Pile of Bones comes out today. I received my author’s copies last week, and it’s always exciting to see a manuscript in print for the first time. Up until that point, it’s a story that’s been translated into something digital, a file passed from author to agent to editor. You review multiple copies of it, and after a while, it starts to feel like a photo that you’ve been staring at for ages. You can no longer make out the whole image. You hyper-focus on grainy areas, trying to enhance them, or (in some cases) blur them politely out of existence. You’re given a list of key-words, character details, place names, and even a sheet which presents your own stylistic quirks. Any creative misuses or neologisms are marked, so the copy-editor knows that these are your particular idiosyncrasies, rather than errors in need of correcting. Sometimes they are errors, in the strictest sense, but somehow productive ones. My favorite editorial term has always been stet (from the Latin, “let it stand”), which is what you write in the margin when something weird needs to stay as it is.
The idea for this novel emerged from a casual conversation that I had with a friend. He told me that Wascana Park was called “pile of bones” in Plains Cree (Oskana ka-sasteki), because it had once been an open plain where buffalo carcases were left to dry out. There was also the suggestion that many human bones had joined the buffalo skeletons, over time, making the whole area a kind of mixed ossuary. I had been intrigued by Wascana Park from the moment that I first moved to Regina. It just didn’t seem to belong there. I was baffled by the idea of this tiny bridge spanning an artificial lake, girdling a park that was frozen at least six months out of the year. It immediately struck me as being a gothic place, and I could imagine all sorts of supernatural funny-business happening there. So I decided to tell a story about four graduate students who discovered that Wascana Park held some kind of darkly magical potential. It ended up becoming a crossover fantasy, involving two separate worlds: urban Regina, and a loosely-Roman world that was closer to a live-action RPG.
Telling a story from the perspective of grad students was something that I’d thought about for a long time. When I was a doctoral student, I would often join a group of friends to drink and watch melodramatic television. Someone was always being shushed, because none of us could refrain from murmuring about our individual projects. During the commercial breaks, we would smoke on the patio and commiserate, or celebrate (often, both at the same time). Then we’d file back into the living room, and try to lose ourselves in a hospital drama about doctors-in-training who just wanted to find love in a rainy climate. I don’t remember who it was, but someone, at some point, observed: “There should be a show about grad students.” All of us agreed that it would be an incredibly boring show, yet we’d give anything to watch it. Pile of Bones was my attempt to honor this idea, by telling a story whose protagonists were mostly introverts. I’m not the first to do this (see Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, or Barbara Hambly’s Windrose Chronicles), but I did want to present a realistic snapshot of life as a grad student. Those years were some of the happiest and most precarious of my life, and it’s a pleasure to recall them as I write about these characters.
I also wanted to tell the story from multiple perspectives—but not too many. The goal was to create a series of linked novellas, each of which focused on a particular character. I wanted to explore them intimately, over four chapters or so, and then switch, just as the reader was getting comfortable. The effect, I hoped, would be one of benign disorientation. In the beginning of the novel, we have Andrew’s voice. He sets up the action for the reader, but he’s also the character who’s the most introverted. So everything is a little hazy around the edges, because that’s how he sees the world. The conclusion is narrated by Ingrid, who is the outsider. Just as everything is starting to go to hell, we get her perspective, which is more pragmatic. The novel might have ended differently, if it had been Carl or Shelby watching events unfold. I really enjoyed writing from these interlaced perspectives, because it allowed me to think closely about how these four people saw each other, how they witnessed things, and processed. I was less interested in constructing an epic, and more concerned with developing the relationship between these characters, all of whom harbor their own secrets, and pursue their own intensities.
When I was asked by my publisher (six years ago, which is hard to believe) to describe the Occult Special Investigator series, I said that it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets CSI. If I had to describe the Parallel Parks series in the same compact manner, I’d call it Big Bang Theory with real magic. The characters on that show are always talking about myth and fantasy, and much of the show’s humor derives from the fact that they choose Dungeons & Dragons over social interaction, that they are scientists who want to believe in magic. A friend also told me, once, that Big Bang Theory isn’t actually about nerds: it’s about how people perceive nerds. My hope with Pile of Bones was to tell a story where the nerds got to be the heroes, but also to present a diversity of experiences: a single mother, a young scholar at odds with her own traditions, a historian with perhaps too much confidence, and a prosodist who shares some qualities with Sheldon Cooper.
