Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Books I May Not Write

We all write the kind of novels we want to write. What kind of novel would you never write?
Terry Shames

Never say never! I’ve had three short stories published in the past couple of years after saying I would never write short stories, so take the following with a grain of salt:


I don’t think I’d enjoy writing straight romance, but I do like to throw in a bit of romance for spice. When I was deciding what I wanted to write, I sampled a few romance novels and I read some truly dreadful books (it just wasn’t my taste) but I also read some that grabbed me right away and kept me interested to the end. The difference? Character.


I love to read and would love to write science fiction, but I simply don’t have the imagination for it. Again, I’ve read some truly awful sci-fi, even famous books that I thought fell flat. But I’ve read some great ones as well. You might think the “science” part of sci-fi was the important part—and sometimes it carries me along. But again, what can make humdrum idea come alive is interesting characters.

I didn’t think I’d ever be interested in writing “women’s fiction,” until I read Lianne Moriarity. She owns that genre, but she dips into mystery at the edges of her books. And I totally get involved in her characters. Kate Atkinson’s first books were “mainstream” fiction with a mystery at the heart of them until she went full-bore mystery with the great character to Brodiie.

Are you getting the theme here? It’s all about character, whatever we write.

There has recently been an uptick in huffiness about the dismissal of genre fiction as being “lesser” somehow. For that reason, I prefer the term “mainstream” rather than “literary” for non-genre work. I wrote some “literary” short stories in my early days—brooding, atmospheric fiction that I thought might be what I ended up writing. But it seemed that every time I sat down to write a novel, it became a “mystery.” So I suppose that although I might think about writing a mainstream novel, I’m not sure how successful I would be.


But in the mystery corner, I think I could write almost anything—historical, super-cozy, traditional, noir, thriller, you name it. I could do it as long as I had a feeling for the characters. Sometimes people ask if I could set my novels anymore other than Texas. Although I know my small-town Texas setting well, and that makes it easier to find my footing when I start a novel, I think I could set them most anywhere. It’s the characters I really need, though.

There are subjects I shy away from. I’m not much interested in crazy villains. I want someone with an understandable purpose, someone who took a wrong turn out of volition, not out of an inability to make another choice. I am not fond of books about war, although I’m reading The Winter Soldier right now. It doesn’t appeal to me to do the research I’d have to do to write about men or women in combat.


I’d probably never tackle a children’s book. Writing for children seems very daunting. Children know so much viscerally and yet are so innocent of customs. I admire anyone who can tackle that successfully. That said, I have a half-written young adult novel that I’d love to complete at some point. Young people can be so fierce, and I love the idea of running with that—with its pitfalls and its tenderness.


Finally, I would be very wary of writing a novel in which I appropriated the experience of those whose cultural background I don’t share, even though I think imagination can lead writers to inhabit such characters. The first novel I was aware of that made people of color bristle about appropriation was William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, which won the Pultizer Prize. I thought it was a brilliant novel until I read some of the criticism from black readers. Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin defended the novel, but others criticized it, especially for his portrayal of some slaveowners as being “saintly.” When I thought about the novel, I had to really weigh those factors. I have always admired Styron’s work, and it was tough to realize that the critics had a point about appropriation of the black experience. How far down the road do we have to go, though, to say no to a writer who wrote with such imagination about not only people of color but of women? Is Sophie’s Choice an appropriation of a Jewish female? In Lie Down in Darkness, he writes a tour de force depiction of a young woman’s descent into madness. Is that an appropriation? If Styron had not tackled these subjects, readers would be the poorer. Because of the fear of appropriation, I would think long and hard before I went that route in a novel. Still, it doesn’t’ keep me from writing black characters in my books—to ignore them in my small Texas town would be a different kind of insult.  

To sum up, I’m not ruling anything out, but some books would be a greater stretch than others.

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