you know you'll never read that book again because the ending's just too hard to take
I disagree with Jay, but his post on "genre as a shield" is interesting. I dunno: I would say "maybe it's a guy thing," except I think Chaz is still a guy, and here I am fifty pages into The River of the World and it's quite thoroughly gutwrenching, thanks[footnote 1]. (Far more difficult to read than, say, the last John Irving book I waded through.)
I think the flaw in Jay's argument is the conflation of "confessional" with "bloodletting."
One can let quite a lot of blood without showing in clinical detail the weapon that made the wound. In particular, I would say that there is an artistic covenant in which it is the duty of the artist to get the blood on the page. And get it on the page in a manner where it can infect the viewer or reader, rather than seeming exhibitionist (which is alienating). (There is a place for the confrontational knife, and there is a place for the subtle knife, as it were. But if you're just standing there hacking at yourself going "Look at me! Look at me!" ...well, okay, it might have been a horrific kind of art when Iggy Pop did it, but even he seems to think it was a bad drugged out idea these days.)
In other words, if you're doing anything more than writing pulp entertainment, it's your job to get down past the facile and into the twisty turny tensing and moving muscle, to expose those fibers with the edge of the knife and maybe fray them a little.
If you do it carelessly, it's shock value, grotesquerie. (Pass the broken bottles.) If you do it right, though, you're exposing how the human machine works under stress, and that's kind of amazing. Kind of like an Elizabethan executioner getting the heart out of the hanged, drawn, and quartered victim, and aloft while it's still beating. To stretch for a really, really grotesque kind of metaphor.
If we pull back from that, it's a failure of courage.
And whether that's an important failure is an interesting question. Because in one regard, it's just art. It's just art. It's the sound of one brain wanking. It's not as important as a single human life, is it?
Or is it?
Is the contents of the thousand or so books or I can see from my chair worth a human life? I would say no, sitting here. But then, one of those books is the Poetic Eddas, and another is the Pelican Shakespeare, and another one is The Last Unicorn. Is the idea of the collected works of William Shakespeare important? The existence of any edition of those works, anywhere? Like Van Gogh's sunflowers... what is that worth?
In four centuries, how much enlightenment and comfort and catharsis have those stories and poem delivered? There's an edition of Aristophanes over there somewhere. Fahrenheit 451. There, let's make the irony manifest.
Is a book a life?
I can't answer that. But it's one of the questions that Fahrenheit 451 asks, isn't it?
Does Fahrenheit 451 in any way insulate you from the power of its contents? How about 1984?
I don't think so. I think emotional distancing is a failing of genre work, not a feature. And while there are a certain number of readers who may prefer not to be challenged in that way, who may prefer that insulation and distance, and a certain number of writers may not be willing to dig hard enough to get to the honest grief and joy... I don't think it's of necessity something that genre fiction has to do.
There is that ongoing issue, where speculative fiction is in tension, our pulp roots at war with our literary sensibilities. That tension produces, to me, some of the most interesting work out there. In fact, it kind of defines the modern genre, for me.
I know for a fact that I can't read The Last Unicorn in public, because my emotional response to the book is so strong. It kicks me right in the squids, and its powerfully human and, I think, emotional in a lot of raw and revelatory ways. Vonnegut does it too, at his best. Any veneer of speculative fiction doesn't change the aching power of a true story told well. When Frodo (spoilers at the spoiler) at the end of The Lord of the Rings, it hurts. And it hurts because we all know what war does to the people who fight it, and that those wounds never can be healed. The fact that Tolkein makes it a manifest retreat into the distance in addition to a metaphorical one increases its impact, I think, concretizes it, makes the hurt patent.
So I think to say that genre insulates one from bloodletting is dishonest; it's seeking an excuse not to dig after that vein a little deeper. I'm an Ellis Peters fan, and I used to be an Elizabeth George fan, though I've lost interest as she's slid into self-indulgent angst. [The hacking was more interesting when Iggy did it, and it was still a bad idea.]
That's genre fiction too, and it follows the genre conventions of the murder mystery--but you know, the emotion is honest, even revelatory.
I think it's a mistake for us as genre writers to back away, and to justify that backing away. If it doesn't hurt, in other words, we're doing it wrong.
[footnote 1] Another thing I like about Chaz's books is how humane they are. Not in the sense of being kind, but in the sense of being compassionate. He's not kind to his characters, but he does understand them, and that makes a difference in how I percieve them. I can deal with all kinds of horrible things in narrative if they're approached in the right way (and this book is full of horrible things, oh yes. Shiny and dark and wonderful horrible things, with full emotional connection.)
Also, he's very subtle and tricky in his characterization and his reveals.