Thoughts of Gone Girl at the midnight hour…and what makes good genre fiction?

Posted on February 6, 2013

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I am minutes away from passing out, but I have some time to kill before the audio files I recorded for the documentary I’m working on finish uploading to my computer. And so I’m thinking about Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl, and how stoked and hopeful it makes me that Gone Girl is still on the New York Times Best Seller list (34 weeks and counting as of this blog entry).

Flynn is one of the most exciting writers I’ve come across in years, and out of the several dozen reasons as to why, the one I’m honing in on now is the simple fact that she writes thriller literature. It’s a little different from just thriller fiction, I think. Another term for what she does could be intelligent writing with compelling stories and characters.

Partly what’s stunted my career as a writer is what I see now as naive and immature thinking about what makes a good story. For years I rebelled against the idea of writing genre; my stories were about “real people,” in “real situations,” where things “just happen” without a “phony plot.” They were “like life, man.”  There’s a reason why I never finished those stories: they were boring. And I wasn’t as talented as Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld in writing characters that did nothing (which is a joke in itself–there’s more happening with the characters both internally and externally in a Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm episode than in some episodes of Breaking Bad).

I tend to read more literary fiction than I do mysteries, horror, or science fiction. But when I come across literature within a genre, it’s as close as reading gets to sex. All that “genre” means to me is that the story is classifiable, and I think many writers make classifiable stories  by writing cliches. Want your novel to be marketed and sold to a proven market? Have your lead character drink scotch for breakfast, lament his failing marriage, and carry a gun while he questions people–there’s the foundation for your detective crime novel. Open your story with somebody running away from some “thing” or “force” or “presence” in a forest during the first chapter–now you have the opening to any horror story, but with a little more cleverness by introducing a cop in the second chapter, you could have a mystery thriller on your hands.

Now, I’m not saying I distain all fiction that uses any one or all of these examples somewhere in its pages. But a story about that detective remaining a drunken mess, screwing up the case, losing his job, and then stumbling on a pile of money that for some reason he cannot spend because his and some one else’s life depends on it–to me, that could be more interesting than the detective that’s an asshole, defies rules and regulations, and catches one lucky break after the next, after the next until he somehow saves the day with his life barely in tact–and with me, the reader, supposing to care.

Literature is literature because it breaks all the rules of what’s expected of it. But literature is divine when it breaks the rules of a genre while still tricking people into thinking it’s genre.

Does that make sense? I wrote almost twenty minutes ago that I was about to fall asleep. You tell me below in the comments. All I’m certain about right now is that I’ve never read anything like Gone Girl, and its success tells me a lot of you haven’t either.

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Posted in: Books, Writing