I’m feverishly working on the sequel, so it’s hard to fully appreciate the publication of the first book in this new series. But I hope that people are willing to believe in its central argument: that teaching assistants can save the world.
Feel free to order a copy from Chapters, Amazon, McNally Robinson, Barnes & Noble, Booktopia, The Book Depository, Kobo, Books-a-Million, Indiebound, Apple, Powell’s, and other independent booksellers. I’ll also give you a signed copy, if you happen to live near me (or if you’re willing to pay for postage).
It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated my author site, and for that, I apologize. I’m a bit in awe of my friends and colleagues who actively maintain blogs while working full-time. I realize that there’s no secret: it just takes work. I’m going to try to update more frequently. With Pile of Bones coming out (July 30), I need to spend more time online, connecting with potential readers and generally being available. When I was working on my first novel, I imagined that I would one day experience a glorious book tour. Maybe the book would even get its own cardboard cut-out. The reality is that publicity has become DIY, and in order to create and maintain a network of readers, you have to search for them.
In the meantime, I thought I might write a little about surviving deadlines. If inspiration is the fun daimon—the one who whispers in your ear: “Get drunk! Visit a park! Call your ex and transcribe the conversation!”—the deadline is the daimon who shuts down the party. Even unpublished writers have to deal with deadlines. At the university where I teach, our creative writing students are expected to produce new material each week. They can’t simply cite writer’s block as an excuse, because they’re being graded on their output. There are certainly weeks during which I can barely produce a few words, let alone the solid opening to a short story, or a well-crafted poem. Writing under a deadline can generate enough anxiety to keep you up all night, but you won’t be getting anything done—instead, you’ll be playing online games, hysterically updating your Facebook status, and imagining what would happen if you skipped town and entered some sort of Writers Protection Program.
If you work in the nebulous area known as genre fiction—i.e., if your novel can be clearly marketed to a specific audience—then strict deadlines are a part of your life. Most publishing houses will require you to produce a novel each year, and many of the Romance houses will ask for more than that. There are well-known SF/fantasy writers who produce 2-3 books per year. These are writers who have achieved a level of literary fame, but they still work according to this schedule, because it’s virtually impossible to support yourself by writing alone. These are not ideal conditions to be working under, but the publishing industry needs to meet the demands of its audience. Just as an actor has to take on multiple roles over the course of a year, an author has to commit to multiple projects. Only about 0.5% of writers, at the very top of the fame pyramid, are able to take breaks between projects. I usually tell my students this on the first day of class. I’m not trying to be cruel, but many of them want to write fantasy or science-fiction, and I think they ought to know what they’re getting into.
When your manuscript is due in a year, and you’re already working full-time, writer’s block has to be carefully managed. It certainly exists, although not to the extent that we see in cinema and television, where idealized writers who haven’t produced anything in a decade are moaning about their lack of inspiration. If you were actually trying to live by your writing, and hadn’t produced anything in one year, the situation would be fairly grim. Some people discount writer’s block as a kind of literary hobgoblin. What Tyrion Lannister would call a “snark” or a “grumpkin.” I believe that it does exist, but not as some kind of wraith that wants to suck your soul. It’s more of a multi-layered type of exhaustion, which strikes artists and academics, as well as professional writers. In order to work beneath a deadline, you need to find ways to defy writer’s block, without pushing yourself to the point of physical breakdown.
Here are some strategies that I’ve learned for surviving deadlines, while still maintaining some semblance of humanity.
1. Do not write every day. I once posted, quite arrogantly, on a forum that professional writers should write every single day. I was dumb, and wrong. You should write when you have the time and the energy for it, but if the tank is empty, then give yourself a break. The key is to learn what “empty” truly feels like, because it’s different for everyone. Sometimes, if you’re a bit tired, you can push through it with a cup of coffee, some lively music, a walk around the block. Other times—when you feel like you want to pass out—what you need is a hiatus. Writing when you’re completely tapped will only produce that sad paragraph where you’re describing exactly what’s happening around you: “The sun was hot. He was sweating. The fan buzzed. The cat was asleep under the table.” Save yourself from this self-reflexive narrative, and go have a nap.
