You ask why I don't write lit other than fantasy. It's a fair question, and I'll answer it as best I can, though you may find the answer unsatisfying. I know I do.
First, let me say that I do write things other than fantasy. I perpetrate the odd poem, but I'm not as good as him, and I never will be. I will always be minor league, and that on my best day. I will never rise above the level of journeyman in that particular trade.
But why not lit? Why not the Great American Novel, or at least the Great Expat Novel? I know I have a certain facility with the English language. I know this because people have paid me to write, and because people have paid to read what I have written, and most importantly, sometimes people whose opinion I respect (such as yourself) tell me they like what I have written. So why don't I apply myself to something more… substantial, shall we say, than genre fiction?
The short answer, my friend, is that I'm a coward.
I would love to leave it at that. Let everybody draw their own (incorrect) conclusions as to what I mean. But while this is an open letter, it is still a letter to you, Screwy, and I'd like for you to know exactly what I mean if I can express it properly—mainly because I see you as a writer that has at least as much and probably far more raw talent than I had at your age, and without a doubt far more drive. You have a life ahead of you (if you want it; if you grasp it in both fists and hang on) that will in all probability be the life of a writer, and for that I both congratulate you and commiserate with you.
So. The long, messy answer.
Do you remember the first time you read critically? I do. My mother had spent $45 she couldn't afford on an incomplete set of used Hardy Boys hardback novels for my brother. He wasn't interested, so they devolved to me. I was six.
I devoured those books, I read and re-read them. They were mine, all twenty-four of them. Being the youngest of three kids in a single parent family, I was rather possessive about my few possessions.
But the thing was, they were terrible books. I still remember, one of the mysteries revolved around a mysterious guy known only by name, or rather nickname: 'Pop'. And so the Hardy boys are running around looking for some old coot, but in fact, 'Pop' earned his moniker because he drank a lot of soda pop. He was hardly older than they were. Even at the age of six, I curled my lip up at that one. (My math skills truly sucked; I could barely add two and two, but at six I was already a literary critic. So you see, Xiaxue shouldn't really expect any quarter from me. I have a looooong history of trashing bad writing.)
The other thing was, the tone changed from book to book. The Boys Hardy spoke one way in one book, and another way in another. Descriptive passages, even sentence structures were written differently; there was no feeling of continuity throughout the series. That more than anything put me off. It wasn't until years later that I found it was because the books were ghostwritten by a dozen different people.
Be patient, I'm getting to the cowardice part.
I learned from an early age how easy it was to write badly, Screwy. And it put me off writing until I was thirteen. Hormones can do crazy things. In my case, they made me fall in puppy love with Shelley Hodges. I wrote all kinds of bad poetry about her, about love, about life in a little orange spiral notebook. And then at the Spring Carnival she made out with John Martinez (known as Jon-Jon), and rumor had it that later that night they actually *did it*. Crushed, I handed her the notebook at school and wandered off, misery clothed in parachute pants and an OP t-shirt. I only remember one poem from what I like to call my Orange Period:
Secret, secret, we've all got a secret,
Dirty little secrets that we keep.
But soon now, soon there'll be no little secrets
When we cross that border into sleep…
So anyway, I don't remember writing much of anything again until I was 17, and the world did not mourn.
And then I met Jessica.
I'll save the story of that love affair for some other time. All that's really relevant now is that she was incredibly beautiful and something got damaged inside her on the way to adulthood, and we wrote each other love letters constantly, stuffing them into each other's lockers. They were pretty racy. And when one of them somehow ended up in the clutches of the entire baseball team, I shrugged. At least all the whispers about me being gay stopped. And when she went off to college while I finished my senior year, the letters didn't stop, but they did darken. I found a place that would sell me and my best friend beer and a job making pizzas; she found crystal meth and heroin and lots of sex that didn't include me.
I'm betting you're starting to see a picture taking shape, no?
Then there was college, and Lori, who I fell in love with and who fell in love with Stephen. And that was a sad, sordid little thing that lasted far longer than it should have, and involved me writing like a madman, believing somehow by sheer force of words properly applied I could shift the entire universe to a place where I could have what I so desperately wanted, which was her. And you know what? It worked. Sort of. Only I had to make a choice: Accept what she was willing to give me (hint: not all of her and not all the time) or accept nothing. I chose nothing.
And then there was the whole thing with X, and so much just gone, up in smoke out of sheer vindictiveness and madness. It was like losing a limb, or having a stroke. It was debilitating. It was crippling.
Fantasy, specifically Sword and Sorcery, is what pulled me out of that abyss. It allowed me to put form to something that was essentially formless. To paint it with a broad brush, in fiction you can make sense of senselessness. Specifically, by using the formula fiction laid down by Howard and Carter and de Camp and Leiber, I found a way to express all the horrible things that can happen to a person, and yet still have it turn out all right in the end. I found (or rather turned to) a literary value system that didn't ignore the fact that the world can be a sick, deadly place; that the odds really are against you—but you can still triumph if you only use your head and your will like a weapon, and hold back absolutely nothing.
I owe a lot to fantasy.
You see, the strictly literary is chaos. It's an old, wicked, wild, dark kind of amoral magic that has no rules, and damn few conventions. You cast a spell with your words, and either nothing happens or anything can happen, and that anything includes some truly painful, truly horrific stuff. I am afraid of what I might conjure up. I am afraid that it might be stronger than I am. I am afraid that it will defeat me.
Formula fiction is contained; you give yourself over to its conventions and within those boundaries, some amazing stuff can happen. You don't have to believe Genesis word for word to see the power and grace of those words. And if it all goes badly, you can shrug it off and say 'it's only a fantasy story. I'll start another tomorrow.'
With literary fiction, it's like being dropped in the middle of the savannah. There are lions, they are real, and they can tear you limb from limb. I wasn't born with this limp. It's not a game for me, writing; it's deadly serious. I could wander out there and never be heard from again.
So yeah, Screwy, I don't write the literary stuff much because I'm a coward. Or, to be kind to myself, I've already paid a heavy price in my life for writing the real, and the only return I've gotten were the words themselves, and even they weren't permanent. For some, that would be enough. For some, it would be shameful to expect more than that.
I'm older, now. I'm more canny. I want a better deal.
But you, my friend, should not take to heart too much of my experience. That wild, dark magic never shapes itself the same way twice; everyone weaves a unique spell, every time they put pen to paper. You're young, so be reckless. See what you can come up with. When the magic strikes, it might be terrifying, it might be awe inspiring, but there is one thing it never is, and that's boring.
So write like your hair is on fire, Screwy. Maybe you'll shame me into taking another risk. And just between you and me and the three other people who read this blog, I wouldn't regret that a bit.