12 August 2009

Tin House Genre Fiction

A reader writes to Tin House:
I have read several issues of Tin House, including the most recent. Two vegetarians go on a hunting trip . . . enough said. I feel that I have several pieces that would fit the magazine, however, I am struggling with just one thing. This question is geared not only toward the magazine but the writing workshop as well. Do you accept genre fiction? I was also wondering how I might go about determining whether or not my piece fits into a specific genre and what general fiction is. Thank you in advance.
—Confused in LA
And Tin House responds.

Now, I happen to like Tin House very much. We've reprinted stories from the magazine in each volume of Best American Fantasy. Their "Fantastic Women" issue was awesome. Their current anniversary issue is also awesome. Just about all of their issues are awesome.

But the response to Concerned in LA is not awesome. It's disappointing.

I spend too much time, perhaps, defending writers, editors, and publishers of "literary fiction" from being maligned by writers, editors, and publishers who would never utter the term "literary fiction" without a sneer. I do this because some of my best friends happily embrace the term "literary fiction" for themselves. I don't even mind being seen in public with such people, any more than I mind being seen in public with my friends who insist the only thing they write is "science fiction". I'm all about the kumbaya.

So please, literary fiction people, STOP MAKING MY LIFE SO DIFFICULT!

Let me try to address some of the things I dislike in the three paragraphs that most annoyed me in the response, one by one:
I think you know genre fiction when you read it. My personal definition goes something like this: fiction that almost purposefully avoids the literary, in hopes of keeping the reader (or the writer, for that matter) from having to “work” too hard. It also tends to employ some stock tricks, like ending very short chapters with cliffhangers, often hopping predictably from one POV to another. Characters tend to be one-dimensional, with the kind of awkward and false-sounding dialog you’d expect.
Maybe I'll mail Tin House a copy of Peter Swirsky's useful book From Lowbrow to Nobrow, which counters some of the assumptions about certain forms that appear in "genre fiction" and are supposedly absent from "literary fiction". But I actually don't have a big problem with this paragraph on its own; it's a statement of personal taste, and there are certainly general differences that it is, generally, somewhat accurate in general about, sort of. How this paragraph moves on to the next bothers me more:
Genre writers know their audience, and it’s a large one: John Grisham sold 60,742,288 books during the 1990s. That’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, and I won’t do that here. But that audience, for reasons that sometimes seem obvious and sometimes are madly mysterious, is almost universally not interested in the same things we are.
We move from: Genre fiction is lazy, formulaic, predictable, one-dimensional, awkward, and false ... to: it's more popular than the Pope ... to: why is it so popular? huh. ... to: that's not what we're interested in.

What are they interested in? So glad you asked:
We’re interested in good stories. Contrary to what many people think, it’s not work to read them. A good story is a thing to savor, something you want to make copies of and pass around, something you might find yourself inexplicably wanting to read out loud. (Or not so inexplicably—good writers all have musicians living somewhere inside them, whether they know it or not, and have perfect pitch when it comes to the sounds of the words they use). If you read a lot of good stories, then you know what they are. If you don’t, then you should start, beginning with the summer reading titles on this blog. Sometimes it takes me days to parse out what made a good story so damned good, sometimes I never can.
Ah haaaaa! Genre fiction is not good stories! So all these writers who just want to write crap for the masses are not interested in good stories! And the fans who love cliffhangers and want good plots and hate stories about two vegetarians on a hunting trip -- they don't want good stories, either! These gazillions of people making those genre fiction lame-os rich don't savor what they read, don't pass it around, don't want to read it aloud. And why? Because they haven't read good stories and don't know what they are. (Oh, and though genre fiction makes sure you "don't 'work' too hard", "it's not work to read [litfic]". Apparently the economy has hit Tin House hard, too, because ain't nobody working around there...)

The problem here is one I've blathered on at length about many times before -- the problem of confusing descriptive and evaluative labels. (Come to think of it, in the package including From Lowbrow to Nobrow, maybe I'll include a copy of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw...) There is simply no such thing as a universal "good story", and so using a term like "good stories" as a euphemism for "stuff I like" is not useful. Replace the term "good story" in the Tin House post and much of it becomes less objectionable. Banal, but less objectionable. There are still contradictions and ignorances, but none of us could survive without contradictions and ignorances, so I'm not as upset about those.

