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Archive for May, 2012

Accessibility: Speculative Fiction’s Pernicious Strawman


NOTE: My thinking here is a bit of a tangential response to some of John H. Stevens’ recent Erudite Ogre columns over at SF Signal. I strongly recommend those columns as an insightful exploration of genre and genre identity. Here’s a link.

Once we create a work of art, the next step is to get that work into the hands of the largest (hopefully appreciative) audience we can. That’s a natural and universal desire, and it is this desire that lies at the root of the ever-present question faced and posed by speculative fiction writers: how can we get more people to read speculative fiction? But a real, substantive answer to that generalized question is a lot more complicated than the question itself. Which is why, more often than not, we re-formulate that question into the more tractable: why don’t more people read speculative fiction?

That question tends to elicit a Pavlovian response among fans and creators alike: SF needs to be more accessible. Characters over idea. Et cetera, et cetera. Unfortunately, the question and its stock answers suffer from three related problems: first, they observe non-existent symptoms (audience disinterest in speculative fiction), and then misdiagnose the causes of their incorrect observations (accessibility), and prescribe the wrong medicine for the wrong illness (making SF more accessible).

Hypochondria in the Speculative Genre

The rumors of speculative fiction’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Those who claim that interest in speculative fiction is flagging must be living on a different planet. Consider:

  • Box Office Results. This past weekend, six of the top ten grossing movies were explicitly science fiction, fantasy, or horror. According to Rotten Tomatoes, their combined weekend gross was over $120 million, which represented 83% of the top ten combined weekend gross. If speculative fiction no longer resonated with audiences, would they flock to see alien invasions, science-based super heroes battling it out over New York, or vampires?
  • Adoption of SF Devices across Genres. Genre fans like to grumble that mainstream literary fiction is “stealing” genre devices (the fact that all literature steals from other literature tends to go conveniently unmentioned). But why would mainstream literary novels – neither marketed at genre cons or with genre markers on the cover – adopt the devices of a “failing” genre? It would be rather counterproductive. And the fact is that they aren’t. In fact, they are adopting new (for their genre) narrative devices that resonate with readers.
  • Young Adult Speculative Fiction is Going Gangbusters. The younger generation is devouring speculative fiction. But these younger readers don’t distinguish between science fiction, fantasy, and horror and older readers don’t notice what’s happening in YA (see my earlier rant on this score).

If speculative fiction were dying, then none of these three observable phenomena would hold true. What these trends do mean, however, is that a genre that spent most of its life cloistered in its own “genre ghetto” is now interfacing with a broader community – with new readers and new viewers, who are not as versed with genre history, or who are ostensibly not as focused on the issues that our community holds to (the future! big ideas!).

It is not that this new audience rejects speculative fiction: they simply value different aspects of it, and thus prefer certain types and flavors of SF. That’s evolving taste, and it is nothing new. Every genre – speculative fiction included – is at all times subject to the evolution of taste.

The Misdiagnosed Illness: Accessibility

Those who lament the death of speculative fiction look for a quick fix. That’s only natural, and I certainly understand the impulse. But much of the community tends to see both the illness and the solution in one place: accessibility.

Speculative fiction has spent so long in its ghetto that it has developed a natural superiority complex to “other” genres. This psychology has even filtered into our genre’s discourse: ours is the genre of ideas, ours is “high concept”, we build worlds, etc. That all of these statements are true, however, only makes it easier for us to (by implication) look down on works that lack SF elements. And “accessibility” is more of the same.

The concept of “accessibility” is vast, and it does contain many facets. But the least complicated, most easily-grasped dimension is that accessibility equals simplicity. When many of us say that SF needs to be “more accessible” what we are really saying is that it needs to be “less challenging” or “simpler”. You know, so that mainstream folks “can get it”. Fewer neologisms, less science, more unobtanium, etc. This is a solution that lets us retain our superiority: after all, we are the cognoscenti who grok the rarefied heights of speculative fiction. But to be more popular, we have to dumb it down for everyone else.

This type of thinking is wrong-headed. The fact is that “everyone else” groks SF just as much as we do. That’s why consumers lap it up in film, books, comics, television, etc. Time travel, alternate reality, dystopia, space travel, magic…these are no longer outré narrative devices: they have entered our social consciousness, have been absorbed and internalized by popular culture.

Terms like “accessibility” are dangerous because they make it too easy to prescribe simplistic and inaccurate solutions. For too many, they mischaracterize the symptoms, misdiagnose the illness, and prescribe the wrong treatment.

Engage-ability vs Accessibility

The dimension of accessibility that, I think, makes more sense and is more helpful (and more accurate) is not the degree to which a work of fiction is “accessible” or not. Instead, it is the degree to which its audience can engage with it.

