In Defense of Genre, and Artistic Compression

To round off last week’s post from the vaults, here is the post that immediately followed a year ago. I had planned to wax rhapsodically bitchy about how everyone puts genre fiction down, but others have done it better. So, here’s what I came up with a year ago, instead. Enjoy.

I woke up this morning with a serious case of the crankies. So if I seem a little bloody-minded, dears, that’s why.

I had a whole post about genre planned, but it would probably devolve into a huge slaughter of innocent verbage, full of recondite brimstone and unfounded combative assertions. Such is my mood. So I’ll content myself with two small things this Friday and go vent some of my spleen in fiction.

First, I’d like to make a small observation. An overwhelming number of what we consider “classics” today were seen as “genre” or “trash” fiction in their time. Novels were considered women’s reading (and hence, unSerious) for a very long time; plenty of novelists were supposed to feel ashamed of their success. Lots and lots of things we see as classic (because they have survived) started out as, for want of a better word, schlock.

This hinges on a theory I have that lit fic–the “highfalutin litrachur” genre is supposed to be the redheaded stepchild of–is actually a pretty recent invention. The Selkie and I were talking this over last night and she observed that lit fic is actually so diffuse it can’t be pigeonholed into a genre. There’s a fair amount of accuracy in that observation. I wonder if that diffuseness makes it easier for critics and reviewers to drown it in academese and impress each other, therefore making lit fic “serious” and genre “unserious”.

This is still a foggy idea of mine, so I want to invite other people into the conversation. I’m going to be thinking all week about what genre means, what lit fic means, and where I think the two differ. I don’t think it’s just in shelving or cover art.

Further bulletins as my thoughts coalesce. What do you think, dear Reader?

The second thing I’m going to mention is artistic compression. I use this term to describe the sense of pressurization I feel right before I dive into a big project–in this case, the fourth Kismet book. The outside world becomes an irritation and chores are something to be rushed through so I can get to the real work, which is the boiling of the book inside my head until it’s ready to slide out at varying speeds.

Ugh. That’s a nice mental image, isn’t it.

The sense of compression often returns, as Caitlin Kittredge so aptly describes, near the end of a book. (She calls it “Hibernation Mode”.)

A lot of the creative process seems to involve varying feelings of pressure. There’s the pre-boil of a book, the stages of writing (including the MY GOD THIS BOOK WILL NOT DIE slog halfway to three-quarters of the way through) and the sudden decompression after a book is finished, which involves a lot of spinning aimlessly. There’s a sense of pressure in revisions too, and sometimes after a particularly intense round of revisions I feel drained and bug-eyed as if I’ve just rewritten the goddamn novel.

It is really, really important to think about those feelings of pressure and to identify one’s own creative process, so it isn’t a huge deadly thing each time. A lot of writers seem surprised each and every time by the intensity of the feeling and the emotional drain. No doubt it is surprising, but not analyzing the feeling and reminding oneself that it’s normal can lead to a whole lot of inefficient flailing.

And while I enjoy a good inefficient flail as much as the next person, there’s always the timesuck factor involved. Figuring out your emotional reaction to your artistic process is one of those things that can make you a better writer–or at least, a more productive one. If you’re not blindsided by the compression, if you can take a deep breath and remind yourself that this happened the last few times you worked on a project, the physiological effects (mine include sweating hands, headaches, backaches, feelings of crankiness only rivaled by PMS, and a great deal of synesthetic irritation*), while not receding in intensity, can at least approach the realm of something you can deal with instead of a Huge Fricking Unworkable OMG Problem.

I tend to view the creative process as a technician. If I can figure out how this engine works for me I can get, if not standardised, then at least consistent results out of it, which is what I want. I know a True Artiste is supposed to wait in agony for the numinous descent of the fickle Muse, but I don’t have time for that. I’ve got books to write NOW, dammit.

So, fellow writers, how does your (if you feel it) artistic compression work? Any strategies, tips, tricks to get yourself through? I’m curious, and hoping I’m not utterly batzoid nuts.

Of course, the way I feel this morning, I just might be despite all my hope.

* I use this term loosely, of course. Most of the time my borderline-synesthesia is a happy fillip to daily life, a source of joy and creative connections. But there comes a time in the compression cycle when it just gets to be too much input and I get seriously frazzled, feeling like a delicate sensory instrument being mercilessly whacked by reams of static and messy data pouring in. GAH.