November 17, 2017

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Laini Taylor on Genre Blurring and “Strange the Dreamer”

Photo by Ali Smith

Photo by Ali Smith

This is an edited version of Laini Taylor’s keynote address at SLJ’s 2016 Day of Dialog, delivered when she was completing her most recent YA novel, Strange the Dreamer, publishing this month from Little, Brown.

Genre is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I loved having a good reason to sit down and try to capture my thoughts on what it means to me as a reader and a writer.

I’m not a purist about anything. I prefer milk chocolate to dark and illustration to fine art. I like my Shakespeare set on other planets, and my angels falling in love with devils. I have no attachment to natural hair color, and I get afraid, when a book has only one genre, that the genre will get lonely. What better than a fantasy-science-fiction-romance with elements of Gothic horror—like Strange the Dreamer! Stories should grow up to be whatever they want to be, and genres should marry each other and have little mutant babies. I’d be the shrewd old aunt helping the debutante elope with the pirate, waving a handkerchief from the dock and calling “Follow your hearts, dearies!”

“Follow your hearts” could be a good creed for me as a writer. And because in the world of Strange the Dreamer, people have two hearts—one that pumps that blood, and a second more mysterious heart that pumps a clear fluid called “spirit”—I’m in the habit of referring to hearts in plural.

In writing this book, I have indeed “followed my hearts.” Its original title was The Muse of Nightmares, which I’d had in my mind for some 20 years, along with a vision of a girl who’s both a prisoner and a tormentor, a victim and a villain. She was the daughter of a murdered goddess, living in hiding, and she was, without question, the protagonist and title character. This was her story.

I thought.

But another character stole the book from her, and the title, and I can tell you the exact moment that it happened.

Lazlo Strange is a young librarian in the world’s greatest library. He’s called “Strange the dreamer” for his habit of walking into walls while reading, and—with no little disdain—for the kind of books he reads. The Great Library of Zosma is a scholarly institution; serious men doing important work: alchemy, mathematics, philosophy. They don’t exactly have a fiction section. But there is lore, relegated to a dusty sublevel, and Lazlo is the only one reads it. He breathes it. In fact, he was a library stowaway. He made a delivery one day and never left. He was found down in the dusty sublevel and was allowed to stay. “The library knows its own mind,” an old librarian tells him. “When it steals a boy, we let it keep him.”

He drifts about his head full of myths, always at least half lost in some otherland of story. He believes in magic, like a child, and in ghosts, like a peasant. This was the moment that I fell in love with him: when my fingers typed, “His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales when he was a boy.” Lazlo Strange was literally shaped by stories.

The chapter in which all this went down was called “Strange the dreamer,” and I suddenly knew that that was my title and he was my protagonist. It would also be the story of the half-human daughter of the goddess of despair, raised by ghosts in an abandoned citadel. But first it would be the story of a dreamy librarian whose nose was broken by fairy tales, and who has been shaped by stories in far more profound ways than that.

1704-Taylor-StrangeTheDreamerIn defense of genre fiction

I don’t think of myself as being thin-skinned or especially bothered by the pervasive cultural dismissal of genre fiction as “lesser.” I don’t have an ax to grind. And yet…I have apparently written a book in which the main character, mocked and derided for being a fantasy reader, goes on to use his medieval nerd cred to save everyone and get the girl.

It’s like the fantasy reader’s revenge.

As Lazlo tells the Muse of Nightmares, regarding his beloved dusty sublevel and the books in it: “They’re myths and folktales mostly. Anything dismissed by scholars as too fun to be important.” Obviously something that’s fun can’t be important, and yet, again and again, Lazlo’s knowledge and love of stories gives him an unexpected edge over the more “serious”-minded of his peers.

So maybe I have a little ax to grind. A wee little axey, just the perfect size for splitting hairs.

Strange the Dreamer is a love letter to dreamers, and to the superior power of the minds of readers—especially fiction readers and more especially, genre fiction readers.

A lot of the discussion of genre revolves around this kind of literary caste system—the question of what qualifies as “art” and what doesn’t, and what’s “important” and what isn’t. I’m more interested in is the question of how our minds interact with story, and how genre affects that interaction.

