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A Rather Wilder Digression than Usual, Involving Steinbeck and Self-Sabotage

February 4th, 2008

Read outside the genre.

I hear it a lot from Jay, but I have heard it from a whole lot of genre writers. And I do. Frankly sometimes it seems like I read outside the genre—or at least, at the outskirts of genre—more than I read in the genre. Which you’ll no doubt have noticed if you’ve been reading my HomelessMoon posts lately. I’ve digressed about all kinds of semi-canonical magic realists, surrealists, realists and liars. “Interfictionality” notwithstanding, I wonder if I am not knowingly wedging myself into an untenable place lost somewhere between classic, literary, populist, genre and didactic fiction.

Am I reading too much outside the genre? Should I be more actively seeking out that particular sliver of contemporary experimental sub-genre where I perceive my closest kindred to be? I sample variously from Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, The New Yorker, Weird Tales, the big three, and whatever smallish webzine might happen to catch my eye on a given afternoon. On the other hand, I practically bury myself in the works of dead Latin Americans. That’s just an example. Right now I’m reading something firmly literary: The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve been skimming past the long passages of epic description and zeroing in on Tom Joad’s conversations with the many strangers he encounters on the road. I’m looking for the southern tragedist in Steinbeck, the cutting characterizations of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, but with a little bit of the melodramatic flair filed off. Sure, Grapes of Wrath is a big fat book with small font—but take away the sweeping description, and Stienbeck’s prose becomes surprisingly focused and simple. He reminds me of Ray Bradbury sometimes, in a Dandelion Wine sort of way. But heck, there aren’t any space aliens in Dandelion Wine, except the ones implied. Grapes of Wrath doesn’t have any at all.

Here’s a thought experiment. A writer just starting out who has read nothing but Robert E. Howard his entire life—how would such a writer do in contemporary genre? Now, how would one do who has read only Steinbeck, and no genre fiction at all? Worse or better? Hard to compare the difficulty of writing well in two such different styles. But one style, I would say, has a more universal appeal–one which can be applied with success to more situations, settings, tech levels, cultures, because it deals with people on a human level, the details of how they live and why. That’s my rationale, anyway, for studying Steinbeck first when there are so very many names of genre writers already on my list of must-reads. But I do wonder if I’m wrong. I have met quite a few writers in genre and otherwise who find Steinbeck dry and archaic or worse.

There’s a scene about fifty pages in, where Tom Joad, a relapsed preacher, and a half-crazy scavenger are sitting around a campfire fed with the clapboards of the house Joad grew up in, and Joad skins a rabbit for their supper. It’s one of those scenes I think everybody who ever went to high school half-remembers, the kind of thing English teachers try so hard to make you appreciate that it backfires and you end up hating it. I think I got a part of that scene on the SAT. It was that kind of thing, taken all out of context, that made me swear off Steinbeck—that and Lennie’s endless pocketfuls of dead mice in Of Mice and Men. Getting clubbed over the head with the corpse of some cute little animal as heavy-handed metaphor for the death of innocence. But coming back to it after all this time, with the much more concrete purpose of trying to learn how to write that kind of prose, the kind of character produced by that time and place, is quite a different experience.

“God Awmighty,” said Joad, “it’s more’n four years sence I’ve et fresh-killed meat.”

Casy picked up one of the cottontails and held it in his hand. “You sharin’ with us, Muley Graves?” he asked.

Muley fidgeted in embarrassment. “I ain’t got no choice in the matter.” He stopped on the ungracious sound of his own words. “That ain’t like I mean it. That ain’t. I mean”–he stumbled–“what I mean, if a fella’s got somepin to eat an’ another fella’s hungry–why, the first fella ain’t got no choice. I mean, s’pose I pick up my rabbits an’ go off somewheres an’ eat ’em. See?”

“I see,” said Casy. “I can see that. Muley sees somepin there, Tom. Muley’s got a-holt of somepin, and’ it’s too big for him, an’ it’s too big for me.”