Some might say they are the same, but that’s incorrect. Accessibility is a negative concept: it implies that someone “can’t get in.” But engagability (and yeah, I know that isn’t really a word…but it should be!) is a positive concept, and it is a lot more difficult to both define and achieve. To make a work more accessible is simple: just make it easier to follow, easier to understand. But how to make a work more engaging? How do we make a work of art more compelling for our audience? That is the question that keeps artists up at night, always has and always will.

Engagement with a work of fiction is driven by a host of factors, and the balance between those factors among different readers will vary significantly. That’s why it is so complicated. Some of us might value plausibility over excitement, or characterization over world-building. And even these are false dichotomies: the reality is a spectrum spanning all aspects of narrative.

Alas, I don’t have a prescription. I wish I knew how to make stories more engaging. I have my theories, but they work for me as a reader and me as a creator and might not work for either other readers or other creators.

If we write the stories we care about – stories that engage us intellectually, emotionally (whatever pushes our personal buttons) – then odds are those stories can find a like-minded audience. Getting the word out, informing that audience of these stories’ existence, is an entirely different challenge, and one in which the artist is only one actor among many (publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and yes, readers, all play a role). If we focus on the quality of the work, on making it as compelling and as engaging as possible, then by doing so we maximize the likelihood that it will develop a devoted audience. And an entirely separate discussion should be had around the marketing and promotional methods that can help maximize that audience’s size.

As creators of speculative fiction, we should rejoice that our potential audience – that segment of the population who can grok the devices we employ – is now so large, and growing every day. We should credit them with the intelligence to recognize compelling art when they see it. After all, we don’t like it when mainstream literary snobs condescend to us. Should we really return the favor?

REVIEW: Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont


Title: Orb Sceptre Throne
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Pub Date: May 22nd, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An inaccessible middle installment that picks up midway through.

As I’ve written about before (here, and here) I’m a big fan of the Malazan universe created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont. Yes, the books are complex, the plots byzantine, and the cast of characters massive. But the universe is compelling, not to mention just plain fun. And after swimming through over eight thousand pages of text in this universe, I’m always eager to dive back into it. Which is why I was excited to read Ian C. Esslemont’s latest addition to the universe: Orb Sceptre Throne.

As I discussed when reviewing Stonewielder last year, Esslemont has faced an uphill battle writing in his and Erikson’s shared universe. His first attempts were a little tentative and with some weaknesses, but I thought that he really hit his stride in Stonewielder. What particularly struck me – as compared to Erikson’s far denser works – was the (relative) accessibility of Esslemont’s stories. Though on the whole Orb Sceptre Throne continues Esslemont’s trajectory of improvement, it unfortunately stumbles on both accessibility and initial characterization.

“Accessible” is not an adjective often applied to the Malazan novels. With hundreds of characters, multiple perspectives, numerous side-plots (some spanning several novels), swirling allegiances, and piles of complex magic, they take a significant and sustained mental investment to enjoy. Despite sharing many of these features with Erikson’s dense tomes, Esslemont’s works tend to have a narrower scope and benefit from this greater focus. One need not be intimately familiar with the background established in Erikson’s ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen to understand Esslemont’s Night of Knives or Stonewielder. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Orb Sceptre Throne.

The book focuses on Darujhistan, roughly parallel in time to the events of Stonewielder and Erikson’s The Crippled God (book ten in Erikson’s series). The book features three core plot lines told from six primary perspectives. The central plot deals with a powerful and ancient tyrant trying to take control of the quasi-democratic city state of Darujhistan. The other plot lines, which ultimately tie back into the central story, deal with events on the wreckage of Moon’s Spawn, and in the warren of Chaos last seen in Return of the Crimson Guard.

Even in that brief, thirty-thousand foot overview, the weakness of Orb Sceptre Throne is clear: to understand two out of the three central plot lines, the reader needs to be familiar with both the events of Esslemont’s Return of the Crimson Guard, and Erikson’s Memories of Ice (book three, though in reality, the entirety of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is useful for adequate background). Because of the amount and complexity of backstory necessary to even begin navigating Esslemont’s story, the book’s audience is by default limited to those readers already significantly invested in the Malazan universe. In essence, Orb Sceptre Throne suffers from a very complicated case of middle-novel-syndrome.

Even if we accept that its audience is limited to those of us already familiar with the Malazan universe, the book still suffers from a structural weakness: the first one hundred fifty pages are a slow, somewhat meandering collection of unconnected narratives. Fans of the Malazan universe are prepared for gradual builds, in that the books’ characteristic interlocking plot lines need a fair degree of set up. But successful execution of such slow builds requires consistently engaging characterization. And this is where the opening of Orb Sceptre Throne falls short.

In these early pages, Esslemont keeps many of his characters at arms’ length, and as a result we fail to develop a rapport with them. The scholar Ebbin, who Esslemont opens his story with, is particularly problematic: though his motivation is intellectually understandable, I found that I was uninterested in his fate. With no redeeming features, and nothing to supplement his singular focus, the character was unable to engage me on an emotional level. This is a significant departure from the quality of characterization in Stonewielder, which was tighter, more focused, and significantly more engaging. Thankfully, after the first hundred and fifty pages or so, Esslemont returns to fine form.

