we’re all just going through the Spider Stairs right now

I’ve been sitting on this subject for a while — since senior year of college, actually — but there’s no time like the present, and, well, we could all use a little distraction.

In senior year of college, I took my first actual creative writing course.

My professor was one of those guys. I’m sure you know the type. Eyebrows that would make Einstein proud, tweed jacket with the little elbow patches, you name it. He also had a little brown notebook that he carried around with him everywhere, for writing down useful quotes and ideas that struck him, though he never mentioned that in the intro course. It’s a shame, because that would have helped.

Maybe if I had taken my first creative writing course sooner, so I could take more of the advanced classes, that would have helped, too. But I had other requirements to meet and other classes I wanted to take, and in any case, a friend had already taken some of the more advanced classes and shared her experience, so I felt that I didn’t stand to gain much from them in person. Still, I felt I had to take at least one creative writing class before I graduated college, so I did.

(This was the year after I successfully finished my first ever novel draft, a steaming trash fire which will never see the light of day; it was also the year after Sir Terry Pratchett died. This helps to put things in a bit of perspective.)

I did learn some useful things. Things like how to make someone care about your character as soon as you put them into a scene. Things like the “so what” and “what’s the point” of a story. Things like poem structure, short story structure.

That bit, I have no quarrel with. But I also learned that genre fiction was considered a secondary tool for carrying your “so what” and “what’s the point,” tertiary, quaternary. And that escapism was a “so what” and “what’s the point,” but not the primary focus of literature in general.

Frankly, on that bit, I call BS.

In fact, I would argue that all literature, even including some variants of nonfiction (can you say “self help”?), focuses on escapism.

Yes, even regarding tragedies and horror, even regarding the stories of woeful high school English teachers having affairs with their students. I may not agree with the subject material, the manner in which it’s executed, or the end point of the story itself — but every story we write that is not purely factual from stem to stern has some element of escapism, and even there you can make an argument for it.

The tragedy of Macbeth involves the laws of man and nature themselves turned upside down, but it also involves the restoration of that order and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet involves the machine of hatred destroying every life it touches, but it also involves (albeit after far too much bloodshed) the realization of the culprits that their actions were wrong.

Pick a horror movie. Any horror movie. Don’t tell me what it is, I don’t like horror, but do you have one in mind? Yes? Okay. In that horror movie, the world becomes wrong and fear is everywhere. But at the end, something, some small something, is right. Even if it’s only the catharsis the audience gets when the horror is over and you can come back into the world and know the horror has not followed you.

Romance is full of escapism. In a romance, that leather-bejacketed bad boy can actually be a good person, the cute geeky nerd isn’t creepy, and the jock that the shy girl could never dream of catching can be caught. The main character’s happiness and safety are front and center to the narrative, and — key to the romance genre — there is always a happy ending.

Fantasy and sci fi are the only ones that people look at immediately and call escapism, but they’re hardly the only ones that do it. And each genre has its own strengths and weaknesses for telling a story, for giving the audience the “so what” and “what’s the point.”

There is value in a story about flying cars, or talking dinosaurs, or dragons, or witches. There is value in escapism, because as Tolkien said, only a jailer is against escape, and as Pratchett said, we must have somewhere to escape to as well as from.

So what? What’s the point? The point is that humans have been telling escapist stories, in which the good are rewarded and the evil are punished, in which human minds and hearts triumph over the cold dark of the forest or the sea or outer space or even death, ever since we first had languages with which to tell them. The point is that, human as we are, we need escapist stories, to help us dream of a better world than the one we have. Because how can we make a better world if we don’t know one exists, somewhere, even if only in the imagination?

The “now more than ever”s and the “in this time of”s and the “new normal”s and all are suffocating. Near the beginning of this, my most recent post mentioned King Lear having been written during a plague — well, after the Black Death, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron. A series of stories within a story, and very likely a great influence on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which is framed in a similar fashion. A group of people whiling away the time on a journey together by telling stories to each other, to make life a little more bearable.

The journey of quarantine is different from that of a pilgrimage, without a doubt. But some things remain the same. The escapism of a good story, whether it’s tragic or epic or simply domestic, is a necessary light in the dark.

Stay safe, everybody.

oh, the horror

Full disclaimer: I’m not, nor have I ever much been in my life, a horror fan. Coraline and Over the Garden Wall is about as spooky as I get, and that’s mild-kiddie-Halloween level. Just like the occasional sprinkling of paprika is about as spicy as I get: it’s not spicy in any way that actually counts.

