Literature, Genre Fiction, and Loving the Bomb

I wanted to address some issues concerning “genre fiction”. In most book discussions, genre is a sort of nebulous figure. It can mean ideas of category, in such broad-sweeping terms as library collection labels (science fiction/fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, et cetera). It can be more subjective, however. For example, a lot of cross-genre stories have crept up where various YA fantasy elements have melded with other genres, like historical fiction or dystopia.

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk... I don't know...

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk… I don’t know…

Furthermore, readers in today’s media-saturated world often have very, very precise ideas as to what they want, often based more on a collection of tropes than on any clear idea of genre. Usually these can be picked out in a very TV Tropes sort of way: “I want a YA series with a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds anti-hero, who is also a Draco in Leather Pants character, who is in a love triangle with an All Work and No Play woman who is Conveniently an  Orphan, and a love rival Starving Artist who believes Ambition Is Evil…”

I think that this devotion to trope collection is often what prevents good literary discussion. When someone gives a very vague I -couldn’t-get-into-it excuse about a book, often it is because the person reads to fulfil a certain love of trope. With women, especially, I see a lot of readers who have a real romance for some blend of the Draco in Leather Pants and Woobies. For the uninitiated, these are TV Tropes terms for specific character types. The Draco in Leather Pants is basically what it sounds like, a hot badboy, like the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera or every love interest in every Cassandra Clare book ever.

Or Spike. Spike also works...

Or Spike. Spike also works…

The Woobie is a put-upon character that you feel sorry for and want to hug because nothing goes his way, which is often kind of a favorite for certain female audiences.

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme...

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme…

Audiences who really like to fix people, to be exact…

Woobie Destroyer of Worlds is when the woobie might, you know, destroy things. But not intentionally.

Frozen

Frozen

A lot of people really hate these tropes when applied to romance, saying that they encourage girls to get into bad relationships in order to “fix” someone. But, I’m not sure if that’s really fair. I think there is a sort of safety in living out the bad romance within the confines of fiction, and that appeals to people.

And some choose to express their fantasies in song...

And some choose to express their fantasies in song…

It’s also not just for women. Film Noir is laden with femme fatales, who could basically just be the female Draco in Leather Pants, and the idea of “taming” the wild woman isn’t too very different from fixing the bad boy, in my opinion.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

However, there is definitely a subset of the population who really fetishize the tropes, intentionally seeking out books not for quality or enlightenment, but because they want to fall in love with angsty bad boys who would be good if only they had wub, sweet wub.

12751687

The romantic, angsty, dangerous love interest is named… Patch. That is hilarious…

This sets off my outrage.

Male readers often gravitate toward another wish-fulfilment fantasy, often with Chosen One narratives where a character is special and gets to have adventures and love and awesomeness because he’s just special. Eragon is a particularly dreadful example of self-indulgent wish-fulfilment writing.

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free!

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free! (And, yes, I know that women read this trope, as well.)

I believe I mentioned a meme in a previous post, about how one reads to escape life, and I said how this is really a very irresponsible way to live. I think that a lot of these Chosen One narratives create a reading environment where literature is not about humanity or raising up ideas and culture, but rather abandoning reality like the children in the Ray Bradbury Story, “The Veldt”.

The problem with collecting tropes is that it often makes it very hard to talk about literature as literature. A lot of people really promote the idea of obsessing over a trope as a positive thing, like it is part and parcel of the reading experience. While it’s not wrong to really like particular tropes, a collection of tropes does not actually make a story. It’s how the piece is used. For example, dystopian tropes can be used well, or they can be…

200px-Modellandcover

There have to be better ways of talking about literature. What does the author address? What about the writing style? What are the questions the author is asking or answering? How does the author enter into the dialogue of art itself? A trope can exist in a really great piece of writing, and also in some abysmal pile of shit. It has no quality requirements. Again, see the picture above. No quality requirements.

