Two writers I greatly admire, Kelly Braffet and Lisa Lutz, both published novels this summer. The books—Save Yourself and The Last Word—share a common thread: the pains and tumult of family. But they also have something else in common: both appear not to fit within conventional genre constraints. Save Yourself has been characterized variously as a thriller, literary fiction, suspense, and even YA, while The Last Word, as with the previous installments in Lutz’s wildly successful Spellman family series, is a mystery, a comic novel, PI fiction, or the catch-all, “genre-bender.”
Given this confusion and in the wake of the, in many ways, genre-defying Gone Girl, one has to wonder if such distinctions matter anymore or if we are, in fact, post-genre. So, Braffet, Lutz, and I convened a virtual roundtable to discuss these and other matters, including bitch-slapping, bank heists, and French rats.
The Rumpus: I’m going to start the questions with one that I know for me—and possibly for you—is one of those bêtes noires: the “literary fiction” versus “genre” debate. A recent piece in Salon asked what makes a book literary fiction versus genre fiction (chick lit, etc.). A few authors attempted to define the distinction, noting, for instance, that literary novels are “less concerned with providing escapist pleasures and more concerned with providing the pleasures of incisive analysis.” What do you think? Is there a distinction? And if so, how do you make it?
Lisa Lutz: I make the distinction because the distinction is always made from the other side. When I’m feeling contrarian, I would maybe ask the following questions: does something happen in the book? Is there a discernible plot? If the answers are “no,” then I would lump novel into the literary camp. This isn’t the case with all “literature,” but sometimes the difference seems almost like that between a raconteur and a windbag. A raconteur recognizes that there’s an audience; the stories are intended to engage, to draw the listener in. A windbag is merely prattling on with his “incisive analysis.” I’m speaking mostly about bad or lifeless literary novels, but I think that’s because when people disparage genre fiction, I have to assume they’re only commenting on the crap.
To still think that a novel can’t be telling and smart just because it also fits into a genre strikes me as insane and kind of ascetic. When I read a book, I don’t just want to be intellectually engaged—I want to get lost in it.
Kelly Braffet: Lisa’s right: the rest of the world persists in making the distinction, so if we’re going to have any chance of communicating with that world, we sort of have to make it, too. I do think there’s an increasing amount of gray area there, though. For me, if I can riff on something Lisa said, it’s not so much a question of whether or not something happens in the book, as it is whether that something is unabashedly exciting. Five people sitting around discussing their divorces is a Something that can Happen, but it’s not necessarily Exciting. Excitement isn’t built into the story, as it would be if they were sitting around discussing their divorces while planning a bank heist. (And by the way, the idea that the very presence of the bank heist would automatically somehow invalidate any insight into what it’s like to be in a crumbling relationship makes fire shoot out of my eyes.)
What really strikes me about the quote Megan mentioned is something that I’ve been thinking about anyway recently, which is this idea of escapism as a bad thing, or a cheap thing, or something somehow separate from the usual experience of reading a novel. It sort of implies that there’s this kind of person who is capable of sitting in a café reading a novel, while being constantly, consciously aware that they’re sitting in a café reading a novel, and never falling into it or being absorbed by it. Which, to me, just sounds sad. If I love a book, the rest of the world stops while I’m reading it. It doesn’t matter if it’s Raymond Chandler or Jennifer Egan. So I’m just not sure what people mean when they talk about “escapism” in that way.
Rumpus: The escapism argument always rankles me, too. And now I’m going to stereotype so-called literary fiction, but for me nothing could be more escapist than imagining myself in the world of buffered, self-contented Brooklyn, or a random university town where my main concerns are supposed to be adultery and general personal malaise. A good crime novel, like a good any-kind-of-novel, tears the guts from you, or at least grabs you by the shirtfront and won’t let you go. What’s escapist about that? Whether we’re talking about literary fiction, or crime, or anything else, when it doesn’t work, it feels like formula and when it works, it feels incredible, and crafted, and special. You feel everything that happens palpably because you’re connecting to the intensity of emotion and to characters who feel powerfully real. (And that’s when, I guess, the phrase “transcending the genre” rears its unfortunate head.)
But speaking of authenticity, it strikes me that both of you value character most of all, that the story spins from character rather than the other way around. Would you say that’s true? Is that where you begin?
Lutz: I’m already determined to add a bank heist to all sorts of shit after reading Kelly’s comments, and I absolutely agree with you, Megan, on the whole “escapism” business. Also, “escapism” means something different to everyone. I think it’s often used in a derogatory sense, but isn’t any book, any painting, any piece of music that you love an “escape”? I define that word as any time I’m not actively thinking about my life.
I feel like I’ve satisfied my urge to bitch-slap the lit snobs and am happy to move on.
We all value character most of all. That’s certainly where everything begins and ends for me, understanding who I’m writing about and figuring out voice and the dynamic between the characters. I often begin with a trait and try to go backwards and source out the origin. With my first book, I imagined a delinquent daughter, but then I had to create an environment in which her delinquency/debauchery made sense. Because characters (people) are interconnected, there was a domino effect which led to all of the other characters in the book.
I’m curious how you both begin your novels. Even if the book stems from an idea, character often comes first. How does that work for you?
Braffet: This conversation just got really interesting for me—not that it wasn’t before, but stick with me for a second—because if you’d asked me two days ago if I started with character or story, I would have said, “Oh, story, no question.” I think of myself as being story-obsessed. But of course Lisa is right, and every book I’ve ever written has started with a character in a predicament, and the story has come from that. I wonder if my sense of myself as story-obsessed comes from my years of immersion in the literary fiction world that we’ve agreed to stop bitch-slapping, first as an undergrad and then in the MFA program I attended. Compared to what was being written around me, my work was story-obsessed. (That’s not to say that I didn’t go to school with some crazy talented writers, because I did. Cut bitch-slap; insert warm fuzzy group hug.)
Anyway: character in a predicament. I think all of my stories start with me wondering what it would be like to That Person in That Situation. How does a character get that way? Then what the hell do they do? When I’m lucky, the story naturally follows from the predicament; other times, like in my most recent novel, I have to give my characters a poke to make them do something. And the poke is generally another character in another predicament, and from there, as Lisa said, it’s hopefully all dominoes.
For the record, I don’t think I’d be very good at writing a bank heist. Tragedies I can do, but I’m not very good at scheming. Although now I want to try!
Rumpus: Character in a predicament—yes. That’s exactly how it is for me too—and I think that just, by its nature, generates story, story, story. You imagine a character, back against the wall, painted into a corner and they have to find a way out. They’re a prisoner of their own drives (desire, ambition, greed) or a prisoner to someone else’s, and then everything spins from that. I think this is what gives crime novels a natural urgency, too. It’s what makes them feel intimate. You are thrown into the mine shaft with the main character and that binds you to them.
This leads me to the fascinating piece you wrote recently, Kelly, about the question of unlikable characters that keeps coming up, to your frustration (mine too!). You write, “One of the early readers of my third novel told me that I might have trouble publishing the book, because ‘people’ were going to find the main characters unlikable.” You write that this doesn’t give readers nearly enough credit. I couldn’t agree more. And I really wonder if this is something female authors face more than male ones. What do you both think?
Lutz: Was there any likable character in Lolita? I’ve always thought that what is wrong with me as a person is ultimately what defines me, and that’s how I approach character. I was recently cautioned about some “difficult” characters in a work-in-progress, and I was surprised at first to hear them labeled as such. On second glance, there was nothing more difficult about them than anyone I know. But in a book you are privy to an interior world which exposes the uglier parts that in life we get to hide. Arguably, all characters should be somewhat unlikable. And crime novels necessitate that.
I definitely think that male authors can get away with more “unlikable” characters, often because they’re writing about men and we tolerate much more darkness in men than women—that applies to real life and fiction. In a recent Arts video blog [for] The New York Times, A.O. Scott and David Carr talk about the “sociopathic” characters on TV that we love to hate. They cite Tony Soprano, Dexter, Don Draper—the list goes on. And then they mention the female leads in Homeland, Weeds, and Nurse Jackie, and suggest that there is now this equality on television with dark and complicated female characters. Other than Homeland, they’re relegated to a thirty-minute spot, they are still few and far between, and arguably nowhere near as dark and scary as their male counterparts. I found this conversation insulting. We are miles from any balance on this front.
I realize I’m now talking about television and not fiction, but I think the general premise holds. Do you agree or disagree?
Braffet: What you said about difficult characters is so wise. I had a psych professor once who said that a thought might as well not have existed if you don’t act on it, which is sometimes a terrible thing and sometimes a wonderful thing. Of course, if we see every single thought and motivation our characters have, there’s a good chance a lot of those are going to be ugly, and if we’re honest, as writers, we’re going to try and capture as many of those ugly truths as possible. Most readers want that honesty, I think. And I think most of the loudest I-hated-these-characters proclamations are from readers who were probably never going to like the book anyway, in the same way that I’m never going to like mojitos. There is no mojito in existence that I will enjoy; I don’t like mint. Books are more complicated than cocktails, and it can be harder to pin down exactly what it is that turns you off. “I don’t like these characters” is a convenient, minty out.
I definitely agree that male characters in a certain kind of dark, gritty show are almost expected to be dark and complicated, but in a woman those traits are shocking. Just from your description, my first question is this: do we really love to hate those people? I haven’t seen Mad Men, but in the case of Tony Soprano or Dexter Morgan, I kind of think we just love them, and we love them mostly because, while they have their moments of emotion or humanity, they get to act on their dark, shocking impulses. There’s almost a wish-fulfillment thing happening there. I think there’s traditionally been a perception that women don’t have those dark, shocking impulses, which is of course bullshit, and so what we’re seeing now is the slow rise of awareness that of course we do. It’s very, very slow, though. It’s damn near glacial.
Rumpus: Glacial, indeed. And honestly, I think we’ll get a female Tony Soprano a lot sooner than a female Don Draper. If we put a dark female character in a closer to “real life” situation (versus life in the mob, or the C.I.A.), our heads might explode as a culture. (What kind of mother might she be?)
Lutz: Since I’m always trying to not act on my thoughts, Kelly, I find that concept particularly disturbing. And I agree with Megan: for whatever reason, audiences are far more comfortable with women as gangsters or killers than genuinely difficult people in the Don Draper vein. I think, in part, because no one is really buying the idea of a female assassin, for example. It’s pure fantasy.
Braffet: Pure fantasy. Yes. Absolutely, that. I think, among the characters we’ve mentioned, Nurse Jackie actually comes quite close to being a genuinely difficult person, although I wonder if her drug problem gives her license to be.
Rumpus: To speed-round here, who are your two or three favorite female characters in books (crime fiction or any other genre—and by “genre” I include “literary fiction”) that you feel are getting us to that place?
Lutz: I always have trouble with the “favorites” question. I’m sure given a month, hundreds of ideas will come to mind. There’s a great book called After Claude by Iris Owens. Harriet, the narrator, is hilarious, irrational, self-absorbed, and completely offensive. I have to be very careful who I recommend the book to. It also has one of my favorite opening lines: “I left Claude, the French rat.” The other example is from a decidedly less difficult character, but still fairly intense and wildly intelligent. It’s all couched in comedy, but Bernadette in Where’d You Go, Bernadette certainly fits the bill. And, Megan, you do this sort character really well. I don’t think there’s the same dearth in fiction as in TV and film. At least there’s one place to turn.
Braffet: I’ve been going on and on about this book quite a lot recently, but Anais from Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon is brilliant. Very tough and—in her words—fucked up, but also very human. I sometimes think there’s a tendency to overshoot, to write female characters that are all psychopath with no humanity, and Fagan really hits the sweet spot. And not to get all fawny, Megan, but Lisa’s right—you hit that same balance really nicely with Addy in Dare Me.
Rumpus: I promise I wasn’t fishing with that last question, but now I seem totally disingenuous when I say one of the reasons I wanted to chat with you two was because of the women (and men) you write. They’re complicated, unpredictable, and always utterly authentic. As a reader, they’re what I’m craving.
And I guess none of what we’ve talked about, these debates are ever going to go away. When you look at the reception of authors from Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson to, heck, Edith Wharton and the Brontës, they all faced charges of unlikable characters, dark subject matter. And genre writers have always faced dismissal. But it sure feels that writing on the darker side of fiction, where crime novels reside, is just more liberating. The terrain itself is muddy, slippery, treacherous from the start. Characters falling, sinking, making mistakes is expected. And it’s kind of beautiful.