IntraView #2: Karen Novak

Karen with Tree

SA: I read a chapter of Five Mile House last night and it’s beautifully written…there’s a heavy liquid feeling to it. I read it several times, actually, but the first time I got a little less than halfway into it (the first mention of the domestic deaths) and thought: should I read this? I knew if you showed me something horrible I wouldn’t be able to shrug it off because the writing had mass and momentum and was forcing me to believe despite the fact that I know better. If something is poorly written I have the luxury of sneering or shrugging but if it’s put together well I lose that option.
How do you write child murder without suffering? You’re either much tougher inside than I am or you’re paying some kind of price for handling the material.
KN: Yours was essentially the question I wanted to explore.  We had just moved from a thimble-sized town in upstate New York to Cincinnati–12 years ago, now–and at the time of our move, in North Carolina, a young mother named Susan Smith had drowned her young sons.  This, of course, a terrible, terrible tragedy.  What caught my attention, however, was the viciousness with which other mothers in the same town, it was a small town, attacked Smith’s actions.  Way beyond the expected responses of horrified shock or pity, these women were on camera clamoring for the right to pull the switch on the electric chair.  Instinct did the emotional math.  This was guilt speaking.  These other mothers, whose small children must have played and gone to school with the victims, had know those boys were in a dangerous situation; they’d known and done nothing.  How do you handle that?
How do you handle if it is your job to mediate families towards at least a couple hours of civil co-existence and the under-staffed office throws you into the contrapositive universe where you are only called to the scene too late to do your job?  How do you handle the inevitable implied questions of why you needed to fix families as your life’s work?  How do you handle it when fixing other people’s families is ruining your own?  And so on and so forth and in infinite the spiraling that leads to upness and downness and strangeness.  The three principle qualities of a quark. 
I handle it by reading quantum mechanics and a lot of poetry and staying the fuck away from fiction.  Like you, I have an imagination with no filters between the real and the fantasized.  It’s the price fiction writers pay for the ability to put the triggers of real experience on a page.  The price can be costly.  Fiction materials: films, books, especially music, must be chosen with immense care for long term reverb emotive effect.  I am not tough.  Very much the opposite. 
SA: The New York Times had this to say while reviewing your fourth and most recent book, The Wilderness: “Karen Novak’s first novel, ”Five Mile House” (2000), in which she introduced a police detective named Leslie Stone who could see dead people, was pretty strange. The second book in the series, ”Innocence” (2003), in which the spirits of murdered children clamored for Leslie’s attention, was stranger still. Now Novak has written something really weird.”
Forgetting for a moment the compliment inherent in a reviewer’s claim that something you’d written was so out of the ordinary that it was “weird”, do you agree? Do you set out to shock, disorient or disturb the reader?
KN: Before I set about coming to grips with the, “are you doing this to readers on purpose?” implications of your question, allow me to congratulate you on getting done what no one before you has yet to do: acknowledging that the Times review exists.  Not that the passage you quote is unfamiliar, but as a general rule—among other general rules such as keep breathing—I do not read my reviews. This practice is based on the wisdom of my much loved/much terrifying mentor, genius writer, miracle teacher Fred Busch: “If you give credence to the good reviews then you have to give credence to the bad ones.”  Writers have this kind of job.  Reviewers have that kind of job.  Unhappiness, confusion, and bar brawls are most often the result of confusing the two.
There is also the fact this review was published December 26, 2004, the same morning we learned of the tsunami that took a quarter of a million lives in the south Pacific. I forgot about the book section that day.
My true first concern, to the extent that it becomes an overriding neurosis manifested in the work, is that I not bore the reader or waste the reader’s time. Worse, that I dread insulting the reader’s intelligence by over-explicating the obvious. These concerns are also based on lessons from Fred. Fred passed away in February 2006, and since I haven’t yet begun to begin to find an entry into a way to grieve his loss, abiding by these lessons are my meager means of honoring the man.
