For years, we've stood by and listened (and possibly participated) as people discuss what exactly moves a book from the literary fiction realm into one of genre fiction. If it's plot heavy and straight forward, does it become genre? If it's prosey and character driven, does it then become literary? What if a book contains both a strong plot and flowery language? Is it possible for a book to hover above such classifications?
Samuel Sattin, author of League of Somebodies and contributing Editor at The Weeklings, has something to say about that very discussion and where he feels his own novel falls.
Yesterday I was graciously welcomed to Houston by one of my favorite writers (and friends) Mat Johnson to read at a local series put on by some of his university’s alums. While I received a compounded dopamine infusion of beer and Texas BBQ, Mat said one of the most flattering things I’ve heard since I started down this daft and anxiety-laden literary path. Basically, that one of the reasons he liked my debut novel (a miracle in itself), League of Somebodies, because it has an interesting concept. Now this might not sound too important to you—you’d think that every book that claws its way to the shelf is rooted in basic narrative cohesion. But you’d be wrong. Literary fiction in particular, while making up a significant chunk of what I read, and claiming to corner the market on ‘felt life,’ trades pesky interest-clinchers such as plot and concept for character and prose in what can amount to a whopping amount of snooze.
League of Somebodies’ bare bones elevator pitch is essentially this: A father feeds his son measured amounts of a plutonium compound to turn him into the world’s first superhero. I don’t quite know where it came from—it’s not terribly complex, and doesn’t pretend to create a tangle of twists and turns. But it is a framework, built upon science fiction tropes, within which to pursue serious themes. Books that rely too heavily on prose and character while ignoring the ingenuity of fresh, compelling ideas can be accused of being meandering at best, uncompelling at worst. Similarly, novels that rely purely on plot, especially in the genre fiction realm where certain writers fall prey to clunky language and flat characters, can be equally unsatisfying, centralized around cheap thrills without a cause or concern for verity. For this reason, there have been many books, whether New Yorker darlings or hard fantasy/sci-fi grocery store paperbacks that I’ve shook my head at in scorn before retiring them from my vision. Elitism in the literary world panders purely to itself, while sensationalism amongst the annals of genre fiction flounders in the ephemeral. My favorite books are the ones that seem to understand that elements of storytelling can compliment each other, and that all literary devices are effective in their own capacity. Nothing can be discounted based on a desire to erect and/or defend an ivory tower.
When people who like League of Somebodies talk about it, they describe it as being difficult to classify, as inhabiting a strange space between absurdity and pragmatism. As basically fucking bizarre (in a good way). Though the book has a premise steeped in science fiction, that premise, like all good science fiction, is a vessel for the exploration of universal themes: manhood, fatherhood, the destruction of the home, the reason behind our obsessions with heroes and their accomplishments. And while such arcane elements were important to me while writing, I tried to make sure that the importance of the imagination, the super powers and hellish beasts weren’t overly dwarfed by the book’s themes. Whether successfully or not, League of Somebodies tries to straddle the ground between literary and genre fiction without patronizing, or elating, either one. The best books, in my opinion, tend to inhale and/or gestate multiple genres in that exact fashion. If a novel resolves to discount another form fiction as if in protest to it, it ultimately limits its own capacity and becomes—even if brilliant—narrow. League of Somebodies doesn’t pretend to be brilliant, but it is an exercise in inclusion. Superheroes, monsters, mothers, fathers, serial killers, serial monogamists, giant robots, angels, devils death incantations, folklore, masculine identity, giant octopi, hermaphroditic lions, misogyny, and coveted tomes of ancient importance: that is League. A Frankenstein’s monster that walks and grunts and hopes to remain on two feet. Regardless of what opinions it ends up receiving, the creature is alive. And it's going to try to remain relevant in our world of flawless, anodyne form.
Samuel Sattin's work has appeared in Salon Magazine, The Good Men Project, io9, Kotaku, and has been cited in The New Yorker. He is a Contributing Editor at The Weeklings, and author of the debut novel LEAGUE OF SOMEBODIES, described by Mat Johnson as "So rich with originality it's actually radioactive," and by Joshua Mohr as a “Whirling force that blends the family saga, superhero lore, and a coming of age story to a frothy cocktail.” He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, beagle, and tuxedo cat. Please visit him at samuelsattin.net