Form vs Formula: Holly Goddard Jones on Shifting to Genre Fiction


Cover detail from The Salt Line, courtesy of Penguin Random House

My first semester of graduate school, I took a course called Forms of Fiction—or “literature for writers,” as it was more casually known. The professor assigned several volumes of Best American Short Stories, and for each meeting we read three of the stories, then came to class with no more specific agenda than to discuss, with the professor as our guide and interpreter. Those ten weeks were probably the most intensive of my student-writer life. The professor gave us a toolbox filled with vocabulary—terms such as “exposition,” “limited omniscience,” and “indirect discourse.” He explained that a “crot” was a section of story separated from the next by white space. He walked us through a story’s structure: where it seemed to begin versus where it really began; how it complicated; when it climaxed. And he did something that truly blew the mind of 23-year-old me: he treated the published stories we were reading, the ones deemed best by writers such as Barbara Kingsolver and E.L. Doctorow, as something other than sacred. He picked them apart. He dared to suggest that they followed patterns and conventions.

“Dead baby story,” he said of Michael Chabon’s “Along the Frontage Road.” “Picaresque,” he said of Roy Parvin’s “Betty Hutton.” (It seemed to me then that he thought the former category problematic, the latter honorable.) Several stories employed what he called the “page-two move”: an opening scene, followed by a white space and flashback, or an extended run of backstory. In my beaten-up paperbacks from those days, my professor’s transcribed words—written in my clean, rounded print that was still more child’s than adult’s—deface the pages. “We should know as much as the character knows,” I wrote at the top of one story. “The dif b/w poetry & prose/ Poet decides where the line ends,” I wrote on another, followed by “Unities: Time, place, action.”

I was discovering the clichés of contemporary literary fiction at the same time I was discovering contemporary literary fiction. As an undergraduate English major, my reading had oscillated between “serious” school books—fat eighteenth-century novels, the various Norton anthologies—and my at-home pleasure reading of horror novels, legal thrillers, the occasional upmarket trade book like The Lovely Bones. Short stories published in The New Yorker or Granta, were something new. They intimidated me, moved me, and sometimes bored me. But I didn’t have the breadth of reading experience necessary to question them. I hadn’t read enough “dead baby” stories to know that they might constitute a sub-genre.

I can’t decide if it’s appropriate or ironic that my professor wasn’t a fan of genre fiction. The best he could say about Stephen King was that writers like King make it financially feasible for publishers to put out smaller books by writers like himself. But my professor was egalitarian in his distaste for formula, whether it was formula in the guise of a sexy vampire seducing a pretty young mortal or a more quietly formulaic tale of a middle-aged teacher seducing a pretty young co-ed. And the lesson I’ve absorbed from that literary boot camp so many years ago—the one I try to pass along now to my own students—is this: Form GOOD; Formula BAD. Form gives us a shape to honor, study, and subvert. Formulas are designed to lull and reassure. The syllabus I give to my undegraduates always has the following statement about literary fiction: “I don’t particularly care if your work is set in Greensboro or on Mars, but I ask that you do not adhere to conventions that limit the work’s complexity.”

Still, no one was more surprised than I was when I found myself signing a contract to complete a dystopian thriller about a world devastated by a deadly tick outbreak. As much as I’ve read in the genres of horror, post-apocalyptic fiction, and thriller, and as open as I’ve tried to be to the genre work my students submit—their sci-fi, their romances, their Medieval-inspired adventures—I never imagined myself as a writer of anything other than psychological realism. I didn’t think I was built for it—that my imagination worked that way. But then I had this idea. I imagined a new, even more disgusting species of tick, one that burrows under the skin and lays hundreds of eggs. Almost simultaneously, I pictured the one device that might kill this tick and her diseased brood: the Stamp, which cauterizes the bite site and leaves behind a nasty scar. I found myself intensely curious about the world where these ticks—and the barbaric tool that fights them—exist. I was even more curious about the people occupying that world. Who are they, and what do they dare hope for? How are they like me? And what kind of person would you have to be to deliberately expose yourself to the possibility of a “miner tick” bite and the painful, dubious cure of the Stamp?

Once I started trying to answer those questions of motivation, I found that writing a genre story is not much different from writing literary realism—which, as my graduate school professor suggested, is a genre with its own conventions. In the end, it’s all about character, and for me, the way into character is always through the details. So, in The Salt Line, you’ll read less about the big catastrophes that lead to a national re-drawing of boundaries and more about the little truths of daily life: what the pop culture of the near future looks (and sounds) like; how a social banking interface works; the cosmetic procedures common among the future’s very well-to-do; and so on. If I could make you believe in a character’s favorite flavor of breakfast cereal, I figured, I could perhaps make you believe that he has the intellect and luck to start an economic revolution.

I suppose it’s no coincidence that the monster of The Salt Line is an insect the size of pepper flake. When I’m toiling at the level of the very, very small, I’m working in my writerly sweet spot.