SA: So there’s a sense of responsibility hanging over you as you work…
KN: Responsibility to be true to my characters while being clear for the reader, yeah.  After that, it’s all about trying to understand what the hell I’m doing.  Writing abounds with helpful but meaningless little dicta: “Show don’t tell” (then why is it storytelling?); “Write what you know” (well, won’t that be thrilling for both of us?). After you’ve been wrestling words into narrative long enough, you develop the intuitive leap of logic needed to fill in the blanks not left visible for filling. Show don’t tell is the pithier way of saying that telling a story is most compelling when told through showing a sequence of telling details.  Write what you know means write what you would want to read.  I want to read books that make me feel the way I felt when I first read Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, and Nabokov’s Lolita, and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and James’s Turn of The Screw, and Borges’s Labyrinths, and Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House….
That list could go on, but it is on point enough to hint at the pattern in the Eros of my reading choices: I want to know how we figure out as individuals what to call real and then how do we share that reality with one another?  What of that shared reality is trustworthy?  So, yes, I do think I make a deliberate effort to disorient the reader in the same manner as an elaborate hedge maze.  The purpose of the books are not to leave the reader feeling disturbed, but to keep harping on my life’s mission statement: Pay attention to who is telling the story.  The storytellers are the ones with the power and the agenda.  Don’t trust us.  It’s all fiction.  Always.
SA: I’ve had the pleasure of reading a few chapters from the manuscript of your work in progress, The Damascus Room. What I especially enjoy is reading a “conscious” text…a text that has a scaffold of strategies already in place instead of being the usual hit-and-miss accumulation of sentences (even if the “conscious” order is actually subconscious in places). It’s like watching a painter at work who knows what she wants the painting to look like from the early stages…underpainting with a specific tone…leaving a space here for this form and a space there for that..sketching in tentative foreground and background figures. It was extremely interesting to have this peek at the schematic. What I’ve read of it thus far has the complexity of a fugue based not on individual notes but other fugues.
How did you work out your method? What’s the philosophy, or personal mathematics, behind your approach?
KN: Watch me get in trouble real fast here: I’ve been around for 50 years, and there’s no avoiding the reality that male and female minds process narrative with different strategies.  Nature is not an art critic; Nature has good cause.  I believe female minds process consciousness in a manner akin to the reverse perspective used in Russian Orthodox Iconography.  It’s a primate survival mechanism: the ability to keep the entire environment actively present, proportionately the same size, and elicit meaning from positioning.  Part of it may be a factor of spending 40 years living in a 28 day circle; the linear perspective of logic and a past in which events recede in size and importance with time may be a factor of getting to live a life with only linear time to manage.  It wasn’t until I was expecting our first daughter that I even recalled linear time existed.  Nine full months of straight forward progression toward a definable goal. The only gravity I had to deal with was that of my own will–until the first contraction reminded me of my factory-installed operating system.  I grieved over the loss of straight line time and went back into biological orbit.
I’m getting unforgivable with the self-indulgence.  Anyway: This is leading toward my acceptance of the Women’s Fiction subset of Fiction in general.  I decided if I were to be tagged a writer of Women’s Fiction I would write a new way to understand what those words meant even if the way women understand the world is not well served by the language we share with our brothers.  In the new novel, I’m trying to create icons of feminine experience in words–broken up with straight dramatic passages like the one you read called Killing Phillip (I’m not cruel–to the reader).  I’m hanging those icons on the walls of a haunted church.   

