NaNoEdMo: When The Literary Becomes Genre Fiction

Thank goodness for National Novel Editing Month because I have a problem with reading lately. My bed is populated with glossy cookbooks and I'm getting a gym membership. Things are getting awfully plebeian around Casa Kienapple. Next thing you know, I'll be listening to Girl Talk on repeat because it makes me feel culturally relevant...ummm oh. Oh OK.

So let's talk about writing literature, instead of reading it. Except that I'm not writing literature, at least not anymore.

When I started to write my novel I was firmly entrenched in my third year Can Lit class at the University of Toronto. I was having heart palpitations from reading greats like Sinclair Ross, Margaret Atwood, and Joy Kogawa. I'd grown up with a healthy appreciation for Can Lit - L.M. Montgomery was like a mother to me. So of course I wanted to write the Great Canadian novel.

So I wrote one. Or, so I thought. But as it happens, being 20 and a bit flaky, I wanted to write about relationships, and in the most emo fashion possible. I think this was during my Alkaline Trio phase. There were attempts at metafiction. There were attempts at symbolism. But mostly, my characters wanted to get in bitch fights and seduce each other.

I continued to write the book, off and on, over the next five years. And it's funny for me to see how much better the writing gets as the book progresses. Because here's the crux of it: real writers read. Widely. And when you're in university, you read in a vacuum.

Perhaps U of T had a more conservative English program than most but reading Doris Lessing was as modern as I ever got. Occasionally I would spy flashy books in Chapters or the library, the kind with foil, the kind people actually read, but they barely registered in my consciousness.

It wasn't until just over three years ago that I yanked my head out the proverbial ass of Jane Eyre re-reading and crying over Lord of the Rings and started to read contemporary fiction. What a wake up call.

[Side note: it's sad to discover that not every book is at the calibre of a classic. The average writer does not sit down and spew out The Portrait of a Lady. But it is nice to know that you can meet the authors who write your books and that they would know what a blog is. Hopefully.]

When I picked my novel back up recently after a year and a half break I was delighted to find out that it was not literature, oh no, it was very much YA (young adult). I actually know what YA is now, hence I am able to make the distinction. You'd think there's be more caterwauling, because I lost my chance to write the Great Canadian Novel.

But I think the GCN is going to be just fine without me because I suddenly feel very comfortably at home with YA. I get it now: you're supposed to write your book, not the book of your heroes, not the book that wins critical acclaim, maybe not even the book that you think sells (though writing for yourself is selfish, and by God I don't mean that).

The fact of the matter is that I'm not a literary writer. I like to write about relationships in that first person, overly intense fashion that YA thrives on. I like to write long spiels of flirtatious dialogue. I like picking out my characters' outfits. OK SHUT UP. (It's fun!) And I thoroughly enjoy celebrating all my early-20's angst, that time when my personality and feelings were more mutable.

I'm laughing while I'm editing now, because I'm letting my prose be as bitchy and irreverent as it wants to be. The beast is out of the cage. And it's wearing Hot Topic.

Have any of you suddenly realized that you aren't writing X genre, but Y? How did you deal with this realization? Comment below!


Katie said...

All of the above sounds oh so very familiar. I totally thought I was going to write the next great CanLit novel at one point. I've gone the YA route though because it's a genre that actually comes a lot more naturally to me. Who knows though? Maybe the next great CanLit novel is meant to be about werewolves and mad science? ;)

B.Kienapple said...

Ha well if Kelly Armstrong can gain recognition, there's hope for all of us!
Also also, who KNOWS what the Canadian public wants. After all Lullabies for Little Criminals was insanely popular, a phenomenon I still can't quite understand.

Anne Pilkey said...

The above sounds familiar in the idea that everything I read in university was totally irrelevant, and hundreds of years behind what is actually being read today. Can Lit, aside from Margaret Atwood was never discussed at Queen's, and for that, I am eternally bitter, because I feel like these past few years have been catch up!

Katie said...

Re: Lullabies for Little Criminals. THANK YOU! I thought I was the only person in the world who didn't get it.

alexis said...

I love YA and read a lot of YA. I wrote one novel that was YA, and it sucked, but I'm pretty sure that the next novel I try to write will also be YA.

I didn't study literature in university and I actually think that was a bit of a blessing. I have an International Studies degree and a journalism diploma. I do feel a bit bad about my lack of classics, but I try to read some every year and a friend pointed out that I can always take English classes by correspondence or online or do an English degree when I'm retired if I so wish :)

I love Canlit and read mostly Canadian stuff :) I've always loved contemporary fiction too.