Once the dominoes are all set up, the narrative focuses on several core perspectives (notably not Ebbin’s) and we gain a greater engagement with our perspective characters. Esslemont’s solid characterization and vivid depictions of action really shine once he gets going. The sections that particularly appealed to me were those set on Moon’s Spawn, in the warren of Chaos, and those told from the perspective of the Seguleh. It is these narratives and their characters that pull us along in the story, and once their foundations are established the story’s flow smooths into an enjoyable ride. The ending is – for the most part – satisfying, and those elements that remain unresolved are obviously teasers for subsequent stories that we can expect Esslemont to address in the future.

On the whole, Esslemont’s Orb Sceptre Throne is one of the weaker Malazan novels, but for those of us invested in the universe, a reasonably enjoyable one. If you haven’t yet gotten into the Malazan universe, then don’t start with this one: you’ll be lost within the first couple of pages. If, on the other hand, you are current with the Malazan universe, then by all means pick up the book. Its events are significant, and will no doubt be built upon in future volumes. Its weak opening may take some effort to get through, but once the story gets going, Malazan fans will enjoy it for the elements it shares with all books in the universe: its ambition, action, characters, and its moral and thematic complexity.

PSA: Viable Paradise Applications Almost Due!


This isn’t my main post for the week (that’ll be going live in a couple of hours), but I just wanted to issue a quick PSA:

The deadline for this year’s applications to Viable Paradise are fast approaching. Applications are due on June 15th, 2012 which is just over three weeks away.

If you’re polishing up your application, or if you’re still on the fence about applying, here are some fun links to check out from some of my classmates (if you’ve written about the VP experience and I missed it, let me know and I’ll add your link!):

If after perusing some of these links, you’re still uncertain and want to chat with someone who’s gone, just shoot me an e-mail, tweet @KgElfland2ndCuz, or comment here!

Super Hero Narratives and Our Re-discovered Love for Them


NOTE: Sorry for posting this a bit late. The only excuse I’ve got is that I was busy at the movie theater doing more research for this blog post (honest!).

Despite the fact that the comic book industry bemoans its sad state on average once every nanosecond (more frequently than the book industry, believe it or not!), they must be doing something right if mass market narratives like Marvel’s The Avengers can just elide backstory, origins, or explanations and expect audiences to accept their characters as given. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Superman, Batman, Spider-man (note the sustained and sad preponderance of the male adjective in there) have become so integrated into Western culture that their mythos are omnipresent. But why? Why do we love super heroes and why – after two decades in the weeds – are super heroes flying off movie screens and DVD racks?

Super Heroes as Archetypes Embodied or Applied

There are a great many different kinds of comic books, from the spandex-clad super heroes we think of by default, to fictional slice-of-life stories, to crazy experiments in form and narrative. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the super hero genre – the others operate within entirely different conventions.

Let me start with a disclaimer: My name is Chris, and I am a lapsed comic book reader. As a kid, I must’ve spent a small fortune in birthday and couch cushion money at my local comic book shop. Every X-book, all the Spider-man books, the Batman line, Superman, Image’s early stuff, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, etc. etc. The list of books I inhaled uncritically is kind of embarrassing (and my bagged and boarded long boxes are still taking up space in my parents’ basement more than a decade after I moved out). It wasn’t until I got a lot older (and abandoned the super hero genre due to the fact that it generally did not and does not care about quality writing) that I started to really think about why certain comics appealed to me more than others.

Like any fictional conceit, super heroes are concretized metaphors. This applies just as much to Superman as it does to the X-Men. Only some metaphors are more transparent than others. It doesn’t take a doctorate in semiotics to label the archetypes that some characters represent: Superman, Batman, the Hulk, Captain America, Daredevil are idealized symbols for our collective imagination. These characters embody a particular ethos, and we enjoy their stories because they allow us to vicariously partake of a Nietzschian ideal.

Other heroes – Moore’s Watchmen, Spider-man, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four – do not so much embody an archetype as provide a lens to examine its aspirational application. Through Peter Parker’s struggle to balance his heroic aspirations against his family life, we can examine what happens when one strives towards the archetype in a more realistic world.

At their core, this is what gives certain super heroes staying power within our culture. And story arcs that tap into this core are those that will resonate and stay with us. But that is the deeper, unspoken truth about comics and about super heroes. It speaks to our psychology as an audience, and to the creators’ philosophy as artists. But identification and concretized metaphor does not explain why audiences shelled out over $300 million to see spandex-clad divas smack each other around.

The answer lies in a dirty word: escapism.

