Thursday, April 03, 2008

Books: Hopeful monsters, Sharp Teeth, and a defense of mutant genre literature.

Very recently, Curt over at the Groovy Age of Horror (forgive me for not yet fixing my sidebar Curt) wrote a thoughtful defense of repetition and cliché in genre fiction. Check it out and then hustle on back 'cause it is well worth your time.

Curt's spirited defense is part of a broad movement (a movement in which Curt could be counted among the vanguard of) to renew, revitalize, and reassess the role and value of genre literature. In academia, this began in the 1980s and '90s with the second generation of postmodern criticism. The early postmodernists, despite their rebellious and playful attitudes, were still very much classicists. It would take a second wave of literary and cultural critics, all thinkers who began with the assumptions of postmodernism, to toss out the old high/low culture dichotomy and bring academic methods to the study of popular texts, especially genre works.

During this same period, within the publishing world, the new genre crusade was fought on two fronts. First, genre masters old and new were revitalized. There was a hunt for "ignored geniuses" that somewhat resembled the '60s hunt for prototypical blues men. No ground was more fertile than mystery (always the genre with "most favored outsider" status) and sci-fi. Hammett and Chandler and Jim Thompson got the trade paperback treatment. Leonard and Ellroy and King started getting glowing full-page profiles from establishment book reviewers. Vintage launched a project to bring every Philip K. Dick novel back into print (a project which, honestly, threatens rather than preserves his rep). University presses are publishing anthologies of the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Finally, even H. P. Lovecraft was published in an archival quality Library of America edition. There was a degree to which this genius hunt still partook in some of the old snobbery. The conceit was that, among the pulpy rough, some diamonds had been overlooked. Though, by the mid-1990s, partially due to the success of the film Pulp Fiction, the floodgates opened. Anthologies of pop lit genres are now a dime a dozen. Because these re-issues and anthos are published by major publication houses, they are more widely available than they ever were before. Add to this the existence of organized networks of vintage dealers who trade over the web and I think it is safe to say that it's probably easier now to get your hands on the work of most major pop lit authors than it was back when they were first published. We may, despite the perpetually beleaguered tone of genre lit proponents, be in pop lit's true Golden Age.

Second, on the authorial side, genre is back in a big way. I believe that the McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales anthology was a real paradigm shifting moment in this cultural sea change. Edited by Michael Chabon (who had himself been launched from respectable cult status to national star status by a genre bending book about comic book creators and their heroes) this anthology still acts as a sort of manifesto for the new status of genre lit. It combined known genre titans – like Elmore Leonard, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King – with cult authors from what Terry Southern used to call "the quality lit game." Nearly all the alumni of that anthology have gone on to continue their genre experiments. And they do so in a literary climate that seems uniquely welcoming to genre tropes and trappings. Even literary giants like Philip Roth have gotten in on the act: his alternate history The Plot Against America is part of a long sci-fi tradition of historical what-ifs.

Although genre lit's proponents continue to lay siege to the castle, they've already got the throne. Take a look at the NY Times bestselling hardcover fiction list and you get three mystery novels, a decidedly romanticized look at how amnesia makes a Scrooge-ish old lady a better person, and a romance novel by a woman who spent some time writing DC's re-launched Wonder Woman series. One of the common refrains of the standard genre jeremiad is a list of a few novels by genre masters - say Hammett, James M. Cain, and Budd Schulberg - followed by the bold claim that academics just don't have anything to tell us about these narrative masters. This, of course, ignores that within American academia courses and academic papers featuring works by these authors are about as common, if not more so, as those featuring, say, Nobel Prize winners Anatole France and George Simeon.

This is genre fiction's day.

Now, in the same vein, but in a different direction, I'm going to use Toby Barlow's debut book, Sharp Teeth, as a defense of experimentation in fiction. First, let's talk about the book at hand.

Sharp Teeth is a curious book. On one hand, it is clearly a work of genre fiction. It is about gangs of werewolves going to war in modern Los Angeles. The outline of the plot will be familiar to anybody with even a passing knowledge of the werewolf sub-genre. Los Angeles is home to several warring packs of werewolves. These packs feud with one another while hiding their existence from the human populace that would destroy them if they found out. Against this backdrop, we play out a love story between a dogcatcher named Anthony and a "dog" (the werewolves prefer the term dogs and, in full transformation, are often mistaken for conventional canines) who is known throughout the book only as "she." Barlow plays slightly with the genre conventions: the werewolves are given a vaguely Native American origin story and, within limitations, they can control their transformations (thought this doesn't always work – the smell of frying meat at a fast food joint causes a few dogs to wig out, transform, and slaughter everybody inside). However, these tweaks to the standard werewolf lore are still well within what I think most of us would consider standard fare.