Guinevere said...

I figure, if it's meant to be great literature it'll sort itself out in the wash. I used to have greater ambitions, but now I just set out to tell a story I'll love to read!

Errant Knave said...

Some notes:
-There's plenty of time to write the GCN. It can happen.
-Bitch fights and seduction: What's wrong with writing about that? That sounds like fun.
-Maybe you were just attracted to the older books? I went to York U (yes, yes--I know--we can't be friends), and there were plenty of modern courses, but I gravitated towards 19th century British authors. I love those classics, and I'm glad I got to study them so much. Now I can read the rest of the books outside of school.
-lol at "flashy books" and "the ones with foil"
-for someone who says she doesn't read fantasy, you read LOTR (which is huge), and cried over it (which is natural. Oh, Boromir...).
-I have a very tiny chip on my shoulder when it comes to what is deemed literary, or classic, or worthy of certain kinds of attention. And especially when it comes to judging which writer is worthy of those designations. Perceptions change over the years anyway, so you just write whatever the hell you want, whether it's YA or whatever, and anyone who decides to be snobbish about it can just... well, I won't utter such things on your blog. (Okay, so maybe it's not a tiny chip.)
-All this to say: I'm glad to hear that "the beast is out of the cage."

B.Kienapple said...

Anne, I know how you feel. I didn't really start reading contemporary fiction until shortly before we went to Humber and thus I have so many gaps in my knowledge of post 1960's fiction, ESPECIALLY American fiction. My private school and U of T classes didn't exactly provide many opportunities there.
Katie, I found myself SO agreeing with Nicole Dixon's recent article in CNQ re: Lullabies. It has "little girl voice"! I have no time for that cutesy BS. I want strong female characters, not a helpless trainwreck. And I find it most strange that appealing CanLit is supposed to be stolid and serious and then Lullabies comes along and makes a big splash-reading it is sheer voyeurism, I guess. But A Million Little Pieces was like that and I loved it. I just love Frey's passionate writing, though. I'll excuse him just about anything (and have had to!)

B.Kienapple said...

Alexis, I am so in love with the CanLit canon, even the most stodgy of it. Anne Michaels, Margaret Atwood, Sinclair Ross - bring it on! Canadian literary gothicism just appeals to my melancholy Romantic sensibility I do think, one that was born from reading lots of Thomas Hardy when I was younger. If you haven't read Hardy yet, I very much recommend you do. I really loved Jude the Obscure and Return of the Native.
Funnily enough, I don't read a lot of YA, though I'm trying to now that I'm attempting to write it. What YA I've tried to read has struck me as very "twee"; I suppose that's the nature of the game, though? Any recommendations?

B.Kienapple said...

*BTW please excuse these crazy long comments. I just love chatting with you awesome bookish folk!*
Guinevere: Well-done plot-driven fiction should always be ranked above painfully original literary fiction. And they say that if what you're writing is boring even you, you're not doing it right. Whenever I feel my attention waning when I'm editing a passage, I know immediately that it needs to be cut or a major overhaul.

B.Kienapple said...

"ErrantKnave": I am NOT going to judge you re: York. I don't need to get in your bad books any more than I already am! :) Anyway, I'm not really dumping on the classics, and yes I'm attracted to the particular Romanticism of English fiction a la Hardy and Lawrence. I very much enjoyed studying them in university and am so thankful to have that background understanding when delving into contemporary fiction. I haven't read a classic for fun in ages, but whenever I do I'm always blown away at the quality of the writing. It puts most supposedly worthy currently "hot" books to shame.
I agree with you re: worthiness. After all, William Gibson is a great writer (not my cup of tea, but very good at what he does) and because he writes SFF he doesn't get mainstream attention. And many supposedly literary works read like a giant masturbation session to the writer's own supposed cleverness. I have no time for that BS. Lisa Moore's February is not the most original book, nor is its style particularly in fashion, but passages in there really resonated with me, and I think that's all you can really ask for.

Ceri said...

I definitely think it's true that when you start to write, you really do kind of aspire to write like who you're reading. During my Creative Writing classes at uni, it was so funny to see people's pieces every week - the style would change to fit the style of the writer we'd recently been studying. Everyone was still trying to find their niche.


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