Young Tom rubbed his hands together. “Who got a knife? Le’s get at these here miserable rodents. Le’s get at ’em.”

Just from that few lines, I already know these characters. Of course it’s not like they’re earth-shatteringly unique, or even particularly real. What they are is small and simple and backed up by truth—sketches that fit into a spectrum of characters everybody knows. The man of action, the philosopher, the pragmatist. Steinbeck’s doing like I do: hanging faces on ideas. But he makes it work. Which is more than I can say.

Honestly, it’s not like this scene is even particularly outstanding among the ones that come before and after. I don’t know why teachers feel they ought to harp on it so much, except for the gory obviousness of that damn rabbit. I can just flip to any old scene and get the same depth, with the same economy.

Tom looked. The glow of light was nearing over the hill. “We ain’t doin’ no harm,” he said. “We’ll jus’ set here. We ain’t doin’ nothin’.”

Muley cackled. “Yeah! We’re doin’ somepin just’ bein’ here. We’re trespassin’. We can’t stay. They been tryin’ to catch me for two months. Now you look. If that’s a car comin’ we go out in the cotton an’ lay down. Don’t have to go far. Then by God let ’em try to fin’ us! Have to look up an’ down ever’ row. Jus’ keep your head down.”

Joad demanded, “What’s come over you, Muley? You wasn’t never no run-an’-hide fella. You was mean.”

Muley watched the approaching lights. “Yeah!” he said. “I was mean like a wolf. Now I’m mean like a weasel. When you’re huntin somepin you’re a hunter, an’ you’re strong. Can’t nobody beat a hunter. But when you get hunted—that’s different. Somepin happens to you. You ain’t strong; maybe you’re fierce, but you ain’t strong. I been hunted now for a long time. I ain’t a hunter no more. I’d maybe shoot a fella in the dark, but I don’t maul nobody with a fence stake no more. It don’t do no good to fool you or me. That’s how it is.”

“Well, you go out an’ hide,” said Joad. “Leave me an’ Casy tell these bastards a few things.”

So, what am I getting out of reading dead canonical New Yorker guy Steinbeck instead of, say, the latest Lucius Shepard novella? Am I, as it sometimes seems, setting myself up to compete on a level I can never seriously hope to reach? When I took Grapes of Wrath out of the library, all I was hoping to do was give myself a little background in the speech patterns and setting flavors of the Dust Bowl era, in which I happen to be attempting to write. Instead I find myself wrapped up in the way Steinbeck paints characters. And, just maybe, undercutting my connection with the cutting edge of genre. There is a fundamental difference in approach between literary and genre-minded fiction, regardless of the era in which it is written. Now, maybe things like slipstream and interstitial and magic realist fiction have lately been breaking down that difference. But they don’t make it go away. How would my experience of working-class 1930s America change if I were to put down Steinbeck and pick up Stephen King’s Green Mile? Stephen King writes great characters too. And it’s not as though I can crib directly from either one. From Steinbeck I need to ratchet up the weirdness and the plot focus and tone down the chauvenism and the random dead animal symbolism. From King I’d probably have to scale back plot a bit, get blurrier, less obvious, and yeah, still would probably need to go weirder.

If I were to go looking for representations of ’30s America in edgy magic realism/slipstream/interstitiality, on the other hand, well, I wouldn’t know where to begin. The trouble with attempting to teach myself to write by reading inside my own chosen/percieved genre is that my genre happens to be ridiculously heterogeneous, and just because something gets categorized in the same place I categorize myself doesn’t mean it’s going to be anything like what I write.

So the way I rationalize it, I’ll just keep reading whatever catches my fancy, and if I’m sabotaging myself, well, it’s probably too late, because I slipped off that cliff long ago.

