Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I Was Genre When Genre Wasn't Cool

It Came From Del RioToday's guest contributor, Stephen Graham Jones, is an author whose most recent novel is the thriller Seven Spanish Angels. Before that, it was the bunnyheaded novel It Came from Del Rio and the Stoker finalist The Ones That Got Away. Next up is Zombie Bake-Off, a not-announced-yet one, then Once Upon a Time in Texas, Flushboy, Not For Nothing, and a couple he can’t talk about yet. Stephen’s been an NEA fellow, is an FSU grad, and teaches now at CU Boulder. He’s also kind of into horror.

In this article, he talks about the relationship between genre fiction and the academy, and why fantasy, horror, and science fiction are good things to bring to dinner parties.

Lev Grossman talks about those dinner parties where people find out you write fantasy. And, of course, ‘dinner party,’ that’s the world, isn’t it? It’s family reunions where your great aunt should get a gold medal for holding that smile on her face when you tell her the title of one of your books. It’s standing around in the hug ’n go lane at your kids’ elementary, whoever you just dropped that genre bomb on still trying to absorb the recoil. It’s your job, where everybody else is at least topically involved with ‘legitimate’ pursuits like buying, or selling, or making, things that, as they see it, interface with the real world, don’t escape it.

I should say too that for ‘fantasy,’ here, I’m subbing in ‘genre fiction,’ specifically horror, as that’s what I do the most of. I mean, I’ve done science fiction—do giant time-traveling caterpillars count as sci-fi?—I’ve done thrillers with bodycounts you’d need three pairs of hands to keep track of, I’ve had giant coyotes gulping people down and I’ve done heavily footnoted novelizations of horror movies that never existed. One of my last books has a bunny-headed zombie who shepherds chupacabras around Texas, and the sequel to it’s up soon, Aunt Nell.

When people hear you traffic in fantasy or any of the fantastic genres—‘fantastic’ in the sense of ‘remote from reality’—they get that embarrassed kind of smile, don’t they? Maybe tilting their head in a fake neck-stretch, to see if you’ve picked up any multi-sided die jewelry at the cons you surely dress up for.

Listen hard enough, you can hear yourself getting refiled in their mental rolodex. You can see their eyes shuffling.

And always that polite smile.

ConanThat hug ’n go lane I was talking about? There’s more to it. Last summer I was at a garage sale, and it turned out to be a guy I knew in passing, the dad of one of my daughter’s classmates. Like good people, we’d always chewed on whatever conversational taffy we had to when left together in this part of the auditorium, that part of the hall. However, this garage sale, he had a box of books over by his chair, was off-loading his horde of Conan. Of course I already had all the Conan a person could ever need for one lifetime, but come on: at these prices? I left with that particular treasure chest, but, more important, now there’s somebody up in front of the elementary when school lets out that . . . it’s like we know each other’s secret, like we know we’re the real people. Like everybody else is just fooling themselves about living authentic lives. We know that the only authentic place ever was the Hyborean Age.

However, as far I know, he thinks I’m just a fantasy reader. The horror, though, and writing that horror? As self-defeating as this sounds, at least with neighbors and other parents, I’m always kind of secretly pleased that their tastes don’t veer my way. Because: would you let your kid go to the house of the guy who wrote that stuff? I mean, like Romero says King says (according to Jason Zinoman in Shock Value), horror people are really the most well-adjusted and calm, maybe, as we foist all our nightmares off on you. But still, what’s going through people’s minds each time they make that connection between me and my books, it’s never “Oh, he must be well-adjusted and calm, I’m so happy for him,” it’s “This has to come from somewhere, doesn’t it?”

Like I can’t see what you’re thinking, too.

Like mine’s any worse.

And, that dinner party Grossman was talking about, it gets especially interesting when your co-diners are academics. And when you are too. Popular lit is only just now getting that tentative stamp of legitimacy in the ivory tower we won’t call Saruman’s. I mean, if the horror’s about a monster that comes to the mead hall some nights and rends people limb from limb, great, so long as it was hundreds and hundreds of years ago. And if you can use the horror to explain the gothic in such a way that it functions as a spyglass on the manners and anxieties of another age, then that’s even better. And talking demons are wonderful and beautiful and necessary, at least as long as the editions they first appeared in are now too delicate to touch. But start talking Jason Voorhees and zombies and Weird Tales and Herschell Gordon Lewis and EC Comics, and that can be another thing altogether.