I could go on. I don't have time or energy. (Ugh, that James Wood quote later in the post! Who is this universal "the reader" and why should that person's narrow idea of what is worth falling in love with matter for anybody else? If I think a work of fiction has taught me how to read it, am I wrong if you think otherwise? Vice versa?)

Please -- friends, Romans, countrywomen -- send your best writing to Tin House, regardless of whatever label happens to seem appropriate to it right now. It's a great magazine. The new issue even includes a poem by Stephen King. They publish all sorts of different stuff, and that eclecticism is part of what keeps me coming back to read it again and again. They publish what I think are often really good stories (and poems and essays and interviews and miscellanea...). But don't listen to what they say on their blog about "good stories". That's just crazytalk.

Update 8/13/09: Tonaya Thompson, the assistant editor at Tin House who wrote the post I criticized, responded thoughtfully in the comments section to this post, as did her friend and co-worker Tony. I wrote a comment that was way too longer for Blogger's commenting system to handle, so I'm posting it here:
Thanks to Tony and Tonaya for responding and clarifying -- I expect if we were sitting around chatting, we'd probably agree way more than we disagree, once we were able to figure out terminology, or at least show how we're using terminology, what assumptions we're bringing to it, etc. I expect, too, that we'd find our tastes in fiction even overlap a lot (I do, after all, love a lot of the fiction in Tin House).

I think it's important, though, for editors and spokespeople especially to be careful in how they talk about their perceptions of fiction -- and I mean this for editors of magazines, journals, and anthologies devoted to all sorts of fiction. We're at an exciting time, I think, in the history of short stories and novels, a time when we've all learned a lot about what this thing called "fiction" can do and be. I'm especially excited by publications such as Tin House (and Conjunctions and McSweeney's and A Public Space and One Story and LCRW and Electric Velocipede and Weird Tales and, when Gordon's feeling particularly edgy, F&SF, not to mention a plethora of wonderful webzines, anthologies, etc.) that do not have as settled a sense of what fiction is and can be as do some more conservative venues. (And honestly, I think we need both -- because there are all sorts of different types of readers and writers, but more importantly because a vital dialogue exists between cleary "core" types of writing [die-hard kitchen-sink realism; hard science fiction] and the crazier kids on the margins. It's the crazy kids at the margins that particularly excite me, but that's just me.)

And that's why I responded so vociferously to your post -- I don't question that it represents what you think you are looking for, or that it's what at least a part of the staff at Tin House thinks the magazine represents ... but as a loyal (premiere-issue owning!) reader, I'm saying I think what the magazine does is actually bigger, greater, and more complex than you've found the words for. And that the words you have found, at least in the original post, could lead to some unfortunate misperceptions and misconceptions.

I like your response here a lot, Tonaya, and so if I dig into it a little bit more, I hope my tone does not come off as that of someone trying to -- well, I don't know, but I fear that I'll sound smug and patronizing when I mean to simply offer a perspective of somebody who has enthusiastically attended both Bread Loaf and science fiction conventions.

Editors frequently say they want "good stories" and don't want "lazy writing" -- I don't know a genre editor who would say the opposite! Actually, the best response to the question I know of is one written by Nick Mamatas when he was editing the online (genre) magazine Clarkesworld. Nick's penultimate paragraph could fit Tin House, too, I suspect. And I love that!

The question of genre -- what it is, if it is, how it is -- is a huge one, and I've written tens of thousands of words about the topic over the years, with very few of those words ever really getting at what I was hoping to get at. (Thus, I keep trying...)

Take your example, a wonderful one -- Player Piano. I've got a first edition of the paperback of the book, and it's been renamed Utopia 14. You can see the cover here. Is it a science fiction novel? You betcha! Genre? That's a thornier question. By my definition, yes, because to my mind a "genre" is a set of publishing practices and reader expectations. Science fiction is, in that sense, a genre -- one that became particularly differentiated in the U.S. in the 1920s, developed its own groups of writers, editors, fans, and publishers, then history, which affected expectations that in turn affected production in a complex way.

Only the tiny minority of science fiction readers who think SF must always include complex astrophysics would not recognize that novel as a science fiction novel. Would non-SF readers recognize it as a literary novel? When it came out in hardcover, some did, sure (see the original NYT review), because it was a dystopian novel and so fit into a tradition broader than that of SF, though one which SF is generally happy to overlap with and exploit. But Bantam clearly thought the key to sales for Vonnegut was to market him as an SF writer. It didn't work all that well, for various reasons -- he was about ten years ahead of his time in the SF world (though C.M. Kornbluth, William Tenn, and Robert Sheckley were doing somewhat similar things to what he was up to) and when he did become popular, it was through a widening of his audience among the younger readers who liked the Beats, etc., but many of whom were also happy enough to read Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune. Also, Vonnegut wrote in a marvelously -- deceptively! -- simple and accessible style, which is helpful in reaching a mass audience.