The short answer is: it affects it awesomely.

The long answer is an imaginary PhD thesis entitled “Psychic Mechanisms of Story-Reception: the Reader’s Intellectual-Emotional Harp.” Or something. I’ll get back to that later.

First, my own relationship to genre. Full disclosure: fantasy books made me a reader. Feral child spends formative years in fairy tales, dressed in a feather cloak and war paint with a dagger strapped to her thigh. Dragons abound. Everything is wonder.

Then, high school and university made me a serious reader. No more feather cloak and dragons. Hard work, discipline, and frugality. I call it the “Protestant Reading Ethic.” Reading was no longer about wonder. It was about…art? The human condition? It was, for me, a little bit about being sophisticated and a little bit about impressing the cute barista at Midnight Espresso, the only cool coffee shop within 50 miles, for whom I read Madame Bovary but drew the line at Ulysses. (He was cute, but he wasn’t that cute.)

No one made me stop reading fantasy. No one confiscated my Anne McCaffrey. It felt like part of growing up, like…putting your toys in the yard sale box.

This reading path was paralleled by my writing path. Fantasy books made me a writer, too. Feral child in feather cloak draws maps of secret countries, writes tales of magic and adventure in a candle-lit sea cave. Everything is wonder.

And high school and university made me a serious writer. Or rather, they made me want to be one and try to be one and finally, stop being a writer completely. I was 21. I had no voice, no subject matter. I had never been in love, didn’t have a drug problem, didn’t come from a fascinating culture. I didn’t even have a miserable childhood, damn it. What was I supposed to write about?

I had this daydream that I’d fall in love with a Parisian street performer, and he would be brilliant and troubled and wear an eyepatch. We would love and fight passionately, and he would tragically die and give me subject matter.

That did not happen.

Looking back, it’s so clear what I should have been writing, but I had closed that door, and like the doors in Strange the Dreamer, when they’re closed, they vanish, leaving no sign they were ever there.

So I stopped writing. I went to art school. I had some success as an artist, and developed skills for coping with creative issues, and met my husband. And I remember this very clearly: one day we walked over to the local indie bookshop to buy this new book that was getting some buzz. The year was 1998. The book was Harry Potter.

I read it. It was fun. There was no overnight epiphany, but it was the beginning of something. Over the next few years I read more fantasy for young readers. The “Golden Compass” books. The “Sabriel” books. And when I started to write again, I discovered that I had found a voice—and subject matter.

And no street performers even had to die!

A few years ago I was at a glamorous event—the New York premiere of the movie Les Misérables. The after party was fancy. I met Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne, and I had a conversation about books with this cool stranger—a musician, I think. He mentioned Junot Diaz and Karen Russell, both of whom I’d read and liked, and the sensible thing to do would have been to be cool too and name a few other authors in that vein. But I did not. I was defiant. I was like: this is not Midnight Espresso and I don’t have to read Madame Bovary ever again! So I said that “Harry Potter” had been a huge influence on me, and that conversation was over so fast. It was a little embarrassing, but I’m glad I did it. I don’t want to be cool anymore. In my novella Night of Cake & Puppets, there’s some language about the cool beautiful people looking perpetually bored, like they’re waiting for the bus in Purgatory. I hate waiting for the bus in Purgatory. It’s the worst. Boredom is the worst. I want to be freaky and excited and alive.

My imaginary dissertation

Back to my imaginary dissertation. How do our minds interact with stories, and how does genre affect this process?

Reading is magic to me: the act of reading, the mechanical operation of it, and how our brains are capable of translating black marks on a page into imagery, narrative, and emotion. How does it do it? There’s the brain, and there’s the mind. What is the mind? I don’t know! I’m a rationalist. I believe in a physical world. But I’m a rationalist who moonlights as a fantasist. Rationalist-me might believe that the mind—the thinking-feeling faculty, let’s call it—exists within the noodly pinkness of the brain, but fantasist-me finds that unsatisfying and uninspired. So here is my fantasist explanation.

Supported by tons of imaginary research.

When it comes to magic-using characters in my books, I find myself creating mental landscapes, vastnesses within which I can hint at capacities that defy explanation. Minds are “personal infinities” that don’t correspond to the space that physical bodies displace. And I feel a certain truth in that. What is a mind?