The more I tried to pin it down, the more I began to realize that “women’s fiction” meant whatever it was that caused the look of simultaneous panic and tedium in my husband’s eyes whenever I said there was something I needed to talk about.  It’s not our stories; it’s the way we tell them. 
SA: You walk a razor wire between making Art and being responsible to a readership (and fans of your ongoing Leslie Stone character).
KN: Thank you also for acknowledging the quandaries of commercial publishing.   Every writer I’ve ever met has scarred up soles and carries first aid supplies along with the pens.  The realities of my situation are challenging: I did not publish my first novel until my mid-forties, the novel was marketed as genre and I as a writer of “women’s fiction,” all of which meant little as publishing-as-we-understand-it was entering its ongoing death throes.  I sometimes bristle at the mystery genre tag because I find it self-defeating: mystery readers are going to pick up my books and feel betrayed.  My editor says: “You’ve invented your own genre.”  No, it’s called fiction.  And really? That’s rather cool.
SA: What I find amazing, still, is that the trick called “writing” works…that a static grid of markings arranged on a page (clusters of these markings bearing each a complex of “meanings” agreed upon by a consensus of strangers, mostly dead) to reference, when decoded, the describable world…these markings flower into universes, unique to us, behind our eyes, while in front of our eyes, simultaneously, we still see only these markings! We take it for granted. But it strikes me as miraculous.
KN: If there are miracles?  This is the only one I need. 
SA: How far are you into the process with The Damascus Room?
KN: Way past deadline.   I will confess to spending 2 and a-half years on a first draft that I loved with all my heart (still do) while knowing it was what the kids today would call a “hot mess.”  Just to prove I am capable of brevity, you will not be subjected to the laundry list of mitigating circumstances.  Let’s just say, I had to begin again and am astonishedly thankful for the failure to be so pleased with the new work.  The sourest aftertaste of the memory remains that of my behavior.  Word advising I return to the drawing board arrived on a day of phone calls each relaying dimmer pictures of the future than the last.  Email is not always a friend.  I will spend the rest of my life saying, “I’m sorry Felicity,” and never feel I’ve said it enough.  The reader is always right.  Cringe.  My God, I was the Asshole Writer.  I’m sorry, Felicity.
Speaking of agents and the problematic elements of publishing…Do you have or are you interested in traditional representation in the world of big house publication?
SA: I skirted, years back, the outer regions of the red light district of publishing and had several not-entirely-reassuring experiences.
I’ll relate the funny one: a woman who was a local force on a fairly well-fed literary scene had a serious in with one of the biggest (if not the biggest) small presses in the country. She read the stuff I was doing in the mid-’90s, said she liked it, and mentioned her serious in. She said, in fact, that we could have a face to face with the publisher, the big man himself, in a few weeks. Metaphysical sidebar: I’d written a short story the previous year in which a publisher figure with the big man’s actual first name featured prominently! So, you can imagine how predestined it all seemed to me.
I said: great! I thought: wow, it’s all so easy! Then she said, hey, by the way, I need help painting my kitchen!
Uh…Okay…I said (stumbling over my mind’s inability to process what I at first considered a fairly amazing non sequitur). 
The “help” she needed in painting her kitchen was this: she needed someone to paint her kitchen. So, I painted her kitchen…after clearing all the crap out of it, washing and sanding the old paint on the walls, ceiling, molding and window trim…taping off the windows. Two coats. Wait…maybe it was three coats. I seem to remember her wanting to put sea foam over sierra crimson or something (the kitchen hadn’t been done since the ’80s).
Two weeks later (after several postponements) we show up for our lunchtime appointment with the big man. He’s very gracious, and gives us a tour of the place. We’re introduced to the staff! He guides us to the conference room, where we’re joined by his chief reader: the filter guy, the Swatch-obsessed guy with the sceptical scowl! And before I can say one sentence about myself or what I’m doing…the woman I’m there with…the woman with the brand-new kitchen… launches into a jokey, passionate, arm-twisting presentation for…two other writers! Writers that aren’t me, I mean. These two wonderful, moving, truth-tellingly life-affirming books that the big man just had to have a look at. And so on. For thirty, forty minutes, we all talked about or around these books. Being polite to a fault back then, I asked pertinent questions at decent intervals and nodded my head judiciously and agreed with the big man that these two books sounded intriguing indeed. Oh, and with ten minutes left of the meeting, it was my turn.
I was somewhat thrown off. I couldn’t remember my prepared statement. I did not dazzle. I stuttered, in fact…I’m pretty sure I stuttered. I think I may have said something about writing to express myself, or to stay out of trouble. I walked out of that meeting with burning earlobes. I walked home. I avoided downtown for the rest of the summer.
KN: From now and forever forward you own writers’ bragging rights to the phrase “I painted a kitchen.”  If it were in my power, your story would also move into the OED as the official definition of writer in the avocational sense because who else but a real writer would do that?  I’ve painted kitchens.  Freaking hard work.  I will paint only my own kitchen; although I once painted that of my future mother-in-law trying to prove that her son’s marrying a writer wasn’t an entire waste. I sense a theme.  Writers can paint.  Kitchens?  