Escapism Can Be Our Friend

That’s right. I said the e-word. I think of it as dirty because it is how “serious fiction” sidelined speculative fiction for decades. But escapism is a powerful narrative tool. It is a release valve for societies, and it is one that Marvel’s The Avengers employs flawlessly.

Regardless of whether it is in sequential art or film, ensemble narratives like The Avengers, or the Justice League, or the X-Men cannot possibly focus on their characters’ underlying archetypes: there are too many characters playing upon too many archetypes for that kind of narrative to hold together (despite the industry’s love of over-played crossover arcs). Instead, they tap into the audience’s yearning for entertainment and the abrogation of responsibility.

As human beings we like to have someone else do the work. We work hard all day long, we are stressed, we take tough phone calls, and we have difficult conversations. Most of us don’t need to fight giant robots or aliens or monsters, but we all struggle anyway. And there is something cathartic about watching someone else do the struggling for a little while.

This is the same desire that makes us appreciate eucatastrophe in fiction when executed well. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t much like (or really believe in) eucatastrophe as a narrative device, but when done well it is satisfying for the same reason: it places the hard choices on someone else, someone “extraordinary” with whom we can never wholly identify.

Come Away with Me, oh Human Child

Ensemble super hero narratives rely on Othered saviors rescuing us from Othered villains. Though in a more focused narrative the villains might well play archetypal roles, they are simply external threats which we (collectively) are not responsible for.

Sure, Magneto is responding to anti-mutant bigotry. But we, the enlightened audience, are never responsible for that: we like the mutants…or why would we buy their books? And Lex Luthor might be a product of capitalist laissez-faire society, but hey…he’s one egomaniacial super-genius. And Loki…well, he’s a demi-god, an alien, and crazy to boot. And lest we forget, if something goes wrong in comic book land you can bet the Government (or its sunglass-wearing agents) had a hand in it somewhere.

Ensemble super hero narratives are summer blockbusters, meant to briefly entertain, not change the world. And they do so by presenting us with problems that are not ours, and then parachuting someone else in to fix them.

Why are they resurgent now?

Yes, yes, I know that comic books as a medium are struggling for a host of economic reasons. And while I personally think that’s because it is hard to grow an audience solely by focusing on art with scant attention to writing, it is fair to say that the super hero genre is doing better today than it ever has.

Could a movie like The Avengers have been as successful twenty years ago? No. Because we as society were not in the mood for it then. Today, that kind of escapism is in the air. It is something we need.

Thirty years ago, Moore’s Watchmen showed us that heroes and villains need not be archetypal or aspirational. That they can be flawed, and human, and with all of the ugliness and beauty that entails. What followed was three decades of increasing grit, and darkness, and hard-edges…perhaps a counter-reaction to the Cold War’s end and the ensuing economic, technological, and social boomtimes of the ’90s.

But today is a very different world, beset by very different problems – environmental, political, social, economical, and diplomatic. And over the course of the last decade, it seems to me that the super hero pendulum has been swinging back in the direction of greater escapism: to offer a soothing balm to the challenges of our real world. In real life, there are no heroes able to step up and deal with these very real problems on our behalf.

And when – as these days – we see our leaders failing to do so, when we see our neighbors failing to do so, and when we see ourselves failing to do so, it is only natural that we should fantasize about a group of different people, with different backgrounds, different beliefs, and different skills doing the impossible.

In the United States, at least, we mythologize our cultural heroes. Whether it is the revolutionary militias camped at Valley Forge, the Founding Fathers in a hot Philadelphia State House, the pioneer settlers pushing west, or the Greatest Generation, we expect someone in our society to step up and fight the hard fight. Only for our generation, nobody is really doing so. Which is why we need it in our fiction.

In The Avengers, Maria Hill at one point asks Nick Fury why the heroes would come back to save the day. And Nick Fury’s answer is poignant, relevant, and sad: “Because we’ll need them to.” That is the dream and the yearning that drives super hero narrative, and which underlies our fascination with the archetypes it exposes.

Because we always need heroes. And today, in our world, it has become awfully difficult to spot them (at least among our supposed leaders). And we need heroes today, in places of great power, on local street corners, and in our schools. Because Cap and the Avengers, Supes and the JLA, are just stories. And they won’t save the day, no matter how much we may need them to.

eBooks and the Death and Ongoing Life of Genre


So the last couple of weeks have seen a lot of interesting discussion around the nature of genre, and the future of speculative fiction. What really got me going on this started in a fascinating Twitter discussion with @JMMcDermott and @EruditeOgre, and was then furthered by Elizabeth Bear’s hilarious essay at Clarkesworld, to which Abi Sutherland at Making Light offered a poignant rejoinder, and then Charles Stross posited that e-books will kill the concept of genre within our lifetimes. These essays are part of the periodic paroxysm of existential fright that grips genre aficionados about once every eighteen months. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the second book printed on a Gutenberg press was a polemic about the death of genre.

