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The Bumblebee Knows it can Fly: Genre and the Gothic

This week, I kicked a few more pieces of the new novel into place, which felt good. It’s at a peculiar stage: I know the general plot arc, but I’m not ready to start writing. Partly, I need to know the characters better. But also, there’s more substance and under-the-surface thinking I need to figure out.

It felt too superficial. A colourful facade with nothing beneath. And so, I’ve been continuing my research: not only delving into Toronto history, but also theories of the Gothic and the sublime.

Including this roundtable on Southern Ontario Gothic!

Coles’ notes: Southern Ontario Gothic blends realism with terror, generally through explorations of family dysfunction, decay, decrepitude, and repressed trauma. In Southern Ontario. The conversation is well worth watching in full, especially for its characterization of Canada as a haunted country, which suggests a way to reconcile some artistic problems I’ve been having.

Gananoque – I see the haunting.

I was particularly struck by Jane Urquhart. First of all, because she reminds me of Elizabeth Hand—slightly in mannerism; greatly in her razor intelligence.

But also, because of this:

I think that, as an author, I write about what intrigues me, and then it’s later that somebody else decides that whether or not I’m part of some kind of movement.

And:

The genre was handed to the writer. The writer did not think to him or herself—“I know, I’m going to write something in the Southern Ontario Gothic genre.” I don’t think writers think like that. They don’t invent genres.

It was interesting. It’s not even that I necessarily disagree with her—I just want to explore these ideas further.

I think there is often a bumblebee-doesn’t-know-it-can’t-fly phenomenon going on with the development of new literature. Look at steampunk: K.W. Jeter only coined the term after he, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock had produced early examples of it. And once you have a name for something, once you have tropes—that’s when the family resemblances start appearing in subsequent works, whether the author intended them or not.

So what about when the genre is already established? I mean, the Creepy Play was initially code-named “Southern Ontario Gothic.” I wrote the script knowing exactly which genre it was.

I have looked for the artist, but cannot find a name. If you come across it, let me know!

But then—as Urquhart said, the genre was handed to the writer. I didn’t fit the story to the genre; I fit the genre to the story. (“Oh, wow, this is a dysfunctional family shot through with degeneration and repression—in Southern Ontario—I think I know what shelf this goes on!” rather than, “I want to write SOG, so I’d better build a family on the brink of collapse…”)

Going further with the bumblebee theory, I know some writers who refuse to read anything in their genre, for fear of contamination. For me, though—I fall back on my Stonecoast training. If you’re writing a Gothic novel, you read other Gothic novels. You read the early ones; you read the most recent; you read the literary criticism surrounding them. It’s important to understand where the genre came from, how it developed, and what people are saying now. Because it’s a dialogue—and you’re part of it. How can you contribute if you don’t know what’s been said before?

As for writing what intrigues me—I’m intrigued by the haunted, the degenerate, the many shades of family dysfunction. I’m intrigued by the liminal space between realism and the fantastic: the place where the worlds cross. I’m intrigued by the mountain of CanLit I’ve consumed this year: but I want to add magic.

 

So no—I don’t think (most) writers set out to create genres. But I think it is useful to have some idea of what you’re working with; what you intend to do. It’s like painting: tempera, oils, and watercolours all behave differently, and they all create different effects.

Perhaps we don’t name the movement. But surely, we imagine its form and colours…

-KT

What I’m Listening to This Week

I cycled back to a lovely Scottish-Gaelic piece. There’s still something about this music that makes me want to write all the things…

Liminal and Literary

When I was a wee sprogget of 16, I went to tour a university. They had a creative writing undergrad, you see, and I’d somehow wrangled a one-on-one with one of the instructors. She seemed distant, impervious to my earnest charm.

Until I asked brightly, “So, do you teach genre fiction as well, or is it all literary?”

She recoiled like I’d slapped her. “Oh, no,” she hissed. “We only teach literary fiction.”

And so I did not attend that university.

Photo de Katie Bryski.

I ended up at the University of Toronto, instead.

Through my late teens and undergrad, I similarly avoided  anything smacking of “literary fiction.” Meandering vignettes of people sitting on park benches, pondering the banality of existence? Dysfunctional families in the woods? Giants of the literary canon deriding my chosen genre as nothing more than space-faring octopi?

To hell with all that. I was a speculative fiction writer. I was interested in telling good stories.

Have I mentioned that I was incredibly arrogant through my late teens and undergrad?

In any case, I took a half-credit Science Fiction course, which is probably one of the best moves I’ve made. We started with Darko Suvin, forged ahead from Weinbaum to Gibson, and highlighted LeGuin and Tiptree along the way. My final paper contrasted notions of bodily autonomy in “Boojum” (Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear) and “Bloodchild” (Octavia Butler).

Quite a literary analysis, if you think about it.

Then I did my Stonecoast MFA. We’ve talked about it before – that was when my authorial voice started to change. And there—I learned that perhaps “literary” didn’t mean what I’d thought. Perhaps it wasn’t just “the opposite of genre fiction.” So what was it?

It was introspective. It was character-driven. It was devastating. It was lyrical and elegant.

Literary was an approach.

And literary could still have magic and spaceships.

Dysfunctional families in the MAGIC woods!

So I’ve been undergoing another reading regimen. In some ways, I still feel like an interloper: scuttling across the border to see what I scavenge and bring back to my fantasy. But startlingly, I sometimes recognize myself in the small villages, the bitter-dark humour, the pervasive loss, the tension between things beautiful and grotesque…

Of course, humans like to classify things. We like to label ourselves. That’s what we do. And genre markers are a useful common language for markets, authors, and readers.

But I’m feeling my way towards a strange, interstitial space. Not terribly surprising: I’ve always been fascinated by the liminal. It’s the place betwixt-and-between, where we gleefully borrow principles, turn them inside-out, and blur the lines as we cross them.

That’s what I’m writing towards, I think. It feels right.

KT

What I’m Listening to this Week

Have I done Carmina Burana before? I guess it doesn’t matter; it’s what I was listening to this week.

It’s an Orff cantata, using poems from a medieval manuscript called – appropriately – Carmina Burana, or, “Songs from Beuern.” The “O Fortuna” movement is the one everyone knows.

Two main things. 1) I love the contrast between driving whispers and orchestral cataclysm. It’s the Wheel of Fortune going up and down, you know? And 2) Those lyrics. They are. The most. Metal. Lyrics. EVER.