Gore? Humungously not my thing. Jump scares? Nope. Psychological shenanigans? If it’s got cannibals/incest/people turning into mindless monsters and losing all their humanity? Yeah, that’s a no.

Hey, I watch Game of Thrones for the politics, not … that other stuff. And I can always plug my ears and take off my glasses when the going gets grody. But I won’t read Poe’s “The Black Cat” more than once, and there’s an episode of Doctor Who that I will not watch because of the whole humans-losing-humanity-unwillingly thing. Yeah, the water on Mars one. That one. Awful. Does it technically count as horror? Maybe not to veterans of the horror genre, but it gives mid-twenties me the same willies that a cartoon brain-eating alien gave seven-year-old me.

Actually, that brain-eating alien still gives me the willies.

So take what I say with a big old honking grain of salt.

On the other hand, I freakin’ love the Resurgam trilogy by Joan Frances Turner, which is from the point of view of a zombie and absolutely involves the whole cannibalism thing, and goes into meticulous and nearly poetic detail about the process of corpse decay. It even has the personification of death as this eldritch non-being that is everywhere and everything, and – spoiler alert – is about to swallow the entire planet into nothingness.

But despite the whole zombies-and-existential-dread thing, I don’t think that DustFrail, and Grave count as horror books. Because even with the apocalyptic setting, there’s always a shred of hope, and – spoiler alert – the characters we care most about make it out unscathed. Or, if not unscathed, at least scathed in a way they can accept.

In the horror panel at LTUE, they talked about the horror genre as a loss of control, as something horrible and irrevocable happening, as fear being present and inescapable throughout the story.

In a horror story, even victory counts as a failure. It is impossible to win.

… Huh. I guess that one Doctor Who episode does count as horror after all.

But all of that only means that the dressing of the story, the setting and the species and the time period, are very nice and indeed important things to pay attention to — and must be integrated with the plot — but they do not drive the plot. The Resurgam trilogy takes place in a world where mind-numbing hunger razed society to shreds, but it is never hopeless, and the characters’ victories matter. Zombies and all, they cannot be horror books.

Meanwhile, a story with no supernatural trappings whatsoever can be the worst living hell a body can imagine. Have you looked at the battered women statistics recently?

Horror lives wherever it can. It isn’t where and when you are that counts — it’s what you do.

Literary v. Genre Fiction – Fight!!

Sometimes literary works (I mean literary in the sense of “described as a classic in English high school classes”) can be interesting. And I suppose as someone who’s trying to make a living out of writing I should be more defensive of literary works. But I confess: the only assigned book aside from Shakespeare that I really enjoyed in high school was Catch-22, which is about as vulgar and silly as a literary book ever gets. I would much rather read a million books about dragons than ever read The Scarlet Letter again – and, of course, there were precisely zero books in the curriculum that included dragons. It feels like the people who sit around deciding what books children ought to read in school specifically choose them for their dull qualities.

Is that true? Maybe. I enjoyed English classes in college a lot more, partly because I got to choose the type of English class. But I maintain the position that the way we study things as “classics”, and sneer at genre books, is … kind of detrimental, actually. Tolkien and Harry Potter deserve to be examined with the same care as F. Scott Fitzgerald, with regards to the craft as well as their impact on our culture. Does a book have less worth because it appeals to a wide variety of people? Tell that to Shakespeare, who was the very definition of wide appeal in Elizabethan England. His popularity with the unwashed masses is the only reason we still know his name today. To study his work for his literary skill is a good thing; we can learn from him. But to hold him up as the pinnacle of literature! universal! et cetera et cetera ad nauseam! doesn’t make any sense. (For more reading on the “universality” of Shakespeare, I recommend reading Shakespeare in the Bush.)

Literary works have their place on the bookshelf, certainly. After all, I wrote my senior thesis on Les Misérables, which is probably one of the biggest literary novels in French. But I think that looking down on people for reading genre fiction is essentially telling them “no, you shouldn’t enjoy reading, you should wade through this difficult bog of prose so that we can give you a gold star.” It seems counter-intuitive to me.

What books were you forced to read in English class that made you want to throw up through your nose? Or conversely, what books were you forced to read in English class that you actually enjoyed? Tell me in the comments!