SA: Your first book, Five Mile House, was published with Bloomsbury in 2000…what were you doing ten years before that? Were you already working diligently towards that moment, or would you have been astounded back then to be shown a glimpse of your future as a published writer? 
KN: I was born accursed with Poe’s Midnight Disease.  I’ve always been a writer, no matter how diligently I’ve tried to be other more useful things.  I’ve worked in advertising copywriting, technical writing, and translation.  Noble applications of my language addiction.  I was reading dictionaries when I was five.  In grade 10, assigned a week-long fiction exercise of story that had to be five pages in length, handwritten, double-spaced, I came in on the due date pleading for an extension.  Five days and I was 30 pages in, single-spaced, typed.  No hope for me.
When I became serious about writing fiction, I was told to expect an apprenticeship of about 10 years, which means more in writing—or any of the other arts—than attending classes.  In layperson’s terms: it is the dreaded paying of dues.   For the decade before Five Mile House was published I had been writing Five Mile House, or as it was called for that decade The Architecture of Sleep.  (One of the conditions of my first contract was we were changing that damn title.)  The only means of learning to write a novel is to keep writing that novel until it is a novel.  Writing dozens of short fiction pieces will make one well acquainted with short fiction.  Short fiction is about sentences.  Novels are about scenes.
So I had this idea, and it was a novel.  I was zero-bone certain of that.  Have to back up a bit: We were living in a small upstate New York town at this time.  I had two very young daughters.  My husband would take over on the weekends so I could write.  The only classes available, that I could afford, were through the State University of New York.  Those classes were in basic composition and critical theory.  No one can spend too much time on fundamentals.  Besides, I would be expected to write.  It was in the composition class that I found my fiction voice starting to return.
I use the verb “return”.  However, I won’t bore you with the explanation other than there had been two decades of self-imposed writing silence that seemed the price of survival.  What I did not understand about born writers at that juncture was that simply because no words are appearing on a page did not mean the writing brain was not writing copiously and with great, patient joy.
SA: Was the first book a difficult birth?
KN: I started serious work on my novel in 1991.  Back then it read as a very dark fairy tale.  When I’d finished maybe the fifteenth draft of the thing, my best friend, whose husband was the local internist, mentioned that one of his patients happened to be award winning novelist Frederick Busch.  Would I like Professor Busch (who was teaching at Colgate University about 30 miles up the road from us) to read my book?  Well, sure.  Then the writer who had been compared to Dickens and Melville could tell me to put down the pen, get two day jobs and hold on to those for dear life. 
There are days I wish that was how it had turned out. But no.  That was the beginning of the six freaking, “Sorry, Karen.  Write it again,” letters.  When Fred said, “Write it again.”  He meant, “Gut it.  Start again, page one.”  Do you know how long it takes to completely revise 300 pages six times?  While raising children?  And finishing a degree?  It takes 10 years.
How ashamed am I it took so long to realize my luck in finding a mentor who believed in me so strongly that he’d keep shoving me back in the deep end until I got the point that I had to swim because the pool didn’t care?  The last shove was the one that did it.  The novel was already with an agent, and Fred sent me what is known in the mythology as The Five Page It Sucks Letter.  I should pull it back and Write It Again.  I.  Was.  Pissed.
Another recently late, great, dear and grumpy old soul Kurt Vonnegut held that a writer should never sit down to write unless truly, thoroughly, fucking-up-to-there-had-it-pissed-off.  I was in such a state when I sat down at my computer, opened a new file and typed, “My name is Eleanor and this is my house.”  Until that moment, the novel had no character named Eleanor.  Apparently, the novel had been waiting for Eleanor.  This final draft wrote itself was as though it was driven by rocket fuel.  Within the year I had a contract with Bloomsbury and a whole new set of expectations to be adjusted.
SA: So, between the moment of the book’s inception and its acceptance by Bloomsbury, it smash-evolved from a blob of protoplasm into a freshman at an Ivy League school, basically.
KN: Strangely, only one passage in the novel has never been altered no matter how many drafts its undergone.  It’s the first chapter nervous breakdown of the main character, the one you mentioned at the top of the interview. I remember writing it.  I can barely cope with that memory.  I don’t think I’ve looked at the printed passage of that scene more than once. Yet, Innocence and the novel I’m currently working and reworking, The Damascus Room, are an attempt to explain why what happens in that scene happens.  The subconscious knows nothing about publishing; it has its spinning wheel and bales of straw that must be transformed.   
Et voilà, your decade long answer that responds to writing part of the 10-year apprenticeship.  The other needed element is getting out in the world and building a life.  Writers can spend way too much time writing.  We carry our little notebooks everywhere; we talk about the best books to read.  I suggest going out and reading a tree.  Read the shopping basket of the person in front of you at the grocer.  Read the way kids saunter around the mall or how the loners will change course to avoid making contact with groups.  Read life.  Read with compassion.  This is the stuff of which metaphors are made.  When you need it, you will be able to call up the perfect detail with an emotional clarity that no notebook is going to provide. 

