On Stranger Things and the definition of “genre”

I’ve been late in expressing my appreciation for Stranger Things. The Netflix science fiction/horror show had completed its second season two years after my initial and only review, and I didn’t comment on the third season. With the fourth and penultimate season having just aired, I got some catching up to do.

But before I talk about those kooky kids from Hawkins, I’ve got to rant fairly extensively about the use of the word genre in the world of prose fiction.

Among aspiring short story writers like myself, fiction is often divided into two broad categories – literary fiction and genre fiction. For literary fiction, think of the classic authors you were assigned to read in school – Hemingway, Parker, O’Connor, Baldwin. Think of the high-brow magazines: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s. The predominant style of writing in literary fiction is realism, although surrealism and nonlinear narratives are also prevalent. The diction tends to be erudite, the significance multi-layered.

Genre fiction is… everything that’s not literary fiction. That’s a smart-aleck comments that’s actually more or less accurate. There are really many different genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror (these three are often assigned to the umbrella category speculative fiction), mystery, romance… the list goes on. Think of the authors you read outside of class, and the few remaining popular magazines such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Can the difference between literary and genre be expressed in a single sentence? Several definitions have been offered, one I see quite often. It goes something like this:

Literary fiction focuses on character; genre fiction focuses on plot.

I absolutely hate this definition, and I want to use Stranger Things to validate my hatred.

Yeah, I’m mixing media here. For television, the literary vs. genre distinction in fiction translates into highbrow and lowbrow programming, with Downtown Abbey in the former category and The Simpsons in the latter. Few fans or critics would consider Stranger Things highbrow; its use of familiar science fiction and horror tropes makes it a genre show.

But as for focusing on plot… as I said in my initial review of the first two seasons, the plot of Stranger Things has all the complexity of a Scooby Doo cartoon. I honestly can’t provide a coherent summary of the show’s primary events; something about secret government experiments and parallel universes and dogs without faces… a group of teenagers saving the world multiple times with the aid of a girl with super-powers… oh and there’s Russians.

The plot of Stranger Things is preposterous.

Then why is this the most popular show in Netflix’s history?

It’s the characters. That aspect genre fiction and lowbrow television supposedly neglects for the sake of plot.

I’m drawn in by Eleven’s vulnerability, Mike’s heart, Will’s longing, Max’s grit, Dustin’s spastic ingenuity, Lucas’ calm intellect. Joyce and Hopper’s romance is as awkward as it is touching. The rest of the supporting cast is equally engaging. No television show has portrayed geek culture as accurately and honestly; the dialogue, relationships, and emotions, both positive and negative, are spot-on.

They are characters you root for because they are fully realized. The threats they face hardly matter; the humanity of the Hawkins gang is what’s important. I have never cheered for a fictional character as much as I did when Max ran for safety at the end of the fourth episode in the latest season.

Genre/lowbrow only cares about plot? Show me a speculative story with bad characters and I’ll stop reading halfway through. I’m hoping writers and producers take note of what makes Stranger Things so phenomenally successful and bring fully developed characters into their stories.

Permafrost

This series of reviews of literary journals and genre magazines has become quite irregular, yet I’ll keep it going until it no longer interests me. As of today, I’m still interested.

Permafrost is a literary magazine founded by the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in 1977. The journal publishes an online and print edition every year.

What They Say About Themselves: “As the editors of the farthest north literary magazine, we’ve chosen an unconventional, expansive place to live. That, too, is what we seek in your submissions… Like many people, we’d rather read an interesting failure than something safe and boring, but interesting successes are really what we’re after here. Engage us. Challenge our perceptions. Increase our capacity for empathy. Make us aware of prejudices we didn’t know we had. Teach us how to see beauty in the way that you do.”

Issue Reviewed: 42.2 (2021)

Genre: Mostly literary realism, although there’s a good deal of speculative work as well

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Elevation,” by Alfredo Lafarga. Alex struggles to hike up a mountain after receiving a cryptic voicemail message from a woman who knows his brother. A convincing tale about two people who love a man they know doesn’t deserve to be loved.

Exploding Helicopters: Three Explosions. Most stories were very engaging.

Profanometer: Dammit. Not as many four-letter words as I find in other literary journals.

