On Transcending The Genre

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Pecking out my first few stories while a sophomore in college.

“I don’t really get the genre thing,” My friend Steven Solomon said to me, about my writing, once. Stephen is an artist, who has a day job usually, but he’s a real artist, not a commercial artist or graphic designer or an illustrator, things I have been and at one time wanted to be.[/caption]

Of course, he does those things, too—but he’s an artist; by which I mean, he takes what he does seriously. It’s an attitude thing.

He isn’t stuck up or too good for pop culture; his encyclopedic knowledge of comic books, of Jack Kirby and Superman, is breathtaking. But he doesn’t see himself as confined to, limited by, any kind of commercial limitation for his work; he’s not a category; he’s not a shelf in a bookstore; he’s bigger than a genre.

Steven Solomon was on my mind at Clarion, when talking to Michael Swanwick, about his book Vacuum Flowers, and Gibson’s book Neuromancer. I’d loved both books, and held them in more or less equal esteem, and said so to Swanwick, imagining this might be endearing.

Swanwick winced, as if I’d offered him a shot glass full of urine.

“I had written a book, ‘in the tradition.’ Bill wrote one outside of it.” he said, finally.

Have I mentioned that I feel like I have been a disappointment to my Clarion instructors?

Swanwick also mentioned that by appropriating the term Turing Police for my own, well, Turing Police, in my first published story, I’d looted Gibson in a thoroughly uncool way. I had a stupid defense, about genre people sort of building on each other’s work, which was just plain wrong; Swanwick was right. It was OK to have Turning police, people doing what they do; calling them that was unforgivable.

I was wrong. Sorry, Mr. Gibson. I suck.

Which leads us back to genre, ‘in the tradition,’ being derivative, and making art out of crap, which is what Michael Swanwick said genre artists, at their best, do.

I always wanted to be visual artist or a writer, what a business partner of mine who abandoned me during the tech bubble called an original content creator; but I couldn’t really imagine myself a fine artist. Or maybe I could, when I was very young, before middle school, and I grew out of it.

I recall vividly, telling my seventh grade English teacher, Ms. Moore, that I would like to be an artist when I grew up, and she said to me, without missing a beat, that she was sure I’d be a fine graphic artist, and I didn’t really know what she meant, what the difference was, between real art and graphic art, but I knew instinctively that I had been demoted, and I recall feeling insulted.

I also recall feeling brought down to Earth. I mean, how many people really got to be artists?

We didn’t have a lot of art books in the house, or live near any major museums growing up in upstate New York, so Art, Fine Art, was something of a mystery. I knew about the handful of artists that impinged on the mainstream culture of the day. Andy Warhol. Picasso. Salvadore Dali. Peter Max and Leroy Niman. But that was about it.

We had a book of MC Escher prints, though, which fascinated me. I looked at those, over and over again. And once, even read some of the text and found that Escher was a Graphic artist. Which made me feel like, OK, maybe it would be OK to be one of those after all.

Growing up in the 70s in suburbia, art was a rack of posters in a local bookstore; art was album covers and book covers and calendars. Roger Dean and Frank Frazetta and the Brother’s Hildebrandt and the others I started to collect. I bought books full of pulp covers. Fell in love with the scratchboard and pen and ink of Virgil Finley. Art was illustration.

And so I planned on becoming an illustrator.

No teacher ever really liked my writing, I was a B minus writer, but my drawing was better than about 95 percent of those around me. Becoming an illustrator, a graphic artist, seemed like a mature, grown up way to be Creative without starving to death.

So my writing was confined, from my teens through my late twenties, to thinking up premises for SF worlds and characters, and talking about these ideas with my friends.

The mechanics of typing manuscripts was quite simply exhausting to me, in the late seventies. I’m not a natural writer, a good speller, and typing my papers for high-school or college was nightmarish. I was once so absurdly grateful to a woman, a fellow student, for typing my paper I slept with her, even though I shouldn’t have, and honestly, didn’t really want to.

But I digress.

I attended Syracuse University enrolled in VPA, the College of Visual and Performing Arts, and did the freshman art core, which had art history and aesthetics and one of the two great teachers of my life, Larry Bakke, and actually learned what the hell art was, what the hell illustration and commercial art was, what culture was.

Like the goldfish learning about water; your own culture is more or less invisible to you unless you are forced to confront it in some weird way; travel to another culture; instruction by a great teacher.

I got just barely enough education, over the next decade or so, to be able to see what genre was; what science fiction was, as we entered the internet era, the tech bubble, the age of Wired magazine and Boing Boing and the fantasy of the Long Boom.

It all came together for me, somehow, in the white hot end of the tech bubble, and I imagined myself becoming what we called back then, unironically, a Visionary or Thought Leader. My SF career floundered when I didn’t sell my Clarion stories to major markets, and the semipro markets that were buying me winked out of existence. But it didn’t matter, because I was going to get rich on stock options, and then, write novels or make movies or so something even cooler. Possibly involving virtual reality goggles.

I had transcended the genre, see? I was living science fiction. I didn’t need to write it. That ended in a plume of ash on 911, as the tech bubble burst and I gave up on that vision of myself, not all at once, but slowly, over a decade of failed entrepreneurial ventures.

Leaving me… here. A man always in and of his times; a wasted youth in the seventies; a slacker in the late 80s, and a dot.com snake oiler through the millennium. Through it all, the SF paperbacks trailed along, stacked around the edges of my life, mixed with literary stuff and commentary and piles of piles of the New York Times.

Leaving me here, doing the genre thing; again.

But not naively, anymore, I don’t think; I’m not confined by the genre because I grew up in it; it’s part of me, hardwired, natural. I’ve been outside it, too; I’ve had a life, which I bring back to it, some little bit of the world, the part that fits into my weirdly shaped head.

And now I think, maybe I’ll never write Literature.

Maybe I’ll just tell stories.

God I hope I tell some cool ones.

Posted in Making a Writing Life, Self Indulgent Mémoire

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