Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I bet, after my manifesto last week, you didn't expect me to review a book that I, at least, would call YA literary fiction. Well, I that's what I'm doing. I read literary fiction. I read anything: historical, romance, fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, adventure, biographies, cookbooks...I've actually followed people because I hadn't finished reading their shirts.

I like stories about the highs and lows of human life, wherever that is. I don't like this weird postmodern push in literary fiction to write a story without a "threshold," a moment where the protagonist either chooses something or is in a situation he/she can't come back from, or an epiphany, where this moment in a protagonist's life matters for some reason. Some stories now are trying to be boring - their word, actually, not mine. They're trying to present, in beautiful language, a slice of a character's life where nothing happens. The person does and thinks what he/she always does or thinks. No change. No reason for this part of the character's life to be immortalized in fiction. I want to read things and feel like there's a point to it, not that I just spent the last hour of my life reading a piece that gave me nothing, as a reader, and felt more like the writer showing off how well he/she can write. The worst, for me, is when it's clear the writer doesn't care what the reader wants in a story. Two people create a work of fiction: the writer and the reader. I think writers have a responsibility to honor the reader with their work.

John Green, I think, does this. His writing is beautiful. Really, A+ on lovely language. The voice of his main character in The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel, is very interesting to read and sounds like a defined, real person. If nothing else, read this book to learn how to use language like a pro. Descriptions are elegantly written without exhausting words and Green manages to handle talking about kids with cancer beautifully.

That was another thing I liked about this book. It doesn't feel too cliche. I think one of the reasons I list to sci-fi/fantasy writing is because a writer can easily write about death and dying and other really weighty issues without sounding sappy or angry. The story can be about the characters more than the issue without feeling like it needs to pay homage to some overruling message. (I like messages, and I think they should be there, but I think they should be second to the story and characters.) Green, in this novel, writes a story about teens dying of cancer without making them sound like saints, like some do, and he also doesn't swing too far to the other side, describing death in the most graphic terms possible to deliberately avoid the sappy, saintly cancer story. Green does a good job showing the situation from the perspective of people who are trying to come to terms with dying young and potentially unremembered.

The book is charming because the characters feel real and their reactions to death feel real, not overly emotional or fictionalized. However, I don't think this book is perfect. The characters Hazel and Augustus don't feel like teenagers. They feel too intelligent, to philosophical, too mature to be teenagers. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I kept seeing them as young adults in my mind and didn't exactly feel the urgency of teens sick with cancer, and I didn't sense the importance of the kind of things that would be important to teens. On the other hand, I enjoyed reading the characters and thought they were interesting. I can buy two very smart teens, though it may be pushing it that these two very smart teens found each other so easily. And the romance was so smooth. It felt forced, just a little.

The thing I didn't like about the book (really, the only thing) was that I felt like a message was getting pushed on me. I've already said I don't like it when a story is all about the message, and I don't think Green is writing a philosophy on dying and remembering the dead disguised as a YA novel. However, I could take a pen and circle on the page places where I can see Green's ideas coming out. It felt in some ways like Green was using his characters, his very smart teenaged characters, to say what he wanted to say, not necessarily what they would say in the situation. It's usually gracefully done, but the story isn't as "first place" as I would have liked it to be. I think the message would come out even if these characters weren't sitting around, playing video games and talking about very deep things all the time.

I know. The characters are concerned with death and dying. They are more likely to think about matters like this than the average teen. But still. Something feels a little false in this, a little too authorial. Just a little. Green is a master composer, crafting language into music that can carry you away to the place he wants to take you. There's a lot to be said, good things, about this book. I just don't like feeling preached to by my literature.

And now I'm going to get roasted for saying something negative about this book. I know a lot of people love it, and there's a lot to love. Read it. It's good. But I don't give books Brownie Points because they are sad. Some books are terrible but end in a death that is so dripping with emotion the readers sob and think that means the novel was well-written. I don't. In fact, I've never cried reading a book. Could be a cold heart, or maybe an analytic mind. Green's book is well-written, but it didn't give me what I was looking for, not everything. So I wrote for you my honest opinion. Take it as you will. But read the book. It's good writing.

Maybe read it over Thanksgiving. Or read whatever you like. Just have a happy holiday, and eat way more than you should. It's the American way.

Monday, November 18, 2013

In Defense of Genre

Recently, I've been reading The Lord of Opium by Nancy Farmer. Awesome book, by the way. Nancy Farmer is a spectacular writer. It's the sequel to her novel The House of the Scorpion, a science fiction set in a future time when clones are created to provide spare parts for aging drug lords. The protagonist, a clone named Matt, encounters a lot of hatred because in this world, "filthy clones" are unnatural and therefore considered worse than cockroaches. Even though he is intelligent and capable, he is considered lesser, much lesser, than human.

