Non-genre Writing and Non-Nonfiction

Hannah’s 2. 22. post continues a thread on genre writing (which is to say, “non-literary” fiction) as not getting fair respect for excellence. That thread began last year in her “Tour de Bookcases,” and is sending me off into all sorts of questions. I'll start with one for today.

The idea of genre writing as inferior was certainly accepted among fiction writers in Cornell’s MFA program—"genre" was a put-down. Or at least whenever I heard it used, it sounded like that.

So the first question is: Why? And I think the fiction writers would have answered, because generally Harlequin is formulaic, and so is mystery, and so is a lot of sci-fi and fantasy. And so is a lot of what is called realism, of course, but realism does not therefore get categorically excluded from "literariness." (Maybe because if it did, there would be little left.) As I've heard the term "literary" used, it seems intended to describe writing that is non-formulaic, that challenges readers, maybe even feeds them; at any rate it does something significantly more than provide the bookish equivalent of sugar candy.

I wonder whether this exclusion of genre writing has a parallel in certain "Do not" rules taught in English classes—"do not end on prepositions" "do not use passive voice" "do not split infinitives." These rules are really about style, not grammar, and they are a shorthand that makes English teachers' lives easier: rather than having to explain "that's not graceful," they can point to the broken rule. But the downfall is that occasionally, ending on a preposition is the graceful thing; occasionally, not splitting the infinitive makes the sentence awkward. And the rule needs breaking in order to fulfill its original intent. Otherwise, to quote Churchill, ending on prepositions becomes something "up with which we will not put."

I also wonder whether the put-downs against genre writing make any interesting parallels to the put-downs against nonfiction (an unfortunate name, defined already as a lack). This article by Richard Nixon (not the president) is an insightful commentary on nonfiction as a literarily under-appreciated form of writing.


Riding Off and All That

Yo Peeps,

Keats got me a little, though sorry to say, Goodie, he left you out. But tautologies don’t work so well three-way. And don’t go nitpicky, True, lovey; maybe what he said isn’t a tautology at all. But it’s reversible anyhow, so I’m a fan—and also, it takes me seriously. Shame, really, that now almost everyone referring to him makes him measure of wish-that-were-true.

Devils: sure. For being universals and transcendents, my dear family, you’re all a bit dim in the eyes. First of all, you should see his horse. No one riding Night could really be evil, as you would all know if you’d been there, and if you bothered looking animals in the eyes. Which you must—how can you live otherwise? D. has a brother, too, and we go on long walks and he says the most provocative things and can’t keep his eyes off me, but even much too far away for anyone to hear me if I screamed, I always feel safe with him. Well—safe’s the wrong word. He burns my mouth when we kiss.

Where we walk is volcanic, and the volcano is old and has gone back to sleep but the last time she blew she changed the face of this place, miles of ash, mud, miles of force become matter, and the land unable, even thirty years later, to lie still. The rocks are pale green, deep red. Everywhere are rims ready to avalanche. And yet there’s a beaver-pair damming already, there are stunted firs with deep yellow needles, there are patches of turf hanging over the edges of precipices, not letting go.

He’s the caretaker here, though I don’t see how anyone could take care of this, and when he’s with me he’s never actually doing anything other than grabbing me before I vanish over some new ledge. His name’s Justice. I guess it’s working, though: between tremors, in the breathless-smooth pools, you can count stars at night. And if you have patience for it, you can trace bullfrogs by their sound, and see them swell and boom, swell and boom.



Tough Love


Allow me to channel your sister Truth for a bit and be blunt. I don't want to hurt you, but you need to understand where you came from before I can answer your question.

You say that Truth would tell you that when love is elsewhere, it can't be with you. But that's exactly why I needed you, daughter. There is too much for me to do to be everywhere at once, and so I made you and your sisters with specific aspects of who I am, to try to bring part of my love to the places I am not.

You're going to ask why I left you in that tower if I wanted you to do work for me. But you're my children, darling, not my creations, so I had to let you grow up and figure out what you were supposed to be doing on your own.

Goodness isn't the highest aim. Neither is truth or beauty or joie de vivre. Love is the highest aim. Goodness that grows out of love will be happy; goodness without love can be neither happy or good. I understand you want to rebel against me, daughter, and I'm sorry to give you such a hard truth. I want you to learn to be good, and happy, because you are loving. Being good will not necessarily make you happy, but I hoped that learning to be happy could make you more loving: and therefore more good.