Once your work enters the publication process, no matter the size of the house, the emotional clarity required is basic realism on the part of the writer.  Your real goal here is to exhibit as much professionalism as your anxieties will allow you to muster.  When production gives you a deadline, they are serious about that date.  They know writers, our obsessive need to tinker; so you get maybe ten days to approve your galleys and get them back to the managing editor.  Can’t stress these two aspects of relationship building strongly enough: make your deadlines and be opening to editorial suggestion.  No matter how strongly you believe in your work, the “from God’s lips to my hand” attitude has sunk more book deals than you’d begin to guess.  Be willing to compromise.  Be willing to change your title.  If it’s a matter of real contention, let your agent do the fighting for you.  A good agent is worth her weight in angels, gold, and Godiva chocolates—not to mention the pittance of the commission. 

You probably have three passes at approving ever tighter edits of your text before it goes to print.  With each one, changes cost money and those costs are charged against your advance.  You have no say over your cover art.  That decision is made by an art department and is part of marketing.  Perhaps as one gains clout in sales and fame, one is consulted.  I get advance color copies.  Again, exceptionally lucky.  I love my covers.  Sometimes I think I write the novels just so I can get a cover created.  Publishers have no budget to market mid-list books.  There are no power lunches. You can work your tail off to arrange readings and signings, which no one will attend.  I teach at conferences and take on private students. In this market, the book sells because of the renown of the writer.  I have an old New Yorker cartoon of a writer standing outside a publisher’s door.  The writer is wearing a sandwich-board that reads “Please involve me in your scandal.”  Perhaps it should read: “Will paint kitchens.” 
SA: This interview is shaping up to be a fairly detailed Writing Seminar. 
KN: It seems a forever ago.  I very much miss the feeling of, “and then life will be wonderful” that attends the publication fantasies of the unpublished.  It is sad that the American culture equates commercial success with quality of work.  Also, June is writing seminar mode around here.  Although, I’m slogging through homesickness because for the first time in eleven years, I won’t be able to attend the Colgate Writers’ Conference.   
I started attending the Conference in its first year, when it was the Chenango Valley Writers’ Conference.  Colgate University, in Hamilton, NY, had asked Fred Busch to set this thing up because all the other universities had writers’ conferences and he wrote to me in Ohio, teasingly promising he was designing the week-long shindig with me in mind.  It was a joke based on my paralyzing shyness.  I went anyway.  First year as a student.  I’ve been teaching the novel tutorial for the past 4 years.  Health issues have me housebound this year.  I will be back.  Everything I know about writing, I learned through this conference.  If a writer were to ask where to go to work on writing?  This is the one.