So, what's so unusual about Sharp Teeth? Most explicitly, Barlow wrote Sharp Teeth as an epic length free-verse poem. It isn't a "novel" in the conventional sense. In fact, it was recently nominated by the National Critics Circle in the Best Poetry category, making it perhaps the first werewolf horror story to have a shot at the title of "Best Poetry Book of the Year." (Though the prize for the first extended wolf/person poetic work must go legendary Beat poet Diane di Prima's thematically unified collection Loba, published in 2005.) Structurally, this frees up the author the way the invention of montage techniques freed up Silent Era filmmakers. In fact, as poetry, Barlow's book is middling at best. But the freedom it gives his storytelling is exhilarating. Barlow cuts between locations and time frames with manic speed. He puts demands on the reader that traditional storytelling does not. If the plot is a collection of standard werewolf riffs, the form of the book requires the reader examine their knowledge of the werewolf clichés and use them as tools for understanding the mosaic of experiences and scenes that Barlow presents.

Aside from this, Barlow makes a series of clever narrative choices that, I think, undermine the traditional werewolf story in smart ways. Some of these are played for laughs. For example, these werewolves don't magically become super-specimens of humanity. We see them doing wind sprints up and down their home stairs to prevent chunkification. Barlow also works in some surprising characterizations. Lark, one of the more sinister gang leaders, spends some time on the lam hiding out as the pet of a lonely and emotionally needy young woman. Despite his violently ambitious streak, he finds himself enjoying his servile domesticity and ultimately must make a decision to remain a beast of the night, constantly hunted and hunting in a life and death struggle with other dogs, or become a pet, protected and free from responsibility in a gilded cage. These touches, and nearly every character gets a few pleasingly unexpected moments, give the book a welcome depth of feeling and humanity. Finally, there's the humor. Although there is plenty of agony and gore, we also get slapstick and puns – including an extended riff on the idea of card-playing dogs. In a way, these touches are all connected to the form of Barlow's work. Just by choosing such an odd form, Barlow telegraphs to the reader that genre expectations are going to be subverted, including an open ended conclusion that is either the perfect way to end this hybrid what-is-it or a really frustrating cop out, depending on your point of view.

So, what does all this have to do with genre? The key to genre literature is repetition. Curt's insights into the nature of genre lit speak to this point. Genres are born and die to the degree that recognizable elements within them are reproduced. Let's take an example from film history. In the early days of film, there was a recognizable "train film" genre. Images of trains captured in motion were a draw for early filmmakers and audiences. I won't even attempt to explain why, but somehow trains and their passengers where something of an obsession with the inventors of film art. Though it now resembles a western, the famous "The Great Train Robbery" was, to audiences of the time, a "train film." But, ultimately, the elements that would become "the western" and not the elements that made the "train film" were reproduced and one genre died while another was born.

Curt's essay locates some of the root need for repetition and the pleasure it gives us in Freudian theories of childhood development. Personally, I believe it goes deeper than that. It is a biological adaptation. Humans are pattern-seeking animals. The ability to see patterns and predict the their outcome has a massive impact on our ability to survive. To the degree that this ability is important, nature has provided that the discovery and manipulation of patterns would be pleasurable. It is like reproduction: sexual pleasure isn't a biological end in and of itself, but if it feels so good that it will hopefully drive enough of us to do enough lovin' to make up for any non-reproductive behaviors we might, as a species, engage in. As a strategy, it's been very successful. In the same token, engaging in the play of patterns is pleasurable for its own sake as a way of sharpening our abilities for when it counts. I quote Brian Boyd, long time editor of Nabokov and proponent of such an evolutionary literary theory:

Art is a form of cognitive play with pattern. Just as communication exists in many species, even in bacteria, and human language derives from but redirects animal communication along many unforeseen new routes, so play exists in many species, but the unique cognitive play of human art redirects it in new ways and to new functions.

Play exists even in the brightest invertebrates, like octopi, and in all mammals in which it has been investigated. Its self-rewarding nature means that animals with flexible behavior—behavior not genetically programmed—willingly engage in it again and again in circumstances of relative security, and thereby over time can master complex context-sensitive skills. The sheer pleasure of play motivates animals to repeat intense activities that strengthen and speed up neural connections. The exuberance of play enlarges the boundaries of ordinary behavior, in unusual and extreme movements, in ways that enable animals to cope better with the unexpected.

This is, I think, the secret to the pleasures of genre literature. We're simultaneously wired for and wired by our repeated exposure, in the context of playful pleasure, artistic patterns. Though we don't go in for completely repetitious work. Again, Boyd:

If information is chaotic, it lacks meaningful pattern and can’t be understood. If on the other hand it is completely patterned, we need not continue to pay attention, since the information is redundant: indeed the psychological process of habituation switches attention off if a stimulus remains, if the pattern of information can be predicted. The most patterned novel possible would repeat one letter, say q, over and over again—a queue no reader would want to wait in.

I kept his joke in there. He's a Nabokov scholar. They think that sort of thing is the limit. You'll have to forgive him. The point is that even the most avid genre fan requires some variation, within the limits of the pleasure-giving pattern, or the input becomes monotonous. Hence, within the horror context, we get fast or slow zombies, magical or scientific vampires, and so on. Artists, who literally thrive on attention, capture the attention of their readers by altering the input without violating the pattern. Too much pattern violation and the information becomes white noise.