Trope collecting is more about filling a certain emotional need, such as loneliness or boredom, and has very little to do with literature. And, sure everyone has emotional needs. Sometimes everyone needs a quick escape, a way to de-stress.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

The problem isn’t from these books. It’s totally fine to read easy books, or even terrible books. It’s no worse than watching TV or watching really bad horror movies about giant rodents. There is, however, a problem in only reading these books, from only being able to read these books, or from refusing to read anything else. No Draco in Leather Pants in As I Lay Dying? I guess it’s a bad book, then… Not as good as Clockwork Urban Angel Vampire Romance of Doom and Fate 7, which is clearly the real masterpiece.

"I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!"

“I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!”

The idea of “genre fiction” is another misuse of the word “genre”. What does that even mean? I understand that literature is supposed to transcend genre, and there is this Sontag-fuelled argument about genre not being necessary to quality. However, I think that the popular notions about genre have really corrupted these ideas.

The problem is, I do agree with this: There is no good or bad genre. There are simply good and bad works of art.

Good vampire novel...

Good vampire novel…

Cornball crap.

Cornball crap.

Good science fiction series.

Good science fiction series.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

However, many people interpret that to mean: There is no literary fiction. There are simply entertaining and boring… whatever that means.

Art.

Art.

The trouble is that genre fiction has come to mean not “fiction that fits within a particular genre rather well” (something which is actually less clear than anyone seems to think), but it’s own thing. Genre fiction has become a blanket term for popular literature that usually has a low reading level, lots of action, snappy dialogue, and mass appeal. Very often, these books aren’t even strict, one-genre reads, like a YA fantasy historical romance, and are more defined by the tropes than by genre at all. Why do you think cross-genre selections of YA reads are devoted to love triangles? Because that trope, not any one genre, is popular.

Dystopia love triangle...

Dystopia love triangle…

Vampire and werewolf love triangle...

Vampire and werewolf love triangle…

Urban fantasy love triangle...

Urban fantasy love triangle…

Sort of like Modelland love triangle...

Sort of like Modelland love triangle…

Twilight with angels love triangle...

Twilight-with-angels love triangle…

Furthermore, good has been replaced by “entertaining”, which in turn often means “it has my favorite tropes and I am in love”. Entertaining doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with quality. Jangling keys in front of a baby can entertain that baby, but would probably not work on your boss.

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull...

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull…

I think those who study pop-culture can definitely discuss something’s popularity and mass appeal in semi-objective terms, such as why The Avengers was generally beloved while Man of Steal is so divisive. But, it doesn’t automatically mean that one’s personal entertainment is a sign of goodness. Again, Screaming Skull. And, often entertainment comes with the ability to access the media.

If one cannot understand Shakespearian English, for example, one cannot be entertained by his plays, even though they are filled with exciting plot devices and timeless characters. And the funny part is that many works of literature actually do have the tropes that people love. If readers gave the books a chance, and put forth the effort to get through the pages, they might discover that…

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants...

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants…

Frankenstein's monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds...

Frankenstein’s monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds…

You don’t actually have to get rid of your favorite tropes. They exist everywhere.

Most art, and that includes literature, is concerned with addressing humanity in some sense, in asking questions, in answering questions, and it participates in a dialogue with other artists, eras, cultures, as well as politics and social issues which concern the author and the audience. This isn’t boring. If this is boring, then life is boring. However, it isn’t as easy to consume as the fast-food reads that pack bestseller lists, and that makes some readers think it is boring. It’s not boring. It’s just asking the reader to do something. If we do not bring anything to the table or do any work while reading, what are we but consumers?

We're all monkeys!  (12 Monkeys)

We’re all monkeys!
(12 Monkeys)

And, again, not everything will interest every reader ever. That’s okay. That’s normal. But, never, ever being interested in anything that isn’t about sexy spies, explosions, chosen boys, woobies, angsty love, and more woobies, that’s just being obstinate. There’s a large portion of the population which is happy to laud privileged, well-to-do, educated people for being able to read basic stories in their native language by the time they are adults. I think this should happen by around age seven. No, no prize for you, college-educated person who only reads Twilight. If you were a child, maybe. Probably I would suggest that you read something else, however.