2. Make use of coffee shops. Even smaller towns will usually have several. If you can find a place that’s relatively quiet—or at least a place that has ample seating—then you should be able to work in fits and starts. Nobody expects you to produce a chapter in a few hours, but an iced coffee and some pastry power can often get you through a page, before you know it. Although coffee houses have their own distractions, these are far less than what you’d experience at home, with your books, and your TV, and…oh, it’s been a while since I’ve watched that DVD set, maybe just one episode of Firefly. Going to a café implies purpose, and sometimes you can actually guilt-trip yourself into writing. It’s an ideal place to work for a few hours, and once the chair gets too uncomfortable (or someone puts on a Katy Perry CD), you can go home. That allows you to break up the workload. If you happen to get a second wind, you can always go to a late-night diner. Often, changing your environment can have a kind of “re-charging” effect.
3. Remember that you don’t need a perfect manuscript, you need a finished manuscript (this is also true of academic theses). Hammering out a draft is more important than honing each paragraph, regardless of whether you’re a “basher” or a “swooper,” in Kurt Vonnegut’s terminology. Honing comes later, once the material has had some time to ripen. If you run into a wall, then try to write around it as best you can. You can always return to that point later. If the wall seems insurmountable, then give yourself a couple of days to really think about it, but resist the urge to obsess. The answer may not arrive until you’re further along in the writing process.
4. Distract yourself with other creative material. Read widely, watch quality television, spend some time in darkened theatres, listen to music. All of these media have the potential to be inspiring, but you also have to really offer your attention to them. Mute the voice that’s telling you that you should be writing. Turn up the Manu Chao, or the video game soundtrack. Make notes while you’re watching films and TV shows. Go see a play, where the experience is interactive. Sometimes, writers will read an exceptional novel, and think: I could never do that. Imposter syndrome. It’s as real as writer’s block, but you have to be more direct with it. Just say: no, I’ll probably never write something exactly like that. But I am, currently, writing something that’s interesting, and I’m sure I can learn something from what I’ve just read.
5. Leave your house. Spend time with friends. If life is merely what gets in the way of your writing, then you’re doing it wrong. You can’t always be observing. Sometimes, you have to participate. Allow yourself to get sloppy, make mistakes, get hurt, take risks. The worst thing you can do is be surrounded by your friends and family, while thinking: I should be writing. Instead, think: I am one lucky asshole, to have these people in my life. Put down your anthropologist’s glasses, and pick up a glass of wine. If something particularly literary happens, you can write about it some other time. But just as often, these moments remain elusive, and impossible to revisit. That’s what makes them shine.
6. Try to enjoy the process. Writing is awesome. It’s seductive, and powerful, and it can transport you to unfathomable places. Simply finding time to write—even a few hours in a day—is an outrageous luxury that most people don’t have. If you’re one of the lucky ones, then pause, every once in a while, to feel satisfied. You get to tell stories, and make up worlds. People whom you’ve never met—and will never meet—are going to read your work, and be affected by it. That’s a magic spell: creating some small change, good or bad, in another person’s life. Don’t shy away from it, and try not to complain (too much) about the work that such an enchantment requires. Just say the words, and step back. Someone has heard you.
For some reason, it’s very satisfying to see the weather forecast graphic superimposed on my shirt. My personal triumph was not falling off the chair, which was tall and capricious.
I don’t know why I applied to graduate school. Where did the idea come from? I have a vague memory of being encouraged by one of my college professors, but the particulars of the conversation have dissolved over time. Maybe there was no conversation, and I simply dreamed the whole thing. I attended a small college in rural British Columbia, where ‘grad school’ wasn’t a frequent topic. I think I was one of the only students on campus who actually used the interlibrary loan system. This may be an exaggeration, but the librarians were always surprised when I filled out request forms. I was painfully shy, but for some reason, I enjoyed giving presentations. When I stood in front of the room, I could feel myself growing more assured. Had any of these students approached me in the hallway, I would have struggled to make small talk with them, to smile and nod at the appropriate moments and ask suitable questions. But now that they were all looking at me as a group, I found that I had no trouble speaking. In fact, I was so full of energy that I could barely contain myself. This, I imagined, was what it felt like to be a professor. I wanted in.