And yet, we come back to this question time and again because it does have value. It is valuable to us as both creators and consumers of speculative fiction, in that it forces us to explore our consensus definition of genre, and shapes the borders at which innovative creators strain. I have nothing significant to add to either Bear’s essay or Sutherland’s response, but Stross’ contention that “within another decade, two at most, science fiction as a literary genre category may well die” (emphasis his) is one with which I strongly disagree.

Stross argues that the concept of genre is relevant inasmuch as it assists in channeling economic activity: facilitating the organization of physical books in a bookstore so as to aid consumer navigation, and indicating to consumers books which share characteristics with other titles they might have enjoyed. And yes, genre and the genre markers that adorn (so often laughably) book covers do serve these two purposes. And Stross is absolutely correct that as digital distribution of narrative increases (and potentially overtakes its analog ancestor) the relevance of genre to these economic functions will decrease (possibly to zero, though I doubt that). But this will not mark the death knell of genre for the simple reason that genre’s uses go beyond the two economic purposes he focuses on. To paraphrase V for Vendetta, genre is an idea. And ideas are very hard to kill.

The Idea of Genre

When we talk about genre – about speculative fiction, historical romance, literary fiction – we are engaging in an activity that separates homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom: pattern recognition. As we read and write, we notice patterns. Pattern recognition is hard-wired into our neurology, and it is something that our brain just does. And it is precisely this capacity for pattern recognition that gave rise to genres: when the first audience told the first storyteller to tell them a new story “like that previous one” genre was created.

Whenever we compare one work of art to another we are engaging in a discussion of genre. When we label a genre (mysteries, for example) we use that to define what Brian Attebery calls a “fuzzy set”: a porous, inexact understanding of shared characteristics. What I understand as “mystery” might differ significantly from your understanding. But if there is enough overlap in the characteristics that comprise our definitions, then my mystery and yours become compatible. And we can discuss them. At its heart, this is the core of genre. It does not have a purpose other than to group a set of narratives which share some common pattern. But such a pattern can be utilized for a variety of purposes – including, but not limited to those that Stross suggests may be doomed.

The Utility of Genre

Because genre is a construct that emerges from our human nature, we all use it. Consumers use it. Booksellers use it. So do publishers. And writers. And yes, even critics. But the ways in which each actor makes use of genre differ.

In essence, a consumer’s primary relationship with genre is to identify it when they see it. Whether consumers apply a genre label to a work of art or not, it is their consensus view of shared characteristics that ultimately defines a genre. Even if – as Stross describes – traditional genre labels (science fiction) grow more fragmented (becoming police procedural, cyberpunk, near-future), consumers will still rely on the concept of genre to differentiate between types of texts. But consumers do not operate in a vacuum: their view of characteristics is shaped by (and in turn shapes that of) all the other actors, especially other consumers.

It is in this sense that the idea of genre defining and being defined by a community arises: a mutual appreciation for a set of narrative characteristics implies further commonalities between people. It’s that old pattern recognition deal again: if we both like X, then we have similar tastes, we think the same way, we are fans, we are friends. And at extremes of identification, it becomes “we are Borg”. This natural sense of community is centered around the thorniest aspect of consumers’ relationship to genre: value (which stems partially from individual taste, and partially from socially-constructed norms). When we mix genre and community with value (which is wholly independent from either), then we get conflict. Bear in mind, however, that this conflict can occur either between genres (SF versus mainstream literary fiction) or even within a genre (e.g. light-hearted vs grimdark). Yet when such conflict arises, it ultimately strengthens community ties within genre, though this can lead to ghettoisation of genre (or sub-genre). And this evolving identification and valorization of genre and its constituent components feeds back into the other actors’ and their view of genre.

The backdrop to Stross’, Bear’s, and Sutherland’s points is that we now live in a world where the traditional lines conflict between various genre labels is fading. Today, one traditional genre (mainstream literary fiction) can blithely adopt the devices and conventions of another (magic, imaginary technology, etc.) and vice versa, all without finding its genre label changed. This is not – contrary to Stross’ point – an erosion of the concept of genre. It is merely the evolution of our current genre labels.

Booksellers – whose goal is to get a consumer to purchase a book – have the narrowest set of uses for genre, and rely most heavily upon genre labels and their external markers. They use the concept of genre in exactly the sense that Stross discusses: to help consumers find books that may appeal to them. The conventions of a genre and the intertextual dialog within and across genres is irrelevant to their needs: such an understanding will rarely help them sell a book. But having the ability to identify the characteristics endemic to a particular genre will tell the bookseller where to shelve the book, and give them a sense of what it may be similar to. For this particular group of actors, Stross is correct: ebooks are starting and will continue to disrupt both the process by which consumers find books that will appeal to them, and the reliance on physical genre markers (which brick and mortar stores need). But this is not to say that genre distinctions will become irrelevant. More fragmented, as Stross suggests, possibly. The list of “usual suspects” might change. Tag clouds might replace menu systems. And yes, “science fiction” may become a sub-genre of literary fiction. But writers will still write, and they will still write in dialog with one another, and they will still rely on conventions and characteristics in creative ways…thus perpetuating the existence of genre itself.

