It seems that there is not a professional writer out there who is not yet tired of the question “Am I a writer?” or “How do I know I am a writer?” So much so that I felt compelled to answer the question myself.
A more pressing question for me is, am I a genre writer? I fear that I am not. And here is why. The best selling writers in the world are all genre writers. According to Wikipedia, the only non-genre writers in the top twenty best selling writers in the world are William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin, all of whom had quite a bit of time to achieve that status. (Actually, you might say that Shakespeare was one of the earlier genre writers.) Genre writers are in great demand. They seem to get published a lot. Most of the books you see in book stores are genre books. If you are not a genre writer, your book will be found in a back shelf if you are lucky.
In order to become a genre writer, you have to be a genre reader, which I must admit that I am not. I have to push myself to read genre books. I see the workmanship in them. The best selling ones are usually very well designed. James Patterson’s books are so well designed I can picture the story board. They hold my interest, but more for their artistry than the immersion into the imaginary world. It is like looking at a netsuke sculpture of a philosopher’s house. I am mesmerized, but more by the astounding technique of the artist than by the story.
As a child I loved magic tricks. I never became very good at them, but I loved to perform them and I loved to watch them. Magic is a performance art, but less intuitive and more cerebral than dancing. A dancer projects emotions. A magician presents expertise. To me, genre books are magic performances. They expertly juggle plot points until they fit together in seemingly gravity defying ways. The outcome is predictable but you are awed anyway.
I have said it before and I will say it again. I would much rather be E. L. James than Faulkner. But you do not choose a genre. The genre chooses you. I am now in the process of constructing a Indy Jones-like story. For the first time in my life I am using plot constructing devices like Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. It is taking shape nicely. The one thing that might keep me from finishing this project is my personal doubts about being a genre writer.
I take solace from the career of Maurice Leblanc. He was a serious writer who met little commercial success until he switched to writing mysteries, created the character Arsene Lupin, and became a legend. An unsuccessful literary writer, he was able to become a successful genre writer, though I doubt he read very many genre novels. Then again, back in his day, there were not very many of them.
He is one of the reasons genre writers are considered something below serious non-genre literary writers. People like him who have failed at literary works have become fabulously successful genre writers. But a lot have tried to make the same transition and failed.
Some writers take the reverse course. They become successful genre writers first, then try their hand at literary writing. In fiction we have seen characters like Paul Sheldon, protagonist of Stephen King’s Misery, a hugely successful author of Victorian romance novels, but one who really wants to write gritty inner city stories. He is mirrored by J. K. Rowling, a real life billionaire genre writer who, after the success of the Harry Potter series, wrote an obsessively realistic portrait of modern social ills. The story of the genre writer who wants to be taken seriously is a genre unto itself. It gives the impression that genre writing is somehow easier than serious writing. Genre fiction certainly has more commercial opportunities. But that does not make it easier.
In fact, sometimes it is a lot easier to spill your guts than to create an imaginary world. We do not spill our guts, because we are all rape victims who want to keep quiet about the most painful memories of our lives. We do not want to be drama queens about being beaten to a pulp by our drunken, crazy parents. Partly because we blame ourselves to some extent. Partly because it seems prissy. Other people had it worse. Partly because you don’t want to rat out your parents or tell the world about your coward brother, now a respected professional, who let your parents do what they did, then remembers the incidents differently. Partly because you are already a man in the world. You have your own career and reputation in a field that has nothing to do with writing. Partly because you still have secrets your wife does not know about. So instead of telling the world about your shame soaked secret life, you construct a fictional story about fairies and wizards and werewolves. Maybe, you don’t have to make up anything. Maybe, if you had the courage to spill your guts, your own life story is all you need to tell. Maybe, it is easier to write about the stuff you know is universal pain, the common feelings that all victims can relate to, the shit drenched humiliation that we all know. Maybe, you should just fucking give it up.
But then you know it is not that simple. Over the years, through that failed first novel, through numerous drafts that went out with the trash, through all the quasi poetry that you doodled on your notebooks during class, you have learned that writing is not therapy. Maybe it is for you, but it is not if you want a publisher. The purpose of a book is to transport the reader to another world. A book must be crafted.
Once upon a time, you had a happy childhood. You were just an introverted kid who happily played with your imagination. You told stories to your friends and family. Then things got bad. And then your sexuality kicked in and made things worse. Then it overlapped with your teen angst and you had your first ever exposure to real literature. Then you started doodling fragments of prose on your notebook instead of studying math because your parents believed counseling was a waste of time and psychiatric illness was something to be ashamed of. In the process, the story teller child became a writer. Just what kind of writer you still don’t know.
That happy child who made up fun stories to tell was a genre writer. Maybe you just want to go back to that. Maybe what you are really doing is trying to put the genie back into the bottle. Maybe you are trying to look away from the experiences that turned you to literature in the first place. The genre novel looks, on the surface, like it has nothing to do with the sorry experiences that made you a writer. Isn’t that comforting? Is it really just commercial success that you want when you look away from all that? How can you go back to writing after you passed fifty, you have a successful career, a great family and still claim that you are doing it for the money?
Then again, maybe you are finally at peace with all that anger. Maybe you are over it, and you can finally tell the stories that happy child might have told had he grown up with less traumatic experiences. Maybe it is time to put it all down. Bury the hatchet. Let it go. If you can do that, then maybe you can finally grow up and become a genre writer.
A genre writer is not a cheaper, sold-out version of a serious literary writer. You may be destined to become a literary writer and you are just deceiving yourself when you try to write your genre novel. Or maybe, you are a genre writer with a literature complex and just want to be taken seriously. But nobody is taking a step down from the so-called serious literature when they go into genre writing. You do not choose your genre. Your genre chooses you.