Applying to graduate school felt like one of my first real decisions. I went to college because my parents told me to. I took a job at a grocery store because I needed money, and my friends—all of whom already had jobs—were starting to look at me rather suspiciously. I went on dates because I was expected to. All of this seemed like what humans did. Graduate school was illogical. I knew that it would cost a lot, that it would take a long time, and there was no guarantee that I’d emerge with anything close to a job. It was an absurd leap of faith. I had never really gambled on anything before. I hated surprises. That’s why I still can’t figure out why I decided to apply. The move was entirely out of character for me. I don’t remember filling out any of the forms, which makes me wonder if some alternate personality did it for me.
My first graduate seminar focused on the gothic novel. I felt entirely out-classed by the other students. They had attended well-known schools, and some of them even had teaching experience. I was reading high theory for the first time, and I couldn’t make any sense of it. When someone mentioned Foucault, I thought they were talking about a place. I remember writing a despondent email to a friend back home: Everyone here is hyper-ironic. They talk about bands that I’ve never heard of. I don’t understand them. I received a B+ on my first essay, which seemed okay, until someone told me that a B+ was a failing grade in this program. I had to meet with the grad chair to discuss my underwhelming progress. He asked me why I hadn’t offered to revise the paper. I didn’t know that we could. He smiled kindly, and gave me some advice. Memory is so selective. I could describe the décor of his office in detail, and tell you precisely what his voice sounded like, the charcoal shade of his blazer, the books on the shelf behind him—but I can’t remember what he told me.
After that, I began to ask questions. As I’d suspected before, grad school was illogical. Nobody issued helpful instructions. Everything had a double meaning, and rules, like texts, were subject to interpretation. The most terrifying thing about grad school is that you can do anything. You can write an essay on cartoons, or marginalia. You can be actively social, or stay at home, reading and eating soup. You can attend expensive conferences, or spend all of your time at the pub, getting wasted and obsessing over a footnote. You can graduate with a near-perfect ignorance of any literature written before the twentieth century. College has guidelines, prerequisites, and course counselling. Grad school is more of a choose-your-own-adventure novel with surprisingly high stakes. What’s comforting is that nobody else really knows what they’re doing, either. Imposter syndrome feels like your problem, until you realize that everyone is thinking the same thing.
These anxious years were quite remarkable. I learned how to teach. I learned how to drink. These two practices informed each other. We shared horror stories about teaching, and vented our academic frustrations over endless pitchers. We marked as a community. The smallest victory deserved a celebration, and often, we’d find ourselves at parties whose origins were obscure. Someone had defended something—that’s all we knew. It was always exciting when a professor threw a party, because the boundaries would crumble ever-so-slightly, and you’d realized that they were far from untouchable. Like you, they were surprisingly fragile, funny, and prone to accident. I remember one party in particular, hosted by a writer. I ended up in his basement, trying to put the moves on someone who told me: I usually prefer bigger guys. The rejection didn’t sting, because I was having such a good night. We walked upstairs, and saw two writers lying on their backs, gently kicking each other. This is a foot war, one of them said. Then they both dissolved into laughter.
Grad school nudged me into trying new things. I went on a lot of dates—not because I felt the obligation to be social, but because I could tell my friends about them later. Most of us were single, or in volatile relationships that changed every month. We went out every other night, in spite of looming deadlines. I learned how to dance. I stumbled back to the Skytrain station, burning my mouth on pizza. I dressed as a French maid for Halloween (one picture survives). I got lost in Stanley Park, but eventually found my way home. I ate sticky noodles that you had to cut with scissors, and pink steamed taro buns, and octopus. I had incredible conversations in every conceivable space: theatres, raw galleries, bookstores, unfinished basements, patios lit by Christmas lights, shared offices that smelled of coffee, the backseats of cars, bathroom floors, the hinge of the accordion bus (while holding on to both sides). I read until my brain hurt, until I could barely see. I fell into theoretical rabbit-holes, but the perplexity was often enjoyable. I learned how to take criticism, and how to read beyond my own experience. I discovered the joy of footnotes, and the power of indices.
None of this would have happened if I’d decided not to gamble. Much of the current conversation about grad school attempts to deconstruct the various myths attached to it. Professors are told to actively discourage students from applying. The reality is that there are too many grad students and too few tenure-track jobs. The chances of getting a position are slim, and even if you are one of the lucky few, the job isn’t going to accord with your fantasy. Departments are increasingly being forced to run on shoe-string budgets. Teaching loads are rising, and academic positions are being cut while administrative positions are increasing tenfold. It’s becoming more difficult to offer a range of courses, and disciplines such as philosophy and medieval studies—whose use-value can’t easily be calculated—are struggling to survive. Disciplines that interrogate, that ask hard questions, that encourage speculation, are being financially strangled in the hopes that they will stop arguing. In such a hostile climate, grad school may seem like a ridiculous luxury.
