Magic or Madness? Or, The Genre is in the Interpretation

Usually, assigning genres to a book is not a difficult task. I’m a librarian; we categorize things all the time. But there’s one kind of book that I have a hard time putting a book in a category because it might 1) spoil the book because it flavors how another reader might approach a book, and 2) because I could be entirely wrong. The books in this weird little sub-genre are difficult to classify because, depending on how you read them, they might be magical realism/fantasy or they might be a psychological portrait of a character descending into madness. If the character is mad, nothing magical happens. If magic is real in a book’s setting, the character is perfectly sane, but misunderstood.


In the Room, by Géza Vörös

There are a few books that got me thinking about this. The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell, is a book that could go either way—right through the ending, I think. Sometimes, the author pushes things towards the magical (again, I think), as in Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s The Hawkman. There’s also Joy Williams’ The Changeling, although I still haven’t quite made up my mind about this one. Depending on who the reader sympathizes or how deeply they examine things, the book could fall into either genre.

The reason all this matters (apart from working out which tag to apply just before I hit publish) is because I don’t want to push a reader to one side or the other before they even star. The point of these books is that decision: is the character mad? Similar to the way that telling people that a book contains a twist, clueing a reader into the fact that this decision has to be made puts the reader on their guard before page one. Telling someone that a book is fantasy/magical reality or a psychological thriller right off the bat means that a reader will have certain expectations; they will interpret events, dialogue, etc., according to genre expectations.

I think that the experience of reading these puzzling stories should feel like following a character along on their journey into their reality. Not knowing about that a choice has to be made, I think, generates a more honest, sympathetic read. It also means that, when the decision is made, the reader gets a metaphorical punch in the gut. Because it makes a bigger emotional impact, these stories can help us be more sympathetic to people who have mental illnesses. Following a character on their journey into an episode of mental illness (or not, as the case may be) means that we have an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of someone who sees reality differently from others. That’s the power of story, after all.

As for point 2 (above), I really hate to be wrong.


Curb Your Characters; Or, I Take Issue with Truman Capote

An author I follow on Twitter posted the following quote and I immediately wanted to argue back:


My first thought was, “Of course you can! They’re characters you created!” My second thought was pretty much the same, but more elaborate.

There’s an image of writers as channels between the page and the land of imagination. My favorite version of this was created by Jasper Fforde for his Thursday Next series. The Well of Lost Plots is where characters, plot devices, and settings hang out before they’re put in a story. The problem with the notion of channeling writers is it’s not true; it’s a simplification of the writing process.

Characters, no matter how fully formed they seem when the author starts writing about them, spring from that author’s brain. The author can do whatever they like to that character and put whatever words they like into that character’s mouth and brain. This is why we keep running into preachy characters (I’m looking at you, Michael Crichton) or characters who aren’t plausible for a variety of reasons.

I don’t think my argument takes away from writers’ magic. Instead of some kind of writerly séance, I imagine writers’ subconsciousness as a real version of the Well of Lost Plots, where ideas, facts, memories, and thoughts swim around until the writer’s brain connects them into a coherent story. When a character starts preaching or falls flat, it’s not because the writer lost “control” of the characters. That’s not possible. It’s because the author didn’t spend enough time creating a fully realized character.

Here are some of my favorite characters I’ve read in the last year or so:


When Does a Trope Become a Genre?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a type of story (strangers in buildings) that I’ve developed a liking for. Then a commenter asked when something could be considered a fully fledged genre of its own and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I haven’t come up with anything definitive, other than to say a genre is a bit like the canon. We know roughly what belongs where, but the boundaries move depending on who you talk to. The problem is that there are so many things that go into defining a genre, from plot to pacing to style to characterization. There are so many variables that it’s practically an invitation to argue about what separates one genre from another.


Detail of a gloriously intricate literary genre map by Martin Vargic. (Image via Huffington Post)

When I was a young reader, I knew about the traditional genres: mystery, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, etc. When I got older, I learned about more genres: psychological thrillers, then urban fantasy, all the different kinds of punk genres, and my beloved metafiction. The more I look, the more genres and sub-genres I find.

What I have seen in my years of reading is that someone will come up with something new. They’ll blend elements of different genres, like tossing vampires into a mystery to create urban fantasy. Or an author will introduce a variation that takes an established genre in another direction, like writing about detectives who bake or knit; suddenly, we have cosy mysteries. The new thing has to reach a certain kind of critical mass, enough popularity that readers and publishers have to name the thing. And, once it has a name, voila, a new genre! It’s all based on popular acclaim, as far as I can tell.

