"Books were portals meant for escapism," Benjamin Percy says in "Thrill Me," the titular essay in his new nonfiction collection. He's speaking of his childhood in rural Oregon, where he found new realities in the imaginative works of authors like Ian Fleming, Louis L'Amour, and Stephen King. "Pop lit" is what he calls it, although it's more generally known as genre fiction: thrillers, mysteries, Westerns, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Percy knows the terrain. His own acclaimed novels, The Wilding, Red Moon, and The Dead Lands, have trucked in genre fiction to varying degrees, and he currently pens the popular Green Arrow series for DC Comics. He's also an academic, and he brings these points of view together in Thrill Me — partly in the attempt to show that literature and genre fiction shouldn't be on opposite sides of the fence.
If that all sounds like a lot of insider baseball, that's because it is. The lit-vs.-genre debate is something that consumes writers, critics, and publishing industry types far more than the average reader, and it's here that Thrill Me threatens to limit its audience. But Percy is smarter than that: He peppers his observations of today's literary scene with homey, witty anecdotes, and he couches his analysis in no-nonsense wisdom. When, in the essay "Get a Job," he talks about how a writer's life experience can inform her for the better, he recalls how his own point of view was deeply altered by spending time with his farm-owning father-in-law. To illustrate the effectiveness of symbolism, he starts out "Consider the Orange" with his memories of helplessly watching his infant son battle croup in the hospital.
Percy's not afraid to get personal, and that's a good thing. The majority of the essays in Thrill Me revolve around the craft of writing — everything from setting to suspense to backstory to description to characterization to style are covered. In fact, most of the material in the book originated as a series of lectures Percy gave for writing classes and workshops. None of the advice he dishes out is fresh or profound; these are tried-and-true tips about the art of writing that anyone can readily find online or in dozens of how-to books. Where Thrill Me shines is in Percy's ability to write about writing in a conversational way. Not only does he frame the ins and outs of the writing process with warm, wry reminiscences drawn from his own life, he refuses to lapse into stereotypical preciousness or pretentiousness. He talks bluntly and amiably about how stories work and why they matter, an approach that doesn't take a fellow writer to appreciate.
Nowhere is the strength of Percy's voice more evident than in the book's final essay. Titled "Go the Distance," it's basically a pep talk about perseverance. Like every other writer, he's faced his share of rejection. One short story of his, he recounts, was rejected 39 times before it was not only published, but praised by Salman Rushdie. Pragmatic yet inspirational, Percy punches his way through the pitfalls and prejudices that he's encountered so often throughout his professional and academic life — most strikingly when he was told, like so many undergrads are, that he could write anything but genre fiction for a college writing workshop.
For Percy, it all comes back to that split: "serious lit-a-ra-ture," as he puts it, versus his favorite stories about "vampires, dragons, and robots with laser eyes." He doesn't add any new talking points to that debate; instead, Thrill Me is a plainspoken, passionate case for the invalidity of the debate at its face. He cites Chekhov and Flannery O'Connor in alongside The Dark Tower and Game of Thrones. To him, it's all in an effort to "toss out the worst elements of genre and literary fiction — and merge the best." Thankfully in Thrill Me, he walks it like the talks it.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.