I write across a fair number of genres and styles—article, essay, short story, novel; science fiction, fantasy, (trying) horror, slice of life, absurd, magic realism, literary.
Each form prides itself on telling True Stories that move beyond mere accuracy to expose underlying Reality. Even when stories are based on actual events, enormous selective liberty is taken with fact so as to clarify a specific thematic underpinning. Facts are more of a guideline than a rule, to be left out or ignored as needed in service of the chosen thematic Truth.
Yet each of the genres I write in takes special pride in using the unique conventions of the form to reveal those underlying truths—whether by exaggerating aspects of character or situation, or by changing familiar settings or even physical laws to shine a brighter light on a particular problem, idea, or concern. Even writers of “realistic” fiction carefully sift the many real and accurate possible details to find the one they perceive as most (contextually) powerful or interesting—leaving an awful lot of realism unrealized in any story.
This is not a rant against the definition of “real” or “true;” rather it’s a personal exploration of the usefulness of varied viewpoints in collision with the conventions of genre and the marketplace.
I’ve Never Seen That
While lunching recently with a friend, I opined on how soul-crushing it’s been to be constantly told that as an (unwillingly) unemployed man, I represent all that is socially, morally, politically, and religiously wrong in the world. I told of recent counsel I had received from my quorum president (backed up with scriptural references) that being unemployed meant I was an abomination who was unfit to commune with the body of the Saints.
“I can’t believe he said that to you,” my friend said. “In thirty years as an adult convert member, that’s not consistent with my experience of Church leadership. I’ve never seen that.”
For a moment I was completely lost. My dear friend trusted a stranger more than he trusted me—because the scope of his personal observation did not allow for what I knew from direct experience. Even though that was only one of several such experiences over the past year. It was not a question of misunderstanding a single moment; it was one instance in a pattern that had been repeated often enough to become a clear theme of my relationship with that quorum president. Never mind the reinforcements from social and public media.
Yet my friend dismissed the entirety of my difficult personal struggle with a casual, “I’ve never seen that; that’s not consistent with my experience.” Even though it was true, and I was a reliable narrator.
As authors that’s one of the struggles we face. We pretend to want to expand the scope and variety of our readers’ experiences, and readers claim they want to meet strange people in exotic locales. Yet in practice it turns out readers are actually quite brittle and will reject as unreasonable those things that seem to conflict with their own experiences and hard-won insights.
Sometimes mere realism is not enough. It doesn’t matter if we know of that character or that situation from personal experience (as our recent spat over Nephi Anderson’s novels illustrates so nicely). Story has to either transcend the real in order appeal to Realism, or has to content itself to stay within a narrow band of Realishness to avoid ejecting readers before they can process (realize) the details.
This is less of a challenge in some genres, where conventions of absurdity or imaginative/creative settings or characters are accepted elements of story. But it doesn’t go away entirely even there—especially if you transgress the core conventions of genre.
If They’d Only Just…
Part of the challenge is that readers have their own frameworks for processing and understanding, and tend to wedge all new experience through that one filter that has been so successful in their lives.
For my parents, it’s temple work. No matter what the question, their answer seems to be, “If you’d just go to the temple more, the Lord will give you what you need.” For one good friend the answer is always dogged determination (just keep plugging), for another it’s just a matter of more positive thinking, and for a third it’s “don’t worry; just do what’s right and trust in the Lord.”
For one quorum president the answer always came down to motivation—people could not address problems if they didn’t recognize them as such. Thus, if only he could get me to understand that being unemployed was a bad thing, then I’d lift myself by my own bootstraps and choose not to be unemployed. That’s what had always worked for him.
Suggest another framework for an answer and the rebukes come swift and sure. Because each of us knows that all problems are easily solved if people would only just…
Pick One and Go
One of the challenges I have as a writer is that I’ve seen at least marginal success in a wide variety of approaches, forms, genres, and conventions. I don’t believe in a single best approach; my own experience is that the strait and narrow path can often be approached from many angles, not just the one that I’m most personally familiar with.
There may be one most correct road, but there are also many very correct, mostly correct, partially correct, and nearly correct paths than can still bring us to the desired endpoint. It’s useful to widen the funnel (expand our approaches) if we want to attract a wider audience.
Still, if you don’t give your reader some evident point of consistency, they won’t learn how to trust you. It can be at the level of form, category, theme, imagination, or humor; but there has to be a signpost that your readers can recognize—and learn to trust—that meets them on their own terms before you can attract an uninitiated reader and convince them to trust you as you.
Because only when we trust the teller can we hope to hear a jarring tale that’s not consistent with our own experience, and not reject it out of hand.
The rest (as they say) is left as an exercise for the author and their publisher(s).