Posts Tagged With: Literature

Why Genre Writing Matters

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Yesterday i spent a long drive down to Burlington, Wisconsin to play a board game with some old friends. Now, by old, i mean we aren’t old. Older than we were, for sure. But time’s a funny thing. You don’t see it passing, it just does and one day you’re 40 and you haven’t seen those people you grew up with for 20 years or so, but even that time… weird though it is… evaporates as soon as you are in a basement with dice in your hand playing a board game. Just like you used to do.

But this isn’t really about that. Maybe i’ll hold that one off for later.

This is about the writer i heard on the news radio station i was listening to on the way down there. I don’t remember her name, but i can tell you she’s a shakespearean professor of english and she writes Romance. From the sound of things she makes a freaking KILLING at it too. Note – this is also not a promotional ad for all budding writers to run out and scribble some romance for the sake of riches.

Anyway, she chatted a little about the killing she was making at it and most importantly how those in her profession – her literary colleagues – were oblivious to it. They were completely unaware that her professor salary was dwarfed in the extreme by the small fortune she was raking in for writing pulpy bodice rippers. Well. Ain’t that just the shit?

I grew up with Genre writing. I didn’t know it at the time. I just thought Genre writing was called books. But i poured through The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I graduated, slowly, to horror through Stephen King and then to… ahhh… this is fun… The Dragonlance Chronicles by Weis and Hickman. I was so damned envious when one of my friends scored a signed copy of Dragons of… something. I read them all. Then i soaked in Sci Fi for a while – Heinlein, Card, and then…

Neuromancer. I’ll be honest. Neuromancer broke my brain. The prose. Hell, i didn’t even really know what prose was at the time but i knew this was something different. For a while, William Gibson became my god and everything became Cyberpunk. Everything. And it was a delight. The world was complicated. Fast. Beautiful like moonlight on a heap of discarded computer parts or neon glinting on gutter junk.

Somewhere along the way, though, i stopped.

But that’s not a tragedy. There is more to the world than Genre fiction. I don’t regret for a second falling in love with Steinbeck or Hemingway or Austen or Fitzgerald. I would be an utter idiot for not falling for it. It’s beautiful, amazing stuff and it’s expanded my brain further than i think Genre fiction would have been able to. Plus, and this is really it, i burned out on Genre. It became harder and harder to find GOOD books in fantasy or Sci Fi. So much of it just seemed the same. It wasn’t the sort of hell i ever expected but it did suck.

The point of all this autobiographical blah blah is that there is still something to Genre fiction. There’s a reason so many people still read and love it and frankly, i think i got it. I got the bug again. And here it is – here’s the big secret that i think is worth telling. Shhhh… don’t let too many people know.

Genre fiction brings you hope.

There. There it is. That’s the secret.

I was watching Tomorrowland with George Clooney or as my friend and i like to call him Eyorhay Kloonay. It’s not a bad little film. Flashy. Fun. But one part stuck with me. The main character is sitting in school through a series of montages of her classes as she’s being bombarded with the negative reality of the world she lives in – war, famine, global warming, starvation, etc. Her hand is perpetually up and perpetually ignored. Finally, at the end of the montage, the teacher allows her to ask her question. What is her question?

How do we fix it?

Okay. And that’s pretty genius. Cuz here we are and the world seems like it’s falling apart around our shoulders and everything sucks and people are getting stupider and blathering bullshit everywhere we look and it gets really depressing when you see glaciers calve off and ice shelfs fall into the sea and everyone is all like ‘lalalalalalaaaaa!!! Let’s fucking PARTAY!’

But Genre fiction… It asks the question. How are you going to fix it? It ennobles the idiotic savage. How many sci-fi stories have inspired new scientists? Neil Degrasse Tyson has indicated that it’s inspired him. How many fantasy stories have made activists of kids who have gotten inculcated into the concept of evil. They WANT to be heroes. Maybe it’s not the only thing, but start them young on something… and miracles are possible.

Hell start em old. Start them whenever. In Mysteries, terrible crimes get solved in a way they so rarely do when we see all the blood splashed all over the news. In fantasy, we fight evil and we win. In sci fi we explore and face our fears of the unknown. In romance we find love in spite of terrible obstacles.

We fucking need these things. Particularly now when the world DOES seem so horrible. We need to believe in doing the right thing, being brave, exploring. The challenges are HUGE and… well.. this is just my opinion but the only damned thing that is going to save our asses against the ever-yawning void of the banality of tragic indifference is an ascendancy of imagination.

Remember that part of Lord of the Rings when Gandalf is talking about the ephemeral nature of hope? Yeah. That. Right there. How many kids read that and said: Fuck yeah. That’s going to be me some day. I’m going to stand in front of the Witch King of Angmar and though he’s going to rend me to ribbons, it’s where i need to stand. How many looked into the stars and saw themselves in a spaceship scudding among them?

Genre fiction spits in the face of the impossible. It eats it for breakfast and poops out rainbows. And hell… we can’t go wrong when it teaches us that you can stand with a dwarf and an elf and battle a freaking dragon. A. FREAKING. DRAGON. It says: yeah… i know these people are weird, different, different races that i don’t really understand but right now, these are the crew that are going to battle THAT big fricking dragon so i don’t give one god damn that one’s short and the other has pointy ears.

So, yeah. We need it. And i’m happy to write it. I want to do it as well as i know how because i WANT some kid to read it and be like ‘hell yeah. This is what justice is all about. This is what friendship is all about. This is what i’m looking to create in MY life.’

