken down even further: this website, for example, lists ten primary sub-genres of sci-fi.

These designations are seemingly designed to be descriptive, not necessarily evaluative, but, because people develop favorites and antipathies, they become evaluative, too. And, I would argue, also because there are certain goals that differ between those writing for “entertainment” purposes and those who at least aspire to loftier ideals. Whether the latter ever achieve them or not is uncertain, just as entertainment purposes or other ideological pursuits in writing don’t necessarily preclude profundity.

In other words, most creative writing professors that I know combine their aversion to the worst possibilities of genre fiction in their classes with an aversion to trying to teach everything in one course rather than any blanket condemnation of genre. How many different sub-genres must we be asked to examine in one semester? How many different conventions and their upending must students be asked to critique in each others’ manuscripts all mixed in together? At my university we actually offer a course on science-fiction writing, separate from the other fiction workshops that focus on literary realist fiction. No one who teaches fiction here disses genre—a couple of them even write and promote it. This may be a new development, distinct from the experience of someone like Michael Chabon from a tonier universe. We live in an era when literary realism is getting harder and harder to publish (at least in book form) and in which there’s an emphasis on the acceptability (even, perhaps, desirability) of hybrids and mash-ups. Genre elements creep in all over the place, and an array of examples are emerging of how to use them without being dominated by clichés and formulas. (One name for this is post-modernism, I suppose.)

Nowhere, though, does anyone talk about the less macho, might I say the less sexy issue of how to approach more domestic subjects without sentimentality. Science-fiction, fantasy, and horror have made inroads in academic creative writing circles. But the fiction world has cast the romance into the world of memoir and has dissed it one genre-definition level up: there are many fiction writers and critics who now claim that memoir (or even all of nonfiction) is inherently inferior as an entire genre to any and all fiction. In literary circles, in other words, it’s now more common for memoir to be dissed as unworthy than it is for sci-fi and fantasy to be.

Which reconnects to my own desire to occasionally write about my pets or about other animals and issues regarding them. A few years ago, I wrote an essay about an elderly neighbor of mine who was feeding strays and my efforts to help him and find real homes for these cats. (One of them became a permanent resident in my home, and I placed six others in good homes and got the one feral one spayed before she escaped capture and disappeared.) It was a great compliment to me when one of my writer-friends, who at that time was not an animal lover (though she has since become one) said to me that I had “managed to make the inner lives of cats interesting,” something, she said, she had not thought possible. Yet I still have not managed to publish this essay. I believe it’s a good essay, and I believe it’s a shame that “cats” are off-limits in most of the literary world.

Still, I have to acknowledge that this is not without reason—people react to the plethora of sentimental schlock about pets, and I can’t blame them even though I’m trying to do something different and even though I believe editors (and professors) might be able to take a little more responsibility for distinguishing value rather than dismissing entire subjects in their entirety. In fact, for a number of years, I have refused to place proscriptions on what subjects my students write about; on the rare occasion when I teach fiction, I suggest very heartily that if they would like to write something with genre elements, they need to make sure they do it in a non-formulaic way and that they toe to literary standards of character development. Few of them try it, but on at least a couple of occasions students have produced great stuff. So, I’m personally not into the proscriptions even though I find about 90% of the well-published sci-fi and crime/mystery stuff I’ve ever read to fall into the dreck category. Still, I believe it would be silly of me to attack lit mag editors for their antipathy toward cat stories.

Similarly, I believe that the genre-fiction aficionados lashing out at the literary realist world are wrong-headed. What they might more usefully do is examine what’s closer to home and begin to make real and substantial distinctions about what has merit within the realms of their specific genres.

In the usual sense of the word, of course, genre fiction refers to the kind of simplistic, poorly written, stereotypical character–filled, predictably plotted kind of stuff that creative writing professors disparage. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t terrific fiction that shares certain features of science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, action, crime, or mystery. The many torrid memoirs don’t mean that there don’t also exist memoirs of the finest order. Whether we speak of any of this work as solidly ensconced in its specific genre or of it “transcending” its genre status doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is that we understand and make distinctions about what is art and what is on the borderland or what falls completely into the category we might call dreck.