The most important lesson of my writing life was harsh and left me angry for a long time.  It began over lunch on the final day of the conference, back when Fred was still the Director.  Five Mile House was soon to be released and was “the hot buzz book” in New York.  I was levitating with excitement and said something to the effect of how excited everyone involved seemed to be.  That’s when Fred, ever the real-world realist, said, “Of course, they’re excited.  You haven’t failed them, yet.”  Gee, thanks Dad.

I would learn, he was simply telling me the truth.  More so, he was giving me permission to fail, permission to disappoint the expectations of others.  Which, of course, made the irony all the more bittersweet, when Fred made it clear that I’d disappointed him with the choice I’d made with my writing.  I could live with that.  I know what I’m doing.

Ask around.  I’m not known for being the good daughter.
SA: Like animal life on the planet, the literary forms and genres share the overwhelming majority of their DNA…the difference between so-called “literary fiction” and “memoir”, for example, is more often about packaging than content, especially at the esoteric end of the scale. Maybe it’s the “hack” (not to be misconstrued as a pejorative term) who, in offering the reader the pleasures of a conventional story-telling form (equivalent in perceived purity to Delta Blues or Death Metal), writes the easily classifiable book. Certainly, no one would confuse most of Theodore Sturgeon’s great work in the field of Science Fiction for “Chick Lit”.
Are you against the notion of genre? As a female novelist writing books that deal with crime (among other themes), do you find that you, or your books, are often misclassified? Would you prefer to simply call your work “fiction” and leave it at that, or do you have a hybrid form in mind? 
KN: Oy, human beings are right royal little hierarchy generating engines, are we not?  In the way of my kind, I’m going to offer you three approaches in an attempt to answer your complex question: 1) the reality of contemporary marketing, 2) the reality of human nature, and 3) my reality.  Synchronicity came to visit a few minutes ago, bringing this New Yorker article “The Formula” to my attention:
To quote William Goldman as he is quoted in the article above: “No one knows anything.”  The article is about a computer program that can predict box-office take based on narrative elements in a screenplay.  Novels won’t be far behind.
I’m not a writer who keeps tabs on the day-to-day moods of the publishing industry.  What I know is depressing enough, and I want to underscore that no one from writer to agent to editor to bookseller is dancing with glee in these times.   We all know the parable of James Frey and A Million Little Pieces, a book he shopped around as a novel until he was counseled it would be more marketable as a memoir.  He revised as he thought appropriate and got caught lying about his own life.  Because that never happens in every bar, job interview, or first date. 
SA: Good point, despite how I feel about Frey’s writing.
KN: Writing pushed aside—far aside.  All that really happened to Mr. Frey is that the publisher changed the genre classification where bookstores would shelve his book.  Assigning genre as a marketing tool has become a default necessity in the age of big box chain bookstores and the Internets.  In the ancient days of independent bookstores, a customer entered expecting the staff to know the stacks as a sommelier would know the cellar.  Books were recommended and hand sold based on the staff’s knowledge of a customer’s tastes.  That kind of intimacy between bookseller and reader is rare in the extreme these days.  At least, it is here in America.  One has to make a commitment to seek the independents out and an even larger commitment to pay the higher prices to keep them in business. 
For marketing purposes, my books are shelved with the mysteries.   The word mystery is on the cover to indicate genre for shelving purposes. The reason being mystery books have one of the largest, most loyal readerships of all genres.  I can go along with that nominal classification.  We’ve already established the weird angle; mysterious as ambiance is a tone I much admire.  This strategy is definitely double-edged and no one escapes unscathed.  First because what I write are not mysteries in the Mystery Genre sense.  A reader who is looking for that sort of book is going to hate me, and will not be buying future literary endeavors of mine. 
It also makes the bookstore and the publishers—this is my opinion—appear to have not actually read the books they’re selling.  An unfair judgment as massive amounts of time, energy, and financial risk go into publishing a modest run of a mid-lister such as me.  Until someone comes up with enough books to warrant the shelving space and a sku number for Weird Stuff, Mystery is probably the closest to the right genre in term of marketing my books.
SA: What I don’t get about “genre” is how arbitrary the taxonomy can be. For example, I doubt that many would shelve Nabokov’s Lolita beside the adventures of Marlowe, Marple and Poirot, but Humbert Humbert is a detective, following a trail of clues before finally uncovering the identity of his nemesis. It’s a postmodern whoddunit, to be sure (the “hero” is as guilty of the “crime” as the “villain” is, and his “justice” is yet another crime), but a whodunnit nevertheless. I’m bothered by the implication that it’s the high quality of the writing that defines the book out of the category.  

KN: The term gets tossed around in an arbitrary fashion, often by those who intend a different meaning.  Genre is not a synonym for generic, yet I’ve been in discussions where it slowly dawns that distinction is not clear to one of the speakers.  I like to work from the proposition that genre and literature are to the mythos of emotionally informed reality what application and research are to the laws of scientifically informed reality.  In genre fiction, clearly established archetypes are put through iterations of classic hero quests that resolve in expected and emotionally satisfying, reassuring fashion.  Every genre book proves that the rules of the social contract work because the genre books work according to the rules. Just as a baby will continually drop a toy from his high chair: the purpose is not to annoy the adults; the purpose is to guarantee the constancy of gravity and down.  How is one to learn to stand upright, if one cannot be absolutely sure of down? Grade 7 science prep students do experiments with how a candle burns, not because anyone expects a grade 7 student to come up with a new theory of combustion, but to drive home the concept of a shared and reliably stable reality.