For our purposes, let’s picture our “thinking-feeling faculty” as…a harp. A beautiful instrument strung with many strings, each vibrating at its own frequency. And everything that we experience, think, do, remember, read, plays these strings, which represent the full spectrum of human emotion. Except that it goes beyond emotion. It’s something like Jung’s archetypes—kind of basic blueprints of humanness. There are sympathies—attractions, inclinations—that all humans share, and these things explain why cultures all over the world evolved the same story types. And there are frequencies—harp strings—that resonate with us, with extreme purity. Things that just get us, as though the harp string were connected directly to our heart and our gut and just play us like music.

Watch Laini Taylor’s Day of Dialog keynote presentation:

My imaginary research suggests that genre is about finding these direct and pure resonances that connect straight to our heart and our gut, and playing them.

Books exist for different reasons. To educate. To make you think. With fiction, it’s feelings we’re after. Feelings—or “feels” as the whippersnappers say—are the drug of fiction. Writers mix up cocktails of feelings, hoping to create an emotional experience.

This goes for all fiction. The place where genre departs is in scope. Literary fiction, mainstream or realistic fiction, and historical fiction all play the reader’s thinking-feeling harp in a way intended to approximate real life. Perhaps a better and more interesting, fraught, tragic, or exciting real life than yours, but still real life. Genre, on the other hand, is reaching right for the strings that transcend real life–transcend and strike straight for these elemental cravings that have been satisfied by myth since the beginning of language and are just not satisfied by anything remotely resembling real life.

I believe that there is something at the core of us that hungers for honor and heroism—and villainy—and true love and the unknown, and hope. Something that longs to fight battles and win, to discover reservoirs of power within ourselves, to be the object of passionate love, to be harrowed, to be tested, to bond with comrades, to sacrifice and triumph and be chosen. To be special.

The myth hole

Genre has great trappings, no doubt about it. We’ve got dragons and space ships and murders and kissing, and the skilled creation of great trappings is an essential part of writing genre, and an awesome part, but I don’t think it’s the heart of it. The test of a genre book is in the purity and potency with which these elemental harp strings are played. Underneath your dragons and space ships and murders and kissing, you’d better be connecting to these primal human cravings. When done well, the satisfaction is immense.

Genre readers are incredibly passionate. Our reading is a part of our identity in a way that’s not true of readers of mainstream fiction. We form fandoms— peer groups that revolve around books. We dress up, go to conventions, get tattoos, dye our hair, make art. We reread. And it’s because we’ve tapped into this place within us that’s bigger than real life, and older than our culture and our present-day concerns, that’s fundamental. We want to live there. So we read these books again and again, because real life can be great, or awful, or ordinary, but even at its best, it’s not mythic, and we have in us this—are you ready for this?—this myth hole that wants to be filled.

(Oh, that sounds so wrong.)

As a writer of fantasy and romance, I’m conscious of this myth hole, and this harp, and I’m seeking to meet reader’s needs as well as I can.

So there, in brief, is my thesis on the function of genre in our reception of story. It leaves open the question of non-genre readers, and whether they’re lacking myth holes or ignoring them, whether they’re genuinely unaffected by the primal tropes, or maybe their thinking-feeling harps are tuned to a subtler frequency, the way some people only listen to jazz. Maybe they, like I, accepted a certain cultural memo that this was all something to outgrow, or they were put off genre by poorly executed examples, or they do have a craving for these tropes, but can only them find them palatable in the context of literary fiction. I don’t know.

I do know that I’ve been told more times than I can count: “I don’t read fantasy, but I love your books.” Which suggests to me that a lot of readers have closed a door that maybe they oughtn’t, and are hearing a faint, beckoning call from the far side of it. And maybe they’re looking for some kind of permission to open it.

Permission granted.

If you’d like to read my full dissertation, you will find it in the Great Library of Zosma, shelved among the myths in the dusty sublevel. Just ask a librarian to show you the way.

Laini Taylor is a young adult fantasy writer and the author of the “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series. “Strange the Dreamer” publishes March 28, 2017.

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