This isn’t to slight children’s and YA books. I’d praise educated adults for reading The Phantom TollboothSounder, Holes, Tuck Everlasting, Paper Towns, The Giver, The Book Thief, The Westing Game, Coraline, A Wrinkle In Time, A Cricket In Times Square, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Little Women, Alice In Wonderland, The Hobbit, Skellig, The Book of Three, House of the Scorpion, The Fledgling, The Neverending Story…

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

 I don’t think that quality is determined by age group. However, I won’t praise them for their ability to read, or for actually deciding to read –only for picking some damn good kids’ books. And, I certainly wouldn’t extend that praise to someone reading yet another Twilight knockoff, or ghost-written, mass-produced grocery store novel, or a dystopian version of America’s Next Top Model… gah! That book…

Read it if you want to, but don’t expect the world to bow before your ability to be literate by age 26.

Didn't Disney teach you anything? You get a medal when you save your country from unrealistically muscular invaders!

Summer Reading Contest Winner, 2013. She read three books, so we gave her China.

There are kids in refuge camps who are learning to read in incredibly hard conditions. College-educated, well-to-do adults, especially those currently in college, and especially those in college and not working, should not be praised for doing what they should already know how to do.  That is what college students should be doing already. It’s a unique environment where you can spend years learning as much as you like, with professionals there to help you along the way. Anything less is just ungrateful squandering of a great privilege. When one considers the sacrifices people have made for education, from enslaved people teaching themselves, to bravely fighting for education rights for all races, to women trying to get the right to education  throughout history, to the struggles of the poor to even attain higher education, to the journey of integrating people with special education needs, it seems a little silly to praise people for just taking advantage of being in an educational environment. That’s like praising someone for eating food while at a table full of food.

Eating: not always a really good idea.  (Pan's Labyrinth)

Eating: not always a really good idea.
(Pan’s Labyrinth)

Now, none of this is to criticize fandoms. These can be very good, fun, supportive groups which address great ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something really refreshing about people who get excited about the things they love. It’s like this awesome John Green quote:

“…because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”

And, surely it’s better than squandering higher education by being a generally useless person for four years.

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It's so hard to tell...  (Spring Breakers)

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It’s so hard to tell…
(Spring Breakers)

However, it’s not a problem of fandoms or really liking something. That is usually really positive. The problem is with being indiscriminate and not taking advantage of education. The problem is in conflating the ability to read for entertainment with being literary. Congratulations on your ability to amuse yourself, but don’t expect a medal.

Actually, the world of literature really can learn from the world of what people call “genre fiction”. That is, literature needs to learn to be more nerdy. We need to teach people to learn to love literature, and love it in that enthusiastic, omg-I-am-so-excited, wonderful way. Because, yes, it’s not about the genre. Books of any genre can be great literary works. But, the focus should be on the “great literary works” part. And the focus of teaching should be about WHY these are great. I think a lot of the reason for anti-literature reading habits come from educators who just failed at making literary works interesting. They created a gap between popular “genre” fiction and literature, and one which really shouldn’t exist. Very often, students are left in a sea of jargon, just trying to figure out what literary even means. This makes people forget all the literature that is exciting, beautiful, smart, fun, and interesting, that makes life more illuminated rather than offering a way to ignore life for a while.

So, stop worrying and learn to love the… literati-inclined, high-brow masterpieces.

strange09

Outlit C

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So, you read Twilight…

So, you’ve read Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games. But, you’re entering your mid-twenties and you’d like to read something more… adult. Am I correct in making that assumption? And, provided you have taste, you won’t be heading down the road of ghost-written generilit. But, you’ve tried this or that book, hither and yon, near and far, and you haven’t found books that have really given you that oompha you had when reading the children’s book. You like some of the tropes, perhaps –love triangles, chosen-ones, the hero’s journey, spunky main characters (well, for the HP and HG fans, anyway), magic, monsters, dystopian worlds, political satire, angst, gothic trappings…
Never fear! Pushy Librarians ™ to the rescue! Pushy Librarians are here to encourage you (aggressively) to read new and exciting books. And, since Pushy Librarians are grotesquely well-read, we can suggest books that are JUST right for YOU.