Literature is the research arm of the mythos.  It distorts the archetypes, complicates them, reduces their predictable behavior, makes them human beings.  Literatures set up mythic equations of classic terms and then changes an essential variable: say, adds authentic human beings where once were types.  What happens if the hero leaves on his quest and comes home something less than a hero, but only he knows it?  What happens if instead of the mother dying to protect her child, the mother kills her child simply because the kid is an inconvenience?  What happens to the mythos if the hero who is avenging his lady love is also her rapist?  How much can the mythos take before it shatters and a paradigm shift becomes necessary?  Literature, I believe, tries to stay ahead of that question, tries to have some emergency back-up myths in place. 

From my perspective both aspects are essential to the maintenance and growth of this being that lives both on an individual plane and a social one.  Genre allows us to speak to each other from inside the same story; Literature shows us how to go it alone as the freaks we fear ourselves to be.  All of us are doing both, simultaneously, to the best of our abilities each and every day of our lives.  That Nabokov can make us see that in Humbert Humbert?  He’s close to turning the American mythos inside out.  That’s what great literature does, makes one aware of the power of context.

SA: There’s certainly a vogue among academics to treat works of “genre” with this sort of elevated analysis, but your average “literary critic” still, I suspect, turns up her/his nose at anything that smells of “guilty pleasure”. And even the academics seek higher qualities in the subconscious or unintended structures of “genre” fiction, as though the “genre” writer can’t be knowingly brilliant or masterful. Phillip K. Dick is lionized for the genie of his insanity but the venerable JG Ballard suffers a borderline reputation, being neither insane nor free of the taint of science fiction, ranking below the fresh-faced Jonathan Safran Foer, presumably.

KN: Which brings us to the use of genre as the dismissive, the implication of the hack—no matter how valiantly you try to raise the word above the pejorative.  You got “Chick Lit.”  Others?  “Pot boiler.”  “Beach Read.”  “Bodice Ripper.”  Lee Abbott has said there is no such thing as unworthy stories only unworthy writing.  You mention science fiction.  If that is a genre, a predictable run-through of predictable types that is beneath the consideration of serious readers and critical thought?  Then good-bye Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke and Sturgeon and Neal Stephenson and Phillip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison.  You are better than the regression of fantasy writing?  Enjoy your life without Neil Gaiman and Ursula K LeGuin (who was hanging out here having been exiled from sci-fi) and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Lewis Carroll and that Rowling chick.  I could keep going.  The point makes itself.
SA: You don’t see the necessity for the barbed wire fence between “Literary Fiction” and other genres with healthier fan bases.
KN: I have no patience for any form of elitism when it comes to content.  Writers get no control over their content; true writing is accomplished when the waking mind is lulled off-line so that the subconscious can transcribe directly to the page.  Lucid dreaming.  We dream what we dream.  Our control enters, our talent, and, occasionally, a gift in the matters of craft, shaping that dream so that it may be dreamt by others.  If my intent is to make you see unicorns or to make you taste the first slug of scotch after having been dumped by your girlfriend, all that counts is how real I am able to make the conch shell spiraling of the unicorn’s horn or the smoky bite of that scotch as it slides by the iced over fire where your heart used to be.  All that counts is if I can recreate a believable other world inside your mind.  The ability to do so is all I have ever wanted.  If that isn’t magic, what then would be magic’s definition?
That is the short form of my reality when it comes to genre.  I know there’s no escaping the human need to organize and quantify and make judgments of quality based on the silliest of scales.  I do it all the time, myself<–viciously judgmental.  I know I’m going to be classified as a mystery by bookstores.  I’m grateful to the bookstores for shelving me wherever.  I know my publisher is going to market me as women’s fiction.  It’s unbelievable good fortune to have a publisher at all, and yeah, I do write on topics that are of more interest to the laaaadies.  I know a lot of important writers are going to dismiss me without reading my work because it is women’s fiction sitting in the mystery section and they can’t afford to waste time reading such nonsense.   And that’s okay.  I don’t read their books either.  Because I get bored very easily.  Elitists tend to write boring books.  Not to mention I get all Ms. Snooty McSnoot-Snoot over The DaVinci Code
In the very end, I no longer care to call my books anything other than fiction.  I write what I want and need to write.  I work my fingers and brain to mush trying to craft something a certain sort of reader might enjoy.  Then I walk out to the edge of the world and toss my creature into the abyss with the fondest hope that somewhere in the pages I thought to pack a parachute.  Or better yet, wings.

Links to Karen Novak’s work: