Is cross-genre writing like cross-dressing? Yes! The benefits and attraction of cross-genre writing for readers and writers


dystopia manThe trouble with categories for books? Like categories of humans, as soon as you slap a label on a book, you limit it. People tend to avoid it unless it’s a genre they read. Of course many books, like people, don’t fit neatly into a pigeonhole. A major category, and one that some readers are uncomfortable with, even avoid, is literary. They assume the language will challenge them, the plot won’t flow.

You deny yourself a great deal of reading pleasure if you avoid literary work. On the flip side, you deny yourself a great deal of reading pleasure if you avoid genre work because you approach it with preconceptions. I’ve found some of my favorite novels are cross-genre, frequently sci fi or speculative with literary. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is an example.

You increase your reading pleasure when you sample cross-genre writing, a hybrid of themes and elements from two or more genres. Often stimulating, it presents opportunities for creativity in writing as well as discussions among readers.

A new-ish, genre-leaping novel is Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. This 2014 work shouldered its way into notice via a list of awards as long as my arm, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, 10 Best Books of the Year by the Washinton Post and others.

At this point, dystopian novels are as common as situational comedies on television. For many of us, our vision of the future looms grim, which might account for the popularity of the genre. I still enjoy a number of them, but a book has to possess outstanding writing for me to rave on about it.

This one succeeded not because it was more violent, bloody, action-packed, sexy, or even original. Mandel’s writing style appeals to me. She juggles numerous characters, leaps back and forth in time, switches voices, and encourages speculation from her readers about what has happened and might occur. No space aliens, nothing outside the realm of possibility. A new virus spreads rapidly over the world, killing 99% of the population. The remainders group together in new ways, intent on sheer survival, most of those the book follows eventually tied together in some manner. Mandel’s language is clear yet evocative; her control over her material, stunning. I ended the novel depressed over the world it created but in awe of the journey.

Readers and writers thrive on outstanding writing. It can be traditional or innovative in approach, of a genre or genre-crossed. Don’t miss this one.

What Is Real and What Is Not? Hallucinations, Creativity, and Lives Well-Lived

I rarely read nonfictioschizophrenia-awareness-hallucination-260-70641n, believing that fiction exposes the truths about life and humans better than a scientific approach. One book I inhaled recently, though, was Hallucinations, by neurologist Oliver Sacks. While the book is fascinating on its own, illustrating the phenomenon evidently can be experienced by nearly anyone and caused by birth, injury, drugs, disease, or insomnia, I was especially intrigued by its use in writing and other creative endeavors.

When I took college philosophy and psychology classes, students continually debated the definition and reality of, well, reality. For example, how do I know that the color blue I perceive is the same color blue that you do. In short, how do we know what is real and what is not? Certainly this question slops over into religious faith. Of all the ideas of an afterlife, how can we be sure of heaven, ancestral spirits, Nirvana, or seventy-two virgins?

In short, we can’t. Scientists may have ways to measure, probe, evaluate, but absolute certainty is beyond even them. Throughout Hallucinations, Sacks reiterates the complexity of the causes of hallucinations. The impacts, however, are complex and enthralling. All our five senses can be affected. Because we interpret external sensations for our internal view of life, hallucinations can be a metaphor for all of humanity’s misinterpretations of one another and our values.

War is a prime example. No, let’s take social media as an example. Every simpleton with access to the Internet and the media delivered by it feels perfectly free to state his opinion on every matter under the sun, as rudely as he wishes. While I may believe that Trump’s opinions about immigration deserve no consideration, lots of earnest individuals seem to disagree with me.

Who’s to say who is right and who is wrong? We are able to respond only for ourselves, although we may believe otherwise. If I apply this theorem to writing, I open myself and my work to an infinity of possibilities. Alice in Wonderland, Hunger Games, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Catch-22, every work of fiction is predicated on “what if?” Frequently fantasy and imagination play a big role in creation.

Hallucinations approximate this condition. (I have difficulty distinguishing among hallucination, delusion, and illusion. All seem to be individual responses to what’s out there in the physical world, or reality, as it could be termed. So I’ll just use ‘hallucinations.”) Sacks may not have intended his volume to be a workbook for writers, but that’s one interesting application.

Even more interesting, writing is a way to share our realities. Here are some quotes from famous people that seem true to me, perhaps even real.

  • All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions. Leonardo Da Vinci

  • There is no truth. There is only perception. Gustave Flaubert

  • We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are. Anais Nin

Sadly, Dr. Sacks passed away recently. He left a legacy of his books, insights and thoughts. Sample them at and

The persistence and perversity of synchronicity: how two apparently unrelated books enhance one another and enlighten the reader

sisyphus-2Wow! I think my reading’s affected my vocabulary. But since that’s one of the fun things resulting from challenging books, I won’t complain. I’ll just define the words below.

Recently I picked up two well reputed books. “Travels with Charley: in search of America,” by John Steinbeck, a creative nonfictional account of his cross-country trip, celebrates its fifty-second anniversary this year. “The Dog Stars,” by Peter Heller, a science fiction novel published last year, recounts the story of one of the few survivors of mysterious world-wide devastation.

Strange to me, as I made my way through both volumes, I was struck by their similarities. Both have a man as main narrator, a dog as companion, travel as integral to the plot, and lots of wonderful descriptions of nature—both worldly and our own species. Meetings with strangers (some evil), questions about humanity’s impacts on the environment, insights on human behavior cram the pages.

As I read, at times I had to remind myself which book I held in front of me. No, the pleasant meal John Steinbeck described wasn’t one for survivor Hig to savor. The excitement of a small child at Hig’s visit to his homestead didn’t include Steinbeck as a guest.

Somehow, though, going through the scenes of one book made the plot of the other more vivid, pertinent to what’s going on in the world around me. Fifty-plus years between the creation of each seemed as nothing. The authors seemed to be brothers under the skin. This doesn’t happen, by the way, with television, stage, Internet, or most films. Reading is unique in its ability to entertain and challenge and offer discernments, all simultaneously.

Through chance I picked up two books that enhanced the contents of the other. This happens to me all the time. Psychologist Carl Yung called this “synchronicity,” meaningful coincidences in time that have similar significance and relationship, including those in the mind and the physical world. He theorized perhaps a causal relationship existed.

That I don’t believe. However, another term may describe my situation. “Apophenia,” the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena comes close. As I read about this term, it was coupled with “mental disorder,” and also “creativity.” Hmmm. I know which one I’d pick.

Whatever the occurrence might be labeled, I’m glad it exists. Even more elated I discovered these two books at about the same time. Each gave me more to think about with the other.

  • Synchronicity: the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.
  • Persistence: firm continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition; the continued or prolonged existence of something.
  • Perversity: a deliberate desire to behave in an unreasonable or unacceptable way; quality of being contrary to accepted standards or practice.

“Find Me”: a “what if” we don’t want to answer in an examination of reality, emotions, and life through a novel

illusion“Find Me,” a new novel by Laura van den Berg, is presented in a deceptively simple, straightforward style. Written in present tense by its protagonist, a young woman named Joy, often relying on facts and lists, she first exposes her attitude about her involuntary quarantine in a hospital, following an epidemic, which first robs people of their memories, then their lives. She’s one of the few immune. But as the story unwinds, another, even more traumatic fact about her life appears. Abandoned as an infant, she’s lived in a series of foster homes, and the occurrences there left indelible marks that she accepts with equanimity. So we think. By the book’s end, we begin to question her view of reality and hopscotch back to previous scenes trying to dig out truth.

In writing this device is called an unreliable narrator.” It appears in books as diverse as “Alice in Wonderland,” “One Flew Over the Cuckcoo’s Nest,” “Lolita,” and “The Life of Pi.” In fiction, as in life, the unreliable narrator is a person telling the story who can’t be trusted. Either from ignorance or self-interest, this narrator speaks with a bias, makes mistakes, or even lies. 

Why is the unreliable narrator widespread? My guess is because that’s the way life is. Have you ever experienced an incident at which other people were present, then talked about it later, only to discover your view’s and theirs differ widely? Those much-applauded and quoted studies conducted by experts support the phenomenon. Witnesses can be sincere, and believe they’re telling the truth, and hold completely opposite views.

The truth is that we all are reliable to ourselves and unreliable to everyone else. I was called to serve on a jury recently, and nearly everyone questioned said he’d base his decisions on the facts. But studies show over and over that even eyewitnesses can see a situation completely differently. Look at the dozens of people freed over the past few decades when scientific evidence proves their innocence. We quite honestly can think we’re right. . .until this is shown to be wrong.

So in the end, the unreliable narrator may very well be reliable as to what he believes. Who’s to say Joy in “Find Me” isn’t headed to a reunion with her mother?

Spiritual faith abounds with this perspective. The “72 virgins in Heaven” concept of reward in Islam (although misinterpreted in our pop culture) could very well be true for Muslims who belive it. The Catholic Purgatory encompassing purification over time to redeem yourself from sin, the child who believes in the Tooth Fairy long past the age of baby teeth, the millions of women who place credence in a lover’s “I’ll be with you always. . . I’ll take care of you,’ the list is endless.

These are our own perceptions of reality, and to us they are real. Does this mean we’re all wrong? We shouldn’t trust our instincts, perceptions and thoughts? Bow to the supremacy of science? No, for what’s considered “science” seems to change almost as quickly as our emotions.

I think it means we shouldn’t rush to judgment the way we do. We should always be willing to look at different perspectives, honor others’ opinions, put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes. The universe is vast, our world holds quadrillions of fascinating objects and happenings, and differing realities (to some, illusions) are part of that.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

When Science Fiction Becomes Fact, the Dangers Aren’t Zombies, Aliens, Robots, Weapons of Mass Destruction, or Comets

Octavia ButlerScience fiction is a genre chock-full of stereotypes. Doesn’t take much imagination to throw in an alien monster or launch a barrage of special effects through images or words about explosions, fires, and destruction.

Then there are the few thoughtful works that hold a mirror up to us and show us the real horror we are or could become. Such is the case with Parable of the Talents, the second book in Octavia Butler’s duet of the near-future. The time is about 2035, the society is ours, gone slowly and terribly astray, like TS Elliott’s vision in The Hollow Men. “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Published in 1996, the book comes sooooo close to many happenings today. Slaughters in Africa and the Middle East; hidden concentration camps of low-income workers and their families tacitly approved by governments; discrimination against the poor like we have in our country; pronouncements by rich or powerful individuals blaming the powerless for their own situations; disappearances of people that challenge the system; arming of the citizenry; ambitious individuals who bend the truth, even lie, as they set up tar-babies as objects for hatred, using politics or religion as the excuse; brutality against women and helpless. While all these evils don’t occur in any one location, they are present in the world today.

Protagonist Lauren Olamina has moved, escaped, from LA with her doctor-lover, to establish a tiny community in northern California. There they struggle to raise crops, build homes and businesses, and occasionally fight bad guys and rescue a few from the huddled masses. But they can’t escape the evil of authoritarian—or greedy?—do-gooders who want to wipe them out. Lauren’s husband, friends, and neighbors are killed, her infant daughter snatched from her.

Fortunately, steeped as the novel is in religious ideas of one sort or another, one holds some promise. Lauren’s vision of spirituality is a philosophy called Earthseed. It preaches acceptance, tolerance, and community purpose. Despite a vision of the future so close we could turn the corner and be living it, optimism is possible.

Butler, an African-American woman who won numerous awards, including a MacArthur “genius” grant, was unusual in the scifi field. Unfortunately she died in 2006. Although she’d planned additions to the series, none were published, as far as I can tell. I keep thinking, wondering, what she would have thought about Obama’s election, about the mouthings of politicians who think (or at least claim) they have all the answers, the attacks of some against public education and tolerance. Equally, what would she have thought about wave after wave of extremist, violent terrorism launched in the name of God, regardless of the affiliation or country of origin of proponents.

I’m sure she would have laughed about the popularity of zombies, vampires, robots, and other easy-to-sketch villains. She knew that the real horrors of the future lie within humans themselves, and she warned us as best she could while she encouraged us to think about the consequences of our actions. . .and inactions.