f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Rant-Free Wednesday: And the Genre of Non-Genre Books

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Rant-Free Wednesday: And the Genre of Non-Genre Books

As it is the Fifth of May, I’ll join my brothers and sisters in hot countries across the globe in doing my part to groove only with good tidings and mellow feelings today. Thus, no rants.

Instead, let’s talk about non-genre books.

First off, there’s no such thing. Like non-denominational churches, the fact that we use the word “non” in the title doesn’t negate the point that the book (or church) is going to fall into a particular group or category. Nobody is writing something so distinctly new out there. While it may not match at the species level it will at least find compatible partners in genus, order, or class level, if you allow a Linnaean metaphor.

So what links these books? Well, these are often called “literary” or “character-driven” books. So it must be the characters. I dissent. Instead, I defer to one of the core principles of all storytelling. It was spoken as gospel by my favorite creative writing professors (“Charles” and “Gavin” from a few days ago) and was reaffirmed by the cute MFA student who taught my introduction to acting class. Good storytelling is all about conflict. Or dramatic tension. Or “stakes.” Or whatever term you learned.

At the heart of every book there is something unresolved. It may be physically manifested as in a murder story where we need to discover the killer’s identity. It may be the discovery of love in romance novels. It may be the fulfillment of a quest as found in so many fantasy stories. But there has to be something. And the more you can get your readers to feel the need to discover that missing piece, quell that restlessness, or answer that lack of resolution—the more deeply they’ll follow your story.

“Character-driven” books or family dramas often internalize that tension within one of the characters. Whether it’s Richard Russo’s scamp father’s learning to truly love or Godric coming clean of his sins, we are drawn through the story as much by the lives of the characters as we are by the external events surrounding them. Just a warning, very few books pull off only internal stories. Typically there is a simultaneous “active” tension that goes along with the internal ones. The two often are inextricable from each other. Look at Chabon’s Wonder Boys or The Passion of Reverend Nash as examples.

When all is send and done, the duality of these books tends to defy easy explanation because their “active” tensions are usually mild compared with genre page-turners while their “internal” tensions are sometimes hard to put into words. “What’s it about?” “Oh, an autistic boy solving the murder of a dog*.” “Boy, sounds exciting.” “Well, that’s just part of it. It’s also about him breaking through the walls of his own consciousness.” “Yeah, sounds great.”

But they are great, very often. And “non-genre” book actually make up a huge portion of literature being published today. People read them. Oprah picks them. Marketing people hate them. And I want to see more of them in CBA, because they lend themselves much better to full examination of faith and spiritual issues than some genre books. So get crackin’.

And now I’m done. A whole post and not a single rant. I can’t promise how long it’ll continue.

* Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time