But the truth is that we need M.A. students more than ever, because they are the creative thinkers, the writers and activists and artists and general shit-disturbers. Grad school may seem counter-productive, but what it affords you is time and community: two things that any creative person needs in order to grow, practice, and teach others. The chance of landing a tenure-track job isn’t particularly high, but neither is the chance of becoming a successful writer, or dancer, or director. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. What’s really counter-productive is thinking of an M.A. degree as if it were a casino chip that you can cash in for a job. The time that you spend thinking, talking, drinking, falling down, pushing yourself—that’s what grad school can offer you. Not a key to a job, but foundation for critical thought, curiosity, creativity. It can actually change your life. It most certainly changed mine.
As the fox says to the little prince: C’est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante. You need to give yourself time. Like anyone who wants to become a writer or an actor, you should walk into this with your eyes open, realizing that you can’t glimpse the ending. There’s nothing romantic about living on noodles and watching all of your friends apply for mortgages. But the time that you spend in grad school can be transformative. The people that you meet could become life-long friends. And learning how to read carefully, to think critically, to argue, interrogate, and raise hell—these are transferable skills. You can use them anywhere. Poems resist easy answers, and for that reason, we need to pay attention to them. Borges remembers wandering through the streets with his fellow students, drunk on the sound of Anglo-Saxon fricatives. Words old and new demand our respect, and our time. Like desire, they’re a gamble. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you reach out. You might get slapped, or kissed, or ignored. Anything’s possible in that attenuated moment, when you decide to do the thing that scares you the most.
In 1997, while channel-surfing, I came across an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A blonde girl in a leopard-print jacket was fighting a robot. The situation struck me as ridiculous, and I went in search of something more reasonable, like Star Trek: Voyager. The same thing happened years later, when I first came upon an episode of Farscape. I saw a man wearing goggles and a cape, smeared with some kind of alien jelly, and thought: this is way too silly. Both shows venture into ridiculous territory, which is part of their charm. In 1998, I remember talking briefly with a classmate about the show. I still hadn’t seen a whole episode, but she was describing how a character gets turned into a rat. We were studying Metamorphoses, and had grown accustomed to character transformations, but this brought me up short. “Really?” I asked. “A rat?” My friend nodded. “They even talk about getting her a little wheel to play on.”
I wouldn’t think about Buffy again for a while, in spite of the fact that several of my friends were hooked on the show. DVD sets weren’t as common at this time, and if you didn’t manage to tape an episode, there was no way to re-watch it. Although the program had a dedicated fan-base, it never achieved the influence of something like Friends. It wasn’t until 2001 that I found myself engaged in a real conversation about the show. I was at a bar in Vancouver, and the drag show had just ended. We sat in a circle of chairs around the stage, drinking under dim light. A friend began talking about the episode which had just aired (“Seeing Red.”) He told me that I absolutely had to see it. “You’ll love it. There’s magic, and lesbians, and–honestly, you’ll love it.”
At the time, I was sharing an apartment in a tenement building with two roommates. Giant spiders would crawl through a hole in the corner of the front door, providing a source of entertainment for my cat. I was living in a new city for the first time, and the loneliness was overpowering. I needed a distraction, so I bought Season One of Buffy. I watched all twelve episodes in a day. The pilot wasn’t amazing, but by the time I got to “The Witch,” I was hooked. The Scooby Gang seemed more real than my bedroom, with its brutalist futon and doll furniture from Zellers. I took the cash I’d put aside for groceries and used it to buy Season Two, which I viewed in a swoon of ecstasy while eating noodles. By the time Season Seven began, I was living with the friend who’d recommended Buffy in the first place. We watched the season premiere in reverential silence.
“Grave” was the episode that made me want to write about the show. The dialogue between Willow and Xander was so raw and beautiful. Both characters had already been through so much, yet they could still surprise each other. I wrote an essay over the Christmas holiday, and submitted it to Slayage. The essay would eventually become Blood Relations, a book I published in 2005. At the time, scholarship on Buffy was still developing, and very few people took it seriously. Fellow grad-students would often laugh, or stare at me in confusion, when I told them what I was working on. I originally intended to write my dissertation on the show. I suggested this to my supervisor with some measure of trepidation, since I only knew of one other person who’d done this, in a different discipline. I was surprised when he said: “Go for it.” In the end, I wrote something different, but his initial support was invaluable.