It’s not completely the university’s fault, though. I suspect that this type of literary . . . pretentiousness, if I can call it that? ‘Prejudice’ is too harsh anyway, but whatever it is, it’s likely just an inevitable product of the university’s sense of itself as the arbiter of taste, as the security guard at the gates of culture, as the inspector 12 on the assembly line of Art. That’s a lot of responsibility to lay on yourself. In a valiant effort to keep from letting too much broken stuff through, then, what you can end up with is a bookshelf of very fixed size. What you can up with is a tweed brigade establishing (or inheriting, or not questioning) a canon and not letting anybody else in, be the lines drawn in race or culture or class, sex or gender or ethnicity, or, yes, commercial or successful or marketable, which is where genre lives, where fantasy lives, where horror does its bloody stuff.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting to a question a colleague asked me a few years ago, at a different dinner party, on a year when I had a horror novel getting attention from Hollywood: “When are you going to do something serious again?”

By their definition: never. I’m at a different restaurant now, and up here I’ve taught zombie courses and slasher courses and haunted house courses, and I’m looking to run a werewolf course soon. Because horror matters. Because the fantastic’s fantastic. Because keeping your thumb on the pulse of those bookshelves that spin, isn’t that one way to read the world, and maybe even figure out your place in it? And it doesn’t hurt that the students already have a taste for it. That they’ve grown up reading it. That they often go back there when we’re done with them.

Stranger Things HappenI’m not at all meaning to talk bad about Beowulf or Otranto, though, and I love me some Milton, and I use all three every chance I get. I just mention them because they’re the in-crowd at this high school of books, while the (contemporary) genre lit’s usually hiding out in the bathroom, passing a single cigarette around, waiting for the day when this is all over and they can start their real lives. The students need their Shakespeare and Joyce, no doubt, but I would argue they also need Stephen King and Wes Craven, Neal Gaiman and Kelly Link (three of these four have been or are English teachers, too, though I’m not so sure how that makes any kind of point other than that, yes, we can contribute to the making and buying and selling).

To say it different, I don’t so much want to teach a group of people that certain texts are hallowed, I want to show them that reading is hallowed, that these tools we’re using to peel through this book, that movie, they’re all-purpose, apply-anywhere, please. People who think, who engage reality, they make the world a better place, and that’s where I want to live.

So, yeah, I have gotten bad attention from important people for my horror teaching making a splash in the newspapers, which made that particular dinner party a bit awkward for a while. But there’s always dessert. And I write what I write, and it’s quite serious to me, and so long as I keep publishing, I’m not at all concerned with any kind of academic censure. And, for now anyway, I’m lucky enough to be on faculty with somebody writing a textbook on horror movies, and another colleague has a chapter in a recent book titled “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”—and he even knows that’s not how Tobe Hooper spelled it—and another colleague teaches that gothic horror I was talking about, and another is infecting the student body with cyberpunk and science fiction and Mieville, and, I mean, the chair of my department, he doesn’t just teach comic books, he preaches comic books, and was in Sleepaway Camp besides, and has more Batman tattoos than anybody I know.

The academy is changing. And maybe the whole reading culture. Just this year that bunnyheaded zombie novel of mine was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award, which seems kind of respectable, yes? And a novel I wrote about using a moose as a time-travel machine—we’ve all considered it at one time or another—it won the big book prize here on campus. The literary and the genre are flipping and flopping, are cross-pollinating, are trading baseball cards before school starts, and the end result is that professors aren’t the guardians of the bookshelf anymore, so much. We’re more like the rangers at the national park. Or, better yet, and I think I prefer this: the greeters at the Walmart that’s the world.

Come in, buy something, have a nice time. We’ve got something for everybody.

The Hunger GamesAs for the how and why of this, though, yeah. Did Harry Potter cast a spell, make all us pasty literate types step out into the sun, find our skin glittery, our fangs not as sharp as we thought? That might be part of it, but I’d opt for The Hunger Games model, which, really, is the business model the universities are kind of being forced into (see: a very public life-and-death competition), where the students aren’t our subjects, aren’t our clay to mold however we think best, but are somewhere between a client and a consumer. Which is to say their tastes are beginning to dictate what they see in the course catalog each semester. Their tastes are deciding who’s going to be left in the arena when the games are over.

However, why do their—and the public at large’s—tastes tend to veer towards the fantastic, be it horror or fantasy or science fiction, or the heightened drama of the thriller and the romance and the western? I think the key dynamic there is the need to engage the . . . the not-this-ness of another place, another space, an urge you always have a kid, but that often gets educated out of you. I mean, if we as a species didn’t want to visit places not our own, we never would have left the Great Rift Valley, right? Like Roddenberry was trying to tell us, we’re born to go other places. What we found out centuries ago, though, was that it’s not technology that delivers us, it’s imagination. And what better place to exercise that imagination, and exorcise the so-called real world, than fantasy, and horror, and science fiction.

And we always bring a little of that magic back, too. And sometimes we leave it in a box at a garage sale, and somebody walks away with, trying for all they’re worth not to grin too wide, because they’re a kid again for a few steps, and probably still will be at the dinner party later, so long as some cave monster doesn’t break down the door.

Or maybe even then.