I Am Completely Beside Myself: Thoughts on Genre, Writing, and Karen Joy Fowler

fowlerThis isn’t a review, because good reviewers don’t pause at the 67% mark on their Kindle and start typing. This is more a series of midpoint musings on Karen Joy Fowler’s Pen/Faulkner-winning and Man Booker-nominated We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and what it’s like to wander outside speculative fiction and fall wholeheartedly in love with another kind of book.

First, I refuse to talk very much about the plot, because it was such a delight to read it for myself un-spoiled. Barbara Kingsolver wrote a real review, if you’re one of those people who shook all the presents under the tree when you were a kid. All I can say is that it’s a thrilling and unique family drama narrated by the odd, inimitable, wonderfully dry Rosemary Cooke, who used to have a brother and sister but is now an only child.

Second, unless it ends in a three car pileup or a lightning strike or some other stupid, abrupt way, this book is phenomenal. It deals with heartbreak and betrayal, childhood and love, animal rights and academic psychology, with the same light grace, and tells a story that could easily be the cheesiest Disney channel movie in the universe if it weren’t so damn clever.

It’s also a good reminder to read outside my comfortable speculative fiction bubble.[1] Especially if I want to write, and write better–more freely, more knowingly, more like myself.

Admittedly, a Karen Joy Fowler is a pretty short walk outside the genre. She started out writing sci-fi short stories, and won the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards before making the almost alchemical transition to mainstream literary success. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves can’t be mistaken for fantasy, though,[2] despite the highly suspicious number of Star Wars references.

Anyway. It turns out that, for a genre all about rule-breaking and boundary-stretching, SFF comes with a whole pile of conventions, rules, and assumptions. Your first line had better be a hell of a hook, introducing both the plot movement and the speculative element in one powerhouse of but-wait-there’s-more advertising. Make the idea super, super original, but hey, we’re all here for the characters really. Introspective pondering is for literary-wannabes, so there better be actual stuff happening. And by the way, move it the hell along.[3]

Of course, these are not universally enforced within the genre–as with most other laws, the top 1% is more or less exempt. But the existence of such conventions means that SFF readers taken as a whole (which they can’t be) tend to have certain expectations about plot, pacing, character arcs, and exposition. In general, we/they want tightly-paced action-packed adventures with efficient characterization, infused with the inventively unreal.[4]

Ancillary Justice is perhaps the best recent example of what happens when an author excels with each single piece of that formula—a damn fine piece of intelligent sci-fi, woven so tightly you can hardly tell warp from weft.[5] As Leckie herself said in an interview:

“Often new writers are advised to make sure every scene in a story is doing at least two things, but I’ve found that when I write short, two is too few. Every scene has to be doing as much work as it possibly can, and each sentence has to have a justification.”

But reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has reminded me that there are other kinds of readers and writers in the world (an audacious claim, I know). And some of us/them enjoy sprawling, introspective narratives that treat their characters like cautious lovers, who must be approached slowly to be seen clearly. There are books filled with extraneous information, distractions, childhood memories, musings, tidbits of research, and more historical context that could ever be strictly necessary.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves starts with this:

“Those who know me know will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child.”

Like, whoah, slow down there. But as it turns out, this is a stay-up-late, neglect-the-dishes, tell-your-significant-other-it’s-grilled-cheese-for-dinner kind of book. All written in this unhurried, subtle, quietly likable tone. Without a single explosion, battle, alien invasion, or quest to destroy the one ring. Again, there’s sure as hell nothing wrong with alien invasions and magic rings. God knows I’ve read and loved more than my fair share.

But…as someone still trying to figure out what kind of writer I am, or will be, or want to be, or have it in my power to one day aspire to become, it gives me pause. It makes me think there’s room for all kinds of styles and voices. And maybe I shouldn’t worry quite so much about cramming my writing into the shapes and sizes dictated by my how-to-write-speculative-fiction research, should accept the necessary failures of experimentation, should be braver.

Or maybe I should just read more widely.

——

[1] But like, don’t think this is the first non-magical book I’ve ever read. I have a small circle of modern writers (Byatt, Rushdie, Adichie, McCarthy, Morrison, Allende) and a rather larger circle of dead people I return to regularly. This is just the one I’m reading right now that’s making me think about genre, style, and convention.

[2] Unless Fern suddenly develops telepathy or something. Again, I haven’t finished the book. Bad reviewer.

[3] All of these elements are actually great advice and will improve your writing 999 times out of 1,000 unless you happen to be Salinger’s more-talented long-lost sister or something. I don’t want to sound like I hate speculative fiction or the helpful editorial advice offered by its readers, writers, and publishers. As our President might say: Let me be clear. I love it, and find it a diverse and ever-changing field characterized by charm, bravery, and that elusive element of the unreal I live and die for.

[4] Again, these are all super good ideas, and many of my favorite books and stories adhere strictly to this formula.

[5] See? What did I say.

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10 comments

  1. One of the “new” books I regret not reading last year. Need to amend that.

    [6] Which is why I hope you’ll embrace your gut-intuition and just go with it because, yeah, that canned SF publication advice might be good for marketing but bad for good readers who want more than just a blurbable book.

    1. Well, we’ll see. The canned advice is coming from some really good places, and seems to cover a lot of the new-writer sins of slow pacing and exposition.

      But. I’m always more impressed with those books you can’t put down and you don’t know why, where you hope there’s MORE meandering because each meander is secretly valuable.

  2. This looks like a great book. I’d seen it mentioned on a few other sites in various feeds, but now I’m really curious. I’ll have to give it a gander. 🙂

      1. That’s okay. I have the pleasant habit of skimming over any details of the book when reading reviews. 😉 All I know is the title and author, and that it should be read! I’m going to enjoy myself, haha.

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