Refuse to Be Done

Most craft books on writing are informative, engaging, and if they’re any good, overwhelming. Three craft moves per book is my limit, with anything more being rejected in the limited RAM of my brain.

The subtitle to Matt Bell’s 2022 guide to novel writing, How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts, immediately appealed to my conception of the writing process. (I’m currently focused on short fiction these days, but his advice on novel writing ports well to shorter works.) I’ve identified three stages of a story’s composition: drafting (a story with a beginning, middle, and end, all in rough form with no intention of being shown to anyone), revising (a polished story presented to a writing group for feedback), and submitting (a final update based on the feedback, then sent to literary journals). Bell calls his three drafts generative, narrative, and polishing; his generative drafts are more developed than my initial stage, but it’s his second and third stages that caught my attention.

Bell’s second drafting stage begins with a narrative outline, written in the voice of the novel (he doesn’t recommend outlining during the generative stage). Expect the outline to take several months, he writes, and then promotes that one craft move I’ll implement: retype the entire novel. Don’t revise the generative draft, don’t copy and paste into a new document. Using the narrative outline as a guide, type the whole story from scratch as if that first generative draft didn’t exist.

That’s… a lot of work, even for a short story. Yet I believe this process could help overcome a problem I have with my second stage of composition. I move stuff around, expand and contract paragraphs, search for synonyms far too early, and many sessions feel like a lot of effort without a lot to show for it. Retyping the work in the entirety would avoid the muddle of revision. It’s worth a shot, anyway.

The third stage of Bell’s process might even be more labor-intensive, featuring multiple readings of the novel (printed, not on screen) using several different highlighter colors. It’s this stage which gives the book its title: go through your work until you run out of ideas for how to make it better.

Bell’s advice isn’t for the casual writer — he’s writing for professionals, writers who value the process more than the results. I’m eager to discover how implementing the second stage of Bell’s process affects my own writing.

 

 

Blue Mesa Review

The latest in my irregular series of reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.

The creative writing department at the University of New Mexico has published Blue Mesa Review twice a year since 1989.

What They Say About Themselves: “We are committed to providing your work with a great home. We believe we are on the forefront of creating a lovely, readable space for great writing online and in print. At BMR we understand that literary magazines have a responsibility to writers, and we work hard to provide a space that you can feel proud to publish your work in. We also are constantly working to find creative ways to support writers financially; one such way being our Annual Summer Contest. As a magazine that receives no funding from our affiliated University, we are currently working on creating a payment structure for writers. We are a magazine run by writers, so we understand the financial burden that can come with creating beautiful work. We hope to ease that burden by supporting good writing in a practical way in the coming year.”

Issue Reviewed: 44 (Fall 2021)

Genre: Literary realism with speculative touches

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Scorched Earth: The Legacy of the Globizent Affair,” by Kelly Neal. Written in the form of a near-future academic paper, the story analyzes an absurd conflict among employees at a corporation that produces nothing but pettiness. As a refugee from both academia and corporate inanity, I appreciated this dual satire.

Exploding Helicopters: Three Explosions. Not a lot of action, but the narrative voices kept me engaged.

Profanometer: Sonovabitch. A little more profanity than I’ve found in most literary journals, yet not excessive.

Event Poetry & Prose

Nearly every literary journal and genre magazine recommends reading a sample issue before submitting work to it. That’s one of the motivations for my ongoing series of reviews — to demonstrate I’ve done my homework.

Event Poetry & Prose is a literary journal founded in 1971. Published by Douglas College in British Columbia, the journal comes out three issues a year.

What They Say About Themselves: “For 50 years, EVENT has published the very best in contemporary new poetry and prose. We are one of Western Canada’s longest-running literary magazines, and welcome submissions written in English from around the world. Each issue of EVENT includes high quality fiction, poetry, non-fiction and book reviews, and we feature emerging and established writers side-by-side in our pages. We also print commissioned illustrations alongside the writing, and each cover features the work of a BC photographer.”

Issue Reviewed: Volume 46, Issue 1 (Spring/Summer 2017). This was the complimentary issue offered when I signed up for the journal’s newsletter.