I'm not going to review the book now, though it is awesome and you should read it. I'm saying this because I feel like genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, is the "filthy clone" of the literary world. It doesn't seem to matter how well-crafted, how poetic, how inspiring and full of meaning a genre text is; the common belief seems to be that the best genre fiction is worse than the average literary fiction.

This debate is not new. It has been scratching at the soft part of my neck for a long time. It just sliced deeper, though, this week, when this NYT article came out, talking about why Mormons can't seem to write good literature. And then this response, which makes some good points but still annoyed me. Why? Because both articles automatically assume that anything genre is not good literature. (I would like to point out that if you look up a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time, a significant number are genre. Depending on your list, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is there. Card is a Mormon, and a genre fiction writer.)

Some definitions: genre is any kind of fiction that has clear conventions. We're talking science fiction, fantasy, romance, action/adventure, mystery, horror, thriller, historical, there's not much left over for the literary genre. Literary is a genre. It has conventions too. These tend to be dense and poetic writing, a focus on character over plot, lots of character interiority, subtext and ambiguity. Personally, the literary fiction I've read also seem to include a lot of pessimism about the human condition, and nothing ever seems to get done.

As a Mormon and a genre fiction writer, I would like to make my defense. I can't speak for all Mormons, but I can speak for myself. First, I think deciding one genre is better than another is arrogance of the worst kind. It's like saying swimming is inherently better than running or cake is just always better than pie. Different skills, different requirements. Genre writing, especially speculative genres like sci-fi and fantasy, require worldbuilding far beyond the level required in literary. Literary has its own necessary skills. Do not discount genres just because they aren't what you like.

That's what it comes down to. What we like. I have been called a sell-out for writing fantasy. I've been told I'm wasting (even prostituting) my talents. No. Just no. I write fantasy because I read fantasy. It's what I like. I read literary as well, but it doesn't rock my world. I have found more meaning in fantasy than in literary and that's fine. It's my style. Others may feel differently and that's also fine. But it would be selling out if I gave up what excites me and makes me want to become a better writer for the approval of a few intellectuals. I'm not doing this for money or fame. I'm doing this for me.

That said, I think all writers have the dream of their art lasting through the ages. I think we want fame and money and eternity. Or at the very least, I think we want to get read. And the truth is, genre fiction lasts. Mythology? Genre. Fairy tales? Genre. The Odyssey and Robin Hood and King Arthur and most of Shakespeare? All genre, and they've lasted for a long time. The human condition seems to crave enchantment and adventure, and while postmodern literary is in vogue right now (it hasn't always been), genre seems to be eternal.

As a Mormon, I believe there are stories that matter more than others. I think there is truth we don't remember but can recognize when it is shown to us. The Hero's Cycle, so popular in fantasy, is one. It resembles closely, to me, the LDS Plan of Salvation. I believe we existed before we were born, and what's more, we chose to come, even knowing that life would be hard, which it is. In terms of fantasy, we were offered a quest, and we took it. To me, that means we are all, every last human, so much more than we think we are. We are brave, we are heroes. We just forgot it. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, "We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstacy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget." That moment may be awful, but it is also glorious.

I refuse to write mundane matters for people who are not mundane. I won't write about people who are passive and acted upon for people who are capable of acting and changing their circumstances. I refuse to write pessimism and nihilism and stories where characters strive but nothing they do matter, and they have an epiphany that they are not important. Invoking the popular genre character the Doctor, I'd say, "I have never met anyone who wasn't important." Life is too hard to spread anything but hope.

Does my desire to write hope mean that I am sticking my fingers in my ears and singing to myself when evil and pain tries to get my attention? No. I recognize the darkness. I use it. My characters go through so much pain before they succeed in the end. I've put my characters through heartbreak, loss, rage, guilt, sorrow, physical pain, self-doubt, conflict with loved ones, etc. I make them stare into the darkness around them and inside them. Everything they might do in a literary work. I can take it to extremes because fantasy buffers the suffering, it seems. It's not real. Neither is any other kind of fiction, but still.

The difference is I don't spend much time in my characters' heads regarding their struggles. I try to show the struggle externally. A character makes a mistake that costs the life of a person he cares about. So instead of thinking about for twenty pages, he mourns for a little and then picks up a sword and goes to war. Filled with guilt, he does what he can to fix the problem he created and try, as best he can, to make up for what he'd done. His actions tell more about him than his thoughts would. My characters are ragged and weary when they finish their adventure. They don't always get what they want, but they succeed. Because that's life.