At one level, all writers are fervent consumers of the written word. They are passionate and vocal members of a self-defined community centered around the object of their appreciation: the genre of writing they enjoy and produce. But because writers are engaged in the production of art, they are by necessity forced to a greater awareness of the characteristics that constitute their chosen genre. And that awareness seeps into the writing, and manifests itself in the intertextuality many genres are known for. When we write, our oblique references and thematic responses to, and structural divergences from earlier writing within and outside of genre represents a dialog across years and bookshelves. Intertextuality is not limited to speculative fiction, though sometimes it seems like we think it is. All genres are intertextual, whether it is mainstream southern gothic or paranormal romance, and it is the writers’ role to direct the progression of their genres’ evolution. By choosing which characteristics to reject, which to adopt, and which to tweak writers are steering the ship of genre. Of course, provided that publishers print what they write.

I suspect that publishers have the most complicated relationship with genre, because they exist at the nexus of all other actors. In one sense, a publisher can be thought of as a collection of more specialized actors: senior management, editorial, design, sales, marketing/publicity, etc. Just as booksellers use genre to facilitate a consumers’ purchase of a book, publishers use genre to optimize their unit sales. Across all of the specialists within a publishing house, everyone must have an awareness of consumers’ approach to genre for the simple reason that the publisher is always chasing consumer taste, desperate to get ahead of it.

Consider how senior management responds to new trends through their imprint portfolio and list management strategy: is leprechaun fiction the hot new sub-genre? That makes it time to either buy an imprint that understands that sub-genre, or to expand the list into that arena. Which falls to editorial, who rely on their sense of genre to identify and position titles within their lists, as well as to provide a vocabulary for interacting with their writers. Editors work with writers to “make the best possible book” – but what that really means is that editors use an in-depth knowledge of narrative conventions (spanning all genres or particular to a particular one) to coax writers into optimizing their work such that value (the subjective assessment of quality simplistically represented through sales) can be maximized. Editors’ familiarity with genre conventions, with the bones of storytelling and structure, facilitate this discussion and help them to select the best (read: most likely to sell or earn critical acclaim) titles. Designers must use their awareness of how booksellers utilize genre to make choices about book specs and cover art. And marketing, sales, and publicity must all understand the relationship that consumers, critics, and booksellers all have with genre so as to engage with each group of stakeholders when and where appropriate. If the publisher or some department thereof does not understand the genre, then performance (as measured by sales) will be weakened. From the publishers’ perspective, value is equivalent to sales. But that is not necessarily the case: a book may be immensely valuable, but have rather abysmal sales. And to a great extent it falls to critics (and consumers) to direct this consideration.

In this context, I mean critics in a broader fashion than that of people who write book reviews. Instead, I mean all those individuals who engage with writing in a critical, exploratory fashion and who – as a consequence and over generations – shape consumer opinion and understanding. This includes professional reviewers, book bloggers, vocal consumers, and university professors. Each of these uses genre to explore four different subjects:

Quality The readability, entertainment value, and philosophical worth of a work of art.
Intertextual Relationships The relationship of one work of art to other works (essentially the exploration of the genre itself).
Cultural Observation The relationship between one work of art and our society or a subset thereof.
Writing Techniques The techniques through which a work of art achieves its effects.

The latter three subjects all require a fluency with genre characteristics to be successful. One cannot comment meaningfully on the intertextual relationship between John le Carré and Ian Fleming without being familiar with spy fiction. One cannot meaningfully explore SF fandom without knowing its community. And one cannot explore the structure and content of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland without knowing both epic fantasy and travel guide conventions. But it is the first critical subject – that of assessing quality – that is most problematic.

Critics are consumers first: they have their own tastes and their own predilections just as any other consumer. They are part of a community of readers and fans, whether they self-identify as such or not. Their tastes and membership of a particular community centered around one or more genres shapes their perception of quality: I know what I like, and I like what I know. The broader a critic’s familiarity with multiple genres, the deeper and more insightful the criticism they can provide. But the critics most (educated) consumers interact with are university professors, who are often woefully narrow in their tastes: whereas professional reviewers and bloggers tend to read widely, the modern academic world puts a premium on specialization. And when these critics’ critical assessments of quality run up against a consumer’s or another critic’s tastes, conflict is produced. When this happens repeatedly, we get into a conflict of community that gives us a ghettoisation of a particular genre. And so the cycle continues.

Quo vadis, genre?