Genre: Literary realism

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “My Holocaust Survivor,” by Méira Cook. Daniel is a disaffected high school student interviewing an elderly Holocaust survivor in a senior center for a school project. Resentful at the assignment and disgusted by the ill-mannered man he interviews, Daniel eventually discovers a unique bond with the survivor. Stories on this subject can be predictable and maudlin, but this story was neither. I appreciated this fresh take.

Exploding Helicopters: One Explosion. The stories featured a great deal of dialogue and introspection, but very little conflict.

Profanometer: Dammit. After two-plus years of reviewing literary journals, I’m coming to believe that writers routinely throw in an f-bomb or two as a perfunctory demonstration of their stories’ adult content. I know that’s cynical, but then again I am kind of a fucking jerk.  

The Sun Magazine

After a couple journeys into the dark side of fiction, I’m returning to more “literary” work in my series of reviews of literary journals and genre magazines

Published in North Carolina, The Sun Magazine is an independent monthly journal of art and opinion.

What They Say About Themselves:The Sun is an independent, ad-free magazine that for more than forty years has used words and photographs to evoke the splendor and heartache of being human. Each monthly issue celebrates life, but not in a way that ignores its complexity. The personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs that appear in The Sun’s pages explore the challenges we face and the moments when we rise to meet them.

From its idealistic, unlikely inception in 1974 to its current incarnation as a nonprofit magazine with more than 70,000 subscribers, The Sun has attempted to marry the personal and political; to challenge the status quo and reveal injustice; to honor courageous and honest writing; and to touch the mystery of our humanity. In a world where advertising pursues us almost everywhere, The Sun remains a rare ad-free sanctuary.”

Issue Reviewed: Issue 553 (January 2022)

Genre: Literary realism

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “The River Corrib,” by Mohan Fitzgerald. A Canadian musician emigrates to Ireland and begins an affair with a woman whose father was a famous painter before dying two years earlier. When the woman’s mother loses possession of the painter’s portfolio, the musician agrees to help move the paintings. The balance between dialogue and narrative description was well done in this story. Honorable Mention: “Disclosure and Consent,” by Hanna Bartels, written as a patient disclosure form.

Exploding Helicopters: One Explosion. Not much dramatic tension in the stories.

Profanometer: Dammit. The f-bombs in this story were limited to the dialogue of a character for whom swearing seemed as easy as breathing.

Fever Dream

Remaining in the dark for my next review of literary journals and genre magazines

An online journal,  Fever Dream posts new content several times each month.

What They Say About Themselves:Fever Dream is a new online literary journal of maniac mutterings, half-remembered hallucinations, and all manner of stories that burrow their way into your brain when the clock strikes midnight. This doesn’t mean that we are strictly a horror journal (though horror submissions are enthusiastically welcomed), more that we look for work with a particular sense of odd and alluring darkness (especially those that explore mental illness/neurodivergence through a fantastical lens).”

Issue Reviewed: Since the journal doesn’t publish updates as issues, I reviewed content posted in the last three months.

Genre: Horror

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “The Lunatical,” by Ceda Parkinson. As a very big object from space descends on the Earth, Satomi hears music from an unknown source as her family and the world around her deteriorates. A lyrical apocalyptic tale.

Exploding Helicopters: Two Explosions. There’s more internal than external conflict and threat in the stories.

Profanometer: Dammit. For the most part, the language was pretty tame.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

This is the second collection of Raymond Carver’s short stories I’ve read. Many of the impressions from my analysis of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” apply to this collection as well, so I won’t repeat them here. What I’ll do instead is take up an opportunity that’s available whenever reading Carver – asking a question that remains unanswered in each story from this collection:

“Fat” – Why does the fat man refer to himself in the plural, “we”?

“Neighbors” – What happens to the cat, Kitty?

“The Idea” – Why does the neighbor particularly like to peep on his wife when it’s raining?

“They’re Not Your Husband” – What is the man reading the newspaper thinking?

“Are You a Doctor?” – How in God’s name does Clara’s sitter get Arnold’s number? [A momentary aside from my questions – this story is the best example of a Carver story showing far more emotional logic than narrative logic. In other words, the characters’ actions make no sense yet still seem appropriate]

“The Father” – Why is the grandmother the only one who doesn’t  look at the father?

