Genre is a subjective marketing category that often misleads rather than informs.
Some books defy classification, especially books by Dean Koontz.
How do you pin down stories that fit at least a dozen marketing labels, including: Action, Adventure, Crime, Horror, Humor, Mystery, Philosophical, Science Fiction, Speculative, Thriller, Urban, and, yes, Visionary Fiction?
No one could have been more surprised than I was at finding principles of quantum mechanics and elements of visionary fiction in the work of mega-popular author Dean Koontz.
On reading my first Koontz novel, titled Watchers, I was prepared for the kind of “rip-roaring, rattling-good story” that “keeps you so far out on the edge of your chair that you have butt bruises from repeatedly falling to the floor” (Dean’s words, not mine). However, it delivered much more. I found myself repeating “Wow!” over and over in reaction to the depth and meaning interwoven almost subliminally throughout the book.
In the afterword to Watchers, Dean Koontz said, “We have within us the ability to change for the better and to find dignity as individuals rather than as drones in one mass movement or another. We have the ability to love, the need to be loved, and the willingness to put our own lives on the line to protect those we love, and it is in these aspects of ourselves that we can glimpse the face of God; and through the exercise of these qualities, we come closest to a Godlike state.”
Yet, no matter how much I’d like to claim Watchers as a prime example of visionary fiction, it does NOT contain all the elements of VF. Any attempt on my part to classify Dean Koontz’s novels under a single genre label, except maybe “Best Seller,” is as impossible as trying to emulate his work.
That said, to not point out the visionary aspect of Koontz’s novels, especially From the Corner of His Eye, One Door Away From Heaven, Odd Thomas, The Face, Innocence, and The City, means that his books may be going unread by many of the general public who balk at the word “horror” associated with his work.
In Part One of my interview with Dean Koontz, we discussed his efforts to avoid any genre label and why every writer should write for himself.
Join me for the rest of our discussion and decide for yourself if this cross-genre writer has the heart of a visionary.
Interview with Dean Koontz Part Two:
“In short, an open-minded and intellectually engaged person has to realize that something is going on here. There is meaning in all that we see around us, meaning and purpose. More to the point, whatever is going on here, it is the central issue of our existence, and it seems to me that it begs to be the central issue of a writer’s career.”
MARGARET DUARTE: I’ve noticed that in many of your novels you mention principles of quantum mechanics. You also incorporate these principles into your plots. For example, in One Door Away From Heaven one of your characters is “hip” to the fact that: “Even on this world, at its current early stage of development, scientists specializing in quantum mechanics are aware that at the subatomic level, the universe seems to be more like thought than like matter.” Adding to this your many Emerson-like statements, I strongly suspect a metaphysical bent in your philosophy (another symptom of VF writers). Am I far off?
DEAN KOONTZ: Year by year, I have become more aware of the deeply mysterious nature of the world. All my life, I have read quantum mechanics, molecular biology, chaos theory…. As a consequence, I have long been enchanted by the staggering complexity of everything. Darwin thought the human cell was just a blob of “carbonized albumen,” but in fact we now know each cell is more complicated than a 747, with thousands of proteins, long chains of them; it’s a mechanism, if you will, of such intricacy and complexity and precise functions that it inspires awe.
Or look at the odds of our universe being anthropic, meaning able to support life. There are twenty universal constants–the Planck minimums, the gravitational attraction constant, the weak force coupling constant, the rest mass of the proton, the rest mass of the electron, etcetera–and if just one of the twenty were even the slightest bit different from what it is, the universe would be a place of constant violence and chaos, utterly incapable of supporting the creation of suns, planets, and life. The odds of all these things being what they are is 10 to the 130th power. If you wrote this number, this string of zeroes, you would need many thousands of years to accomplish the task, and when you were done, the paper would fill at least a third of the universe.
In short, an open-minded and intellectually engaged person has to realize that something is going on here. There is meaning in all that we see around us, meaning and purpose. More to the point, whatever is going on here, it is the central issue of our existence, and it seems to me that it begs to be the central issue of a writer’s career. So, yes, metaphysics are the ink in my pen. As for Emerson, there is more to him than many people have been taught. He was a transgressive in a time when that had to be hidden in order for him to succeed, and he became most clever at concealing his deepest intentions in prose and concepts that could bring the seeker to him. I am a traditionalist in most things–I think that thousands of years of human experience compounds into wisdom–and tradition is one form of that wisdom. I am not an Emersonian.
DUARTE: In an earlier post about visionary fiction here at VFA, I wrote: “In a world riddled with fear, misunderstanding, and lost hope, I believe there are people prepared to transcend the boundaries of their five senses and to open to new thoughts and ideas. In other words, I believe the audience is ready for fiction that heals, empowers, and bridges differences.” What are your thoughts about the chance for raising visionary fiction into the mainstream and its chance for acceptance among publishers and critics?
