I’m pissed right now. Really really pissed.
If you read what I just read, you’re be pissed too. See for yourself:
“How does [the writer] seemingly climb into our heads—and not even “our heads” but “my head,” because it feels so personal, so specific—without actually knowing us or our circumstances, and from that vantage point proceed to unfold a narrative that we are certain was written only with us, only with me in mind? I don’t know how it is done. It isn’t taught in any school, not even in the schools of writing. But here’s my guess: the writer takes us into her confidence, but does it without appearing to do so. This invitation into the writer’s thoughts is there in all works that really get under the reader’s skin….
Now, if you are reading a romance novel or a thriller, all of this is irrelevant. There are certain plot points that are followed, the language is kept moving and, if you like reading such genre works, your adrenalin carries you through to the finish. Afterwards, you feel like you have experienced a good love story or an action film. You won’t necessarily feel that the characters or situations in the book brought you to a more profound understanding of the human condition. This is because genre writing usually deals in stereotypes: the banker, the spy, the beautiful widow, the handsome new cattle rancher, characters who are of interest only insofar as they contribute to the plot.
There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with any of this, but it is writing that skims the surface, entertains you, and is gone from your life. In serious writing, the writer goes one extra step, and by taking the gamble of including “you in particular” must perforce exclude other, perhaps more casual, readers.”
That was taken from Teju Cole’s Eight Letters to a Young Writer. It’s a testament to my growing level of temperance that I didn’t stop reading, close the PDF and truncate the file’s destiny in the recycle bin. I’m glad I didn’t though because the remaining letters were quite enjoyable, interesting and insightful.
I still find it troubling that Mr. Cole would say such a thing.
What pissed me off the most (and is still pissing me off) is:
“There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with [genre fiction], but [genre fiction] is writing that SKIMS the surface, entertains you, and is gone from your life. In SERIOUS WRITING,… ”
Me I wan yarn fire. Cos I dey vex.
This goes out to Mr. Cole and every other “serious” writer and all their pundits, I have just one question for you. Please, what constitutes “serious” writing? What makes a piece of writing “serious”?
Is it the author’s level of professionalism? Or the amount of awards, fame or money that the writing has accrued for its author? Perhaps it’s the artistic merit of the writing, the use of words, de-contextualizing, creating, inventing etc?
If these are the criteria used to determine serious writing (and tagging it literary), then I have some news for “serious” readers and writers – you’re missing out on a larger bank of serious writing because genre writers are some of the most professional workers in the world, they make bucket loads of cash, are world famous, and have some highly coveted awards.
Mr. Cole alludes to the ability of serious writing to capture and attempt to expose the human condition. Well, most of the genre fiction I’ve read, have not only captured and exposed it but they’ve also tried to explain why people act the way they do. Of course, there’s no straight textbook answer to this – people act rationally (and irrationally) for numerous reasons simultaneously. But the beauty of writing is in the journey, the attempt to understand something so elusive and encrypted.
And genre writers (and in turn, genre fiction) is quite beautiful when it embarks on this journey.
There are countless genre titles I could point to that act as a thesis of the human condition. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 come to mind as a recent example. Or perhaps Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I may not be in a sociopathic marriage, but I found within the pages of the book, those thin lines that separate bliss and soul crushing frustration that salt every marriage. Patrick Rothfuss and Dennis Lehane are two wordsmiths who have demonstrated that nothing “plot propelling” has to occur to enjoy reading. These two men could be writing about the travails of preparing moin moin on a budget and you’d still enjoy the yarn as their dexterity with prose is envy inducing.
John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War may have done for science fiction what Ernest Hemmingway did for the short, short story form. I could go on and on.
I’m thinking. Is serious writing anything that is real? Grounded in real life? I’m trying to mimic the thought patterns of a “serious” writer, guesstimating what he/she considers serious. “Serious fiction is any fiction that is external thereby making it easily relatable. War, famine, family, depression and coming of age stories are some prevailing tropes in “serious” fiction.”
Awesome! What do you think science fiction is about? Tap dancing drag queens? I beg you to read Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. I’ve never been to South Africa and I’ve not met anyone quite like Zinzi December. But I know Zinzi December. I am Zinzi December (despite being a guy). I see traces of her in myself, in my girlfriend, in my sister, sometimes, even in my boss.
Or have you not read Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death? The book’s themes included rape, tribal cleansing, love, revenge. That’s serious fiction right there. It was raw and different, despite that nibbling feeling of familiarity because those are things I read about in the national dailies.
Just because genre authors choose to put their stories in a different container from regular, vanilla fiction, does that make the writing any less serious?
And just for the sake of argument, who determines what’s real and what isn’t? For someone like me, Canada, the EU or USA is as foreign to me as a colony on a planet light-years away. When an author tell me about these places, he/she shows me their people, their culture, their habits and I the reader experience them based on how different or similar they are to me. That’s the soul of all good writing, be it genre or literary.
I’m an evangelist of good fiction. And good fiction, serious fiction, can come in any package, form and variety. Period.
On my bookshelf, you’ll find Sefi Atta, Ben Fountain, Chimamanda Adiche, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o right beside Nnedi Okorafor, Brandon Sanderson, Robert Whitlow, John Scalzi, Greg Bear, Orson Scott Card to mention just some.
This stereotyping has gotten out of hand as was evident when African Writing was being featured in the news on CNN and New York Times and notable genre fiction authors were excluded from the list. I’m going to stop that train of thought right now because I don dey vex again.
Let’s stop with all the snobbish and elitist statements like “Literary fiction is serious fiction for serious, non casual readers” and every other variation of that statement. It hurts the industry, especially in Nigeria where the reading culture, particularly for fiction is still in its infancy. I still struggle to get my Sunday school students to read Frank Peretti or Ted Dekker.
Speaking of the human condition, it is quite easy to deride “the other”; the other being anyone who isn’t like us, morally, ethnically, even professionally. I believe it’s the foundation of all stereotypes. But the best way to damage a stereotype is to experience it first hand and with an open heart.
So this is an invitation to all serious writers and readers. Please, come check out our buffet of “genre stereotypes”. I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly disappointed.
P.S. I still dey vex but I don talk finish. Abeg Mr Cole, and every other serious writer out there, no talk that tin again o.