Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 27 May 2012





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Number One: Caleb J. Ross and Pablo D'Stair:

Three dialogues on literature

[Part 4]

NOTE: The dialogue is presented over the next four weeks in a style of "progressive fragments." The exact order of inquiry and response as presented is not the order of inquiry and response as it happened between the two dialogue partners.

Therefore, 'Statements' and 'Responses' from one week may not be directly addressed by both parties until subsequent weeks. It is the hope of both parties that the spaces between these responses allow readers the time and opportunity to more fully and experientially engage with the propositions, for themselves, rather than looking at the dialogue as a closed circuit.

Caleb JRoss:Writers who say they 'write genre,' I imagine are taking a pride in the classification, a pride I envy, honestly. Take marketing away for a second (which is reason enough to classify oneself as a genre writer) and you're left with a label that can, at best establish friendships and hyper-focus a dialogue, and at least, grease introductions at role playing game lock-ins. I never associated myself with a genre until recently. Until a few months ago, if pressed, I'd tell people I write fiction. If they pressed for more, I'd go deeper and say weird stuff. But then I read an article, I can't remember which one, about noir fiction that seemed to describe everything I've ever written: morally ambiguous characters, no true resolution, generally there's a crime element, but not always, and a protagonist that garners little sympathy, let alone empathy.

The article argued that this was noir. I felt oddly comforted by having a tag. I felt more a part of something. I could answer questions better. I could narrow down my next to-read books. I knew which conferences I should attend, which blogs to read, which authors to poke and prod. Five years ago, I would have scoffed at being called a writer of a specific genre of fiction. Now, I embrace it.


Pablo D'Stair:Interesting. My own travels, so to speak, went almost exactly opposite. I might not have had any "inside understanding" of genre determination, but from the beginning of seriously writing, and in my thoughts for a long time before that, even, I would consider myself a This or a That writer-in my case, usually a "thriller" writer, though I used the term very generically.

It was in writing, kind of assuming I was starting from a "thriller" point of view, that I came to realise the vast differences between what I was up to and what any other literature I came across that was also called "thriller" did. Really, it was only well into my "writing career" (almost two dozen novels/novellas in) that I make a concentrated effort to "write genre" which by that time, for me, just meant "something people could read".

I say that only half-jokingly. I found genre, touching on a lot of what you say above, to be custom made for that-presupposition, talking, chatting, gabbing-but honestly I find it quite rare and difficult to talk about anything other than "Genre" in a conversation about genre, if you follow.

That is, because the impetus behind most genre fiction (that I've come across) and indeed the very idea of connectivity and community is built on tropes and more or less moot investigations, riffs of little personal meaningfulness or attachment to the authors, talk within genre is just about conventions or superficialities.

It depressed me and depresses me, really, when I think about it.


CJR: It's interesting to me that you think of genre as a-as I understand you to think of it-set of limitations, both from the perspectives of the reader and the writer. Again, I'm distilling your viewpoint, perhaps erroneously. This interests me because I know you are a fan of artifice, of artificial restrictions as a way to see what can be done, so to speak.

Your flash crime contest is one recent example. Isn't genre fiction, labeling and all that, just an artifice that may be used to "test" a good writer (or soothe a terrible writer, I suppose)? Stephen Graham Jones, who I know we both respect, often talks of genre writing as a challenge; navigating tropes in ways that not only expand the tropes themselves but are able to comment on the tropes using the 'language of the Romans,' so to speak.

PD:Coming up, my idea of desiring a kind of community with authors was, I think, to talk about things really nothing to do with the particular things each author wrote, those just kind of greasing the wheels to "what writing is about" or "what idea is about." But genre and genre community is very self-contained, in my experience, and not so interested in what lies outside its borders, perhaps (in reflecting on your remarks here) for the very reason that a lot of genre writers and readers fixate so much on the idea of defining the genre itself (whether they ever fully do or not, whether they fully want to or not) and often I find it becomes, so to speak, a "naming what it is by naming infinite things it isn't" proposition.