So is Stross right that ebooks will doom genre? I don’t think so. As I’ve outlined above, ebooks will mostly affect two actors in the space that defines genre: booksellers and publishers. Consumers, writers, and critics (and for that matter editors and to a lesser extent designers) will continue to spot patterns in what they read and write, and they will continue to make future decisions/purchases based on the patterns they have identified. Until and unless our neural wiring gets completely redesigned, that is not going to change. At least, I hope it won’t.

The concept of genre is, I think, quite safe. But the particular genre labels and the relationships between those labels is likely to change. For one thing, as Stross points out, it will become more fragmented. But that fragmentation is the fate of every genre, as it fissions into sub-genre after sub-genre, until eventually a sub-genre eclipses in relevance the genre that spawned it. After all, that is exactly what happened with mainstream literary postmodern texts and the modernist fiction that preceded them. We will just have to work that much harder to stay abreast of changing genre labels and conventions. But this is nothing new (see my earlier rant about ignorance of contemporary YA SF).

But just because ebooks won’t wipe the concept of genre from the planet, the world of literature will nevertheless be changed by them. The internet is lousy with insight into how ebooks will affect publishers, and booksellers, and consumers, and writers. But I have seen no real discussion of how ebooks will affect literary criticism. I’d love to know what you folks think about that: I have only just started to think about this dimension of ebooks, and as it stands I don’t have any real opinions yet. What implications do ebooks have for literary criticism?

Where lie the borders between Voice and Style?


Where does voice end and style begin? And while we’re at it, what is the sound of one hand clapping? No, seriously, my question about voice and style is not meant to be a Zen koan but is completely sincere. I have heard and read plenty of people (many of whom have been reading, writing, editing, and publishing for longer than I have been alive) talk about voice and style as if they are identical, or as if they constitute an indelible stamp the artist places on each piece of work. And, as I ratchet up the momentum on a highly stylized WIP, it has me thinking about what constitutes a “narrative voice” and how it relates to a writer’s (or a story’s) “style”.

If I had a nickel for every time I’d heard/read that “it takes time for a writer to find their voice” I’d probably have…well, at least a couple of bucks. But here’s my underlying problem with this statement: it assumes that an artist only ever has one “mature” voice, that it is theirs and theirs alone, that it is so intrinsically tied to them as an individual that it permeates everything they ever produce. And much as I respect the folks who say that, I have to wonder: is not voice the most fundamental facet of writing that we as writers exert control over? And because it is wholly in our control, can’t we employ different voices for different stories and to different effects? When we write, don’t we employ different voices for exposition by different narrators and dialog by different characters?

A Working Definition of Narrative/Authorial Voice

Bear with me, because despite thinking about this for the last several months, I find this a pretty difficult concept to articulate: The way I see it, a narrative voice is to a story as individual brushstrokes are to a painting. Every one of us writes one word at a time. What sets my writing apart – both from that of other writers, and from work I have written before or will write after – is the words that I employ, and how I put them together. Each story – regardless of what it is about – is composed of words and punctuation marks, which together form sentences, which in turn assemble into paragraphs, which coalesce into scenes, chapters, acts, and after much heartache, hopefully a finished story. Narrative voice is the shorthand we use to describe patterns in word selection, punctuation, sentence construction, and rhetorical structure.

That’s it. But despite its superficial simplicity, this is an enormous tool in the writer’s hand. In fact, it is the only tool that as writers we have. Because at the end of the day, the only facets of the writing we have any control over are the words we choose to use, the order we put them in, the punctuation we delineate them with, and the structures that we build out of them. Every higher-order facet of our writing – the structure, the characters, the themes – are constructed by narrative voice. Which makes it, in my opinion, the most important part of the craft, the most visible, and the hardest to understand.

The Purpose and Tools of Voice

The patterns in our writing are above all else purposeful. We might have many goals in writing (Fast cars! Beautiful women! The love and adoration of thousands! Oh, wait…) but at the most basic, all writing means to move the reader. We might want to move the reader emotionally or intellectually, but we want some degree of engagement and response. And narrative voice is the tool through which we effect that manipulation.

This isn’t so different from spoken conversation. When we speak with someone, we use our words and the structure of our rhetoric to achieve certain goals: it might be to keep our conversant interested, to amuse them, to anger them, to convince them – the particular goal is immaterial, but it is always there. However, auditory communication has an advantage over the written word: through the use of facial expression, body language, or the timbre at which we speak, the spoken word communicates emotion and intent in a far more condensed and physiologically evocative manner than writing ever can.

Consider a shrill scream. When heard aloud, it communicates instantaneously the speaker’s (screamer’s) emotional state: frightened, surprised, or excited. It also communicates the intensity of their emotion, ranging from mild to extreme. And all of this in less time than it takes us to read this sentence. But even if we engage in the most crass onomatopoeia or in clumsy adverbial writing (“Chris screamed shrilly.”) we cannot possibly evoke the same response with the same economy. Instead of using timbre, volume, or body language we are reduced to using words, punctuation, and sentence structure.

