Benjamin Percy was the keynote speaker at a literary conference I recently attended. I generally dislike these opening addresses, and fully expected him to deliver yet another self-congratulatory homily, followed by a desultory reading and a perfunctory exhortation to “believe in your writing.” Yet immediately after being introduced, Percy pulled out a dry-erase marker, went over to a white board, and launched into an informative and engaging discussion of the craft of writing fiction — creating engaging characters, building suspense, the strategic placement of scenes, alternating between action and moments of repose. After compiling seven pages of notes over the next hour, I bought his book with the enthusiasm of a Marvel fan on opening night of an Avengers film.
I won’t reveal the advice offered in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, partly out of fear the author would hunt me down if I did (while affable and inviting, Percy can be physically imposing — broad shouldered and deep voiced, he seems capable of sprouting fangs or claws at any moment). I do feel safe in revealing his central theme, introduced in the opening essay and expanded upon in the following fourteen: the accepted distinction between literary fiction (think Antioch Review) and genre fiction (think Fantasy and Science Fiction) is arbitrary, and writers wholly committed to either category suffer from not adopting the best practices from the other. “Literary writers tend to overdo thoughtfulness,” he writes, “just as many genre writers tend to neglect interiority in favor of action.” Percy, who has published in both literary magazines and comic books, advocates eliminating this distinction, and combining “the careful carpentry of storytelling” with page-turning excitement that makes the reader want to know what happens next.
In his description of the worst qualities of literary fiction — elaborate prose, abstract ideas, and lengthy dialogue leading to underwhelming epiphanies — I recognized a lot of the problems I’ve been seeing in my own writing. To put it bluntly: Nothing happens. My characters talk (a lot, and to be fair to myself I’ve been commended for my conversations), but they live in a world where inertia is as common as air. Having recognized this problem, I’m contemplating (there I go again with the thinking) following the advice of what Percy calls The Exploding Helicopter Clause: “If a story does not contain an exploding helicopter [or similar spectacular event or character], an editor will not publish it.” As authorial recommendations goes, this sounds both reasonable and a heckuva lot of fun.
Percy is a storyteller, not an academic, and true to his calling he weaves an engaging memoir through his essays. We learn a lot about Percy — his childhood fascination with genre and later respect for literature, a wonderful marriage, early struggles and eventual successes in his writing career, unintended lessons about writing learned from his in-laws, a mortifying illness of a son that lead Percy to dread watching Toy Story, a decrepit home he and his wife refurbished — revealed not in chronological order, each anecdote chosen to underscore the ideas of the current essay. Among the more interesting facts we learn is that as a teen, Percy conducted a ceremony which failed in its stated intent to turn him into a werewolf. My trepidation around him seems fully warranted.
I was impressed enough by Percy’s keynote speech to have him autograph the book I purchased. He signed it with advice I imagine he includes with all his signatures: “Go the distance,” the title of the his last essay and a reference to Rocky, a film that inspired him through his early days as a writer. Stallone’s plucky pugilist, waking before dawn to run and beating a speed bag until his knuckles bleed, succeeds in his goal to leave his bout with the heavyweight champion standing on his feet — going the distance — and Percy sees in him a model of tenacity for all novice writers in their struggle to rise to the top of the slush pile: “you must develop around your heart a callus the size of a speed bag.” There could be no better end to Percy’s marvelous collection of essays than this eloquent metaphor based on a gritty work of pop culture.