That’s It?!? Thoughts About Bad Endings


Unknown Artist

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (review pending) has been sitting in the stack of books I brought home from my library months ago. The setting intrigued me; I’ve been fascinated by pre-Korean War Korea lately. But then I started to see readers on the Silent Book Club complain about the ending. I read the book anyway…and I discovered exactly why all those readers were disgruntled.

An unsatisfying conclusion to a book that is otherwise quite good seems to be just that much worse, like a smack in the face after someone has offered you a nice meal. The experience of reading Pachinko led me to thinking about what I consider a bad ending. As it turns out, there are a several types of endings that I hate. This list doesn’t include rushed endings (that’s just bad pacing) or implausible endings (that’s bad writing). This list includes the types of endings that actually make me angry, assuming that I like the rest of the book.

It Just Ends & Cliffhangers

After spending hundreds of pages with a character, the book seems to just suddenly stop. I have been tricked by books like this only a couple of times, thankfully. With Pachinko, the ending was so abrupt I turned the page and got confused because I was suddenly reading the writer’s acknowledgements. I put cliffhangers in this category because they also just end, though they’re supposed to encourage readers to get the next book in the series. I’m not sure which is worse: a ploy to keep me getting books or a sudden stop with no resolution whatsoever.

Undeserved Happily Ever After

I am a fan of bittersweet or even tragic endings. Not every book needs a happy ending; sometimes an unhappy ending is the only way to conclude a story. So it bothers me when I see the writer suddenly sweeping away the storm clouds, tie up loose ends with Dickensian coincidences or dei ex machinis*, and have everything work out for the protagonist so that they can get married/defeat the baddie/do the thing/etc.

Out of Character Resolution

This is similar to the undeserved happy ending in that it involves sudden changes so that the book can end happily. The difference is that instead of dropping in a deus ex machina or a Dickens move, it involves a character just suddenly deciding that the thing they were hung up on doesn’t matter so that they can get married/defeat the baddie/do the thing/etc. This kind of ending makes me feel like I’ve wasted time putting up with the protagonist’s struggles.

What other kinds of endings do you hate?

* Thanks to Smithereens for giving me the correct plural.

Oh My God With the Feelings; Or, I Never Got Romeo and Juliet

I don’t have a hard time with unlikeable characters. I can understand curmudgeons. The characters I have hard time with are lovers who are so self-involved that they destroy lives around them. Romeo and JulietWuthering Heights. A book that I just recently finished called A Castle in Romagna. These characters baffle me.

220px-Romeoandjuliet1597For some reason, Romeo and Juliet is taught to junior high students here in the States. I used to joke that it was supposed to turn teenagers off of dramatic and idiotic grand gestures. The problem is that teenagers will always do dramatic and idiotic things because that’s what teenagers do. Years later, it seems like people can only remember the beautiful words and completely forget the ending. Romeo and Juliet is invariably used by people as shorthand for romance—unless they say it around English majors, in which case, they’re corrected faster than the people who call the monster Frankenstein.

I’ve been thinking about why I don’t like these characters. Perhaps it’s the sudden, overwhelming feelings that the characters profess to. Wuthering Heights has lines that I found hilarious when I read them. (“I am Heathcliff!”) While authors usually do sterling work explaining curmudgeons’ backstories, avengers’ righteous anger, depressed characters’ woes, but I’ve yet to find an author who can adequately explain great passion. I thought that both Heathcliff and Cathy could both have done better.

Just as well authors don’t try to write these stories very often. I much prefer novels where characters fall in love more organically, when they don’t respond to setbacks with plans involving poisons, and where I’m much more likely to believe they’ll stay together beyond the last page. I am fairly convinced that Juliet and Romeo and Cathy and Heathcliff would’ve broken up if they’d actually gotten together. Give me the characters with flaws, insecurities, and unperfect looks. Those books go to my heart faster than anything else.

Since it’s Valentine’s and I’ve been slagging off the great romances for most of this post, here’s a list of believable love stories I actually, well, loved:


I have thoughts about the Staunch Prize

Alison Floor recently reported on a new literary prize for The Guardian. This prize, the Staunch Prize, would be awarded to mysteries and thrillers “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” I’ve been thinking this over ever since I read the original article.

