On Under the Dome; or, 1000+ words on literary versus genre fiction

by jbloodwell

I’m using that previous post to segue to a brief snapshot of where I am right now as a writer, by way of a long rumination on different modes of fiction.

About a week ago, I was at a party thrown by a Pitt creative writing professor. Invitations went out far and wide, and a lot of old students turned out. I ended up in a completely fascinating conversation with a guy who went through the program in the early nineties. For a few years during grad school and afterwards, he wrote under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon. If the name means anything to you, you may be freaking out now, as I was: Franklin W. Dixon is the author of the Hardy Boys series of novels.

Needless to say, my mates and I peppered him with questions about how he’d gotten into this job, what kind of formulaic requirements he was forced to observe, what was taboo, and so on. (Example of thrilling insight: the writer said that although the Hardies were constantly looking down the barrels of various firearms, 1) No one ever got shot and 2) After inevitably knocking the gun away from the bad guy, the Hardies were never permitted to shoot, point, or even hold (for any extended period of time) the gun; a kind of game-within-the-novel, for this writer, was coming up with new ways of getting the gun out of the scene. His best effort, he said, was one of the Hardies dropping it in a mailbox.) It turned out this fellow had published a few western novels even before grad school (making me wonder what had led him to enter an MFA program, most of whose students are desperate to publish anywhere, but never mind that).

We got to talking more generally about genre (semi-pun semi-intended), because I described my experiences with ghostwriting. To wit, that when I started the project I had a novel of my own going, and was very clear in my mind about that book being “Art” and the ghostwritten novel being a job, a commodity. But as I got further along I came to really respect and appreciate the great deal of outlining and character-sketching my ghostwriting client had done. The characters had clear relationships with one another, and each had a compelling main issue to propel her through the book. It did not take me very long to conclude that this book was more internally coherent and better-motivated than my own supposedly more worthy novel.

The conversation culminated in this writer recommending me a number of worthy western novels and a few other high-end genre books (e.g., Richard Price’s crime fiction, Scott Turow’s legal thrillers). The more general effect has been to get me thinking about the possibilities of reading and writing genre fiction. I’ve been ruminating, this past week, on the questions of why I write literary fiction and what made me want to write in the first place. These are issues that I often think about, albeit from other directions: I’ve always had a short attention span for a lot of what I find in literary magazines, to the point that I’ve wondered if I’m in the wrong profession. But you can’t throw too many lit mags across the room without developing some theory of what pleases and displeases you—particularly when you yourself are producing fiction that you hope others will want to read. And for me the requirements seem to be that there be a compelling story, in which something actually happens; and a compelling voice. If there are others, they’re totally secondary to those two.

I had been thinking about these requirements in connection with T. C. Boyle’s great story collection, Descent of Man. (Here’s a great review by Max Apple with which I mostly agree.) I hadn’t read it since my first semester of college, when it blew me away. The writing is wonderfully vivid and controlled, but what blew me away (twice, now) is that each story has a clear, “catchy” idea behind it and each idea is executed masterfully, (in most cases) going beyond the cleverness of the story’s gimmick. For example, “The Champ” uses the conceit of a competitive eater, past his prime, awaiting the challenge of a flashy young upstart. There is enough great language in the story, enough descriptions of pierogies sliding down the narrator’s gullet, pallets of fried chicken, and so on, to make the piece engaging. But there is also a through-line, a simple narrative wherein the Champ waits anxiously, knowing his reign is all but over, and in the end digs deep, all the way back to his competitive-eating roots, to try to hold on to his crown. I’d been thinking of the collection’s lessons all the way through, considering ways I could rework my own stories to make them have more of this sort of energy, this feeling of hurtling inevitably toward an inescapable end.

And after the above-mentioned conversation, it occurred to me that Boyle’s great strength, as precise and flashy as his language generally is, is a sense of story; and, further, that he is constantly going for it, pushing these stories forward; the great details, the incisive language, the sense of texture, all are a kind of secondary feature. And, more to the point I am after here, this story-above-all ethic causes Boyle to stand out in the world of literary fiction, but it is absolutely the baseline for the kinds of “genre” novels I was discussing with the pseudo-Franklin W. Dixon.

I could linger on this point, but I trust you know what I mean: the kind of novel you get at an airport bookstore is heavily plotted, often to a fault: i.e., the characters are cardboard, the language is garbage, the dialogue evokes long doleful sighs. And yet these books, often, keep us (me, anyway) reading beyond the point when we’d perhaps planned to put them down.

Such is the case with Under the Dome, a recent (it never pays to say “the most recent” with the insanely prolific Stephen King) and massive (1,074 pages, I believe) novel by Stephen King. I checked it out of the library expressly to test out this newfound expansive sense of genre writing being potentially good. (I was bolstered in the sense that it might be good by this review in the AV Club.) It’s arguable whether this is really “genre” fiction, per se, since it’s kind of a truism that King has, in the last decade or two, mostly moved away from being a horror or suspense writer. Really what I mean is big, popular, mainstream novels that do not have a literary project and that are not going to get taught in freshman comp classes, but that are unabashedly plot-driven.

So, about this novel: I love it. I’m about 250 pages in and when I’m hanging out with friends, at work, showering, etc., I generally can’t wait to get back to it. The premise is simple, almost dumb: on October 21 (my birthday!) a mysterious dome descends over the town of Chester’s Mill, Maine, trapping this entire small town inside. There is a town operator, Big Jim Rennie, a consummate bad dude, who moves to consolidate power, and a drifter, Dale “Barbie” Barbara, who’s headed out of town when the Dome descends. Barbie’s on Rennie’s bad side but, as the only ex-Army officer under the Dome, he’s drafted to take control of the situation, navigating the town’s local politics. That’s about where I am now. One interesting angle is that Barbie is an Iraq war vet with experience negotiating among Iraqi warlords and tribal leaders, so there is this fascinating (and so-far-understated) parallel between the two political scenes. I’m not sure if I’m giving King too much credit, or perhaps doing him a disservice, by bringing up facets like that one: I’m reading the book as literature, in other words, when perhaps what it wants to be (and what I want out of it) is merely entertainment, a good read, and the reassurance that the good guys triumph (as I expect they will by book’s end).

So far the book’s been everything I’ve wanted, and it’s helping me to think about my goals with a book-length project I’m working on. To wit, that there’s nothing wrong with aiming for entertainment and interest as my highest priority. One thing I’ll say about the book, though, is that with so much plot and so many characters, there are some creaking hinges: really forced transitions, groaners in the dialogue, and some spates of generally lackluster prose. In terms of hinges, though, King generally hides them pretty well: something I caught on to pretty late is that the book’s separated into hundreds (maybe a thousand or more when all’s told) of shortish sections, each containing a bite-sized scene and—more important, and very crafty by King the craftsman—each allowing the narrator to jump from its perch on one shoulder to another without needing justification or a clever segue.

I’ll probably try not to blog much about this book, unless other notable craft issues come up. My general sense is that hearing people talk about books is great when done well, but otherwise is pretty boring. And to be honest, I don’t have the patience or temperament to do it well. As far as I can tell right now, a lot of this summer is going to be taken up by reading these kinds of “good” genre novels, so I should hopefully have more, and more interesting, things to say about “genre” writing in the loose sense in which I’m using that phrase.

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