There are multiple levels at which these tools operate. When we write, the words we choose to use bring to the reader’s mind sounds. The phonemes and punctuation imbue our sentences with rhythm, which in turn contributes to pace and flow. They affect how caught up in the story we are. The words evoke images in the reader’s mind, which in turn color the text with emotional overtones. And they can invoke cultural touchstones, which add a further extra-textual layer of meaning to even the most prosaic sentences. Long, convoluted sentences with multiple clauses, often nested within one another, or recursively referring to initial clauses and thus extending their length, produce a certain set of effects. Syncopated sentences yield different results. The adjective “red” communicates one set of meanings, and “bloody” another.

These are the tools of the writer’s craft, and much as I love thinking about structure, and character, and pacing – at the end of the day, each of those higher-order tools is applied through the use of our narrative voice. And that is a voice dependent on the story we are telling.

The Narrator’s Voice and Not the Author’s

Most of us will write many stories over the course of our lives. Consider Anthony Burgess, who wrote the highly stylized A Clockwork Orange in the early ’60s where he employed highly stylized language, sentence construction, and neologistic vocabulary to achieve his narrative goals. At about the same time, he published The Wanting Seed which employed entirely different patterns of construction. To have written The Wanting Seed in the Nadsat argot of A Clockwork Orange would not have worked. And to have written A Clockwork Orange in the relatively accessible constructions of The Wanting Seed would have destroyed it just as well.

Burgess understood that the voice employed must above all service the narrative being told. The same holds true in the spoken word: if we had to tell a relative that a family member had died, would we present it in the form of a bouncy song? Probably not. The intent of the message, the goal of the communication, ultimately determines the narrative voice most appropriate. When we write, our job is not to find our “one voice” – but to master all voices, and to understand which vocal technique to apply when. Which, given the impossible flexibility of language, might be a Sisyphean task.

Some writers find a voice they are particularly comfortable with, and use it in story after story. Damon Runyon is a great example of this. His Broadway stories use a highly stylized narrative voice, communicated through a fictional first person narrator, with idiosyncratic speech patterns and word choices (including the extensive use of neologisms that have since entered the vernacular). But though he wrote many short stories, most were written in precisely this idiosyncratic voice. Is that the only voice Runyon used? Absolutely not. He also wrote perfectly “normal” newspaper articles for many years. But the stylized voice of his fictional narrator makes his prose instantly recognizable – and this is where his (consistent) narrative voice evolves into “style”.

The Difference Between Style and Voice

Voice is always contained. It is bounded by the covers of a book or by a given narrator within that book. And it is locked in the reader’s head, where we shape the voice in our own minds. I distinctly remember one of my favorite writers (who shall remain nameless) who uses words like a scalpel. He has written single sentences that brought me to tears. And so when I had the opportunity to go to a reading of his a couple of years ago, I jumped at the chance. And the story he read was a good one, utilizing the same flowing sentences and flawless word choices as I had come to expect. But he read in a horrendously thick Chicago accent completely at odds with the beautiful sentences he was using. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t fault him his accent (with the amount of time I’ve spent abroad, I’ve got heavy accents in several languages!), but this wonderful author’s speaking voice was completely at odds with the narrative voice I had built in my own head. It was a clash of expectations: I had naively expected the voice in my brain, and was confronted with a far different reality.

But if voice is internal to the narrator and the reader, then style is external: it is always comparative, as when we say someone writes “in the style of.” When we talk about a writer’s style we are talking about how a particular narrative voice they employed compares to narrative voices employed elsewhere. If they have written many stories employing similar narrative voices – as in Runyon’s case – we can say that they have a “distinctive style”. In this case, we are merely comparing them against themselves: the comparison is still there.

Compare for a moment the narrative voice employed in Steven Brust’s excellent The Phoenix Guards against the narrative voices employed in his To Reign in Hell. Two completely different books both by the same author, the former of which is in the style of Dumas, while the latter is wholly his own. Stylistically, the two books are very different. At the level of their prose, that difference boils down to their different narrative voices. And the difference in those voices is ultimately determined by their narrator.

The Narrator’s Voice

If there is a question about how a narrative voice should be a constructed, always look to the narrator. The narrator is a fictional construct in the story: the narrator is not the author. What would the narrator notice? How would they communicate it? The narrator – even if they are unnamed, omniscient, and outside of the action of the story – is always present, and always separate from the author. When we write, we put the words in the narrator’s mouth. They are a character like any other, even if a transparent one. Our job when we write is to consider the words we make the narrator say, and choose the words that are best able to achieve our narrative goals. Every narrator we create may well have a different voice, particularly suited to the needs of the specific story they tell.

Samuel Delany, in his excellent essay “About 5,570 Words”, says: “A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.” The art and craft of writing lies in making the right corrections. And those choices constitute a story’s narrative voice.

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