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burdened by ideas about reality

May 16, 2015

There is no kind of writing that’s better than any other kind; there is just what lives.”
~Elizabeth Knox (p.16)

“Why do I write non-realist fiction? Why, since I’m now, horribly, a very grown-up grown up, would I continue to write non-realist fiction?

There are those only capable of reading a non-realist book inside a category of books. Readers who, for instance, ‘hate horror’ and ‘would never voluntarily read it’. But a made-up world can stand for the real one. The story can fill up with anything and everything that the writer fears and loves, the arguments inside those things, problems the story can put through their paces. The worth of the work isn’t what kind of book it is, what shelf in the library or bookshops it belongs on; it is how much life there is inside it. How much of the person who made it.” (p.15)

I write with genre, hand in hand with it, rather than in genre. I’m attracted to doing that because the various rules in the genres are less burdened by ideas about reality.
What I mean is this: the rules in literary fiction aren’t internal, but external. They’re not about what a story is supposed to look like, as they are in genre, but about how we think the world works. The ‘rules’ around literary fiction – such as they are – are, loosely: contemporary thought, social consensus about how some things operate, what people are like and should be like, what happened in the past and how we think about it, who we are and what we share. So, in the best literary fiction, the stuff that’s literature, those things are explored, characterised sharply, questioned deeply. In lesser productions those things are more a kind of borrowed dignity: readymade ‘truthfulness’, serious noises, literary noises, big gestures and kit-set how-we-live-now stuff, often not very far removed from things we find in the magazine sections of newspapers. Which is why the magazine sections of newspapers are much more sure of those books.” (p.17)

Talking to genre is what I do, rather than write it, and certainly not ‘play with it’.
For instance, I say to horror, ‘What do you look like under your hockey mask, your bloodstained cocktail frock? Show me your body. Your bones.’ I walk into the house of horror-the-genre and melt away its grossly figured wallpaper, the shadows in the alcove on its stairs, its dirty glass, its shuttered windows. I melt away the walls themselves till what is left is the frame, a stark figure around an empty volume, and then I call into it my own storms; outer, other darkness; the real things in life that aren’t reconcilable with living rationally, happily and confidently. Such as what illness does to us – to our selves – before we die.” (p.19)

What I do is build an unreal house and fill it with real storms.” (p.20)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Elizabeth Knox (2014) An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms: The Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture Christchurch, 31 August 2014. Victoria University Press: Wellington.

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