No real question, here, just wonder your thoughts-or barring that, I'd be interested to just hear in more detail your thoughts on your own above remarks.


CJR:Don't think that I'm not willing to venture outside of a genre. Though it is important to take a moment to remind ourselves just how vast the world of letters is; even if I did dedicate myself entirely to a single genre, there's so much to learn, read, and study in any given genre that a lifetime wouldn't be long enough to know it all.

Perhaps then the way to look at self-imposed restrictions is simply to take note of a more focused horizon. But a horizon, vast and ever-reaching, it still is.

Strange, during my undergrad study a handful of years ago I never thought that I would one day be defending genre fiction. University birthed me as a reader and writer. I may just be at my angry rebellious years right now. Give me another ten years and I'll probably come back to hating those dag-blasted young high-academic fiction hoodlums.



CJR:Me, yes, definitely I care about the publisher. But that's just my nerdy, authorly interest. I care in the way that Nabokov cared about butterfly collecting. It's interesting. I get to know a publisher. I know what kind of work they produce. I become a fan. When I turn to giant publishers, Penguin and the like, I am more a fan of the particular author than the publisher.

Interesting that you call out the 'who you know' nature of the independent press, in the way that large presses can be. I've never thought about it, but you're right. Even with indie presses, there's an element of 'who you know' going on. It's true.

But the 'who you know' generally have less of a monetary investment than big publishers, and in a country where the dollar is consider a beacon of import, the monetary investment has some appeal. I usually try to stay away from overarching, generalisations such as capitalism, but that may be the issue here.

PD:I admit, that is precisely what grates me about the small press scene, when you speak of "getting to know a publisher." It's nothing to be done about it, surely, but one of the reasons I'd never had much interest in being published through a small label is because the labeling and then the implicit unity of "type" takes on a double-down sort of dimension.

Of course, it's understandable when a publisher says "read our guidelines for what we're looking for" or further says "familiarise yourself with our catalogue to see if you fit in" but this is all about branding, not a wiff to do with anything but. It's frightful to me that one would think (and worse if it turns out to be true, which it probably is) that a press publishing books of a similar "type" does better for said books, the audience of one book feeds off of the audience of the other.

This is such an allowing in of "audience reception" as integral to "the creation of writing" (i.e. one sees the success of pockets of similar stuff so then takes to heart the "guidelines/catalogue" inspection and eventually writes "for the guidelines" rather than writing, full stop, and seeing if the writing fits any guidelines) that one would have a publisher in mind before the act of writing begins!

As to the monetary aspect, again to be honest I don't think any small press ever thinks about it, I think it's a different drug altogether for the indie press. Everyone knows the money thing is a random spin of the wheel, but the "power" (or at least appearance of power) thing is all the more alluring and, especially with the vain creatures most writers are, quite easy to secure.

I am with you to an extent about the unconscious and, for my way of thinking, unreasoned respect given to this or that writer because they have achieved a financially successful post of sorts, but I get baffled at the "underground celebrities," the writers on the small press level who are looked up to for reasons other than their writing.

A better way to say this maybe is, I understand how it is one can elevate either a canonical great (Camus, Hemmingway, Jelenik, Duras) or a contemporary household name (Chabon, Frazen, Saramago) but that writers who have neither actually put direct contemporaries of the same exposure level on higher perches is bizarre.

The joy of being in the underground is, to me, an unfettered sense of everyone in the underground is just as great and just-as-not-great as anyone else, the label of "writer" not taking on any societally imposed gravity.

CJR:I don't buy the risks thing, with writers. Or, said better, I don't care if a writer is taking risks-whether consciously or sub-. To me, a risk is when a writer does something that could potentially cripple something they've, until the moment of the risk, spent their writing lives building. So, for Stephen King to write a bodice ripper would be risky.

For Pynchon to do a reality TV show would be risky. Neither of these would impress me. I love that Stephen King writes horror (though, for the record, I'm not a fan). I love that Pynchon is a recluse. These traits are important to the general perception of these authors and their work. A risk would be compromising those things.

I think authors themselves don't generally see themselves as risk-takers. They write what interests them. However, talking about being a risk taker adds to the sexiness of being an author that readers want (in the way that any public persona tends to dramatize their role for the sake of success).

Those writers who say they are "getting in touch with their dark side" or "going to places where they are uncomfortable" aren't describing truth; they are describing fiction. And isn't fiction what they do best? Or, perhaps, they are simply using grandiose terminology for the act of mulling over personal philosophies, as a familiar author once said (me, above).


PD:Now, it's interesting that you focus, more or less, on "career risk" or "perception within a career" risk. More so, it is interesting that you focus on "persona" and "sexiness" and "public perception." Are these ideas so central to the idea of "writer" to you? You, earlier, wrote of using your work to investigate or have record of your personal philosophies, but is this only within an attempt toward having a career as a writer?

A little bit of an expansion: don't you think that an author's ambitions, really, could be wholly satisfied, in a grand scale even, without ever having to enter the commercial marketplace, and more importantly, without having to enter onto the radar of "readers at large" and so therefore without ever having to worry about public persona?

Follow my rhetorical-if one, with no thought of publishing one's self, or certainly not commercially, wrote and made efforts to expose their work and thoughts to other artists, commercial and scholarly, of their age, would not these efforts, if they put them in the esteem of men and women of letters (or other pursuits) be equally as influential and lasting as someone who commercially or "within the existing framework of success" reached a certain plateau?

I mean, in the sense of influencing contemporaries, if I had one hundred readers and they all seriously considered my work, and these hundred readers were other authors, filmmakers, thinkers and painters of some regard, would this not be as "successful" and sure a way to assert my work as having ten million people read it?

In a short form-other than "getting" and "momentarily" (because, come on, that's what it usually is) having some influence on this or that random person, what is it that you Caleb, as a writer, want from your work?

CJR:I suppose I use the terms author and writer interchangeably when I shouldn't (and have even spoken out against doing so). Author means careerist. Writer means...writer. In this revised context, I would speak of writing as a more personal obligation, meaning my answer above would speak to the author.

Regarding the whole satisfaction of ambitions, I definitely think a writer can be satisfied without participating in the traditional careerist structure. Hell, I wouldn't be writing now if that weren't the case. Even if I can never quite my day-job, I'll continue to write. That alone should speak to the importance I place on the act, not just the product or the lifestyle.

I suppose the flaw with your logic above may lie with pitting one hundred passionate readers against the readers to be gained by commercial success. It's tough to argue that commercial success wouldn't lead to at least passionate readers, and likewise that avoiding commercial success would gain that many passionate readers. I guess the question then becomes why settle for only one hundred passionate readers. If you have ten million people reading, chances are more than one hundred passionate readers will materialise.

But I get your point (and I consider most books will never get to one-hundred million readers). Would I rather fight for one hundred passionate readers or perhaps fight harder, with much lower odds, to have ten million readers, one hundred of which may become passionate? Maybe it's not an either-or question. Maybe I continue to write what I like and hope the big publishers just sniff me out.


PD:Rather than do a big long set up, I just want to ask a simple thing in reference to the above: If there were no "big publishers" (which at one point there were not and at one point, I feel, there will not be again) do you think you would have pursued writing?

If all that existed were self-published writers or very small press scenes, no possibility of monetary success or celebrity-this before you ever wrote a thing, not a change to things after you'd started writing-do you think you would have written? And if so, do you think you would have written the things you've written now?

CJR:Yes to "would you write?" Maybe to the "would you have written the things you've written now?" The reason for the maybe is that because Big Publishing exists, I've been introduced to and influenced by writing styles and themes that I almost definitely would not have been introduced to if the world was only micro pockets of literary activity, simply by nature of distribution and promotion.

Of course, I can't say that my writing, in that scenario, wouldn't be just as good or maybe better, but it definitely wouldn't be what I write now. And I like what I write now.



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