I’m not sure why I haven’t taught Buffy until now. I think I needed a long break from the text that had consumed me for years. I offered a directed reading on the show a few years ago, but because it was a bounded project with a highly motivated student, I didn’t feel the need to jump back into the series. It wasn’t until last semester that I thought about delivering a standard course. As I sat down to re-watch Season One, I was worried that I’d hate it. Instead, I found it charming and delightful, just as I had before. There’s enormous potential in those first few episodes. The show continues to thrill and move me, even when I know exactly what’s going to happen.
I can’t say for certain what makes Buffy so interesting, or even if it deserves the amount of critical attention that it’s received from academics and fans alike. I do know that Joss Whedon is a masterful storyteller and director. None of his characters are truly safe, and for that reason, they all matter. He finds comedy in the darkest of moments, and is willing to confront pain and death in a way that shocks us, because it is bare and close enough to touch. The show gives us magic, only to reveal how terrible it can be. A lie told in Season Two is completely forgotten, until it resurfaces in Season Seven. A climactic battle with a cyborg is followed by a sumptuous dream about pillow-forts, Greek characters, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. One episode changes the credit-sequence in order to show the effect of a spell, while another tells a story in complete silence.
I hope my students are engaged by the show. It occurs to me that certain images from 1997 may require further explanation: a card catalogue, a dial-up modem, a diskette. The episode “I Robot, You Jane”–the first one that I ever saw–is visibly paranoid about technology that seems ancient today. If Smartphones had existed then, Moloch probably would have conquered the world.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about that nebula called “genre fiction.” This category (what Buffy Summers might call an “uber-genre”), created by publishers, includes everything from the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the dystopian fantasy novels of George R.R. Martin. “Genre” is supposed to define a type of literature, but in this case, it’s come to define “anything that is not realist fiction.” In much the same way that whiteness escapes classification, realist fiction escapes genre. In a bookstore, novels are classified on the basis of their content. Fantasy, science-fiction, and romance novels have their own section. But what about the rest, simply called “literature?” Margaret Atwood has defined herself as a writer of speculative fiction, but her novels are shelved in the literature section. Philip Pullman has strenuously avoided being categorized as a writer of fantasy, but that’s where you’ll find his work.
More than half of my creative writing students tend to write genre fiction of some kind. They’re interested in magic, or technology, or suspense, or narratives for young people. Many of them read exclusively within a single genre, such as the high fantasy novel, or the forensic thriller, and I spend much of my time trying to broaden their focus. They resist, just as I would have resisted similar efforts when I was in my late-teens and reading fantasy fiction almost exclusively. Writers like what they like, and have trained themselves to both emulate and critique the work of other writers who do what they do (or what they’d like to do). They often feel as if they don’t have time to experience new works, especially when those works are outside of their comfort zone. I understand when people complain that “genre fiction” is taking over, because I’ve seen this myself. Vampires, werewolves, fairies, and serial killers have become enduring popular archetypes. It’s possible that there are now more books about vampires, werewolves, fairies, and serial killers, than there are books about virtually anything else. I can see why this makes academics nervous.
What rankles me, though, is the criticism that “genre fiction” as a whole (as if it were possible to reduce myth, speculation, and suspense to a single category) is poorly-written. I hear this frequently, and not just from people who don’t like genre fiction, but also from people who love it. There’s the sense that popular literature is kind of awful, but we read it, because there’s a pleasure to be had in something that doesn’t challenge us. Writers whose work crosses into the literature category are often given double-edged compliments about how they’ve transcended the constraints of a particular genre. Critics celebrate the novels of J.K. Rowling because of their wide appeal–i.e., even adults read them–and this largely ignores the tradition of thoughtful children’s literature that has always been consumed by adults. The Song of Ice and Fire, by Martin, is often praised for its avoidance of stereotypes. What makes it such a great series, in the opinion of certain critics, is how it deconstructs the conventions of fantasy. In essence: even if you hate fantasy as a genre, you’ll like this, because it’s closer to being realist fiction (with dragons…and shape-shifting). This ignores the long tradition of fantasy writing that doesn’t revolve around a princess in need of saving, or which still finds ways to subvert that age-old plot. A dozen writers come to mind whose fantasy is just as gritty, unflinching, and critical of stereotypes, while still presenting the uncanny, or the marvelous.