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An Accidental Education: Games and the Real World, Etc.

As a writer and former devotee of fantastical works of fiction i have an uncomfortable relationship with the entertainment diaspora of video games. I should say straight out that i am also an avid gamer. This is not the same thing as saying i truly like them. They are still mostly a distraction, a diversion, and sometimes a complete and total waste of time. What interests me most about them is their potential. Games, like most writers, would be graded with the dubious distinction in the classroom of ‘not living up to their potential’ – a remark i’ve heard many times on my own report cards from when i was a lad of 15 – lo these many decades ago.

The trouble with video games is that they are not literature. Literature aims at explaining ourselves to ourselves, deepening the experience of our reality through identification with others. Games, on the other hand, accidentally stumble into a strange form of education. Well, some of them anyway. Most of them only educate you on the best way to dispatch zombies. But see i’m one of those management RPG gamers. I love The Sims, Civilization, the Total War epics, etc. Anything where you build empires and attempt to maintain and grow them is my thing. The war and killing stuff – ehn. You could leave that out of them and i would still be a pretty happy world builder.

Literature, you see, often stumbles into the human psyche, telling us a lot about ourselves and how we view the world and overcome our own foibles on a very personal level. Games, because they aren’t literature and generally aren’t written by those with a literary mind, don’t do this much. Sure there are the story games that come pretty close: Red Dead Redemption, the Grand Theft Auto series, etc. But for the most part they fall short because they are predicated on adversarial relationships of a violent (and entertaining) nature. Connection and real interest in the characters is often wanting – in the extreme. Therefore, truly interesting connection with the story isn’t really possible. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe reading, because it’s such a personal journey of the mind, can’t and shouldn’t be supplanted by games, but for an avid reader and a middling gamer i could use a little more.

Which finally brings me to the subject at hand. One thing i have noticed that games do very well is provide an opportunity to grasp difficult concepts in an informal and entertaining manner. The empire building games i love have really sparked my imagination and made me wish that even those games could do it better. Empire: Total War can be interesting in a way that a lecture on Napoleon and the age of Empires couldn’t. (unless you’re me of course) And the game itself is just deep enough to make it desirable to want to learn more. Age of Empires can teach about resource management and sustainability if you let it, and who could forget about trying to problem solve your way through the traffic snarls of SimCity?

I don’t believe that the designers of these games attempted much more than trying to make a lucrative game that would be widely engaging enough to make oodles of dough. That said they somehow stumbled into a way to teach real lessons about real things.

Lately i have been playing a lot of World of Warcraft. True to form i don’t just play. Well… I do – while i’m playing it, but whenever i log off i am flooded by the sociological, anthropological, and theoretical. I’m taken in by where it COULD take me if it were more developed and more focused and less bent on rampant entertainment. What i have learned, so far, about World of Warcraft is that it is a crash course on capitalistic entrepreneurism. Every character created and every player behind those characters, want what we all want – to acquire stuff, to be legendary, to be heroes. But within the world of Azeroth the primary means of this legendary status seems to be capitalistic. You buy your way to the top, by making things and selling them on the market – often attempting to manipulate the market in your favor.

The game itself, in terms of the stories it tells, has quite a bit of morality to it. Every race of characters has a story and it’s easy to sympathize, but the primary means of moving through the story eventually becomes economical. I don’t think of this necessarily as a bad thing. I mean, it’s a game and it’s always important to remember that (as some occasionally seem to forget) The fact remains, however, that there is more that games COULD do, if the writers were there to work on them. The stories COULD become a great means of interacting with a world that is more or less in your control, and the morality and ethics of the training that is possible if the world were well written could be an invaluable resource to a world that is getting smaller and smaller with each passing day and each bit of information shot across the world. Can you imagine, for instance, a conservative christian playing as a Paladin banding unwittingly with a conservative muslim to save a virtual home from a raging force? It’s these possibilities that could be better explored and i hope will be.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what video games are capable of but i think, in a way, these educational moments will have to remain accidental and not heavy handed. Technology seems to have thrown open the doors on the possible and shown where it crosses with the intentional and the accidental. We’ve concocted an entirely new realm (sometimes literally) where people learn quickly how to adapt the new tools at their hands and put them to a qualitative purpose. I’d like to think the best of this technology. In the past few weeks we’ve seen how it has started literally changing the world we live in. For a while now i’ve been saying the days of ‘Wars for Regime Change’ can finally be put behind us once we start securing the right of people to information. Instead of dropping bombs, drop servers, bandwith, tweets. Yeah. I know that’s a little fantastical and delusional but we have yet to fully discover just how delusional that is – particularly when the power of thought expressed, shared, and evading dictatorial repression has just moved two mountains in the past month.

So what can Games teach us? What can we learn about ourselves? What can we learn about others? Perhaps it will take a virtual world to teach us the value of the real one? Perhaps it will take Orcs and Taurens and Gnomes and Elves to teach us the absurdity of racial divides within ourselves? Who knows. Right now i can honestly say that Warcraft alone is fully capable of teaching us the intricacies of markets in a way the stock ticker on TV never could. I don’t know if thats a good thing or not but it’s more than i had before – particularly in regards to a subject i could have cared less about a month ago.

Now if you’ll pardon me i have to go check on how the Mageweave Cloth market is doing today and i’ve heard there’s a run on Iron Bars which i just happen to have on inventory.

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