And now Al, moving humbly near, saw that his brother was not a swaggerer as he had supposed. Al saw the dark brooding eyes of his brother, and the prison calm, the smooth hard face trained to indicate nothing to a prison guard, neither resistance nor slavishness. And instantly Al changed. Unconsciously he became like his brother, and his handsome face brooded, and his shoulders relaxed. He hadn’t remembered how Tom was.

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  • MaggieDR says:

    I don’t see how you could possibly be sabotaging yourself by reading what you do. Sure, if you only read a single author, that would likely leave you severely limited as a writer. But that is so far from the case, so why even ponder that example (of reading only Howard or only Steinbeck.) That’s a hypothetical question designed for self-torment.

    Speaking of Steinbeck though, “Of Mice and Men” is one of my favorite plays of all time. Not that I liked when it was force-fed in high school, but for some reason, I have wound up seeing it produced multiple times. And it just gets better each time I see it. On the other hand, I read “Tortilla Flats” a few years ago and loathed it. I don’t plan on attempting any more Steinbeck, but I did pick up a book of William Faulkner short stories this weekend. Plowed through three of them yesterday and plan to read more. I’m reading them alongside of Carrie Vaugn’s second Kitty book.

    • mjd says:

      You’re right, that example was a gross oversimplification. And Howard was probably not the best genre writer to pick to make that point. I actually had Lovecraft in there first and took him out, I don’t know why except that I do so love to second-guess. It’s just that, at some point when I was deciding to try to write, I made a judgment about “am I genre or literary”, and of course I end up second guessing about reading so much literary stuff and (it seems compared to all you other wonderful genre writers with whom I associate) not enough genre. Here’s maybe a better way to say it: if you spend twelve hours a day hammering nails, chances are good you’ll dream about hammering nails. And writing is in such large part an intuitive effort for me that it seem like if I read too much on one side of the aisle, I’m going to write that way. Which is indeed somewhat silly, since I know there are writers out there who don’t read any fiction at all and do just fine for themselves. Heh. Maybe I should try that. But it would never happen. I am too much a creature of habit.

      • jeffhowell says:

        Maybe an off topic tangent, but when you mentioned Lovecraft, it reminded me of the article in the issue of Weird Tales with your essay and Scott’s story. In the magazine they went a little bit off the deep end in the Lovecraft worship I think. Talking to some guy who ‘wrote’ the necronomicon, and a biography of its author, and a tarot deck or something. Then they talked about fan performances of a Lovecraft-themed version of “Fiddler on the Roof”. My point being, maybe that’s what happens if you read too much of one author, in this case Lovecraft. You end up in the land of fan fiction and parody and derivitive work. I don’t want to sound negative about the article, I think it was not just worship but was trying to ponder why Lovecraft inspired so many comical copycats. However it seemed like too much of a niche, an exclusive Lovecraft club that I could not be a member of. So I’d say reading too much of one author, or even one genre like magical realism, could be problematic. But with regard to genre vs. literary, I don’t think that’s much of an issue. Good writing is good writing.

        • mjd says:

          Weird Tales is in a precarious place with regard to Lovecraft appreciation just because the magazine is so associated with him historically. But the weird thing about Lovecraft and Howard and Fritz Leiber–and kind of why I brought them up in the context of the genre vs literary question–is that their legacy looms so large that even today a writer can practically make a career out of using their signature tropes in ‘new’ ways. Like the Necronomicon tarot. I see that as kind of the most abject side of genre, not that there’s nothing good or enjoyable being done with it, but it just seems too easy, not having to do anything new. And yeah, like you say, I think that tendency can come from reading too obsessively in any genre. But I do think there are skills to be had from certain genres that can be applied more universally to any kind of fiction. IE Steinbeck’s character skills. I was watching the new episode of Lost last night, and every time a new character was introduced I could see them doing things very much like what Steinbeck does to set that person up, establish a goal and a personality. Lovecraft nerds can do that kind of thing if they want, but I would say it isn’t required, because they can always just crib from the canon.

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