I can’t imagine saying: you know, I just hate literature, because it all sucks. I read one novel with an unrealistic plot, and now, I avoid books altogether. The reality is that, in the literature section–as well as in the “genre” section–there are great books, unremarkable books, and terrible books. Yes, there are too many books about vampires, werewolves, serial killers, and fairies. There are also too many books about people finding themselves, meet-cute romances, family strife, coming-of-age, war, betrayal, loss of innocence, death, grief, transformation, and redemption. Some of these stories are amazing, some mediocre, and some genuinely awful. We tend to follow the same literary tracks, and if those tracks belong to a werewolf rather than a cute twenty-something couple, what’s the difference, so long as the story moves us?
Certainly, publishers are paying far more attention to fantasy and young-adult genres than they used to. These have become powerful markets, and young-adult literature is now dominated by fantasy fiction: my boyfriend’s a werewolf, my boyfriend’s a fallen angel, my boyfriend’s an incubus…supernatural angst has become incredibly popular with teen and ‘tween readers. The same rule of averages applies to these novels: there are the good, the meh, and the ugly. If you reject supernatural teen fiction out of hand, you’ll miss a lot of great stories. If you reject high fantasy because of its supposed devotion to stereotypes (and what writing doesn’t employ stereotypes of some kind?), you’ll miss plenty of evocative, challenging, and feminist work.
Patton Oswalt recently observed that web series have come to closely resemble network television: there are standout shows, passable shows, and cringe-worthy shows. Eventually, networks are going to have to cooperate with independent directors and producers, instead of dictating conventions, because technology is making it easier to tell new stories. As a creative writer, the best diet is to read widely, in multiple genres, both classical and contemporary. Detective fiction has a lot to teach about tension, just as fantasy can reveal the marvelous spaces in which the “real” world collides with myth. Young-adult literature knows a great deal about wonder and pain, and also reminds us that the division between child/adult is often a flimsy one (and that children and adults tend to love the same kinds of stories, just differently packaged).
The better question for emerging writers who love genre fiction, then, isn’t “why would you want to write about a fairy serial killer,” but rather, “what makes your fairy serial killer different from the rest?”
* image (c) Clyde Caldwell
I was talking with a colleague recently about LGBT-representation on television. The Advocate has announced that queer visibility is at an all-time high in 2012, with shows such as Glee, Modern Family, and The New Normal acting as lightning-rods for controversy. I can remember in 1998, when a summary of Will and Grace first appeared in the “new fall shows” issue of TV Guide. I mentioned it to my mother, and we both agreed that it probably wouldn’t succeed, given the recent demise of Ellen as a sitcom. The last season of that show had been painful to watch, as it shifted from a Friends-style comedy to an issue-driven narrative about Ellen’s coming-out. Various episodes did attempt to break down queer stereotypes, and a few were just imaginative exercises (I’m thinking of the episode when the world turns gay, and heterosexuals become a minority). The problem was that these last episodes just weren’t funny. They were necessary, and path-breaking in their way, but the show lost that bubbly, neurotic humor that had made it popular with viewers in the first place.
Will and Grace had a certain edge to it in 1998, when the creators obviously didn’t know if the program would survive for a second season. Jack McFarland’s character was an out-and-proud gay man who stole every scene, narrating his sexual encounters in a way that never failed to make Will profoundly uncomfortable. One episode actually centered around Will calling Jack a “fag” in public, and this was treated with a unique combination of humor and political outrage on Jack’s part (I love when he quips to Will that “a rolling fag gathers no moss.”) But as the show grew in popularity, Jack became more of a living performance-piece and less of a relatable character. Will continued to have the least amount of sex possible, and Jack’s escapades were always discussed after-the-fact. The show was roundly praised for its commitment to “breaking down stereotypes,” but even the suggestion of physical intimacy on Will’s part was treated as a “very special episode,” and Jack couldn’t enter a room without a song-and-dance number.