Some people are capable of this. Jonathan Lethem, for instance. I just read his essay “You Don’t Know Dick,” in which he examines both the variable career of Philip K. Dick and his own youthful obsession with it. He notes more than once the “disastrous unevenness of his [Dick’s] prose.” Now, this is an intelligent examination of how a writer can fascinate us while we also see his flaws. I wish the same strategy could be applied more commonly to genres as a whole instead of the simplistic valorization of underappreciated genres or the alternate demonization of them.

There will always be contention in terms of the issue of quality in areas where it’s hard to pin down. Math is “easy” in this regard: either you get the right answer or you don’t. Engineering in this regard is “easy”: either the building or bridge stands up or it doesn’t. In both of those arenas, it may be difficult to master the correct answer, but you at least can identify it.

In many walks of life, however, there is no hard and fast answer. A book, for instance, may be good in a million different ways or bad in a million different ways. It can even be good in some ways and bad in others, or good and bad at the same time to different people in different circumstances. For instance, when I criticized Kris Carr and her Crazy, Sexy Cancer empire, one of my former students noted that she could see what I meant, but that Carr had been important to her in dealing with a chronic illness because it gave her a sense that she could still enjoy much of her life. I think Kris Carr is a hideous fake and her writing is awful, but I can’t and won’t try to deny that someone might find her bromides useful at times. In fact, she probably doesn’t even consider what she does “art,” and so is perhaps not the best example. But think of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, think of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, think of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, think Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. All of these books have formed important cultural commentaries on their times, and all have inspired numerous readers to think in new ways. That doesn’t mean they are all well written or even particularly intelligent.

Well, I’ve already gone on way too long about this today. I’ll just have to revisit it later. This post will be a true rough, rough draft. There’s a place in the world for that, just as there is for laser guns and green slime creatures and murders on the orient express. Just as there is for the basic, accepting love between human and animal. Now I am off to retrieve my cat from the vet so that she may scratch out another day if not my eyes. She is not a particularly sweet cat.

Ironically, when I adopted her, her shelter name was Candy. The only remnant of that is in the sound of her name, Cameo, and in the fact that we sometimes call her Candycane Tail because she is so uptight that she never uncurls her tail. Except, I should say, when she’s very, very sick. A limp tail is a terrible thing.

P.S. I really loved this discussion of “The Top 40 Bad Books” (It’s a PDF, so works only if you search the title or paste the URL into your browser: http://americanbookreview.org/PDF/Top40BadBooks.pdf). What variety! What disagreement! It takes a village to ferret out insights about what’s good and bad.

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3 responses »

  1. This is a really wonderful post, that stimulates lots of aesthetic concerns vexing my brain of late. If we disagree on this issue, it’s really by about 3-5 degrees, at most.

    Chabon didn’t quite seem to express outrage, although the blogger from blastr certainly does when he writes, “It angers me to think that this sort of topical bigotry goes on.” (Since blastr is affiliated with the Syfi channel, that response is all too predictable.) Instead, what Chabon expresses is shame and regret for not advocating for the genre stuff he loved while he was a student. But I am not sure that advocating in the classroom is necessarily an important role for a student.

    The rhetorical situation here is, I think, that he is thrilled with what he could contribute to the John Carter (of Mars) screenplay, and is ruing the time he has lost not working directly in genre in a large scale. Of course, he is co-writing a screenplay that is a novel adaptation here. But he seems to feel he is repaying a debt to the earliest stirrings of his dramatic imagination, and perhaps he is.

    Michael Chabon is one of America’s greatest writers, and, even though it is in bad taste to presume to know all possible permutations of his career in alternate universes, I cannot really wish that the arc of his career had been much different. Part of what makes The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay so wonderful was the conscious connection between the narratives of the golden age of comic books with the emotions and history that, for the creators of these comic books, they were metaphors for. I know that Chabon collaborated on a series of graphic novels that recreated The Escapist, the imaginary comic books from Kavalier and Clay, but I am not that curious to read them, even though I do enjoy great graphic novels. But the way Chabon learned the craft of fiction—few people exercise the craft better—and his relatively direct engagement with life as it is has enriched his genre-related work, such as K&C and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I do think his working his way back to the realms of genre was far a richer journey than any journey that would have begun and ended there.

