When Different Isn’t Good

The pastime of reading can leave a scrambled impression of what books are trying to accomplish. With some novels, clear demarcations are sometimes hard to draw, even for publishing professionals. For example, I used to manage a bookstore, and when a carton of new books arrived, the question would arise: in which bookcase should this book be placed? Failing all else, it went in the omnibus Fiction case. Even then, though, the book Venus on the Half Shell, written under the pseudonym Kilgore Trout, seemed to belong in the science fiction case rather than with the rest of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels.

Most inexperienced writers do not belong to the same pedigree. The melange of impressions left by all the books they’ve read can result in the desire to bend genres. They are tired of the same old formulas and decide to write their own version of fiction-busting In Cold Blood. They pick a subject close to their heart, and off they go.

Intent, however, is only a starting point. Having a firm knowledge of the genre you mean to break is next on the list. In this way melding different categories of literature resembles satire. You must know how the game goes before you create a variant based on it that will produce laughter. If you don’t know how an Agatha Christie mystery works, for example, your book will be perceived by readers merely as a bad mystery. They don’t get the jokes because you don’t know the tropes.

A far worse hodgepodge results from literally imitating Capote. I believe Dante would place in the lowest level of hell the “instructive novel.” That is, the author amasses tons of nonfiction research and lards their scenes with factoids. The reader ends up learning far more about, say, apiarists (beekeepers) than was ever desired. I can take only so many smokers before I myself am deathly calmed. Or, to use another example I’ve seen more than once, does the writer really think that readers know nothing about Jewish religious traditions?

The result of such instruction is the same as in the classroom of yore: utter boredom. I imagine that one of the things they teach in teachers colleges is how to keep their subjects lively and entertaining. Then too, consider the pursuit. If you are going to history class, you know you’ll be learning history. Far better that than expecting to read a mystery and finding history lessons.

Exercise: The rule to follow with any research longer than a sentence is: put it into action. If your characters can act upon the factoids in a way that furthers the drama, keep them. If they are shoved in there because you are playing teacher for a day, get rid of them. You’ll find you lose three-quarters of the research, and the reader will bless you for it.

“My alma mater is the Chicago Public Library. I got what little educational foundation I got in the third-floor reading room, under the tutelage of a Coca-Cola sign.”
—David Mamet

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine

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