So… you like Twilight. Judgements about your taste in romances aside, we actually would like to make a brave stance and say: We understand. Sure we do. Life can be boring. Why not a world where danger can happen but, no, not really? Nothing dreadful really happens. Romance is forever. Romance is exciting. Everyone wants you. You’re hot and all the boys in town, follow you all around… After we’re done singing The Carpenters, we must say, you’re in luck! A lot of great books actually have all the angst, love triangles, forbidden desires, monsters, gothic romance, and vampiric lore you love to escape into!

wuthering heights
1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights is quintessentially angsty and moody. It has that setting, the dreary moors, the crumbly, old estates, a place where the wind howls and fog clings to the ground… Well, you get the idea. It also has one of the most epic tales of doomed love and revenge in the entire canon of literature. And, of course, it makes it even juicier to know that it was originally condemned for immorality in its time. The characters are Heathcliff, a gypsy orphan, adopted into a rich family, but forever mistreated by the children and heirs. He is in love with his adopted sister, Cathy, a wild-child, beautiful, adored, and unfaithful. Together they… ruin everyone’s lives. And how that ruin unfolds, falling apart so beautifully into corruption, violence and tragedy. Oh, and possible ghosts.

romeo and juliet
2. Romeo and Juliet by our man, the Bard! (Fanfare)
The ultimate in teen-angst. It’s about forbidden desires, and the wonderfulness of desire, and desiring desire, and desiring forbidden desire, and falling in love, and falling in love with love. Sure, they’re flighty, brash, and immature, but aren’t all teenagers? And the fact that they can’t be together just makes their brash, young love all the more passionate. It really is tragic, too, if you let go of some of your contemporary condemnation for their relationship and just go with the heady emotions of youth. And the dialog! Juliet is one of the wittiest characters in Shakespeare, and has some of the best lines you’ll ever read. No stammering Bella Swan here!

pride-and-prejudice-book
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Supposedly, Twilight (the first book) is sort of, kind of a re-telling of this story. It has the two main characters who meet and, oh, no, there’s misunderstanding, they don’t like each other, she doesn’t know why he’s so rude and standoffish… There’s some great tension in the scenes of will-they-won’t-they (oh, who are we kidding? They will!), but it’s more than just a romance. It’s also a drama of social norms and laws, a woman’s place in the world, and the dangers of misplaced trusts and misplaced doubts. But, don’t worry, there’s a love story in the end!

Trilby
4. Trilby by George du Maurier
It’s the bohemian revolution in Paris! (Cue your Moulin Rouge…) The artists and poets are all doing their arty, poety thing, and in the midst is Trilby. She’s a cute, quirky heroine, like every character Zooey Deschanel ever played. She’s a foot-model (okay… that’s kinda weird), and she can’t sing worth anything. Like, at all. Aw, see, it’s like Bella’s clumsiness, except that Trilby’s a LIKABLE heroine! And, yes, I’m not exaggerating her adorableness. There was a huge fandom for Trilby back in the day. She falls in love with a rich boy who… leaves her. Models aren’t so chic in those days. When he comes back, she has the voice of an angel and performs for adoring crowds. How? Well, she’s under the thrall of the mysterious musician, Svengali, who may have her in some kind of a spell. While the straight interpretation is… very anti-semetic, in light of He Who Comes Later you can really see Svengali as a Byronic Hero, an Other, outside society, whose genius could have blossomed if only people weren’t so prejudiced and…

Phantom_of_the_Opera_Cover
5. Yeah. Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
So, it’s based on Trilby, but you knew this was coming. Or, at least, I hope you did. This book is pure Gothalicious, angsty whipped topping in a crystal bowl. The author was a Gothic fanboy who loved reading Poe and who also wrote pulp fiction serials. He wanted to elevate pulp fiction to a literary status, because he loved the melodrama of it. He liked how this trait is in old, Gothic Romantic stories, like Poe, or The Monk, or The Castle of Ontronto… He also liked lifting ideas and putting them in his story, filling the story with winking nods to Gothic literature’s melodrama and overly-stylized dialog… I think he and Tarantino would have been friends… And, Phantom was his assemblage-piece of fanfictiony homages to Poe and other Gothic writers. As a pulp fiction serial. And it is wonderful. By wonderful, of course, I mean campy, excessively angsty, almost cute with knowing references to other media (Red Death is only the beginning), full of really beautifully terrible dialog, and characters that the world has decided we need to see over, and over, and over again. It’s not just the Beauty and the Beast aspects, or the love triangle, it’s really the Phantom. Imagine of Edward looked like Skeletor, was super smart, a great artist and musician, could sing, had a sense of humor, slept in a real coffin (yeah…), had glowing eyes, strangled people, and was basically nothing like Edward. But, he’s a badass. How bad? Once, he was played by Freddy Kruger. Bad. Ass.
Oh, and Freud and Jung. All over this.

cyrano
6. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand
Or, maybe you want your love triangles with more tragic love among good people and less crazy, Freudian violence? Cyrano is about a dashing soldier/poet with a long nose that he thinks means no woman would love him. Roxanne is a beautiful, and actually quite nice, woman who loves poetry. Christian is a handsome but slow-witted man. Cyrano sets Christian up with Roxanne, using Cyrano’s poetry. Love, war, tragedy, and poetry commence. And it is beautiful!

Carmilla
7. Carmilla by le Fanu
So, we’ve been neglecting an important aspect, you might notice. Vampires. Well, fear not! Carmilla is a very strange, little book. It’s written before Dracula, and le Fanu does a surprisingly good job and writing from the point of view of a woman. It’s set in a castle (do you even have to ask?), where live a lovely girl and her father. But, when a carriage containing a mysterious woman and her daughter crashes, the daughter ends up staying at the castle for… reasons. And this is Carmilla, beautiful, alluring, languid, pale, sexy, and totally undead. Delicious undead goodness ensues.

EdwardGoreyDraculaBlog1
8. Dracula by Bram Stoker
So, you knew this one was coming. What can we even say that hasn’t already been said about the most popular horror character of all time? He’s dastardly, but strangely tragic. He’s horrifying, but alluring. He can turn into a bat, a wolf, and fog, can’t see his reflection, is repulsed by garlic, sleeps in a coffin, and dies when getting staked in the heart: he’s a real vampire! Aside from being a complete badass (he kills an entire ship, and it is absolutely, mind-numbingly terrifying!), he’s also sneaky, slippery, and can get you when you’re asleep! Even if you pull your covers all the way over your head and your toes don’t even stick out the other side, and you have your favorite bear and… I need to get more garlic.

anne_rice_books
9. The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice
The original in sympathetic vampires, this is sort of a polarizing series. Either you think it’s awesome for being a literary series about vampires, or you think it’s pretentious melodrama. But, either way, it’s worth giving a go for the sheer cultural punch it offers. Every vampire story around today owes something to Rice and her creations. Hell, without Rice, there’d probably be no Buffy. And, without Buffy, Joss Whedon may not be the cultural icon he is today. Wrap your minds around that one, fanboys and fangirls! But, aside from this, Rice doesn’t just give us angsty, sympathetic monsters. She gives us monsters with culture, with monster dreams, with monster goals, with traditions and expectations, and an entire universe, who ponder philosophical quandaries about their existence and who… make rock bands. Okay, it may not be for everyone, but if you like vampire stories, it’s worth giving a go.

nin
10. Collages by Anais Nin
Anais Nin: exotic, romantic, frank, whimsical, philosophical, beautiful, hypnotic… There’s a lot to say about this woman, and a lot many people have said about her. This is one of her easier books to digest, and still will probably impress all your bookish friends who teased you for liking Twilight. It really is a collage, of memories and moments, intertwined in pure poetry. It’s like a long, feverish dream that you do not want to end. At times heartbreaking, at times sweeping with desire, at times repugnant, it’s always a pleasure of forbidden fruits, passion, tragedy, delight, and sense of self. Never pretentious and always entertaining, Collages is the perfect read for someone wanting that tingly feeling of reading a book saturated in the colors of passion.