At first, I kind of liked the idea. I’ve given up on most mystery and thriller authors because I couldn’t handle the violence directed at women characters for no other purpose than to give another character a hit of determination or to just top other gory authors. Some of the things I’ve read in thrillers and mysteries have left me with an unpleasant feeling of queasy weltschmerz. But then I thought, will this really do anything to solve the problem? The prize is £2,000 (about $2,800), a good amount, but I don’t know that it will tempt genre authors away from proven, strong-selling plot tropes. 


Image via Pulp Covers.

The Staunch Prize approaches the problem from the wrong angle. Instead of a prize for authors, I think we need better mysteries and thrillers that ask us to confront the effects of cartoonish violence in fiction by planting important questions into our brains. One of the best books I’ve read recently (and possibly ever, but it’s too soon to tell) is Catherynne Valente’s The Refrigerator MonologuesThis book contains a lot of violence and sex—but that violence and sex serves a larger purpose. Because the “victims” get to speak for themselves, we are forced to confront the very plot tropes that Bridget Lawless, the founder of the Staunch Prize, wants writers to avoid.

Pointing readers in the direction of books that are more thoughtful and better written than the books Lawless and the Staunch Prize oppose will do more in the long run, I think. Good books with profound questions to think about have a way of sticking around longer than prize announcements. After all, I can barely remember who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. Who’s going to remember who won the Staunch Prize when we’re talking about books like The Refrigerator Monologues?

Thoughts on Women’s Literature

(c) Rosenstiel's; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir John Lavery

After reading so many books about women’s lives written by women lately and reading John Boyne’s article for The Guardian about how women are better writers than men because they can’t rest on their chromosomal laurels, I’ve been thinking a lot about “women’s literature.” It continues to annoy me that publishers and critics still refer to literary fiction by women about female characters as a separate genre. I see no difference between literature and so-called women’s literature because both genres ask the same questions: what it means to be a human.

Books like Red Clocks and The Girls show us womanhood in all its variations. There’s nothing small about questions of being a mother or not, being a wife or not, trying to work and have a family or not, how to look like a woman, how to behave like a woman, and all the rest. It baffles me that these topics have not, until very recently I think, been thought important by critics of contemporary fiction. There’s so much fertile ground there for academics and critics to discuss and debate with each other.

How could any reader not be interested in examining the inner lives of women, who spend so much time being told how to be and who have to decide between convention and individuality? I certainly am, perhaps because I’ve wrestled with that question off and on for most of my life. To see the question played out in literature has been incredibly helpful to me—just as I’m sure books by male* authors about male protagonists have helped male readers over the years address the divide between what men are told they ought to be and how they really are. Books by women about women’s lives have helped me give myself permission to be only me, instead of worrying that I’m not a wife or a mother and can never be a biological mother. They’ve helped shore up my conviction that I am not my biology and that my biology does not limit me to certain roles.

While women authors are still not equally represented in winning prizes or in the critical literature, I wonder if the tide might be turning in favor of women writers. I read as much bookish news as I can cram in around word and all my other reading and it seems, with a few exceptions, that the authors I see the most critical praise for and hear the most readers gushing about are women. It also helps seeing so many people taking potshots at Jonathan Franzen for pomposity and his failure to follow through on all the praise that was heaped on him after The Corrections.

* Saying male authors is not entirely accurate, I know. The English language is failing me a little because referring to authors who are men as male authors is less wordy than saying “authors who are men” all the time. Men authors just doesn’t sound right.

Objectively Underrated Books

My fellow bookish types and I frequently talk about books that we wish got more attention from readers, but my sense of how much attention a book is getting can be skewed by the media I read and the people I discuss books with…At least, until a few months ago, when I learned about a feature on Goodreads that could tell you how many other people have a particular book on their shelves in the last year. Now I can actually talk about books that are empirically underrated…at least in the last twelve months.

Here are some books from my Goodreads list that I know need more attention:

Crossing the Lines, by Sulari Gentill

A bunch of people added this book back in July, but not many people have rated or added it to their read list. I really loved the way this book twisted around on itself to tell the story of two authors writing each other into being. I want to give it to my writing friends as well as my reading buddies so that they can have a cerebral experience based on the creative power of writing.

