Michael Noll teaches writing at Texas State University and edits Read to Write Stories, a site that offers writing exercises based on published stories, novel excerpts, and essays. His work has been published at American Short Fiction, Chattahoochee Review, Narrative Magazine, Huffington Post, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and The Good Men Project. He was formerly the writer in residence at the Katherine Anne Porter House in Kyle, TX. He’s currently at work on a story collection set in rural Kansas and a novel, Seven Attacks of the Dead.
Michael is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “How to Write Literary Genre Fiction” on Saturday, March 5 at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: Could you briefly explain ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ for our readers?
Michael Noll: Some people resist defining “genre” and “literary,” but I think that’s mostly because they’re afraid of offending someone: what do you mean my novel is genre? Here’s a simple definition: If a bookstore shelves a novel somewhere besides general fiction, then it’s an example of some sort of genre. There are many: detective, crime, sci-fi, fantasy, historical, spy thriller, international thriller, psychological thriller, erotica, etc. And within these genres, there are sub-genres. In fantasy, for example, there is high fantasy, low fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy, and many others. If you know the differences between those, and if you’re thinking, sheesh, he only mentioned a couple, then you’re probably working within the fantasy genre.
Literary fiction is more general, but there are, sort of, some sub-genres: coming-of-age, discovering one’s identity, war stories, comedy of manners, etc.
One of the common answers about the difference between the two is that literary writers care more about words, but I don’t really buy this. I’ve read literary novels with generic, thoughtless language and genre novels with really sharp sentences. I will say that genre novels and stories tend to adhere to a few rules. They play with those rules, but if you’re writing in high fantasy, there’d better be some elves and trolls and magic.
Scribe: What came first: your love of genre fiction or literary fiction?
MN: Without a doubt, I was reading genre fiction first. In fact, it was a long time before I encountered a literary novel. Like most kids, I loved the Hardy Boys mysteries and the Hank the Cowdog series. As I grew older, I fell in with John Bellairs’ spooky novels and Lloyd Alexander’s high fantasy worlds. Eventually I got into Frederick Forsyth, John Grisham, Michael Crichton, and, of course, The Lord of the Rings. More recently, I thought Gone Girl was gripping and couldn’t put it down.
When I did encounter literary fiction, it seemed an awful lot like genre fiction. So, I read The Adventures of Pinocchio and Edgar Allen Poe. I read mostly literary fiction now, but I find that I love novels that do a little of both. My imagination tends to run toward the fantastic.
Scribe: When did you first realize the interesting possibilities created by fusing the worlds of genre and literary fiction?
MN: The fusion has been happening for a while. Hamlet has a ghost. Macbeth has witches. I grew up Catholic, and so my childhood was full of stories about Noah’s arc, Jonah and the whale, and Sampson pulling the temple down on himself. Some people read these stories as literal, of course, but I think most people understand them as something a bit different. Perhaps the most famous poem in the English language, Milton’s Paradise Lost, is about Lucifer. I think it’s really only in the last few hundred years that we’ve created a genre, literary fiction, that is somehow separate from the fantastic worlds that were historically standard fare for storytellers.
Many writers today are playing with genre mash-ups. Kelly Link writes about fairies. Karen Russell has a story collection called Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Manuel Gonzales wrote a zombie story. George Saunders dabbles in sci-fi. And, of course, there’s magic realism.
Scribe: What do writers miss out on if they don’t consider breaking out of genre elements and experimenting? Conversely, what do they miss out on if they don’t ever consider incorporating genre elements?
MN: It’s possible to write straight realism and be brilliant. Many writers do this. That said, the human imagination isn’t really working in a realist mode all the time. Look how many books about angels there are—and not on the fiction shelves. I know many people who have seen ghosts. People pray to God in the expectation that God will respond. Most of us are superstitious in one way or another. We buy Powerball tickets even though we have a better chance of growing a third foot out of our nose. Someone once read my aura—just walked up and gave me a reading. There’s a psychic down the road from my house. Are all of these people delusional? Maybe. I can’t really say. I’ve got my own mystic ideas, I suppose.
What I will say is this: if stories and novels are trying to capture the human experience, then everything I just mentioned is part of it. You can write as if you’re above such business, but I think fiction ought to drop us into a character’s world. If that world, from the character’s point of view, includes ghosts or angels or whatever, then so should the story. Plus, all those genre elements are fun. I’ve never seen anyone walk away from a good ghost story—never. We’re hardwired to pay attention to such stuff.
— Thanks, Michael!
Click here to register for Michael’s class.
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