Matt Bell in Praise of Genre Agnosticism
In Conversation with Gabrielle Mathieu on the New Books Network Podcast
We have a collective memory of a primeval world embodied in myth. It is a world where spirits lived in the trees, water, and mountains, and nature was sacred. Was such a world ever possible, or was it doomed as soon as humans spread? What went wrong with our planet and whose fault is it? Are innovators, who look to science for answers, agents of positive change, or merely heedless apologists for human greed? These are some of the many questions that Matt Bell’s new novel, Appleseed (Custom House, 2021) provokes. No doubt a few literature students will be inspired to write papers.
Gabrielle Mathieu: You’re a literary novelist. Maybe like Jonathan Lethem—he likes to play with genre—you have done so as well. But how do you feel about straight-up classic genre writing? How do you talk to your students about that?
Matt Bell: I love all kinds of writing. And in some ways I don’t think of myself as a literary fiction reader. When I was writing this book, I very much thought of it as a science fiction novel and as a fantasy novel. Some of those tags are just marketing to me, as far as they relate to myself. I think one of my goals generally is to use everything that I like when I’m writing. I like a lot of different kinds of books, and so I feel very genre agnostic. I’m certainly not like, “this is good and this is bad,” or “this genre does this well; in this genre, can’t do this.” There are expectations of every genre, and I actually find those really attractive.
It took me a long time to figure out how the plot was built. At some point I was like, oh, this is a heist. And as soon as I knew it was a heist, I knew how to build the structure. If I wasn’t attracted to the heist as a genre, I would not have been able to write that. Knowing what those expectations are and both adhering to them and subverting them seems like a lot of the fun of writing.
Matt Bell is the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.