Fun with Fiction 27: Literary vs. Popular (Genre) Fiction

What is “literary” fiction?

Per Wikipedia, “Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that hold literary merit. In other words, they are works that offer deliberate social commentary, political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition. Literary fiction is deliberately written in dialogue with existing works created with the above aims in mind. Literary fiction is focused more on themes than on plot.”

What is “popular” fiction?

Also per Wiki, “Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is plot-driven fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.[“

Per Harvey Chapman at Novel Writing Help,

“Literary fiction is more character-driven and less concerned with a fast-paced plot than genre fiction… [but…] Just as the best genre novels are populated by well-crafted fictional characters, so the best literary novels have page-turning plots.”

Exactly. I find this whole distinction suspect. Read Faulkner, then Dunsany. What makes the first “literary” and the latter “genre” fiction? Who’s to say the Faulkner is better?

            

On my bookshelf, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf sits next to Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground butts against Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, Dickens’s Great Expectations shares shelf space with Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice kisses up to Ian Fleming’s Dr. No, and the shadow of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land falls upon Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

     

Here’s the thing: I don’t think any one of these tomes is necessarily, objectively better than any other. I enjoy some more than others, and some I appreciate more at certain times than others (depending on my mental state and emotional mood), but none of that shows that Dickens is somehow more “literary” – that is, of higher quality – than Heinlein. They were both popular authors of their day. They both have something to say, a worthwhile message to pass along. They both use the tools of language and story to convey it. Why do snooty English majors turn up their noses at one, but not the other?

           

Case made. Do you disagree? If so, email me at luke@funwithfiction.com! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Fun with Fiction 26: On Creative Writing Classes


I’m back!  Even though I don’t really have time to be.

See, I’m teaching.  And I’m going to grad school.  And I’m still trying to read, write, and publish as much as I can.  So podcasting has not been a priority for me recently, and probably won’t be at the top of the list in the near future.

That said, when I have something to say, I’ll say it.  Especially when I need a break from all the non-stop work this life entails.

So here I am to tell you about Creative Writing classes – the ones I’m taking (at the graduate level) and the one I’m teaching (at the high school level).  It’s a fascinating subject, if I do say so myself.

Are creative writing classes for you?  Click on some of the pics below for the books we’re using, and decide for yourself!

     

     

FwF 25: Hemingway’s Cheerful Thoughts About Nothing (and FREE BOOKS!)

Welcome back, Fictioneer!

Today I read and discuss one of my favorite short stories: Ernest Hemingway‘s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place“.  This tale poses the Existentialist question: What is Nothing, and what can we do about it?

                  

 Enjoy my lecturings!  I gave this talk to a group of 9th graders a few weeks ago, and they got a kick out of it (though I think I kind of terrified them).  Now it’s your turn to listen in, read along, and enjoy the fun.

And an announcement:

This weekend – Friday, February 27th through Sunday, March 1st – the books below are available for FREE on Amazon.  Pick them up!

     

 And for the next five days (through March 4th), the books below are ONLY $0.99!!  Grab them as well.

     

Enjoy the reads, and thanks for listening!

If you do like my books, please review them on Amazon!  And if you like the podcast, please rate and review it on iTunes, comment below with what you’d like to hear me talk about, email me at luke@funwithfiction.com, and most importantly, subscribe to the Fun with Fiction newsletter!  I’ll send you all kinds of free stuff and good news (but no more than once a week), 100% spam-free.

Once again, don’t forget to:

‘Like’ Fun with Fiction on Facebook.

Follow me on Twitter.

Pick up your free and discounted books, and…

Sign up for the newsletter!

Thanks again, Fictioneer.  Keep reading, keep believing, keep on rockin’.

Luke

FwF 23: Fun Fiction Books to Read in 2015

Happy New Year, faithful Fictioneer!

To start off, as a post-holiday gift, Cthulhu 4 Kids: Old Ones at the Beach is available FREE on Amazon today and tomorrow (January 2nd and 3rd) only. Go pick it up!

Now to business. After a two-week holiday hiatus, I have returned with a vengeance, ready to kick 2015 in the arse in the best way possible. And what better way to start the year than by listing some of the great books I plan to read in the next 52 weeks?

