Guest Post: Michael Meyerhofer on Speculative and Literary Fiction

6802668Hello, friends! Adventures in Storyland is super honored to have a guest post from Michael Meyerhofer, novelist, poet, professor, and generally cool dude.

A blog tour to promote his fantasy novel Wytchfire is kicking off today, and this guest post is part of it. Click here to see other stops on the tour (which includes more guest posts, reviews, and interviews) and check back tomorrow for my Tuesday Reads review of Wytchfire.

For the guest post today, Meyerhofer shares his thoughts on something about which many, many writerly wars have been fought: speculative versus literary fiction.

Hi, Sarah. Thanks for giving me the chance to contribute to your blog! For a couple months now, I’ve been happy to plug my debut novel, Wytchfire, book one in a dark fantasy trilogy. Wytchfire is the story of Rowen Locke, a sardonic, aspiring knight set adrift in a brutal world where honor doesn’t fend off starvation and children are sometimes killed for having the wrong color eyes. This is a book I’ve been trying to write since I was… well, much younger than I am now. So seeing it in print is the kind of dream-come-true that almost has me singing pop song lyrics into a hairbrush.

Having already published a few books of poetry, though, I sometimes find myself in the odd position of someone (with varying degrees of obviousness) asking me which genre I like better. I usually respond as though they’d asked a completely different question and talk about how my writing process for one differs from my writing process for the other. After all, as different as the two genres are, for me they’re also very similar—especially in terms of the joy I get from reading and writing them, plus the emotion investment I think you need (whether you’re talking about characters or line breaks) to execute any piece of writing to the best of your ability.

I’ve spent a lot of time considering that old debate over the merits of literary versus speculative writing. I’ve never really heard these terms defined all that well but for sake of our discussion, we’ll just say that speculative fiction equals fantasy, horror, westerns, thrillers, romance, etc., while literary writing is… well, most everything else. There are exceptions and gray areas, of course. Nobody would label memoirs and travel-writing as forms of speculative prose, for example, but some would be reluctant (I think unfairly) to shelf Bill Bryson and David Sedaris on the literary side. Others are more enlightened (aka less aggravating in kitchens at parties whenever books get mentioned). Still, I have a feeling that any definition has a lot to do with book sales.

The fact that speculative writing vastly outsells literary writing (and everything outsells poetry) means that at the very least, speculative writing has some solid, undeniable appeal behind it. On the other hand, compare a passage from the Twilight books to something by Kurt Vonnegut and we can see that, yeah, there’s a huge disparity in writing quality here. I don’t think it’s fair to distinguish literary from speculative writing based solely on quality, though. After all, I’ll stack a chapter from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series against almost anything. Stephen King, in the introduction to one of his Dark Tower books (The Drawing of the Three), has an interesting take on this issue:

“I think novelists come in two types… Those who are bound for the more literary or ‘serious’ side of the job examine every possible subject in light of this question: What would writing this sort of story mean to me? Those whose destiny… is to include the writing of popular novels are apt to ask a very different one: What would writing this sort of story mean to others? The ‘serious’ novelist is looking for answers and keys to the self; the ‘popular’ novelist is looking for an audience. Both kinds of writer are equally selfish.”

At minimum, I think that writers and readers on the literary side need to surrender the notion that they’re selfless pilgrims striding ahead of the masses, waving their lanterns in the dark. Then again, we could do far worse than to view writing less as a job than a sacred (whatever that means) vocation—so long as we can do so humbly, but never so humbly that we become toothless (see the tricky balancing act?). Here I recall that Wilhelm Stekel quote used in The Catcher in the Rye: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” But I’m probably getting off track here.

In my creative writing classes, I always stress that the audience—first and foremost—wants to be entertained. Woe to any writer who forgets that lesson! Being entertaining, though, doesn’t always mean car chases and florid descriptions of heartbreak. The very real, everyday trials and triumphs of the human spirit can be just as compelling, just as exciting, as an invasion of malevolent shape-shifters—if not more so, since the lessons gleaned from the former can be more applicable to the reader’s own life. At the same time, though, using real life conflicts, ambitions, and moral shortcomings to inspire one’s fictional characters, especially in an exotic setting, is a great recipe for blending entertainment with something deeper. Personally, I find George R. R. Martin’s Jaime Lannister to be just as compelling a character as J.D. Salinger’s Seymour Glass, or Ernest Hemingway’s old man fishing in the Gulf Stream, precisely because they’re so flawed. Seeing them struggle with their flaws teaches us something about what it means to be human, sure, but it’s also damn fun to read. I can only hope that people will feel that way about Wytchfire.

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