    Limitations are not always the enemies of art, or even of the imagination.

    What Chabon was lamenting, though, are old prejudices, established clearly in 1983, in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction:

    The instruction here is not for every kind of writer—not for the writer of nurse books or thrillers or porno or the cheaper sort of sci-fi—though it is true that what holds for the most serious kind of fiction will generally hold for junk fiction as well. (Not everyone is capable of writing junk fiction: It requires an authentic junk mind. Most creative-writing teachers have had the experience of occasionally helping to produce, by accident, a pornographer. The most elegant techniques in the world, filtered through a junk mind, become elegant junk techniques.) What is said here, whatever use it may be to others, is said for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists. (x)

    While Gardner mentions particular genres, he never uses the word, regarding the loaded word junk as a more accurate synonym for the term. As the Voice of Creative Writing Authority in the academic world, genre writers are not “serious literary artists,” and their aspirations are those of a “junk mind,” even if, theoretically, Gardner leaves the door open for a more expensive sort of science fiction, whatever that would be. Arthur C. Clarke, or Frank Herbert, perhaps, who were Chabon’s examples of writers he adored besides F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Cheever, and Vladimir Nabokov, and Eudora Welty? Gardner didn’t foresee, or maybe would have refused to recognize had he lived long enough, the hybridization of meta-fiction with Realist fiction, the hybridization of earnest Realist fiction with earnest genre work.

    Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and Rick Moody, among others, have shown the literary value of engaging with genre, even if their own more direct forays into genre work (Lethem and Chabon with graphic novels, Moody with his Postmodern juggernaut, The Five Fingers of Death) have yet to be celebrated. The atmosphere, in the academy, anyway, seems to have changed, to allow for hybrids, while still emphasizing craft.

    Having said all that, it does seem unfair that pets are a verboten literary subject, just because Jimmy Stewart read his poems about dogs on The Tonight Show, and that we endlessly anthropomorphize animals for sentimental ends. I don’t know why “What I write about them may never achieve anything near the level of art,” other than the prejudices of the literary marketplace. If pets are verboten, then, as you indicate, the truth about what our animal companions mean to us, and what we might mean to them, is also verboten. They weren’t verboten for Christopher Smart, but then again, perhaps the subject drove him mad (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/for-i-will-consider-my-cat-jeoffry-excerpt-jubil/).

    May the reprieve for your old cat be long.

    Reply
    • Thanks much for the Christopher Smart poem–I wasn’t familiar with it, and it’s wonderful.

      Also thanks for the corrective about Chabon. You’re right about the quote being used a little out of context by the blastr author. I do have the impression that Chabon participates a little bit in that put-down of creative writing programs, but he has the right. We all have the right (and perhaps the responsibility and obligation) to critique even things we love and have benefited from.

      I have mixed feelings about the genre-fiction controversy. First, I guess I feel a bit disinclined to entertain that world’s sense of being aggrieved, since they certainly have the lion’s share of publishing opportunities. (Kind of like the poor white man discourse that goes on.) Why do they feel a need to colonize academia, too, which is one of the last surviving locales for thinking about the literary as opposed to the popular? I am always suspicious of those who have to own everything.

      Second, I don’t know why it’s not enough for someone like Gardner to acknowledge that there is a possibility of non-junk sci-fi even though much of it is junk. I’m entirely familiar with snobbery, but I believe that some of it is appropriate. That its targets shift (say, from sci-fi to memoir) indicates that it’s not always justifiably practiced, but that’s another issue I suppose. I mean, we do have to make qualitative evaluations.

      I do love your point about the trajectory of Chabon’s “irv,” as Jonathan Lethem might call it. (That’s his substitute for “oeuvre” when discussing Philip K. Dick.)

      And you have inspired me to put Chabon’s essays on my reading list. I have read his fiction, but not his essay collections, and it’s about time.

      Thanks, as always, for the intellectual engagement. It is way too easy in a blog to say slap-dash things, and I need to be kept honest and precise.

      Reply

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