To begin with, I have had such a blast interviewing and getting to know so many cool authors these past few months, that I will be digging into their stuff post haste.

Right now, for instance, I am in the middle of Matthew W Harrill’s Hellbounce, book 1 of The ARC Chronicles. I interviewed Matt back in early November; if you haven’t heard that episode yet, go back and listen! Matt’s a Brit, so his accent alone is fascinating. Plus he’s a hell of a horror author and an all-around outstanding gent. And seriously, Hellbounce is wonderfully terrifying. Grab it now!

Next I intend to read Blur, by Orlando Sanchez. I did a two-part interview with Orlando back before Thanksgiving, and he’s a man after my own heart: a martial artist and unapologetic fantasy geek. He blends these together beautifully in his fiction. I’ve read his two $0.99 shorts, The Deepest Cut and The Last Dance, and now I’m looking forward to diving into his full novels.

Sometime this year I will crack Paul Erickson’s The Superfriends of the Ring. I have a paperback of the book that Paul signed for me at last year’s Chicago Wizard World Comic-Con, and I laughed out loud at his first novel, The Wobbit, so this will no doubt cheer up my winter. Paul and I spoke in early December about what the hell was so hilarious about Tolkien, and it’s one of the funniest conversations I’ve ever recorded.

Donovan Scherer signed a copy of his book Fear & Sunshine for me at Mighty-Con Comic Show shortly before I interviewed him on the weird and wonderful world of children’s horror. I read (and loved) the Prelude to the series (which is FREE on Amazon), so I eagerly anticipate what the series proper will deliver.

And here’s a list, in no particular order, of some other great fiction I look forward to devouring in 2015:

In truth, I have a lot more on my “to read” list (not even including all the non-fiction I have to dig through!). But I’d say that’s a good start, wouldn’t you?

What fun fiction are you most looking forward to devouring in the coming year? Let me know in the comments, or send an email to luke@funwithfiction.com and tell me there.

I have more great guests already lined up for early 2015, so make sure to keep tuned in! Subscribe and review the podcast on iTunes (if you haven’t already) to be sure you don’t miss an episode. And to really stay updated (and receive great free content), join the Fun with Fiction club!

Lastly, what would a New Year be without resolutions?

This year, I, Luke J. Morris, resolve to:

  • Post at least one Fun with Fiction podcast episode per week.  (Sorry if I’ve been bad about consistency.  I’ll get better!)
  • Publish at least six books, including:
    • Two full-length novels
    • Three children’s/young adult books
    • One non-fiction book
  • Get to know and interview at least twenty more great authors, delving into what makes them great
  • Meet a hundred or more fans and build a community of fellow acolytes of awesome who will spread the word about Fun with Fiction (and how great stories make all our lives better)

This I do resolve.  HOLD ME ACCOUNTABLE!  Don’t let me get away with short-changing listeners, readers, fellow authors, and everyone else who deserves my very best.  Contact me and call me out on any b***s*** I try to pull.  Tough love is the love that really counts.

How about you?  What outstanding resolutions will you follow through on in the coming year?  Is there some way I can help you pursue your goals?  Let me know!

Thanks for making 2014 fantastic, Fictioneer!  Let’s make 2015 even better.

– Luke

FwF 17 – Fun Fiction for Fall: Ghost Stories

 

It’s mid-November, Fictioneer.  What do you like to read at this time of year?

Okay, okay, I’ll tell you my favorite Fall fiction first.

Everything’s dying, so the horror & dark fantasy genres are perfect (yes, even after Halloween) – particularly the ghost story.

What is a ghost story?

Definition from Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

  1. a story about ghosts
  2. a tale based on imagination rather than fact

(Incredibly helpful, that.)

From Dictionary.com:

  1. a tale in which such elements as ghostly visitations and supernatural intervention are used to further the plot and a chilling, suspenseful atmosphere.

(That’s a bit better!)

