Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Fuck Genre

Guest post by Josh Stallings

When my good pal Holly invited me to stomp the halls of Do Some Damage, I knew I needed to up my game, play hardball, bring out the big guns, and at least two more trite but manly clichés. So I started writing an erudite essay on how gender affects perceived genre. It was going gang busters (cliché #4 for those watching the score board), until I remembered I’m a white American male and should ride shotgun, leaving the driving in this genre war drive-by to someone with the extra X chromosome.

So I deep sixed that and put on my marketing hat. I wrote about how I was told by a trusted advisor that my new book, YOUNG AMERICANS, wouldn’t sell, because it’s a coming of age, and a heist novel and those genres don’t cross over. Then I whined on about how my perceived label as a noir writer would make a lighter book a hard sell. My plan here was to shill the book while cloaking it in a higher literary discussion. Kinda like, “don’t buy the Moses McGuire novels, they’re full of sex, violence and unrelenting action.” (You just Googled them, didn’t you?)

But the truth, like the tattling little bitch it is, sold me out. And the truth about genre is… it means fuck all. Tells nothing about a writer. Admittedly, I may be the wrong cat to talk restrictions of genre, since you will as easily find Donna Summer, David Bowie or NWA on my currant playlist. Books? I read widely. I have one criteria, make the words sing and don’t bore me. Too many clunky paragraphs will have me hurling a book across the room. This has happened often enough in Erika’s thirty five years with me, that she has stopped noticing. She does however seem to prefer the muttering and slamming of the delete key when I’m Kindling it.

At Bouchercon 2015, I attended the "Where Crime and Mystery Meets Horror and the Weird" panel. Chris Holm spoke of using horror techniques in crime novels. He’s a smart guy and so were David Morrell, Reece Hirsch, and John Rector, so I paid attention. Take away - read many styles and genres, then steal their punk asses blind. This is the way to build a large tool-chest. This scam is nothing new. Oxford, Bacon, Derby, and Marlowe all said Shakespeare ripped them off. And criminal Thomas Pluck admitted after the rubber hose was applied that he got a five finger discount on style points from Willa Cather for his atmospheric western monster story, "Little Howl on the Prairie."

At Left Coast Crime, Portland, I was a panelist on Katrina Niidas Holm’s Cozy/Noir Summit panel. To prep I read Hannah Dennison’s MURDER AT HONEYCHURCH HALL,  a solid book that’s more about a painful mother/daughter relationship than discovering who done it. From cozy writer Marty Wingate, I took away how sexy it can be to open a scene just after the boots stop knocking. You know, that still moment when the passion is slipping away but you haven’t cooled down enough to pull the sheet up. The sex takes place in the reader’s mind. In Chris Holm’s THE KILLING KIND, the most horrific torture scene is the set up, the rusted tool, the beloved character trussed… And he leaves it there. When we return to the same room we witness the aftermath. Holm didn’t allow me to turn away, the horror was already inside my head.

In case this talk of sex and torture has you skipping a groove, I’ll remind you - genre means fuck all. Erin Mitchell told me so. OK, not in those words. She explained that in a digital search engine, a book could appear in as many sections (genres) as it fit in to. Unlike in mega-book stores and library shelves, which use precise, controlled and inflexible systems to organize material, a good (independent) book store or a well staffed library will have humans who know and love books. People who could see I was reading Hunter S. Thompson and suggested James Crumley to me. In doing so they changed the trajectory of my life as a writer. “You love Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy, you should give Ken Bruen a shot.” Bingo, another life changing exchange. These suggestions defy genre. Currant logarithms ain’t too sharp at picking books for me, (proven by how many time they suggest I read Josh Stallings) but they will get better and hopefully bring on the destruction of genre. Until then I will rely on trusted friends for guidance.

Here are just a few of the outside-my-wheelhouse writers worth jacking:

Diana Gabaldon, (I never would have read her except for Erika’s obsession.) The Outlander series is brutal and sexy and romantic, did I mention brutal? Need to write about someone stitching up a wound? Read her.

Terry Shames, (again it took Erika to get me on board.) In the Samuel Craddock novels, Terry writes about things that matter, spousal abuse, racism, and more - but she is never obvious or preachy. She slips themes into, like Greeks hiding in a wooden horse, her pastoral tales of small town Texas.

A.A. Milne, in THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER, draws complete characters with so very few words. Plus, Eeyore is pure noir.

Anaïs Nin, master of erotica. If more people read her, she would have ruined any chance 50 Shades had of shocking, let alone selling. If you want to be schooled on writing sex read LITTLE BIRDS.

Tim Hallinan - His creative tool chest must be one of those big rolling Craftsman suckers. He writes the Poke Rafferty novels, tough heartfelt and very real. And the Junior Bender Mysteries, light and fun, but also with heart. He has two very different and completely authentic voices living in his head. And that is worth checking out.

Chelsea Cain - I hate serial killer books, even good ones. I also have no stomach for torture (the Moses McGuire books may lead you to a different conclusion. Writing it ain’t the same as digging it.) But Cain’s HEARTSICK - I loved it. This novel could be in the romance section of an alternate universe bookstore. Dark as midnight in a blindfold, she does things with hammer and nail they don’t teach in wood-shop. And yet, she made me care about these people. Made me want them to find peace somehow, or at least a resting place in their lives away from the pain.

When I step outside the construct of genre I can see a link between crime writer Jamie Mason and celtic noir writer Ken Bruen. They both sling words fast and true. When I pick up either of them I know I’m in for word magic.

Back to my 70’s glam rock disco heist coming of age crime novel. Both Pearce Hansen's STREET RAISED and Ian Ayris's ABIDE WITH ME are coming of age crime novels, and these gentlemen are writers I’d be proud to run with. So, I think I’ll just keep writing what my heart tells me is next and leave genre to the salespeople. Be on the lookout for my upcoming World War 2 crime romance science-fiction dance western novel - HOW TO DIE AT HIGH-NOON IN THE TRENCHES OF MARS WHILE WEARING A TUTU. I’m sure marketing will want a shorter title, but screw them, this is my art man.


Josh Stallings is the author of Anthony Award nominated memoir, ALL THE WILD CHILDREN and the multiple award winning Moses McGuire crime novels. YOUNG AMERICANS, a ‘70 heist novel will be out November 2015. His short fiction has appeared in Beat To A Pulp, Protectors Anthology 1 and 2, Blood and Tacos, Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey and more. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Erika, two dogs and cat named Riddle.


Thomas Pluck said...

Can't wait for your tutu martian western novel.
Bring it on.
And Willa Cather is an amazing writer, the beautiful land portrayed in her novels is the cruelest of goddesses...

Nigel Bird said...

Nice post. Enjoyed the cliches. Wish I'd been at that panel at Bouchercon - it sounds immense. And I like the look of the book. I'll be in the queue.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Terrific piece!