As for the belief that anyone with a happy childhood and life can't write great fiction, I say no one has had a happy childhood. Some are worse than others, yes, some much worse. But take a moment and consider what it was like to grow up. The first time you encountered death, the first time you saw your parents cry or fight or get really angry. A moment you got left somewhere or lost and thought you were abandoned. Everything is new and therefore dire to a child. Even if the home is happy, growing up is hard. Elementary school is hard, trying to learn things you're no good at. Middle school, with its cliques and bullying, is hard. High school, finding one's identity, is hard. Flannery O'Connor said, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." It's true. The situations may be different, but the feelings are there, and they are real. Writers can draw on the pain of being left for ten minutes at the mall just as well as they can draw on being abandoned by a parent. Pain is real for everyone regardless of circumstance. Life is hard, but we can do it. We were not set up to fail.

Yes, maybe I'm overly optimistic like my Mormon brothers and sisters in deciding to use my writing to spread hope. But if books are meant to be read, then they carry messages. And what better message than hope? Without it, what are we good for? A couple years ago, I lost my hope. The future I thought was right for me was slipping away, leaving a landscape of darkness in front of me. The possibility of having to work at Wal-Mart in a job I hated and having to live in my parents' house became real and terrifying to me. I doubted everything, my talents, my plans, my worthiness. I felt like the heavens were toying with me, and I grabbed onto my faith like driftwood in a flood.

But there is a God, and he did care. That semester I was taking a class on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and reading The Lord of the Rings. Genre fiction. But that fantasy touched me more than a realistic literary piece could. It spoke of hope. I read about Frodo and Sam walking into Mordor, literally the Dark Land, with no combat experience or hope of returning. Yet they kept going. This speech from The Two Towers film spoke directly to me:

If the story had been about a real or realistic person encountering nasty ordeals, I would have felt guilty about how much despair I felt about my own circumstances. They were not dire to anyone but me; no one would use them in fiction of any kind. But because LOTR is fantasy and I would never, could never, have to carry the One Ring to Mordor and destroy it, I felt no pressure to compare my situation to it. I just adopted the story as my own. If they could do what they did, I could also step into the darkness, hold on, and keep going in my smaller problems. So I did, and my hope came back.

Why do I write fantasy? Because it arms people. "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed," says G.K. Chesterton. Stories have power, and I think craft and good writing is important in helping those stories shine out. It doesn't matter what they are. I can write in the literary style, and I intend to. But my stories will have magic. And even though I will drag my characters through dirt laced with sharp rocks, even though I will smash everything they care about and make them pick up the pieces, they will triumph. Because through their pain, they will become what I want them to be.

Craft and good writing is important in any genre, and I think it is arrogance to say that one genre doesn't have it because of what it is. As a writer, I prefer writing fantasy. I intend to use all my skills in writing it, even the ones necessary for fantasy specifically. Worldbuilding, for one. Because I can do anything, I have to set rules and stick to them. If my character is about to die and I'd have to change the rules of the world to save him/her, I can't. I have to revise a lot or let the character go. It takes a lot of self-discipline and understanding what makes a good story to write good fantasy. I might not want the character to die, but it might be what the story needs.

People are going to continue to read fantasy and I feel no guilt in supplying it. It's what I want to write. I am not going to stop doing what I love just because people look down their noses at me, though I'd wish they'd stop. They'll go cross-eyed. But people deserve to have good fantasy. Well-written, with lovely language and strong craft. Characters who feel real and readers can relate to. Plots that make sense and follow their own logic. I'm getting an MFA to learn how to do this well in anything I write.

If I can, I'd like to write layers. Subtext. The best fantasies I've read are excellent stories for those looking for a good story, but they, like onions and ogres, have layers. Think Holes. Think The Lord of the Rings. Think A Wrinkle in Time. They are all good stories, but if you think that's all they are, I'd have to respectfully say you're wrong. A good fantasy allows deeper diving. Symbols. Meaning. Subtext. It doesn't have to be clear enough to articulate, but it can be clear enough to feel. That's why I think the best fantasy lasts, because it, like Shakespeare's plays, speak to many different people about many different things. It's clear enough to understand. I don't think that's a bad thing.

Sometimes confusing and obscure is just confusing and obscure. What good is something if no one can read it? It's showing off, and is good for the writer but no one else. Popular could mean bad, but I think we do ourselves a disservice if we don't try to figure out what about fantasy (and other genres) so appeals to people. It might tell us something about what it means to be human, and isn't that the goal of every kind of fiction?

This has been a long post. I'm just so sick of being told that, essentially, no matter how much I hone my craft, I will never be as good as the literary fiction writers. No. Stop it. Write your stories and let me write mine. Appreciate beauty in all its forms. And stop trying to name who of today's writers will and won't be considered great. Give it 300 years, and then let's talk.