From Wikipedia:

A ghost story may be any piece of fiction, or drama, that includes a ghost, or simply takes as a premise the possibility of ghosts or characters’ belief in them.[1][2] The “ghost” may appear of its own accord or be summoned by magic. Linked to the ghost is the idea of “hauntings”, where a supernatural entity is tied to a place, object or person.[1]

Colloquially, the term “ghost story” can refer to any kind of scary story. In a narrower sense, the ghost story has been developed as a short story format, within genre fiction. It is a form of supernatural fiction and specifically of weird fiction, and is often a horror story.

While ghost stories are often explicitly meant to be scary, they have been written to serve all sorts of purposes, from comedy to morality tales. Ghosts often appear in the narrative as sentinels or prophets of things to come. Belief in ghosts is found in all cultures around the world, and thus ghost stories may be passed down orally or in written form.[1]

(I guess that’ll do.)

For me, a ghost story isn’t just a story with a ghost in it, or just any scary story. A true ghost story requires three elements:

  1. A supernatural visitor. This may the spirit of a dead person (most common), an invisible malevolent entity (such as a poltergeist), the mystical personification of an idea (the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, & Yet-to-come), or the spiritual energy inhabiting an old house (as in the traditional haunted house tale).
  2. A human (or otherwise ‘normal’) protagonist. A tale of a group of ghosts hanging out and getting on each other’s nerves may be a “ghost story” in the prosaic sense, but it’s not the kind of lore you share around the campfire on a dark night.
  3. An eerie mood, a creepy vibe, a haunting atmosphere. This is a more esoteric element, harder to pinpoint than the other two. It must be conveyed through the interactions between the humans and their supernatural foils, and the time and place in which those interactions happened.

Word choice is crucial in creating the atmosphere. The order of events is very important in conveying the story effectively. Establishment of character is important in making the haunting real to the reader, and in making the reader care about it. (Yes, these things are important in all forms of fiction – but in the ghost story they are crucial.)

So, let’s have some examples!

To begin with, I disagree with Wikipedia that a ghost story has to be short. A ghost story can be any length, from a single sentence to a series of novels.

I’ve already talked about Poe, Lovecraft, & Stephen King ad nauseum (that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop).

Most of Poe’s & Lovecraft’s works have elements of the ghost story in them – though in Lovecraft the supernatural goes far beyond ghosts, while in Poe most of the ghostly elements are in the characters’ minds. That doesn’t diminish their power or disqualify them as ghost stories, however.

          

Outstanding modern, full-length novel ghost stories include King’s The Shining and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. (Yes, Gaiman’s tale does feature a bunch of ghosts hanging out with each other – but there is a human protagonist, a haunting atmosphere, and a human antagonist more threatening than any ghost.)

          

The best full-length work of the genre, though, may be Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Hell, that may be one of the best horror novels of the twentieth century. Why is it so effective? Because it begins with characters that seem like real people. Characters with good points and flaws and human emotions. Characters that we, as the readers, can’t help but care deeply about. When horrible things start happening to those characters – when they start to become haunted – we want to know how, and why. As the ghost is revealed, bit by bit, the mystery deepens, the danger increases, the atmosphere becomes more oppressive. Straub ratchets up the fear with an expert’s touch.

But it’s true, ghost stories more often play in the short form rather than the long.

Ghost stories may be my favorite form of horror fiction. When I say horror, I’m not talking about gore – I’m talking about psychological horror (with or without paranormal elements). Ghost stories usually do feature the supernatural – but sometimes (as in Poe) the ghost’s are all in protagonist’s mind.

In some of the best of the genre, you don’t know for sure whether the ghosts are real or not. Classic ghost stories like The Turn of the Screw by Henry James leave it an open-ended question.

Other great ghost story authors include:

  • M. R. James (author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and other collections; huge influence on H.P. Lovecraft)
  • Algernon Blackwood (author of “The Willows” & another influence on Lovecraft)
  • Ambrose Bierce (author of “The Damned Thing” and The Devil’s Dictionary)
  • Lord Dunsany (influence on nearly every great horror & fantasy author of the 20th century)

Many others – too many to count.

If you want a free book of some of my favorite ghost stories of all time, sign up for the Fun with Fiction newsletter!

And don’t forget to email me at luke@funwithfiction.com and tell me all about your favorite ghost story.

Read on and stay frightened, my friend.