“Nobody Said Anything” – What are the parents arguing about?

“Sixty Acres” – Why does Joseph Eagle watch over Lee Waite’s land?

“What’s in Alaska?” – What does Carl see in the dark?

“Night School” – Why do the girls want to see Patterson?

“Collectors” – Why does the vacuum salesman take the letter?

“What Do You Do in San Francisco?” – Who’s Jerry?

“The Student’s Wife” – What’s gotten into Nan?

“Put Yourself in My Shoes” – What happened to Morgan’s records?

“Jerry and Molly and Sam” – Why name the story after these three minor characters?

“Why, Honey?” – Whose blood is on that shirt in the trunk of the son’s car?

“The Ducks” – Why does the man wake up his wife?

“How About This?” – Does Emily want to stay in the abandoned house?

“Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarets” – What happened to Gilbert’s bike?

“What Is It?” – What is Leo going to tell the man on Monday?

“Signals” – Is Wayne or Caroline right about Aldo?

“Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” – Why does Marian ask Ralph if he remembers the party?

The Metamorphosis

People much smarter than me have analyzed Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella, and I don’t have many meaningful insights to contribute to that discussion. I do, however, have some thoughts on literary classification after
In my brief career as a short story writer, I’ve learned that fiction is routinely divided into two broad categories. Literary fiction is the realm of the classics — think Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Wright, Raymond Carver, the writers you were told were masters of the form in your high school and undergraduate literature classes. The word literary is one of our culture’s most revered classifications and is explicitly denied to the other broad category of imaginative prose, genre fiction. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, detective, historical fiction… there’s a dizzying number of genres, all of which share one characteristic — they’re not considered literary.

In which category does “The Metamorphosis” fall? Literary fiction doesn’t tolerate much speculative imagination; read the current issue of any contemporary literary journal and you’ll see an almost religious devotion to realism. Ghosts appear fairly often, but only if they’re highly metaphorical; you’ll also read the occasional time-travel or quest narrative, yet usually with an ironic appreciation or outright mocking of overdone tropes from those genres. Kafka’s story is about a man who turns into a giant cockroach, yet classifying it as genre fiction doesn’t seem right; beyond the fact of its routine appearance in university literature course, there’s something about it that makes it seem too damn literary to be a genre work.

There’s another mode of imaginative writing that’s generally accepted as literary fiction, and that’s surrealism. The literary writer can create impossible worlds so long as they don’t contain supernatural creatures, alien encounters, or speculative technology. You find surreal stories in contemporary literary journals — not much, but they’re there. What makes “The Metamorphosis” so effective is that it accepts Gregor’s surreal transformation as fact, without attempting to explain how it happened. The bulk of the novella after its unmatchable opening line is about Gregor’s attempts to live now that he’s been inexplicably changed; his altered relationships with his employer and his family are his other primary concerns. After starting with an impossible premise, Kafka’s tale deals with the real-world consequences of Gregor’s transformation.

You can make it weird, so long as you also keep it real. That’s the accomplishment which allows “The Metamorphosis” to retain its literary reputation over a century later.

Coffin Bell

I’ve been reviewing a lot of literary journals in my ongoing series of reviews, so today I’m going to the other extreme

Coffin Bell is a quarterly online magazine of dark fiction, first published in 2017. The journal has also published two print anthologies.

What They Say About Themselves: “Dark times call for dark literature.

Coffin Bell is a new quarterly online journal of dark literature seeking poetry, flash fiction, short stories, and creative nonfiction exploring dark themes. When we say “dark themes,” we don’t necessarily mean traditional horror. Send us your waking nightmares, dark CNF, dystopian flash, cursed verse. Surprise us. Make us think in a new way. Give us a new fear. Make our skin crawl.”

Issue Reviewed: Volume 5, Issue 1

Genre: Horror, Gothic

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Sadie,” by Alex Davidson. The title character is a young woman who attends a funeral then rushes back to her apartment for a blind date. The fun starts when he comments on her dog cage and she responds that she doesn’t have a dog. This one definitely had me guessing, right up to its chilling end.

Exploding Helicopters: Four Explosions. Most of the stories featured very compelling action and intrigue.

Profanometer: Sonofabitch. The language was a little excessive at times, but that’s the nature of this genre.