Stained Glass Windows: Reflecting on a Writing Excuses Podcast Episode

So, the world’s on fire. Not literally, but I’m sure that’s coming because what the—okay. But right now, I’m going to focus on something less flammable. I hope you don’t mind, or even that this helps you as we’re all struggling to focus on Things That Are Not On Fire (like books! Except Catching Fire. Not that I’ve been thinking a lot about The Hunger Games series at all. Nope.)

I’ve been listening recently to Writing Excuses, a primarily SFF (science fiction & fantasy) focused podcast by Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells. It’s a really excellent podcast and they’re on Season 12 so DON’T WORRY. You have MUCH to catch up on. You can find all the episodes here (link opens in a new tab) and support their Patreon here (link opens up in a new tab.)

I’ve been listening to Writing Excuses because I’ve been thinking a lot about craft, genre, leveling up, etc because there’s no one I’m more competitive with than myself. And honestly, though this frequently gets me into trouble, as a creative person, it’s been really helpful. I highly recommend being more competitive with yourself than with other writers in this business.

Anyways, today, on my commute home, I listened to Episode 12.5: Literary Fiction. This isn’t a review of the episode but something that Brandon said got me thinking. He was talking about the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, or ‘mainstream fiction’ and ‘literary anything fiction’. He was quoting a professor of his who used a window pane metaphor. He said, “[Literary fiction] is a beautiful work of art in itself. It is a stained glass window. That yes, you can see the story through it. But the way the stained glass window changes what’s on the other side, and the way you change perspective to see what’s out there, is a huge part of the experience.”

I like this metaphor because it goes along with something that Madeleine L’Engle said that I quote constantly. She said when accepting the Margaret Edwards Award, “Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth.”

I approach writing genre fiction very much through this particular lens. I use genre elements–magic and such–to shine a light on our world. The ‘real’ world. As a young reader, I found the best way to understand some uncomfortable truths about this world was by reading it in another world.

So let’s revisit that stained glass window. Literary fiction then uses prose and poetry, that stained glass element, to look into a space, allowing those colors and the art to change our perspective on everything inside that space. Literary fiction is the act of being on the outside and carrying something–ourselves, through colors and art–into that space and thus seeing it in a new way.

On the other side of that coin, I believe genre is inside the space and looking out at the world, through the stained glass, through the colors and the art, to see our world in a new light, with a new perspective. Genre fiction is the act of being on the inside and carrying something–ourselves, and the colors and art of that genre–back out into the world to see it with new eyes.

One looks in, one looks out, but they’re both looking through the stained glass elements.

There’s probably something to think about with regards to literary genre fiction then, about how elements of genre work in relationship to the literary elements in those books, but that feels like a different blog post for another time (when I don’t have a story due tomorrow.)

Everything is on fire, but we’re still writing. Keep on, lovelies.

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