In a way, there's an evolutionary parallel. The slight tweaks represent the minor transcription errors and other random quirks of DNA reproduction that give rise to genetic variation. Like most mutations, the variations in genre lit are minor. They may confer some benefit on the work (in terms of being an influence on other genre writers and hold the attention of the audience) but the overall difference doesn't impact the species, which is to say genre, as a whole.

Enter the hopeful monsters.

Using this evolutionary metaphor as our framework (and it is, in this discussion, just a metaphorical framework – the intentionality of artistic creation means that we are not dealing with random mutation and therefore we are not dealing with a truly evolutionary process), we can propose a role for genre warping works like Sharp Teeth. Experimental genre fictions - like House of Leaves, Sharp Teeth, and so on – are hopeful monsters. From the brilliant (and quite sexy) Olivia Judson, author and science columnist for the The New York Times:

The term [hopeful monsters] was introduced in the 1930s by a geneticist called Richard Goldschmidt. He was interested in the question of how radical changes in morphology evolve.

As an example of radical change, he gave flatfish — the flounder and its relations. These are descended from fish with the usual fishy symmetry: the same left-right symmetry that we have. Larval flounders have it, too. But as adults, flounders have a profound asymmetry — one side has been completely flattened. What’s more, they have deformed, twisted skulls, and an eye that has migrated from one side of the face to the other. It’s as though you had both eyes on the same side of your nose. How did they get this way?

Goldschmidt speculated that big changes like this could be caused in one step by a mutation acting on the developing embryo. Most such mutations, he suggested, would produce individuals that were plain monstrous, and doomed to die without issue. But every so often, one of these mutations would happen in an environment where it could be beneficial. Then, the individual sporting it would be a hopeful monster, because it might have an evolutionary future as the founder of a new lineage.

I propose that genre mutants like Sharp Teeth are the literary equivalent of hopeful monsters. They, in a single step, introduce massive formal changes in an effort to permanently shift or create new paths for the evolution of a genre. It is important to note that this isn't always productive. As Goldschmidt theorized of massive biological mutation, most such leaps are doomed to failure. This is where proponents of "experimentation for experimentation's sake" miss the boat. Most experiments fail. If their success was assured, they wouldn't be an experiment. However, the hopeful monsters, those that do pass on some of their conventions, represent perhaps the most exciting growth potential for the genre as a whole.

Though, one might ask, why should we care? If we gain pleasure from the current patterns, what is the point in evolving them further? This is a valid question. To go back to the evolution metaphor, even without the engine of mutation, natural selection in the form of consumer tastes would ensure a certain level of evolutionary change no matter what. From a literary perspective, you could go along recombining the tried and true elements of a genre in various combos for decades, possibly centuries, before exhausting artistic possibilities. However, there is a downside to this. Let's revisit Boyd's theory of play for a moment. We aren't just wired to see patterns; the patterns wire us to see them. Repetition of the same pattern over and over again basically wears a groove in our psyches. Surprise, a denser pattern, new and disruptive data has an intellectual value:

Expectations are possible because the world and its objects and events fall into patterns. But we learn more from the surprising than from the expected, since surprise signals something new worth notice. Stories fall into patterns of patterns, which storytellers can play with to arouse, satisfy, defeat, or surprise expectations—and no wonder that expectation and surprise drive so much of our interest in story.

New patterns, denser patterns, surprising patterns rewire the brain to see more. And that's the value in mutants like Sharp Teeth. This is not to say that experimental fiction is inherently better than genre fiction that "plays by the rules," so to speak. In fact, a truly successful hopeful monster starts a new line of development and becomes the template for a genre. An experimental novel that works is just tomorrow's genre lit. But I feel that it is important, for the health of a genre, to not attempt the impossible and try to stop mutation. Defenders of genre lit often attack hopeful monsters as the product of sterile intellectualism, as if they were created in the spirit of spite and condescension. Rather, they should be accepted for what they are: the necessary mutants that, live or die, are the best proof that a genre still has a future.

Sheeh. That's a lot to say, "Read Sharp Teeth and support your local hopeful monster."


SpaceJack said...

Great post! That was a lot of fun to read. I don't have a lot to add since it's mostly just making me think.

P.S. sorry, I can't resist pointing out: Quilty... a quilt usually has a pattern on it. (Hey, it's a book I actually read before seeing the movie!)

CRwM said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. So glad, in fact, I'm going to allow any and all bad Nabokovian puns to post without interference.

Curt Purcell said...

I'm flattered that this uses my repetition post as a point of departure, but I'm even more impressed by the ways you develop the argument. I'll post about this, for sure, but I want to read it another time or two and give it further thought.

CRwM said...


Thanks for posting the essay that inspired it.

Your entire series of posts on the elements of genre fiction is top notch stuff. It got me thinking about why I like what I do. And for that, I owe you one.

Al hombro del pirata said...

That was just amazing. I'm glad someone sees through Sharp Teeth