– Luke

(As long as we’re on the topic, check this out – your moment of Zen.  😉 )

Fun with Fiction Podcast ep 7 – Divergent: A Dystopia Done Wrong

 

Well, Fictioneers, I confess: I did it.  I read Veronica Roth’s Divergent.  And its sequels.

What can I say?  I love a quasi-dystopian adventure-romance told in the first-person present-tense point of view of a repressed and sexually confused teenage girl.

Wait – no I don’t.  (But if that’s your thing, have I got a story review for you!)

Please, the next time I get such a notion – slap some sense into me.  Before I do something I’ll regret.

I didn’t bother to rewrite my review in pretty prose.    Here you can read my notes for this episode in all their raw glory:

  • My review of the Divergent series (with spoilers!)

o   Why the hell did I read this whole thing? It starts out okay, with an interesting (albeit ludicrous) premise – then goes rapidly downhill. It’s like doing a bad drug, getting hooked, and riding it out even after the high isn’t that fun anymore.

o   Starts out with the “factions” – Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Amity – a division of society by virtues they seek to cultivate

o   The city is closed. We don’t find out why until book 3. We don’t even know they’re in Chicago until they zipline dive off the Hancock building halfway through book 1. (How do they know the names of buildings & streets in a post-apocalyptic world? How’d all those signs survive?)

o   Turns out they’re all part of some grand eugenics experiment by the government – to correct eugenics experiments they’d done generations before.

o   The U.S. still exists, but we only ever get a vague idea of what the world is like. Apparently, every place is unsafe, and all violence & misbehavior is blamed on “genetic damage”

o   Dystopia done wrong – sending a million & one mixed messages.

  • “We are all individuals.”
  • “Those in power distrust those with ‘flexible’ minds.” (What.)
  • “The truth is dangerous, & some people fear it.”
  • “Revolutionaries can be just as bad as the system they rebel against.”
  • “Life is worth living, & some things are worth dying for.”
  • “In the end, we all have to rely on each other.” (WHAT?!)

o   In short, this is a moral parable that doesn’t know what its moral is. At the climax of the final book it seems to justify essentially lobotomizing a whole city of people because many of them hold a wrong-headed belief. “The ends justify the means,” as it were. Huh?

o   At least it’s not afraid to kill off major characters – but their loss is more irritating than sad. It tries to strike emotional chords, but its whole tone is superficial.

o   Another dystopian YA adventure-romance told in the first-person present tense POV of a teenage girl

o   Difference is, this one has a well-built world – though there are conspiracies behind the scenes that are revealed as the books progress, we know from the outset the general structure of the world of the day, & partially how it got that way. Morals aren’t black & white, but it’s very clear that a despotic regime is to blame for the people’s hardship (this is entirely muddled in Divergent). It’s also clear that a rebellion could result in an equally despotic regime – but this may be abated (for a time) if the people are vigilant

o   The moral parable isn’t black-and-white, and doesn’t attempt to be – but it’s not nearly as muddled.

  • Sometimes you have to kill to survive. Still, you should try to do the right thing, to help people as best you can, even in the midst of a brutal reality (the arena of the Games).
  • There are human beings on both sides of a conflict. The heroine of the Hunger Games series wouldn’t try to justify mind-wiping everyone in the Capital just because she didn’t like their beliefs.
  • Heroism is about doing the best you can in hard situations.

o   It’s not a deep moral tale, though people tend to treat it as one. Still, it doesn’t preach too much, and it knows the story it’s telling – doesn’t get all muddled trying to send a million moral messages.

  • If you want great dystopian lit that passes its moral along beautifully, try:

o   We, by Soviet dissident Yevgeny Zamyatin – the prime inspiration for all anti-utopias to come.

o   George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 – if you haven’t read these yet, you must

o   Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley – Long before Prozac, there was Soma…

o   To a lesser extent, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller – not a dystopia exactly, but a good cautionary tale

o   For a more uplifting vision of the future, try Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

  • Now, try writing your own dystopia! It’s fun and easy. Make it 500 words or less, and send it to luke@funwithfiction.com. If I like it, I’ll read it on a future episode of Fun with Fiction, to spread the fame of your name far and wide.