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A Spoonful of Romance Makes the Violence Go ‘Round

February 18, 2010

When you teach long enough, read enough books, and accumulate enough grad credits, everything becomes this dense literary stew.  Even if you can pluck out the ingredients, you may not be able to tell where they come from.

A literature major, I never took a formal creative writing course, but everything I read during my deformative years bubbled underneath and eventually fought its way to the light.  In grad school, I thought the idea for my first novel came from Faulkner’s Intruder In the Dust, but it was also from Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Greek mythology, The Hardy Boys, and probably ten thousand comic books.

I taught myself to write fiction by revising that novel for years.  Each new version became more complex and added different elements—what I called “depth,” “texture,” or “bull,” depending on my level of frustration.  Courtesy of Faulkner and Lee, I wrote a courtroom drama, which implied a mystery from the very start.  Both their stories use a young protagonist, too, so my book was vaguely YA/Coming of Age.  The romantic subplot kept blossoming with every rewrite, too.

Two radically different drafts garnered enough rejections to make me shelve the whole thing and write a straight-forward mystery—which didn’t sell either—until I needed a thesis for my sixth-year degree.

Realizing that the novel had to be “scholarly” to justify a grade and a degree, I added literary and mythological allusions to prove that I actually knew that stuff.  A vaguely Merlin-like mentor emerged as another major character, and I added examples of ironic “Appearance versus Reality,” very big in my school’s curriculum at that time.

Amazingly, my demanding and helpful advisor felt that it all clicked and urged me to send the MS out again.  It still didn’t sell, but that coming-of-age courtroom mystery romance with literary pretensions is my favorite of eleven unsold novels.

In fact, I’ve restructured it to give the opening more impact before I send it out yet again.  I’ve added a prologue and epilogue to clarify the restructuring and written transitions to lead into and out of flashbacks.  I’ve also expanded two scenes featuring a supporting character.  But about ninety per cent of the book is still what I wrote over twenty years ago because it still says what I wanted it to say and does what I wanted it to do.

If you’re still with me, you see where I’m headed.  The book mixes genres—YA, mystery, romance, “literary”—and my college advisor didn’t even blink.  The “Great Writers” have always done it.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare tells a love story.  He uses Samson, Gregory, Mercutio, and the nurse for bawdy humor and kills six people, five of them on-stage.  In iambic pentameter.

Dickens layered comedy and melodrama into his dark urban poverty.  Twain’s Huckleberry Finn shows the evils of racism and slavery at least partly through the hilarious schemes of the King and the Duke, both of whom are reprehensible scum.

Huxley’s Brave New World (The title comes from Shakespeare again) plays John the Savage’s love off against the cruel mechanized society that eventually drives him to kill himself.

Maybe the real issue is How Can You NOT Mix Genres?  Love and Death make our stories matter, so you include one or both in everything you write except a grocery list.

What if we define writing or genre not by content, but by style?  If the language calls attention to itself and the writer—what we now call a literary style—it’s Type A.  If the language keeps the readers’ focus on the characters and action–what we now call mainstream, or commercial (Like it’s a bad word!), or even genre—it’s Type B.  That shouldn’t be a hierarchy.  There’s good and bad writing at every level and type, no matter what you call it.

But that’s a can of worms we don’t want to open here.

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