190554Declare, by Tim Powers

This book is one that I kind of keep secret because, the few times I recommended it, the other readers gave up before finishing. Still, I absolutely adore the way this book blends fantasy with actual history. I didn’t know what was going on for most of it the first time I read it, so I can understand. I didn’t mind though. I enjoyed the mystery of it and the way the book refused to spoon feed information to me.

Salamander, by Thomas Wharton

This book has such low numbers on Goodreads that I think I can officially call it an undiscovered gem. This book is hard to find, unfortunately, because I would love to recommend it to readers who enjoy quirky, slightly academic, book-based adventures.

Returning to the Well; Or, Why do we keep translating the classics?


Peter Ilsted

When I walked into my office this morning, I was greeted by the sight of a cartful of gorgeously bound classics. My library already has copies of all of the donated titles, but I want to add them to the collection because they’d be great replacements for our most beat up copies. This donation included a bunch of titles in translation that I will have to consider carefully before they’re added. I hesitate to add just any old translation because I’ve read critical (in the ordinary sense) reviews of translations that took liberties with the text or were unreadably dull. Not all translations are created equally.

Thinking about this particular batch of donations along with the news that there is a new critically acclaimed translation of The Odyssey got me to thinking about why publishers keep producing new translations of old titles. The cynical answer to my question is that public domain works are almost pure profit for publishers because there’s no author to pay royalties to. I have some theories as to less cynical answers.

My first theory is that the translator wanted to create a definitive translation that’s better than anything that’s come before. Past translations of a work may have been deeply flawed in terms of accuracy or deathly dry. In those circumstances, it’s absolutely necessary to make a new translation. Some Victorian era translations of books are so awful they’re crying out for a decent translation into English. The problem is that, no matter how good one’s translation is, it will only be definitive until the next definitive edition.

My second theory is that some translators have the gumption to play around with original to tell the old story in a new way. Some languages are extremely hard to translate due to nuances, cultural context, and linguistic drift. I love it with translators throw strict fidelity out the window to capture the essence of a story and bring it back to life.

I’m sure all of these explanations—the cynical one, the definitive one, and the playful one—are all true. But none really explains why translators keep returning to the same titles over and over; translations of old works that haven’t been published in English before are still rare. In the end, I suppose, some texts are truly immortal. The Iliad, The Odyssey, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and all the rest of the giants are so packed with meaning and so full of lively drama that we’ll never be done with them.

Escalation; Or, Evolution of a Genre


Irena Łuczyńska-Szymanowska

Reading older mysteries by Raymond Postgate has set me to thinking about how the genre has changed over past 170-odd years, since Edgar Allan Poe started spinning stories about C. Auguste Dupin. The mysteries that get written today would have terrified and horrified the readers of Poe’s detective stories. (Hell, some of them terrify and horrify me.) It seems to me that the authors of mysteries have been a wordy arms race ever since those short tales, but how they outdo each other has varied according to public tastes and tolerances for violence. I’ll admit right now that I’m not an expert, just a reader with a dilettante-ish love of the genre.

I see two halves to the history of the mystery genre. The first half, from Dupin to say, the 1950s, was all about the puzzle. (Although, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is rather gory.) From Poe to Christie, authors were challenged to come up with fiendishly complicated plots to outdo each other. They created devices like locked room mysteries, butlers who might or might not have done it, and very clever detectives who could not only see, but observe. But eventually, they would have hit the limits of reader credulity (wait, it was the long lost third cousin because of a mysterious inheritance of a porcelain swan?) or they would start “cheating” by hiding clues or introducing new suspects in the last act.

The second half—well, I’m not sure when exactly it began—ushered in an era of gore and psychological terror. Now fictional detectives seem to face a series of increasingly depraved and violent serial killers. Where readers used to ratiocinate with the protagonists, we profile based on modi operandi. The clichés of newer mysteries tend to revolve around the detectives’ almost mystical abilities to infer an entire psychological profile, plus backstory, of the criminal from a few obscure clues. (This broken twig here by the body clearly indicates that the killer is a left-handed Rosicrucian who was attacked by a ferret at the age of three.)

Speaking from personal experience, the only limit with this type of mystery is a reader’s tolerance for gore. I used to be a huge reader of mystery thrillers, but I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t take any more mutilated, almost invariably female corpses. Now, I go back and forth from old to new as I get tired of the clichés. I never seem to tire of a good mystery, no matter when it was written.