I was recently directed to the latest online edition of Poets & Writers (a new site to me), where Kevin Nance had posted a piece entitled “Invasion of the Genre Snatchers” (http://www.pw.org/content/invasion_genre_snatchers), dealing with how literary novelists such as Jonathan Lethem, Philip Roth (with his alternate-history The Plot Against America), Michael Chabon and others have been dipping into genre and blurring the lines between, say, the detective novel and more mainstream fiction. Blurring is perhaps the wrong word: in some cases these are wholehearted attempts at genre. The blur only comes because the writer is known primarily for writing something else, i.e. literary novels, aka “midlist fiction”.
One can go all the way back to the nineteenth century in England, where Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote “mainstream” novels involving police investigations and building tension in a way more commensurate with what we think of as the contemporary detective novel or thriller. Espionage fiction, too, has its roots in the Old Testament before truly coming into its own in the early years of the twentieth century: the Bolshevik Revolution, the two World Wars, the Cold War—all involved deceit, double- and triple-agents. If you want to win a war you need to break the rules, or even create new ones. The spymasters—the SOE in Britain and the OSS in the States—knew this all too well. Double identities, false loyalties, living a lie or two or three—all are rich fodder for fiction.
But what I’ve been seeing over the past few years is an acknowledgement of how well-written much contemporary genre fiction can be. Though I tend not to be a fan of detective novels (being more interested in the who than in the whodunit), I’ve read all of Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, simply because I find his protagonist interesting and sympathetic enough to keep one wanting to read more, to see where this complicated man will end up in his journeys through the dark labyrinth of Edinburgh. Likewise with Henning Mankell’s detective series, as well as a few other Scandinavian and even Icelandic writers in that genre. The fact that Tom Rob Smith’s well-written and compelling Child 44 (though for all kinds of reasons I found the final set of sequences to be just a little too neatly tied up) is on the Man Booker Prize longlist says much about how seriously at least one genre is being taken. And with the impending publication here of Stieg Larsson’s excellent The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first of a Swedish trilogy written by a man who tragically died after delivering his manuscripts to his publisher, one can see the blending of the thriller genre with the unquestionably serious themes drawn from Larsson’s political career as a campaigner for women’s rights. We're no longer in the world of kiss kiss bang bang here; this is something a lot more weighty.
The blur between literature and genre fiction had taken hold much earlier in France, and one only has to look at Simenon to find well-written novels about the dark side of the human heart, and the paths to which greed, jealousy and despair may lead. The French have a genre known as the roman noir, second cousin to the policier (or polar, as it’s commonly known), perhaps exemplified most famously in the work of the late Jean-Patrick Manchette, whose novels are built on familiar tropes from cop fiction, but which are written wryly, intelligently, with a sharp sense of the absurd, and built upon a Situationist world view that comes only insidiously to the surface. Manchette (a volume of whose journals were recently published by Gallimard in France) was also a prolific screenwriter who had worked with such directors as Claude Chabrol and even Alain Delon in one of his rare appearances behind the camera. Movies—especially American films—and jazz were of deep interest to him, and his books are imbued with both.
As is cinema to the still-living French writer René Belletto, who is not only an award-winning novelist but also a composer, an accomplished musician, an expert on J.S. Bach and the author of a 600 page work on Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. His novels, too, draw upon the familiar patterns of genre, whether detective fiction or science-fiction, but which stand as literature as much as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes (The Erasers) does. Of course there are many, many others writers in France who work in this zone.
I bring this up because, though some of my own previous novels have taken on the trappings of genre fiction, I have recently begun working almost solely within them. My recently-completed novel, The Man Who Was, is a spy novel set during the summer of 1944; the book I’m now working on, Airtight, is a caper/crime novel which is to some degree autobiographical.
But I’ve only been able to give myself over to these genres because of my work as a screenwriter. Most movie-writing tends to be in one genre or another—thriller, romantic comedy, horror, action, etc. Because a film is structured rather differently from a novel, because there are time and space limitations in the actual physical script itself (120 pages being pretty much the longest a screenplay should be, with a standard three acts being the reliable model), one has to hit the plot marks with reliability, retain a fresh sense of surprise in all of the narrative beats and reversals, while all along keeping one’s characters as interesting as they can possibly be; the last thing a screenwriter or director wants to see is audiences getting up and walking out before the credits have begun to roll. Bad word of mouth can kill a film in a weekend.
Nearly eight years ago I’d taken some time off from writing novels and had returned to writing scripts, something I’d done with some regularity when I lived in England, had an agent to represent and submit what were essentially one-off plays and films for what was then a very rich television market where the writer (not, alas, this one) reigned supreme, and which led to my being commissioned to adapt my first novel as a full-length feature. The premier TV writers back then, at least for the one-off play, were Harold Pinter, Simon Gray, Edward Bond, Tom Stoppard, Dennis Potter with his groundbreaking series Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, David Hare, and many, many others.
I found screenwriting both fun to return to after so many years and also a welcome break from spending a year or two writing novels only to find the market closed to them, even after five published novels. Screenplays could be written fairly quickly, and, most importantly, the emotional investment in each needed to be kept at the bare minimum. Smart thinking: this was work that would almost certainly be rewritten (not necessarily by me), altered beyond my original conception of it, and very likely never see the light of day. The money, not incidentally, can be spectacularly good. Novels never paid all that well, but at least your soul remained intact once they’d seen the light of day.
One original script that I had written, “Chasing Daylight”, penned in the months after George W. Bush declared, ahem, “Mission Accomplished”, and dealing with a war photographer just home from Iraq, brought me out to Hollywood to meet with executives who, though they couldn’t produce that particular script (feeling, rightly as it turned out, that audiences wouldn’t flock to see Iraq-war movies while the conflict was still saturating the news) wanted to meet me with the possibility of doing some further work for them. I was offered two potential jobs by one company: rewrite a horror script and adapt a novel by a novel for two A-list actors who wanted to work together. I put together treatments for both, though the first assignment was ultimately given to someone else, and the second project was in time dropped by the aforesaid actors. My script went on to place well in the Nicholl Fellowship competition, and it sits on my hard drive, perhaps one day to be made. Or maybe not.
I then was asked by a writer (also a highly-respected screenwriting consultant) I knew in Los Angeles, and whom I’d met during my trip there, to team up with her, which I did for two scripts. The process was eye-opening. We outlined each project from beginning to end before we ever began writing, and took turns producing pages: I’d do five, she’d do five, and so on, until we had a seamless work, in one case bringing us as far as working with a development executive at a major studio for nearly eight months.
This digression, though, brings me back to genre. It was screenwriting, in fact, that made me want to explore genre as a prose writer. What I’d learned as a screenwriter in terms of plot, surprise, pace, the sense of an ending and all the other devices and traps a screenwriter uses in a script, could add tremendously to what I was doing heretofore in the novel. While before I was writing what I felt were self-consciously literary novels, now I could write novels that were equally literary and of whatever genre I was writing in.
When in a former life I was a teacher I found that when I asked my students to write a poem in any style, on any subject, they were lost; when I asked them to write a sonnet—a form dependent on its number of lines and rhyme-schemes—they found it much easier and somehow more satisfying. By working within the structures of form they were liberated. This, in the end, is what I discovered: by fitting everything I knew about writing fiction within the strictures and structures of the genre I could take it wherever I liked. In publishers’ terms I’m still a literary novelist; but I hope one with a difference.
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