I chose a hard life for you when I gave you the attribute of Goodness, my dear daughter. You have fulfilled the letter of your duty admirably. You say you are crushed that you haven't done enough for me: but there will never be enough for me. I will always want more from you because I want to make you and your sisters perfect. But I will also always give you more of myself.


your mother


What's Love Got To Do With It?

Dear Mom,

Of course it falls to me, the virtuous one, to respond first to your letter. But strange as it may sound, I don't have much good to say. Shall I open sarcastically by thanking you for the reminder that love has business elsewhere? That hardly seems charitable. And of course it's Truth's job to say that when love is elsewhere, it isn't here, and when it isn't here, it isn't. I'm sure she'll get around to writing pretty soon.

Will you explain to me once and for all why I've got to enjoy doing good? You foisted goodness on me, you named me, and you stipulated my duty. So I'm good now, or I'm goodness itself, but I needn't pretend to be happy. Plenty of people have imagined that doing good will make a person happy. Of course! But they are all making a big mistake: they want to motivate people to be good by promising a positive personal result; but as I know all too well, being good and being happy needn't go hand in hand. Borrowing rhetoric from the hedonists, or trying to make goodness into it's own form of hedonism ("The real pleasure is in being good...") is worse than just nonsense. It makes me look selfish, and it's degrading.

Mother, you know I do my best. But sometimes I lose track of myself. Are you honestly encouraging me to argue in order to recover my joie de vivre? And if so, are you saying that goodness isn't the highest aim, but that joie de vivre is? Are you saying that some kind of competitiveness is necessary for the good to keep going? If you are, I wish you'd named me Better, or even Best. Being good all the time is hard, and I'm crushed to find that it still isn't enough for you.

Forgive me for speaking so openly. I'm not exactly rebelling, Mother, but it's possible that I've lost my way. I'd by lying if I said that Love didn't have its hooks in me, and we all know just how confusing Love can be, especially when it's your mother.

I am, most devotedly,

Your daughter.


A Maternal Exhortation to Wayward Daughters

Dearest daughters:

I'm sad to see you fighting among yourselves like this. Didn't I teach you better?

Truth, who told you to stay in that tower? Really, dear, I thought you'd have realized by now that you can't do any good if no one can hear what you have to say. Your sisters have learned that at least. Get out. See the world. Find your sisters, if you don't know what else to do.

Goodness -- it's lovely that you're helping people, but you needn't sound so self-sacrificing about it! You've learned that you need to be a doer, but you mustn't just do: you must let yourself enjoy it. It's in your nature to enjoy the work you're doing, if you'd just stop being uptight and worrying about what Truth tells you. Of course you can't win against nature and time. That's why you're needed.

Beauty, my dearest baby: couldn't you make time to visit your sisters once in a while? You look better with them than you ever could alone, you know. Bring your devilish friend; maybe if Goodness has someone to argue with she'll recover some of her joie de vivre. You were right to go gallivanting off, my dear. You were the first to realize I never meant you to stay in that tower forever, but you need to come home, at least occasionally.

I look forward to seeing you all as soon as I can get free of my business elsewhere.

Your devoted mother,


Goodness To Truth, A Difficult Letter Indeed

Dear Truth,

I wish I could say it was always pleasant to hear from you. Of course I miss our days together in the tower, but you always knew I couldn't be happy there, sitting around. Now, out on the barricades—why, I could almost be happy, if it weren't for your carping in my ears. This is why I haven't written until now.

Why do you hurt me this way? You tell me that I'm powerless against time and against nature. You remind me that bad will keep on happening even if I root out evil. You tell me how many people like Beauty better than me. But isn't the youngest sister always spoiled? A lot of people don't like you either, and for good reason.

You ruin happy families. You try your hardest to show your sisters up or put us down; and you do it well, with words that cut our clothing into shreds. Naked, Beauty may get by all right. But no one wants to see Goodness in the nude. I'm hard, and I'm emaciated, and I'm so good people get scared that they can never live up to me. But if you would keep quiet and let me do my work in dignity, even in disguise, I could get a lot more done and be a lot happier.

I do need you, Sister; and I do miss you when I plunge this far into battle; it is even a comfort to know that you are there, keeping the tower in order and making the books of use—

But for now, since you won't come out to help me (and I know you probably can't) I wish you would please shut up and not write to me for a while.

I love you, really I do.