Selecting and Approaching Books

In this section, Shariann Lewitt discusses the books she chose for the course, and how she approached discussing them.

Practical Considerations

I wanted books that were older in the canon of each genre. I didn't want more contemporary works that students may have already read because I wanted them to gain a sense of the depth of history, of field. I assume that all students love their genre, and that they've read deeply in it. There was one student I'd had in class before, and I knew she was a fantasy writer and had read just about every fantasy thing there was. From experience, I know students who take this course generally have read a lot of science fiction. I didn't have any mystery readers this time, which was a surprise; I was hoping to have one or two of them. I wanted them to read older pieces that were really well-written. I wanted them to be seeing good language and good literature. All of the fiction I chose is really good literature and would stand up in any survey of English-language literature. Dorothy Sayers, for example, shows up in many 20th-century or British literature courses.

Knowing the timing of the semester and what the students' workload is like, I have to select readings that are short enough so the students can manage. That does impose some limits, especially in fantasy and science fiction. There were some wonderful books I considered that I couldn't use because I just couldn't go over 100,000 words. It's too unwieldy, even though I think the students would have loved them.

Building Worlds and Crossing Genres

I wanted works that demonstrated specific pieces of technique that I talk about, things that I wanted them to be able to see. Randall Garrett's Too Many Magicians doesn't have quite that sense of great literature, but it has wonderful world-building, it's a lot of fun, and it has wonderful characters, even if it's not as beautiful in the language use. In terms of what I wanted it to do, in terms of showing how to cross genre, it really works because it crosses genres in so many different ways. I thought it would particularly suit this class because it's fantasy, but it's also science fiction. Garrett uses magic in a very specific, scientific way, which I love, and he crosses into mystery as well – it's a sort of forensic magic. Even though we did't have any mystery readers, we talked a lot about mystery and the structure of mystery. To me that structure of mystery is very important because it underlies all genre fiction, actually all fiction, because plot is difficult, structure is difficult.

Writing and Structure

I'm a structuralist. A lot of people aren't. A lot of people who work in creative writing are looking at other things. But as a writer, I'm a structuralist. As a teacher of writing, I'm a structuralist. Mystery as a genre has the revealing of a solution built in, so it's the best example of how you put together plot, how plot and character interact, and how plot comes from character, at least in a good mystery writer, like Dorothy Sayers. The emergence of plot from character and those interactions are much closer to the surface than in any other genre, because you're really reading for the plot in many ways.

When the writer is really skillful that plot submerges to a degree, the reader is less aware of it. But those mechanics always have to be put in place upfront, which is why I started with mystery, and why it's so central to everything we did in the class. We started with Sayers' The Nine Tailors, but then also looked at Garrett's Too Many Magicians, where mystery is crossing into other genres, and we can see those mechanics happening while we were also looking at how science fiction and fantasy and alternate history work.

Only one student liked Sayers. I love that book, I think it's wonderful and brilliant. So when we had the discussion about it, I had to show them why they need to be interested. We talked a lot about the first 40 pages which many students found to be very very slow. The one student in the class who I think was much more of a literary writer in some ways loved the first 40 pages, but everyone thought it was too much description, not enough action. But when we went through it carefully, they saw that everything in the book is set up in the first 40 pages, everything you the reader needs to know is there. It's done in such a way that your attention is constantly misdirected. Sayers plays fair. I emphasized this to the class, you have to play fair with your reader. You have to give the reader all of the information they need, but you don't have to explain how you're going to use it. That's what's so brilliant about the book, you get all the information you need but she puts it together at the end in a way you don't expect.

You never quite see it coming. There's a very thorough description of this lovely little English town around Christmastime, and bell ringing. And oh my goodness, here I have an entire class full of students yawning. They're all these science fiction, fantasy readers, and they want action. Here's this little English town at Christmastime. We spent almost a whole class dissecting the 40 pages, then going through how, in all the rest of the book, all of the information we need ties back to the information we get in that 40 pages. Sayers doesn't reiterate. She builds.

Although most students didn't like the book at first, they saw how the structure worked. Then they really loved Samuel R. Delany's Babel 17, which I kind of expected. It's not the typical fantasy story, but again, these are fantasy readers. They don't want the typical fantasy story, they've already read so many of them.

Playing Fair

If you don't pay attention in the beginning of The Nine Tailors, you lose the thread of the book and miss out at the end. Even if you do pay attention, later on you'll come to something and say, "Oh right, yeah. I knew that. I knew that but I forgot." Or "I was misdirected." What's she's doing, what mysteries do when they're done well, what's exciting and fun, is they misdirect you and confuse you about what's actually important and what's incidental. In his Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle is not fair to the reader because in the end when Holmes explains it all to you, there's always a few facts that you don't get until Holmes notices this or that clue, which you don't know anything about. You couldn't have possibly put it together. With Sayers, you get that moment of "Oh yeah. I should have seen that coming. But I didn't because I was off saying 'What a cute little English town. Humph.'"

Trope and Cliché

[Note: Buy at Amazon The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel by Diana Wynne Jones is arranged as a sort of dictionary of terms and clichés frequently encountered in fantasy fiction; an excerpt can be seen at the link.]

Diana Wynne Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland was my first pick as soon as I knew I was teaching genre. It's actually a deconstructed book, and it's hysterical.

I don't recommend that students read it all the way through. The book doesn't work like that, but I did assign a few entries and told them to follow their interests. Once you start, you usually keep going because it's so funny. The students loved it, and I don't think any of them will call anything "stew" or "gold pieces" again. The Tough Guide was a big part of the section we did on trope versus cliché, and it became a touchstone for the entire semester. "Cloak" and "stew" became watch words for anything that was starting to smack of cliché, but in a very warm and friendly way. I was very fortunate, this group really did adhere to the social contract of being a workshop, being really positive and supportive of each other and our work. They were very trusting and also very respectful, which is fabulous. So when someone threw out "cloak" or "stew," it was always done with a smile and warmly, and everybody knew it meant, "Hmmmm, let's get a little bit more specific here."