The state of queer television in 2012 is uneven. Two wildly popular and acclaimed shows—Glee and Modern Family—boast a number of queer characters. On Glee, the queer and questioning characters practically outnumber the straight ones. But the frame of the high school narrative also forces this show to trade in visible stereotypes: the jock, the cheerleader, the over-achiever, the gay kid who loves show-tunes. In one episode, Kurt mentions that he has “all the sex appeal of a baby penguin,” and this is prophetic, because his relationship with Blaine depends on an almost complete lack of sexual chemistry. Their courtship is delightful, but once they’re actually together, the show proceeds to overwhelm them with story-arcs (bullying, coming out, bi-curiosity, alcohol, blended families) which all serve to distract them from the fact that they’re actually young people in love. The infamous “sex episode” garnered a lot of hysterical criticism, but all it really showed was two couples—one gay, the other straight—engaged in consensual cuddling.
Modern Family tries to make Cam and Mitchell an interesting couple, but the fact remains that their storylines are often the least engaging on the show. Lilly goes to her first dance recital! Cam refuses to clean the house! There’s something weirdly archaic about their side of the family, as if they’ve been frozen in an episode of I Love Lucy. Cam’s dramatic flair is played for laughs, rather than simply being a part of who he is. I watch him, and know—without a doubt—that this is a straight man playing an exaggerated version of a femme gay man, instead of a gay man who happens to be femme. In spite of everyone supposedly being comfortable with their relationship, the two characters rarely touch. Cam is sentimental, but not sexy, and Mitchell has no interest in anything other than his job. They also live in a world without lesbians or trans folk, while Gloria and Mannie represent the only people of color on the show. Gloria’s grasp of the English language is the butt of many jokes, when in fact, she speaks English fluently, while her family-members don’t speak a word of Spanish.
The two most recent entries are The New Normal and Partners (I’ll be astonished if the latter survives for a season). The New Normal focuses on a white gay couple who want to adopt a baby. This desire emerges when one of them sees a baby while shopping at Barney’s, and realizes that this is the one accessory he doesn’t yet possess. The show seems intent on offending virtually everyone—gay, straight, Latino/a, African-American, Asian-American, Republican, Democrat—by popularizing a character who constantly engages in racist and homophobic invectives. As critics have pointed out, the grandmother (played by gay-rights advocate Ellen Barkin) is not an adaptation of Archie Bunker, because her politics don’t serve to ostracize her in any way. In fact, she emerges as a standout character, likeable and fun, who needs to be ‘educated’ in the most pedantic way possible by those around her. The New Normal suffers from the same problem that Ellen did in 1998—it’s just not that funny. The episodes tend to be patronizing, and the lines are so heavily scripted that the actors can barely deliver them. All I can say about Partners is that it’s one long gay joke, set to a relentless laugh-track. The only likeable character is a male nurse, who reminds me of Butchie from “Steps” (a Kids in the Hall sketch that was ahead of its time).
I’m left with a lot of questions. What happened to shows like Queer As Folk and The L-Word? Why are gay characters only allowed to have sex on HBO and Showtime? Where are the bears, gay geeks, lesbians, and trans folk? A few programs, like The LA Complex and Political Animals, have potential, but North-American TV continues to lag behind its European counterpart (Spanish programs, such as Aqui no hay quien viva and Fisica o quimica, managed to portray sexy and realistic queer relationships within two restrictive frameworks: the “zany neighbors” comedy and the high-school drama). Canada’s Degrassi had more queer sparks than Glee.
The reality seems to be that North-American viewers are ready to tolerate queer people on television, but aren’t ready for same-sex romance and intimacy. That comfort level is never going to appear, because gay sex makes straight people uncomfortable. Yet Queer As Folk, in spite of its uneven track record (i.e., no people of color seemed to live in Pittsburgh) was a hit with both gay and straight audiences. It feels like queer representation was less visible, but more interesting, during the period in which QAF, The L-Word, and Six Feet Under flourished. At this point, I’d rather have a few shows with fascinating (and sexually-active) queer characters, than a pile of shows meant to demonstrate that queer is “the new normal.” Queer has never been normal—that’s why it’s called queer. That’s the point. I don’t want to watch a bunch of gay people trying to act normal. I want to watch gay people who acknowledge the fact that their desire makes them different, as it has for thousands for years. Winning civil rights doesn’t mean that we want to emulate straight people. It means that we want legal protection for our relationships, and the price of that shouldn’t be cultural conformity.