You're absolutely right that what any sensitive reader would probably be tempted to identify as lazy writing gets published within certain marketing categories -- some of those categories rely on tried-and-true formulas that their audiences enjoy, and it would be self-defeating to stretch those formulas too much because then it would be something other than what it's expected to be. If Harlequin were to sell Jane Austen novels using the same packaging and marketing they use for their regular books ... well, they'd have some pretty perplexed and annoyed customers (as well as some who discovered a new favorite writer). If genre fiction is fiction that is necessarily formulaic in a particularly narrow way because the audience will not recognize it otherwise, then of course it would be foolish and silly of any of you at Tin House to say it's something you're open to reading.

But I'm betting that's not what Confused was asking. I would guess that Confused wanted to know what you emphasized in evaluating a story -- if you, for instance, like stories that are more plot than character. Or stories that are more about stuff than people. Or stories that use such things as aliens and dragons as primarily literal items within the narrative rather than primarily as metaphors.

To which I would also bet your most honest answer would be something along the lines of, "Well, it depends." What does it depend on? Language is one thing, maybe the thing -- by "not lazy writing" what I take you to mean is prose that achieves a certain deliberate effect, that is, in and of itself, a kind of music. Go ahead, put Mars in your story, but tell that story the way, for instance, Theodore Sturgeon did with "The Man Who Lost the Sea" (or, rather, don't tell it like that; find your own voice, but find a voice). After all, why publish a story that sounds just like ten thousand other stories? That's no fun!

And don't be afraid to make the reader work -- great art is demanding, and I think Tin House is in the business of seeking out great art. Why bother otherwise -- I somehow doubt the work is making you astoundingly wealthy.

"Demanding" isn't a bad thing for writing to be. Not every novel has to be Gaddis. The beauty of Vonnegut's best writing is that there's a whole lot more to it than will be perceived on a superficial reading, and, indeed, the apparent ease of reading him can conceal the complexity of what he offers (I've taught Mother Night at both the high school and college level and every time have learned something new from the book. It is a wonder.)

Perhaps really what we're talking about is readers and their expectations and desires. If I can put words in your mouth for a moment, you want readers who are seeking stories that they do not treat as disposable consumer items. Adventurous sorts of readers, ones who have neither a narrow idea that all stories must be a Raymond Carver spin-off or ones who think all stories have to have a clear plot, rising action, and "transparent" prose (prose is transparent when it is at its most conventional, and prose at its most conventional is not particularly fulfilling for readers who desire music and stories that don't sound like ten thousand other stories).

You raise an important issue (or two or three!) at the end of your response to me -- dozens of manuscripts arriving daily that are obviously inappropriate to the magazine, and the mass popularity of certain things that are not Tin House. I think these issues are significant ones, but tangential to the idea of what makes a story exciting to those of us who are excited by the sorts of stories Tin House publishes.

I can assure you that editors around the world face the same problem of receiving lots of manuscripts apparently sent to them at random. Heck, even with Best American Fantasy, a series of explicitly reprint anthologies, I inevitably receive a pile of unpublished manuscripts every year. We human beings have an extraordinary capacity for obliviousness.

If Tin House sold 60 million copies, it would no longer be the Tin House we love; it would be toilet paper. The kind of person who possesses both the interest and the skills to appreciate complex literary expression is probably roughly the size of the part of the population that possesses the interest and skills to appreciate advanced theoretical mathematics. There are lots of reasons certain books are bestsellers, and those reasons have little to do with genre -- bestsellers are their own category. Some of them are even pretty good by the standards of somebody who actually does appreciate complex literary expression (I'm in a minority that fervently believes Neil Gaiman's American Gods has been underestimated by many readers who mistake the genius of its structure for raggedness; I also think Thomas Harris's Red Dragon is among the great American novels of the 20th century, better than any of Hemingway's novels -- yeah, I'm a weirdo, and should probably burn my Literary Elitist membership card right now...)

Anyway, I'm rambling now. Thanks for the work you do, Tonaya. I hope my criticisms are of the sort that spur you on rather than bum you out.

And meanwhile, everybody should subscribe to Tin House because, as I said before, it's awesome.