Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The L Word

"So, how do you like your nomination for the Snooty Award?"

My friend was teasing me about my Shirley Jackson Award nomination for my novella The Men Upstairs. (The awards were handed out in Readercon in July and, as I expected, the amazing Elizabeth Hand won in the novella category, and in case you're wondering if the cliche is true, yes, it is an honor just to be nominated.) The Shirley Jackson Awards were created to recognize, as the organization's website says, "outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic." Notice the L word -- Literature -- right there in the description.

I don't remember what I told my friend, who's won numerous awards for his own writing, but his playful question got me thinking. When I discuss literature with my college students, I often differentiate between literature with a small L and Literature with a capital L. I ask them what's the difference between the two. "There is no difference," someone will invariably say. "Anything that's written is Literature." "What about the list of ingredient on the side of a cereal box?" I counter. "What about the STOP on a stop sign?" Someone else will then say, "It's Literature if it has a deeper meaning." I then reply, "What about someone who can barely write a coherent sentence, can't spell, can't punctuate, but has a profound thought or insight to communicate? Is what he or she writes Literature?" Silence, head scratching, and more than a few frustrated looks follow.

"Literature" probably has as many definitions as there are people to define it, and of course, as an artistic term, precise definition is impossible and -- more importantly -- not desirable. Nothing kills creativity faster than some imagination-challenged academic performing an intellectual autopsy on a work and then proclaiming his or her findings as "This is the Way All Good and Proper Art Should Be Done." I'd argue that literature with a capital L possesses two important qualities: 1) It has a profound influence on other writers and the art itself and 2) It has an impact on the culture at large. By my definition, almost nothing that writers produce qualifies as capital L Literature. Even Shirley Jackson -- a brilliant writer -- only has one work to her credit that fits my definition, her story "The Lottery." To a lesser extent her novel The Haunting of Hill House (which, if you haven't read, do so ASAP) counts, but mostly in the horror genre. The rest of her work? Writers, readers, and academics love it, but the culture at large? No clue. Of course, this may change in Jackson's case. By my definition, the passage of time is required before a work can even begin to be considered as Big L Literature.

What does it matter, especially for those of us who write? It matters as much -- or as little -- as we want it to, I suppose. One thing's for certain: no one can set out to consciously create Literature with a capital L and be guaranteed of success (and a writer may not live long enough to find out). I can set out to write a short story, a novel, a novella, a blog post, whatever, and at this point in my life, I know I can do so with a bare minimum of success for I've done so in the past, pleased readers to one degree or another, and continue to do so. I also know that I can write work that's entertaining, fun, humorous, disturbing, thought-provoking, suspenseful, and that at least some people find worthy of giving good reviews and award nominations to. I can, and do, set out when I write to achieve any or all of these things, and I know I'll do so with a reasonable amount of success. (Although it's not always easy to remember that when I'm neck deep in the actual process of churning out what seems like an awful piece of crap!)  But I never think about creating Literature. I think writers who do only hamstring themselves. Is this idea Literature-worthy? Is this image, this word, this comma? That way lies madness, not to mention writer's block.

I believe we should write what we want to write, what's fun, what's challenging, what helps us grow as artists, what increases our bank account, whatever. If all you want to do is entertain people, that's fine. But if you want to do more, have your work mean more than the written equivalent of a bag of potato chips, here are some things to consider.

1) Genre fiction vs Mainstream/Literary.

Any type of writing can be good or bad, and any type can be derivative. It doesn't matter if you're trying to ape Lovecraft or Raymond Carver -- a copy's a copy. That said, genre fiction is defined by shared set of story elements and reader expectations. It's the main reason literary types look down at genre fiction. They view all of it as copies of other works. So if you're writing genre fiction, and you want to stand out from the herd, you need to remember that genre can offer as much restraint as it does freedom and be careful not to let those restraints hold you back. But be careful. Some restraints are there for a reason. For example, category romances always have to have a happy ending; it's what readers read those books for. That's a genre restraint that you can't avoid if you're a romance writer, so look for your freedom in other places. And for literary writers, you need to be careful when writing about the "real world." What makes your novel about a married woman having an affair any different from the thousands of others already written? And don't fall back on the old saw "It's the beauty of the language." A pretty copy is still a copy.

2) Read Your Ass Off

This is Writer 101, but the wider you read in and out of your chosen genre, the less chance you'll have of being a human Xerox machine when you write. Find out who the exemplars of Literature with a capital L are in your genre. In horror (the genre I write in most often), names like Ramsey Campbell, Charles Grant, Peter Straub, Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, and Caitlin Kiernan pop immediately to mind. Literary writers tend to be spoiled for choice in this area (at least in terms of quality), so I often suggest they seek out work from writers of cultures and backgrounds different than themselves. You're a white twentysomething suburban male who's never traveled farther than your tri-state area? Read Sandra Cisneros, Haruki Marakami, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

3) Go Deeper

Deeper into your characters, your setting, your plot, your descriptions, your turns of phrase. Deeper doesn't always mean adding more words, however. Deeper means going beyond the usual, beyond the expected, beyond cliche.

4) Follow Your Fascination

Many writers chose to work in a genre because they love it, but they're often too concerned with writing what they think will sell. Medieval and urban fantasies may fill the bookshelves, but if you're fascinated with ancient Egypt, use that as the setting for your fantasy series. Most how-to-write books say you need a likable protagonist, but if you're fascinated with sons of bitches, use an unlikeable protagonist. Not only will following your fascinations lead to more original stories, your passion will come through in your writing and readers will be able to feel it.

5) Strive for Quality

Here's another no-brainer from Writer 101. Take the time to make your writing the best it can be in terms of word choice, sentence structure, scene construction, etc., etc. Quality doesn't necessarily mean mean flowery language or poetic imagery, but it does mean producing the very best writing you're capable of every time and then working to make it even better.

6) Write the Stories Only You Can Tell

Draw on your own experiences for your stories, and show us the way you view the world.  We've already had Hemingway, Tolkien, Austen, Lovecraft, Chandler. What we need is you. Even if you're writing a category romance with strict guidelines or a work-for-hire action adventure novel under a house name, there's still room for you to be an individual. Right now, I'm writing a tie-in novel based on the TV series Supernatural. It's set in Southwest Ohio, where I've lived most of my life, and the opening scene takes place near a duck pond just like the one behind my apartment complex. I've been fascinated with Norse myth ever since I was a kid, and so the plot contains some elements drawn from those legends. When I'm done, it'll be a Supernatural novel, but it'll be my Supernatural novel.

As I said earlier, no one can set out to create capital L Literature with any guarantee of anything even remotely approximating success (how's that for encouragement?). But that should never be the goal. The goal is to tell the very best, most interesting, most engaging story we're capable of each time, and when we're finished, sit down and do it again. And who knows? Just like Shirley Jackson, maybe one day you'll win the lottery too.

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

It's been a while since my last blog, so I have a few projects to plug this time.

Curious about The Men Upstairs? It's still available:
My novel The Harmony Society is out in a new edition from Dark Regions:
An ebook edition of Cross County -- now retitled Beneath the Bones -- is available:
The Nekopolis Archives -- an omnibus edition containing all the Matt Richter novels and stories to date can be found here:
I have an essay on developing the style of your world in Eighth Day Genesis, a book on world building for writers:
And last but not least, my story "Thou Art God" will appear in Dark Faith: Invocations, which can be pre-ordered here: