Touching on Genre

Since the proliferation of Creative Writing courses in universities in the Anglo world, much has been written and said about “genre” in writing.

While talking with a friend from my writers’ group recently, the question of the basic difference between mass media and literary fiction came up. She said: ‘One underlying aim in commercial fiction is to provide hope, e.g. romance stories always end happily, and in crime fiction there is always a solution and the criminals end up paying for their crimes.’

We contrasted this with literary fiction, in which experiences and insights, both positive or negative, are what count.

I had attended a seminar on “The Hero’s Journey” and could not see how this theory, first elaborated by the American scholar Joseph Campbell “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” (1949), could be applied in a helpful sense to my writing. George Lucas used it in the “Star Wars” movies and it is very relevant for screen writers in the film industry today in the United States and elsewhere. It is based on the idea of the “monomyth”, i.e. that all stories can be conflated into one: the hero’s journey. This starts with the Call to Adventure, continues through Initiation, and ends with the Return. Each of the three stages can be broken up into sub-sections linked to certain archetypes. I feel that this theory can be applied more readily to commercial mass media genres, such as the “Star Wars” screenplays, than to literary writing, at least in terms of plot.

On the other hand, I can see that the archetypes are invaluable as guides for creating character types in fiction. More about character at a later posting.

Another important genre distinction is that between literary fiction and creative non-fiction. Truman Capote’s  non-fiction work “In Cold Blood” (1966 ) is looked on as the ultimate true crime novel. Based on painstaking research and interviews, Capote used the story of the cold-blooded killing of a family in rural Kansas, and his investigation of the crime, as the plot for his novel. It is written brilliantly, employing all the techniques of the best fictional writing: strong characterisation, realistic sounding dialogue, vivid imagery, and narrative suspense, without wavering from the facts. (Apart, perhaps from the ending, where he improvises a little; endings are often difficult for this type of writing).

One of the first  attempts at a creative non-fiction novel in Australia was “Poppy” by Drusilla Modjeska (Penguin 1990), in which the author recounts her mother’s life; it is well told but lacks the dramatic, page-turning aspect of plot-driven fiction. A past master at this subjective type of writing is Helen Garner, whose “The First Stone” is now a classic, as well as a cause of ongoing controversy for student discussion in Creative Writing Courses in Australian universities.

“Memoir” has taken on a slightly different aspect within this new context. It still belongs within the category of non-fiction and refers to first person narration that focuses on a particular aspect or period of a person’s life.  Memoir “sticks to the facts” but especially today, often employs creative techniques, rather than the more traditional relating of events in a life. Patti Miller has been teaching “Life Story Writing” courses in Sydney for two decades or more, and believes that you should signal to the reader when diverting from the facts and sliding into the imagination. She does this in her book “The Last One Who Remembers” when she imagines the lives of her maiden aunts now deceased.

Most fiction is based on one’s experience, however the connections are concealed behind invented characters, settings and names. Many writers are wary of “treading on the toes” of living relatives and  friends when they recount true events. It is easier and less constricting to invent, rather than to recount the facts.

Lee Gutkind, an American author, is looked on as the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction today. He is the editor of a Creative Non-fiction journal and the author of Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction.

More about genre in future postings.

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