Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Exploding Helicopter Clause

I used to take pride in how quickly I could read. Because I was committed to story, to discovering what happened next, I turned the pages so swiftly they made a breeze on my face. In college, for the first time, I deliberately slowed down. Because despite all the books I had gobbled up, I didn’t understand the careful carpentry of storytelling. Reading became less of an emotional experience and more of a mechanical inquiry. I kept a pen in hand, scribbling so many notes the pages of my books appeared spider-webbed. (...)

I came across an essay a few years ago called “How We Listen to Music” by the composer Aaron Copland. He identifies three planes of listening. The first, the sensuous plane, is the simplest. “You listen for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself.” I think it’s safe to say that this is the way most people dial in to the radio—when blasting down the freeway or washing dishes in their kitchen—for background noise, something to tap their feet to, a way to manipulate their mood, to escape. I think it is also safe to say that this is the way most people read. Stories and music have that same potent, primitive force. We bend an ear toward them as distractions from the everyday.

The second plane he calls the expressive. The listener leans forward instead of leaning back. They discern the expressive power of the notes and lyrics. Are there Satanic messages and Lord of the Rings references nested in “Stairway to Heaven”? What does Bob Dylan mean when he sings, “Woozle wazzle weezel whoa”? What is the piece trying to say? What is the piece about?

The third plane most listeners are not conscious of, what Copland identifies as the sheerly musical. The way music “does exist in terms of the notes themselves and their manipulation.” The rhythm, the melody, the harmonies, the tone colors—the principles of musical form and orchestration—what you can only identify through training and deep concentration.

Not all at once, but slowly, slowly, like a snake shedding its skin, I broke through each of these planes as a writer by first becoming a strenuous reader, able to engage with a text with critical literacy. Whereas before, I was committed purely to the sensuous, I could now recognize the larger orchestration of notes, the mechanics of the component parts. (...)

These days, literary fiction is largely owned by the academy, and academics are obsessed with taxonomy. Go to the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference some time if you want proof of this. Most of the panels consist of people trying to figure out what to call something—postmodernism, new masculinity, magical realism, post-industrialism—Midwest writer, mother writer, Asian writer, Caribbean writer, war writer—and whatever that label might require. I know it makes people feel better in a neat-freaky sort of way. Like balling their socks and organizing them in a drawer according to color. And I know it’s a talking point, a frame for discussion. But really, you nerdy fussbudget, when you start to worry over whether someone is literary or genre, or literary crossover (whatever that means), you are devoting valuable brain energy to something that ultimately doesn’t matter. These are phantom barricades that serve only to restrict. (...)

When hiking in the woods, I would strike a tree with a stick three times and tell my sister that was how you called Bigfoot. When playing on the beach, I imagined the long tuberous seaweed as the tentacles of a kraken. When eating at a restaurant, the waiters and the chef became cannibals who in the kitchen kept a storage locker full of bodies from which they hacked steaks and chops. I am different, and it is this difference that compels me to propose an aesthetic barometer. Let’s call it the Exploding Helicopter clause.

If a story does not contain an exploding helicopter, an editor will not publish it, no matter how pretty its sentences and orgasmic its epiphany might be. The exploding helicopter is an inclusive term that may refer, but is not limited to giant sharks, robots with lasers for eyes, pirates, poltergeists, were-kittens, demons, slow zombies, fast zombies, talking unicorns, probe-wielding Martians, sexy vampires, barbarians in hairy underwear, and all forms of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic mayhem.

I’m joking, but I’m not. I’m embracing what so many journals and workshops seem allergic to . . . Go ahead. Complain about genre. You’re allowed. The worst of it features formulaic plots, pedestrian language, paper-thin characters, gender and ethnic stereotypes and a general lack of diversity. I, too, cringe and stifle a laugh when I read lines like this one: “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.”

But while we’re at it, let’s complain about literary fiction. The worst of it features a pile of pretty sentences that add up to nothing happening. Maybe a marital spat is followed by someone drinking tea and remembering some distant precious moment and then gazing out the window at a roiling bank of clouds that gives them a visual counterpoint to their heart-trembling, loin-shivering epiphany.

It’s easy to grouse and make fun. Flip the equation and study what works best instead. Literary fiction highlights exquisite sentences, glowing metaphors, subterranean themes, fully realized characters. And genre fiction excels at raising the most important question:what happens next? What happens next? is why most people read. It’s what made us fall in love with books and made some of us hope to write one of our own some day, though we may have forgotten that if we’ve fallen under the indulgent spell of our pretty sentences.

Toss out the worst elements of genre and literary fiction—and merge the best. We might then create a new taxonomy, so that when you walk into the bookstore, the stock is divided according to “Stories that suck” and “Stories that will make your mind and heart explode with their goodness.”

by Benjamin Percy, LitHub | Read more:
Image: uncredited