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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.