Sunday, August 09, 2009

Sunday Guest Blogger: Rick DeMarinis

John here. It is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to this week’s guest blogger, Rick DeMarinis, a dear friend and my former professor and MFA thesis advisor. Rick has published eight novels (both crime and mainstream), six story collections, and a book on the art and craft of the short story. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Antioch Review, Esquire, GQ, Harper’s, Grand Street, Paris Review, Iowa Review, Tin House, Epoch, and others. He taught fiction writing at several universities, including San Diego State, Arizona State, the University of Montana, and the University of Texas at El Paso, where I had the good fortune of studying under him. Rick has received two NEA fellowships, and a literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I think you will enjoy his blog, which is below, and, given the discussion of the past several days, extremely timely.

I’ve published fifteen books over the last thirty- five years and still don’t know what I’m doing. Where stories come from remains a mystery to me. What I start out to do seldom has anything to do with the finished work. How does that happen? I’ve written four crime novels. One (Scimitar) was published by E.P Dutton in 1977. But it was a crime novel only in that crimes were committed within its pages. It had a plot of sorts--a kind of science- fiction plot. (Who are these people trying to take over the world with money and laser cannons?) There were surrealistic moments and it also had laugh-out-loud moments. The result was a comic science-fiction crime novel. No major publisher would take a chance on a hybrid like that today. The literary sea is more treacherous now than the one we sank-or-swam in thirty years ago.

My books were published but few broke the 5,000-sales benchmark. I had a day job over those decades. I taught fiction writing at three universities. The other crime novels (Sky Full of Sand, Virgins in the Woodwork, A Clod of Wayward Marl) were not published by major American publishers. Dennis McMillan of Tucson (a limited edition publisher) published a couple. A German publisher (Pulp Master, Berlin) took two of them. One, Kaputt in El Paso, was a best seller over there. The other (Jungfrau in Dachfirst) (Virgins in the Woodwork) comes out next spring.

The question I was asked: “What is the difference between genre fiction and mainstream fiction?” I don’t make such distinctions. There is good writing and there is bad writing. These occur in every genre. Just because it’s a mainstream novel doesn’t mean it qualifies as literature. And genre novels shouldn’t be disqualified because they are genre novels (although critics and reviewers--most of them anyway--would have you believe so.) In Europe the critics aren’t so hidebound by categorical distinctions. George Simenon, writer of the Maigret police procedurals, is considered a national treasure in France. A legitimate man of letters. Who would argue that?

It’s all in the writing. An old friend of mine, James Lee Burke, handles the language as well as anyone writing in English today. Anyone. Burke has the touch and sharp eye of a poet and the savvy of someone who’s been around the block a few times. Another old pal, the late James Crumley, also had that gift. And who has written a better study of the psychopathic personality than Charles Willeford in his wonderfully dark novel, Miami Blues? Such writers win awards in the mystery and crime categories but are never considered for the major literature prizes, such as the National Book Award or the Pulitzer. Why not?

Plot, of course, distinguishes the crime novel from the mainstream novel. I suppose the critics’ disdain for genre fiction lies in their repudiation of plot as an artificial construct that has no connection to Real Everyday Life. Really? In Real Everyday Life things happen that surprise and confound. Isn’t that plot? I had a brain tumor a dozen years ago but was in denial even though my symptoms were severe (double vision, headache, violent nausea, hallucinations). I had a two week lecture gig at the University of Idaho that paid well and I didn’t want to pass it up. I flew from Texas wearing an eyepatch so I could find my way around airplanes and airports. After my first lecture at the University a young woman approached me. “What’s wrong with your eye?” she said. “Nothing, just a sinus infection,” I said. “Let me have a look,” she said. “I’m a neurologist.” A week later I was in surgery having a golfball-size tumor taken out of my brain. Isn’t that a wonderfully corny plot-line? A coincidence worthy of Dickens? Such things happen to people every day of the week. The real world is full of “artificial” plot-lines.

I got a letter in the spring of 1974 from Jim Crumley. He was writing his first crime novel, The Wrong Case. He’d made a discovery and wanted to tell me about it: “I’m working on a fucking detective novel that’s set in a town much like Missoula and peopled with every creep and wino and freak and dope dealer I ever knew and some I didn’t. I’ve done 130 pages in the last month and it’s more fun than drinking. I always meant to do a detective novel but I always thought you had to know what was going to happen ahead of time but you don’t. It’s just like regular novels, you only know what the next word is when you write it down. Plot is structure that grows out of story not a form to fit, and I knew that, but didn’t know it, but now I do.”

So why do people think mainstream writers are the only ones writing about real life? I guess life in the burbs is considered more real than life in the mean streets. Perhaps the greatest story of crime- and-detection ever written is Oedipus Rex, a twenty-five hundred year old thriller in which the victim and the perp are one and the same. Oedipus, by relentless interrogation discovers the horrible truth about himself. Great genre fiction, right? Also great literature. How can that be? Go figure. Maybe Sophocles would take home the Edgar, but would he be passed over for the Pulitzer?

--Rick DeMarinis, Missoula, Montana 7-9-09


Terry Odell said...

I can't recall the last 'mainstream' book I read. I was unaware that all the commercial, or genre fiction books I read don't have plots. I've attended many workshops on plotting, and they all qualify that the discussion will revolve around commercial fiction, which requires a plot, and if you don't have one, then you're writing 'literary' fiction.

Who knew?

Donis Casey said...

You describe my process to a tee, Rick. I, too, have no idea where it comes from. It's a mystery, and sometimes it's enough to make you believe in the existence of God and all the angels.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Thanks Rick, for expounding eloquently on the alleged division between genre fiction and literary fiction. Why bother with a story that doesn't tell a human story?

John said...

Hi, Rick Demarinis! I read Scimitar around 1979, and again in 1982, finding it the most funny and imaginative novel of that time. Thank you!

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