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How Does My Work Differ From Other Work In Its Genre? Question #3 on the Writers' Blog Tour

I explained in an earlier post what the Writers’ Blog Tour is about.  Basically, writers answer the same four questions:

Why do I write what I do?

What am I working on?

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

How does my writing process work?

I answered the first and second questions last, and so, for today, here’s the third:

I don't know who drew this, but I wish I did.  If you know please tell me so I can give the artist credit.  Great stuff.

I don’t know who drew this, but I wish I did. If you know please tell me so I can give the artist credit. Great stuff.

 How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

 Well, isn’t that a chin scratcher?  Part of my challenge in answering that question is that I’m not sure what genre I write in, or if I write in only one.  I suspect I don’t.  Literary fiction?  Sure, but what does that mean, really?  Maybe ‘literary writers’  focus a bit more on language and character than on plot.  But then again, I know wonderful writers who are considered ‘genre’ writers whose books are full of terrific language and vivid, psychologically-complex characters.  It’s a conundrum.

John Updike loathed the distinction and once said, “the category of ‘literary fiction’ has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. But now, no, I’m a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit”. Likewise, on The Charlie Rose Show  he said he felt this term, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, and so does not really like it. He said that all his works are literary simply because “they are written in words”.

So, that’s how I feel about the ‘genre’ thing.  I try hard to write good books.  I try to write books that I’d want to read and that, hopefully, others will want to read as well.  I struggle to write about things that I’m obsessing about or that bug me, or all the things I talked about when I answered the first question in this tour.  Whether I write about them in the modern setting, a historical setting, or a fantastical one, is determined solely by the needs of the narrative.

But I think the deeper question is why any writers’ work differs from any other writers’ work.  What makes it unique?  And when we start asking those questions, we’re talking about the writer’s voice.

Voice accounts for the sum of everything the writer is and everything s/he becomes on the page.  It’s not about any single book, but takes into consideration the entire body of work, over a lifetime of writing.  It is who the writer is, authentically, on the page when s/he isn’t trying to sound like somebody else, or trying to sound like a Real Writer, if you know what I mean–all that high-literary foppishness, instead of simply letting oneself tell the tale.

So, my work differs from the work of other writers because I’m different from other writers.  I’m me and if I’m writing well, I’m writing like me and no one else.  It’s not something that anyone but me can do.  Yes, it’s about a particular style I might have, a particular rhythm and pattern, and the images and metaphors will come out of my subconscious and no one else’s, but voice also has to do with things outside of  stylistic concerns.  It has to do with worldview, the sorts of characters a writer writes about and the particular places in which his or her stories are likely to be set, etc.

Voice suggests the concerns and themes that most preoccupy a writer, and it influences our perception and expectation of any writer’s work as indisputably different.  John Steinbeck’s stories are different from Cynthia Ozick’s. David Foster Wallace’s prose is not the same as Jamaica Kincaid’s.  The concerns and characters of James Baldwin are different from those of Jane Gardam.  The Catholic writer Andre Dubus’s treatment of his faith is different from the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor’s.  We as readers know this and expect something different, something specific from each writer.

I tell my students not to worry too much about anyone stealing their ideas, because their vision, their special way of looking at things is unique and can’t be reproduced.  It can, perhaps, be mimicked, but that’s thin gruel that will not stand the test of time.

So,  if I have to consider the way in which my work differs from other work — I would says it differs not only in the fundamentals of my style – that (hopefully) particular and unique way I choose language to create sentences to build the blocks of paragraphs I use to shape my story – but also my vision, my personal view of the world, my way of experiencing existence.

The next and last question on the Tour is: How does my writing process work?  I’ll get that up by week’s end, and then turn the tour over to Catherine Bush and Susan Swan!

8 Comments

  1. Vicki Weisfeld on August 4, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    Could someone please put a stake through the heart of the old genre distinctions? They don’t really mean anything any more except to agents who insist a writer specify their genre. (“Word-processed in the English language” is not specific enough.) Your work, Lauren, would qualify in anyone’s opinion as literary, but it also has thriller and psychological thriller elements. The poor author has to turn inside out to come up with the right pigeonhole! Totally agree with your comments on voice and how each writer’s is unique. Particular and peculiar.

    • Lauren B. Davis on August 5, 2014 at 9:11 am

      Hi Vicki. I hear ya! But I think the challenge is for the marketing and sales departments of publishing houses, and booksellers, who are trying to get the book into the hands of the right reader. When you walk into, say, a Barnes and Noble (and perhaps some people still do go to bookstores!), you are confronted with thousands upon thousands of titles. Sure, there are a few in the paid-for space at the front in tables and fancy displays that might catch your eye, but if you go browsing through the stacks it can be overwhelming. If I’m someone who loves sci-fi but loathes mystery (or vice-versa), it’s helpful to have a section containing the books that might interest me, with the others winnowed out. Or if I crave modern romance, but find crime fiction off-putting, I want to be able to go directly to a shelf where I’m more likely to find — and buy– what pleases me.

      In my opinion “literary” fiction has no easily definable distinction from more general fiction — what some might call commercial fiction. The label seems to refer to some sort of ineffable quality, which I understand. I don’t think you can compare Dan Brown and James Baldwin. So perhaps it’s a question of quality, or perhaps it’s a question of subject. Jane Smiley’s character-driven novels, or Marilynne Robinson’s, plumb psychological depths that light-hearted chick-lit might not. Perhaps the term ‘mainstream fiction’ might be best for anything that’s not historical/mystery/sci-fi/chick-li. Dummies.com defines it this way: “mainstream fiction is a general term publishers and booksellers use to describe both commercial and literary works that depict a daily reality familiar to most people . . . Mainstream books deal with such myriad topics as family issues, coming of age initiations, courtroom dramas, career matters, physical and mental disabilities, social pressures, political intrigue, and more.”

      So, what to call novel set in the 7th century, dealing with adopted families, coming of age initiations, what one will do for a living, the pressures of the powerful upon the individual, political intrigue and visions of the gods? Mainstream/literary/historical/fantasy? Well, hopefully people will call it a good read. Snort.

  2. Fred Allingham on August 5, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    Lauren, I’m enjoying reading your responses to these three excellent questions, and look forward to Q#4. Great comments about “voice”, agree with you completely. regards, Fred

    • Lauren B. Davis on August 6, 2014 at 10:05 am

      Thanks, Fred!

  3. David Henry on August 6, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Even after hearing this message many times, it is an pleasure to absorb this in one piece.

    And about that novel with 7th century setting… Visions of the Gods? Now I’m interested. Adn I’m sure the book will be very interested. It’s exciting to see you playing with such a different setting, although I suspect it will have similar themes and a similar voice.

    • Lauren B. Davis on August 6, 2014 at 10:13 pm

      Thanks, David. I hoped this one might interest readers like you!

  4. Andrea Preston on August 9, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Dear Lauren, a friend recommended your novel The Empty Room, which I devoured in two days. I just started following your blog, and find your candid and clear way of expressing your self to be refreshing and appealing. The above response to the third question gives great insight to the writer’s life and work. This line really resonated with me: “Voice accounts for the sum of everything the writer is and everything s/he becomes on the page.”
    Looking forward to your answer to question # 4. kind regards, Andrea P.

    • Lauren B. Davis on August 9, 2014 at 9:00 am

      Thanks, Andrea. I think most of what I know about “voice” I learned from Janet Burroway’s excellent book, WRITING FICTION.

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