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

Advertisements

So, You Read Maximum Ride…

Maximum_Ride1
James Patterson… What can we truly say about the man? Even at his worst –meaning when he doesn’t bother to write his own books at all– he’s still making pounds of cash. He makes up concepts that he doesn’t deliver, his premises are snappy and his execution is crap, he’s riddled with cliches, his books can easily be understood by any eight-year-old, and it doesn’t matter what I say because he’s a million times more successful than I’ll ever be.
Seriously, I fight for hits on WordPress. He bathes in cash.
So, instead of mocking the successful, let’s look at his YA franchise, Maximum Ride.
Maximum Ride is about a bunch of genetically altered mutant kids who are part human part bird. They have retractable wings, and all kinds of other X-men styled superpowers that they use to escape from baddies, and eventually save the world. The stories center around the titular Max, who is the unofficial leader of her group of superhero Boxcar Children (I am not the first person to make this comparison).
In many ways, this is a much better YA series than some of the others that are making their rounds. Max is a strong protagonist who certainly passes the Bechdel Test, and provides a funny, upbeat, and actually quite engaging narration. Even a crotchety, dyed-in-the-wool literati snob like myself enjoyed the hell out of Max. On the other hand, this is a series that seriously pissed me off when it all went to hell by book three.
**spoilers**
Why, in the name of Reason, did protesting against climate change end an evil science organization that had nothing whatsoever to do with climate change?
**end**

In the end, whether you loved or hated the series, it does provide some interesting characters without falling into the usual YA tropes of bland female, hot bad-boy, and… third wheel.
So, what else could a person who likes this series read?
Well….

plaguedogs_3003
1. The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
Adams is mostly known for Watership Down, and by mostly I mean that pretty much everyone thinks that’s the only book he wrote. In literature, he’s sort of the one-hit-wonder. This is a real shame because, like the band A-ha and other one-hit-wonders, Adams actually has an impressive oeuvre. The Plague Dogs is yet another epic, beautifully crafted look into politically charged anthropomorphism.
But what, you may ask, do dogs have to do with bird-kids? Well, the central conflict of at least books one through three of Max Ride has to do with experimentation. The kids are products of lab experiments, and so fall in the cross-hairs of self-serving corporate needs and scientific advancement. A huge part of the story has to do with what one should do in science and what one can do, and how those may be different things. Also, some people do terrible things in the name of discovery or finding ways to help humanity. Where does one draw the line? In The Plague Dogs, Adams asks these questions not of humans but of animals. The dogs are a part of a lab experiment, and because they may be dangerous to humans they are hunted and pursued by those they come across. The novel begs the question of whether or not it is right to put the dogs through pain and suffering for the sake of a greater good.
If you like your lab-experimentation stories with a big, heady punch and a lot of depressing, this will make you think –and also cry. It’s a dog story, and dog stories are sad.

monster dogs

2. Lives of Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis
I swear this list is not going to be filled with dog stories! This is the last one. I promise.
Like Max Ride, Monster Dogs is about mutants fitting into the world after experimentation made them what they are. But, unlike Max Ride, the story deals more with a realistic look at The Other in society. That is, it’s about what it is like to be alien, in this case a hyper-intelligent dog-monster, and what it is like to observe the alien around you. How would you act? How do they act? Why? Monster Dogs is a beautifully written meditation on the Frankenstein mythos of identity, what it means to be a person, and how we see those different from ourselves. While Max Ride is always off to the next adventure, running away from wolf-people and mad scientists, this story looks at a society like our own that suddenly has dog people in it. How does the media react? How do people on the streets react? How do the dogs react, and what do the dogs think of their own mad scientist creator?
It’s a beautiful, under-appreciated science fiction novel, and one worth checking out!

frankenstein

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Hey, we couldn’t have mad scientists and creatures without the one that started them all, could we? Mary Shelley’s book-she-wrote-at-a-slumber-party-of-sorts has become iconic. We all know the story of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who “steals fire from the  gods”, as it were, and creates life –life he will immediately abandon in horror. The dynamic of the book is one of moral ambiguity. Who is the monster? Why do we sympathize with the creature? And, can we do this while still remaining true to what the creature really is in the story –an eloquent zombie and murderer? Is the story a cautionary tale about playing God? Is it a story about bad parenting? Is it about monsters? Nightmares? The fear that one’s best intentions will backfire and ruin your life? The fear of being a disappointment and outsider?
I’ve found that, while most people know the basic idea of Frankenstein, few actually sit down and read it, preferring to get their ideas from the movies. This is a real shame because, while there are some great Frankenstein movies out there, the book is far more complex and raises more questions than any of the adaptations. It’s an enduring classic for a reason, and one you’ll want to get!

janeeyre2

4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
It may seem out of place to suggest this Gothic romantic novel for fans of a YA science fiction series about kids who can fly. But, hear me out. Max Ride is a compelling series for one major reason, and her name is Max Ride. She’s a super strong character, an outsider, and yet also a normal girl with feelings and worries. Jane Eyre is also a strong character. She stands up to her employer, makes her own decisions about life, and, like Max, overcomes the trauma of an abusive past. Jane is also an outsider, not because she’s a superhero, but because of her station and lack of a family. She’s also in a very strange place, dominated by her mysterious employer/lover and his Gothic mansion. Yet, Jane always manages to keep her head and stay strong. She’s a survivor, like Max. Furthermore, Jane is still a normal woman, not a “strong girl” archetype. She has to struggle with her own feelings, insecurities, and her love for Mr. Rochester. This makes her extremely relatable throughout all she goes through, and the readers can connect with the story not through epic, Gothic trappings but through a tough and intelligent protagonist.
Characters make the stories, and even if Jane Eyre isn’t your genre of choice, it is certainly one that fans of the strong, female protagonist will want to check out!

something wicked

5. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Or, maybe you just like kids having fantastical adventure? Well, there’s not much more fantastical than Bradbury, and this one even has a Shakespeare quote in the title! Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of two boys who discover a dark secret about the circus in their town. And that’s all I can tell you without spoiling it…. No, seriously, read this book! Witches, magic, scary circuses, a really freaking villain, the lighting rod man… This book is like opening a treasure chest of wonders. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and full of Bradburian goodness.
If you like strong kids, it’s also a great example. The boys are not passive horror story characters. They’re dynamic. They take action, pursue mysteries, and have to escape from the big baddies of the story –all of which are pretty terrifying. It’s a gorgeously written thrill-ride, and one that you’ll want to re-visit time and again –especially on Halloween!

adventures of sherlock

6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Max Ride is basically a superhero story. And, Holmes is basically a superhero. He can enter a room and immediately know everything about something that happened two weeks ago. He looks at your shoes and knows whether or not you’re German. He can spot a clue in a doorpost. The man’s amazing. He even has his iconic superhero look: tweed and a pipe!
Sometimes, the boundaries between highbrow literature and pop-culture adventure cross over, and this is one of those times. Holmes is a timeless, beloved character, and one whose epicness we really don’t mind or see as a boring or unrealistic trait. He’s the epitome of cool, a super-genius, and we love him.

geek

7. Greek Love by Katherine Dunn
Hey, guys! Want some postmodernism? You do! Well, then! This is Geek Love, the story of a family of circus “freaks”, who consider freakiness a sign of superiority. The characters have a dynasty of sideshow living, with the parents who bred their children to be mutants, and the kids who have their own power struggles. It reverses expectations about who is or is not superior, with the sideshow characters starting out with a sense of greatness and beauty in their conditions, and falling from grace through their dynastic power conflicts. It’s like a very strange Greek tragedy, but with more geeks.
Oh, and to explain for the innocent, a geek is someone who bites the heads off chickens for a sideshow act.
Yes, you do need to read this.

invisible

8. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Probably the most obvious choice would have been The Island of Dr. Moreau, since it actually is a story about human-animal mutants. But, I think that The Invisible Man has far more in common with the tone of the Max Ride stories that Dr. Moreau does. Of course, if you disagree, you’re free to read them both!
The Invisible Man asks the question of what happens when, through science, you Other yourself. Instead of being mutated by scientists, Dr. Griffin causes his own downfall by making himself invisible. Like the Max Ride series, he spends much of the story trying to get about without people knowing that he is, in fact, an invisible man, and also trying to avoid the authorities. The difference is that the invisibility serum has made Dr. Griffin into a psychopath, and so he’s no innocent victim. That doesn’t mean we as the readers don’t feel sorry for him. He’s a funny, interesting, and compelling character, even if he’s also kind of terrifying. As a science fiction great, he’s definitely a character you’ll want to met.

trumpet-of-the-swan

9. The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Yes, this is a kiddie book. But, this is E.B. White we’re talking about, the man who created such iconic stories as Charlotte’s Web. And, this is a beautiful tale that really anyone can read and not worry. It’s the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born mute. His father steals him a trumpet, and his human friend teaches him to read and write, giving him two means of communication. The story is about being an Other, once again, this time being a mute swan among trumpeters and a hyper-intelligent animal among humans. How Louis fits in and how his differences make him special, not strange, is what the story is about. Also, he’s the only character in my list who has proper wings, so there’s that. It’s a charming, beautiful, life affirming story about nature, communication, identity, and music, and one that I personally love.

And coming in for a tie…

watchmen-749826v for vendetta
10. The Watchmen and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
Oh, you thought we were to literati to read comic books about superheroes? You thought wrong!
*dons a cape and flies off into the sunset*
Ahem… But, aside from that, Alan Moore is no low-brow writer! What other comic book has ever topped a notable books list, outranking traditional novels? Alan Moore doesn’t just create stories about action and adventure, he is writing myths for the contemporary world, stories with depth and texture that ask complex questions about society, war, peace, government, control, power, anarchy, violence, and what it means to do right.
First, The Watchmen. This is an obvious, no-brainer choice for a series about superheroes. It’s basically THE literati superhero story. The characters are an elite group of costume heroes. However, the world has grown corrupt, and their group has fallen apart. When a mysterious attacker starts picking off old heroes, even if the characters might not be that heroic in the first place, The Watchmen rise up again. Secret plots, Cold War hysteria, nuclear arms races, science, and corruption ensue, leaving the ultimate question: Who watches The Watchmen?
V for Vendetta may not be as obvious of a choice, aside from also having a connection with grassroots protesting.
occupy wall
However, the story is actually quite similar. Just ask yourself, what if the scientific corporation from Max Ride was the entire society? What if the mutants didn’t have a chance to fight on the side of good people because all the good people were completely subjugated? What if Max Ride was a super-strong anarchist Phantom of the Opera as done by David Bowie? (No, seriously, those are V’s roots, right there.) V is a like a Batman who kills people, and who lives in the world 1984. He’s smart, strong, fights for justice… and has no moral qualms about ends justifying the means, really. He’s an anarchist, and not like that kid in high school who drew A symbols on his notebook. But, his background? Mutated by evil science, deformed in an explosion, and out to take down the big bad. Something tells me Max Ride wouldn’t be that gung-ho about some of his methods. But, Max Ride was never faced with stakes like V’s. Morally ambiguous, dark, frightening, and extremely cool, V for Vendetta is a superhero story that even your snobby lit major friends will want for their collections!
maxseries