Friday, June 18, 2010

"mainstream" fiction

as a small child, i definitely had some very, very girly tendencies - i was some version of a princess every halloween, happiest in my pretty little dresses, and in possession of about 100 times the FDA lifetime allowance of barbies and barbie accessories (the pink convertible, the barbie ice cream maker, the pool, the dream house, the pets, i could go on and on).  thankfully, responsible adults had enough good sense to also provide me with other entertainment like legos and many different types of books, to enroll me in a good variety of extracurricular activities (gymnastics, swim team, violin lessons, girl scouts, etc.) and summer programs (horseback riding, sailing, water sports, academic programs) and to take me to both artsy and sciencey types of museums.  they taught me to bake and (later) how to change my oil, check the fluids in my car, use jumper cables, change tires and air filters, etc.  plus, i had a brother who refused to play barbies with me (even when i pointed out that ken was a boy), so i learned to compromise in order to have a readily accessible playmate: we played outside, turning a plastic pool into a boat when a nearby stream periodically flooded (i'm pretty sure that one was not parentally sanctioned), i became vaguely aware of the world of video games and superheroes, and i learned to throw a football with a lovely spiral motion.  all of this is to say, i have spent much of my adult life feeling pretty grateful for the experiences that i had believed helped me become a well rounded person.  so you can imagine my surprise to find out that i am not nearly as well rounded as i had believed myself to be.

i discovered one major deficit while attending a panel discussion of a book of short stories that neil gaiman (one of J's much enjoyed authors) recently edited.  let me just say i am not sure i've ever had any strong feelings of like or dislike for genres like "science fiction" or "fantasy" (although i guess the word "fantasy" as the name of a genre does sound a bit pejorative).  i've never, ever liked star trek - but truth be told, i disliked it without (i think) having ever seen it.  in that case, i guess it was kind of like rejecting a religion based on the behavior of the followers, without having much understanding of the alleged belief system.  but that is how i rejected star trek.  i liked the x-men movies.  having watched star wars as a generally over-extended teenager, i am not sure i liked or disliked the movies (it turns out that napping during the middle third of a film makes for an inordinately difficult time making sense of the plot).  ultimately, i think i decided that i liked movies and books with well developed characters and an engaging plot, or basically, anything that made me laugh - whether elements of science fiction/fantasy were or were not included was not something that entered my consciousness.  however, it turns out that there is a whole subculture concerned with the state of the genre.  i met the new york chapter at the talk.

hundreds of people lined up to get in.  having never read anything by any of the authors on the panel, i only went because J wanted to go (and he indulges my idiosyncrasies - he is a very good sport about things like taking me to see spirit of the marathon and coming to races ... and eventually, running).  my first clue that i was not nearly the well rounded individual i believed myself to be was the culture shock i felt when i looked up and down the line.  while there were many "mainstream"-looking people, there were just as many people who easily belonged to their own subculture.  and there were at least a couple who could have easily been caricatures rather than real people.  i overheard one guy behind us who had trouble containing his excitement (i felt too sorry for him to turn around and see what he looked like).   every so often this guy would honk.  seriously, honk - like a duck.  i think he was kind of laughing while breathing in or something - and it made a honking sound.  there was a great proliferation of "dorky" glasses - not the thick, giant, round dorky of the past glasses.  rather, the angular kind that are meant to be "cool dorky" ... i think.  don't quote me on that.   there were skinny girls hiding behind many layers of clothes and knit hats.  there were t-shirts to identify cult followings (of what, i'm really not sure - but followers recognized each other).  i am sure that it is just the case that when people with a similar interest (any interest) get together, that interest becomes more salient ... and that anyone who knows very little about the interest is likely to experience a bit of culture shock.  but they were a very friendly in-group ... which minimized some of the culture shock.

so ... after story time was over (after authors read excerpts from their contributions to the book), the cult followers asked questions at open microphones.  and this is where my upbringing failed me most.  what i have pieced together is this: there is something that is "mainstream" fiction ... and there is something that is "genre" fiction.  and while my inclination was to think that "mainstream" fiction would be applied to popular fiction - the fiction that the population at large is buying and reading, this is apparently not what was meant (? - again, don't quote me. i'm confused).  i got the impression that one panelist saw mainstream and genre fiction as blurry distinctions (and i can dig that - though i think categories can be used to simplify things that one does not need to process deeply, i am not a big fan of smacking labels on things, putting them in boxes, and then ignoring the pieces that hang out over the edges).  i also got the impression that some thought of "mainstream" fiction as the fiction that wins awards, but doesn't make money.  and genre fiction was something that people buy and read, but can't win awards (because snooty academics say it is not worthy).  and then someone argued that what people typically think of as mainstream is actually genre fiction and vice versa.  well, that threw me for a loop because i was still trying to figure out what they thought was mainstream (or what they thought i thought was mainstream).  but, really, i don't think i ever got the significance of the question - what is the concern or controversy?  some group of writers is excluded from the snooty awards?  the organization of book stores is troublesome?  anyone?

as a final aside, it is quite disturbing to sit feet away and listen to an author read a story that provides far too much insight into the (hypothetical) mind of a serial killer.


  1. That sounds like it was an interesting cultural experience! I also enjoy Neil Gaiman, I have only read a few of his books. Sometimes his writing is too "smart" for me. Good Omens was one I had a hard time getting everything he was saying. I think he did a lot of popular culture references (or maybe not so popular) and I was always like, I don't get it!!

  2. maybe i should give him a chance :)... but i'm not sure i would know the references within that subculture anyway ...