KOONTZ: Well, essentially you’re saying that fiction has the power to profoundly engage the heart and mind to a degree that nonfiction seldom can and that therefore it has the power to change us–and that therefore it can potentially change the world. If I didn’t agree with that, I wouldn’t have bothered becoming a writer. I know for a fact that as I was growing up in poverty, in a house where a deeply troubled alcoholic father was constantly wreaking havoc, books saved me. They showed me a world beyond the walls of my cramped life, showed me ways to be that were better than the way we were. I’ve read literally thousands of novels–for a few decades, I read 200 a year–and I have often been much more than entertained. I can trace my intellectual and spiritual progress through dozens of writers–Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Dostoevsky, Ray Bradbury, T.S. Eliot, John D. MacDonald, on and on–and I suspect uncounted influences from others I read but with whom I didn’t consciously resonate at the time.
If visionary fiction is indeed a school of writing, and if it isn’t torn apart by conflicting political forces within it (there are always conflicting political forces), then I think it has every chance of gaining attention as a legitimate and major form. To have force, it needs to avoid elevating emotion over reason, as New Age did; it needs not to lose its way in the nanotech evangelism of futurists like Ray Kurzweil; and it needs to avoid forming around people with the announced intention of aggressively transforming the world, because therein lies the danger of messianic delusion. We are not a perfect species, or if you feel, as I do, that “fallen species” is more accurate, go for it; in either case, in recognition of the truth of human nature, it’s always wise to proceed with humility. If a form of fiction is effective, if it speaks to the minds and hearts of readers, it does so not because it is organized into a movement with policies and protocols, but because one human voice at a time speaks truth and hope that strikes a chord with readers, one voice and then another, each with its unique strengths and appeal.
DUARTE: Frozen won Associated Press Entertainer of the Year for having the most influence on entertainment and culture in 2014, and its theme song, “Let it Go,” won an Oscar. Later The Interview came out, sparking misunderstanding and controversy. Do you think that the response to either of these movies will convince Hollywood to take more seriously its role—as Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post put it—”in shaping culture as well as reward loyal moviegoers with quality over cheap stunts”?
KOONTZ: No. Movies began in carnival arcades, and though they have come a long way since those days, there is still about the business a sense of hucksterism, the barker and the pitchman. I would go so far as to agree that it can be an art form, though it mostly is not. But it is the only form of art that by its nature is necessarily collaborative. Painters rarely collaborate. Some novelists collaborate, but most do not. Likewise, composers. It is difficult for a committee to create formidable art, and for a film to be great, there has to be a writer- director or director-producer at the helm, a true visionary, who can marshal hundreds of people, inspire them to do their best work, and recognize it when it is their best. Looking back on the history of film, I think it’s pretty obvious that it hasn’t produced more and better art as it has matured, and in fact it produces less art now than perhaps at any time in its history. What it mostly produces is product. Many movies entertain, but that doesn’t make them art. The last movie to lift me and give me a terrific sense of possibilities, the last one that got past all politics and points of divide in human culture, that spoke to the yearning in the human heart for what is ineffable, was GRAVITY. I think it’s interesting that it was crafted by a father-son team who between them wrote, directed, and produced, and that there were basically only two characters in the story. It was a huge story thematically and certainly as regards the special effects, but in every other way it was a small, polished gem.
DUARTE: The majority of Amazon reviews of The City are five stars, calling the novel “inspiring and uplifting,” “deeply layered,” and “a book to be read slowly and savored.” However, some of your loyal followers are confused, disappointed, even angry, claiming the novel is a departure from your usual writing style. They worry that a new Dean Koontz has arrived with less “chills and thrills.” What is your response to that?
KOONTZ: I do not understand readers who expect a writer slavishly to repeat himself until his work becomes self-parody. As a reader of thousands of novels, I have always most loved those writers who stretch and grow and test me as well as themselves. If you love a writer’s work, surely you want to see it mature into ever more exciting forms, not stagnate.
DUARTE: Finally, many writers believe that, for successful authors, writing becomes easier over time and that editors and assistants take care of the revision process. Yet you blow this notion right out of the water with your second dedication of One Door Away From Heaven to your editor Tracy Devine, who you said never panics when you want to “take yet more time to do draft number forty before turning in the script.” Forty? Really?
KOONTZ: When I was young and stupid, I thought that once I’d written, say, ten books, I’d have learned all the tricks, and thereafter it would be easy. If you love storytelling and our beautiful language, however, there are an infinite number of tricks. You have to spend your life learning, and you’ll never have full command. To let anyone else “take care of the revision process” would be to forfeit your right to be called either an artist or a craftsman. Often, it is in the revision that you find the truth you’re after, that has eluded you until that moment of satori. I don’t write a draft straight through and then go back to revise. I proceed one page at a time, polishing it 10 or 20 times, or more, before moving on to the next page. At the end of each chapter, I print out and pencil the script, sometimes two or three times, because it looks different on the page from the way it appears on the screen. No kidding, there are books that, toward the end, demand more than 20 passes per page, because what you leave the reader with either clarifies and shapes everything that came before the end–or ruins it.
If there are two things I like most about writing, the first is the mystery of where stories and characters come from. They spin into life as if from a loom in the mind that I do not entirely control, and sometimes, while creating, I feel in touch with a creative power far greater than mine. Second, I like the revision, the polishing, in which an adequate line becomes luminous.
The best marketing tool for Dean Koontz’s work may, after all, be word of mouth, a marketing tool that works for any genre.
In closing, I’ll leave you with his parting words at the end of our interview.
There you go, Margaret. Perhaps because of the new angle, visionary fiction, this was different and fun.
As ever, Dean Koontz