Don’t Read the Label
Publisher’s Weekly had this to say about Khaled Hosseini’s internationally bestselling first novel, The Kite Runner: “Stunning . . . an incisive, perceptive examination of recent Afghan history. . . . It is rare that a book is at once so timely and of such high literary quality.” Now, certainly everyone reading this has either read or at least heard of Hosseini’s novel. But what you all probably don’t know is that he used to write horror stories.
It’s okay, I’ll wait here while you catch your breath, slap your jaw back into place. It’s true. Khaled Hosseini, whose first novel has sold over four million copies, used to slave away in the ghetto of horror fiction—and not so long ago, either. I shared pages with him in a 2002 small press dark fiction anthology called Dreaming of Angels—our stories were side by side. I like to think that some small measure of his success might still rub off on me through sheer proximity.
I’d like to focus on those last three words in PW’s review: “high literary quality.” Is it somehow possible that Hosseini could have reserved his best writing—his high literary quality writing—for just his first novel? Or is it more feasible that he would bring the knowledge of his craft to whatever he wrote, including the horror? It’s pretty safe to say that Hosseini’s horror would show many of the same flashes of brilliance that his first novel does. After all, it’s the same writer, just writing different material.
Now that we’ve established at least one case—and there are many, believe it—in which a writer who has gained fame for his more mainstream work has a genre skeleton lurking in his literary closet, we come to the point of this article: genre fiction isn’t necessarily crap. As with every other kind of fiction, it depends who’s writing it. It’s not the material, it’s the way it’s handled. Think of your favourite author—go on, imagine their monumental talent, their unwavering consistency of voice, their astonishing command of the language—now imagine that author writing a zombie story, or a ghost story, or a science fiction fantasy-western. Do you think your favourite author would suddenly forget how to write? Do you believe they’d suddenly become totally useless at stringing sentences together? Do you think they wouldn’t be capable of bringing their brilliance to whatever literary canvas they put their hand to? Of course they would.
So why is genre fiction so routinely sneered at?
Well, for one thing, Canada has exactly zero major publishers with spec-fic imprints, whereas the U.S. has several—there are even a couple of majors that specialize in genre fiction. Canada has no mass-market outlet for it at all, so we get what we’re given, and what’s been coined “Can Lit.” This is fiction stereotyped as being highly detailed narratives in which nothing much happens—but very beautifully, and usually in the prairies. Generally, nothing blows up, no hideous creatures attack people, no aliens threaten to take over the planet, and there’s not many serial killers stacking the bodies up like cordwood. But just as the stereotype for Canadian literary fiction isn’t always true, the same can be said about genre fiction—Canadian or otherwise. Not all of what is termed “horror” or “science fiction” by unimaginative marketers is fast-paced action-oriented genre tropes—vampires/werewolves/zombies/serial killers/elves/dragons/aliens/robots/spaceships. A lot of what’s being written by genre writers at the top of their craft is a mixture of many influences—a lot of them literary: Jonathan Carroll, China Miéville, Stewart O’Nan, Graham Joyce, Kelly Link, Peter Straub, Susanna Clarke, Chuck Palahniuk, Octavia Butler, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, James Morrow, Iain Banks, Neil Gaiman, Kurt Vonnegut, Clive Barker (one of Hosseini’s favourites), and, yes, I’ll come right out and say it—even Stephen King, most notably in his 1999 novel Bag of Bones. These are writers whose subject is, most times, quite dark, but who can write about that darkness beautifully, and with great subtlety. No shambling zombies, no predictable serial killers, no done-to-death vampires. There are writers out there—new ones and old—who are blurring the lines, creating moving, engaging, well-plotted, but also incredibly well-written fiction that defies categorization.
This is not to say, however, that people who read exclusively genre fiction are not just as snobbish when it comes to literary fiction—the kind with a capital ‘L.’ Genre readers can be just as pig-headed and narrow-minded when it comes to broadening their scope to encompass the Margaret Atwoods, Alice Munros, Joseph Boydens, David Bergens, and Mordecai Richlers of the literary world. They complain that it’s too pretentious, nothing happens, there’s no plot, no recognizable story arc, too many details, not enough action. They equate reading it to watching paint dry. And I say that they, too, are losing out on some great fiction. It’s just different fiction. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse.
It’s the writer, not the subject matter, that dictates quality.
Wouldn’t it be grand if Canadian publishers bought some of this well-written genre fiction—and just release it as “fiction,” leaving aside the pointless labels? Can Lit needs to shuffle off the stereotype it’s been burdened with. It needs sharper teeth, a more defined darkness. It needs some action. I want something to blow up in a Can Lit novel.
Reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, I see glimpses of his horror stories—the crisp style; the honest, realistically drawn characters; the well-structured plot and solid pacing. It’s all there. Hosseini’s experience with genre material helped shape his literary fiction. It didn’t hurt his craft, it improved it, helped broaden its appeal.
A good writer is a good writer is a good writer.
A lot can be learned about the craft by reading—and writing—genre work, just as a lot can be learned by reading and writing literary fiction. Writers can benefit from both, and combining them is the best thing that could happen to Canadian fiction.
Now, which of you budding authors out there is going to write the first-ever prairie apocalypse novel?
*Originally published in Quill & Quire