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On Where Genres Come From and How to Stitch Them Together


Victor Frankenstein had it easy. He had to muck about with viscera and body parts, and though the result was an eight-foot tall, sallow-skinned monster, at least human anatomy provided him with a map to follow. Writers don’t have such guidelines: the scope, direction, and style of our art is only constrained by the scope, direction, and style of our imaginations. And while such a wide-skyed vista might be freeing, our desire to navigate its uncharted expanse is precisely why we create genres.

Mommy, Where Do Genres Come From?

Most of what I’ve read about genres centers on three concerns:

1. Taxonomy What [set of] characteristics determine membership within a particular genre?
2. Interpretation How does a title’s membership within a genre affect the way it is interpreted?
3. Historical Application How do a critic’s views on genre taxonomy and interpretation work when applied retroactively to works that predate them? or When did a genre begin?

All three are interesting concerns, but they fail to address a fourth question that is – to me – just as interesting: for what purpose and by what process are genres created? To say that genres are created by booksellers or by readers puts the cart before the horse: a book has to be written before it can either be shelved somewhere or read. And this suggests to me that writers are the creators of genre: we develop genre as the scaffolding on which to assemble our stories. They are the blueprint that we use to stitch our monsters together.

Why Genre is Helpful to Writers

It is rather silly to look at a piece of writing – any writing – in isolation. All writing, all art, is in dialog with the writing, art, and culture which preceded it. Sometimes, that dialog may be overt and the writer conscious of it. Other times, that dialog may be inadvertent: a consequence of the writer’s subconscious interpretation of and response to their own idiosyncratic stimuli. But communication requires a shared substrate to be functional, and all writing uses words to produce its artistic effects. Our words are the cells in Frankenstein’s monster.

When we assemble those words into particular narrative constructs, when we structure our story in certain ways, we are building the muscles, sinews, and bones of our creation. These components, taken together, constitute the morphology of our story and help to guide the reader’s experience along the route our artistic vision demands. In that, the conventions of genre are a helpful shorthand, a finely-balanced compass that gets the reader to our destination.

Different genres have different strengths: thrillers get the blood pumping, category romance provides an escapist catharsis (note, that’s not a pejorative!), realistic literary fiction excels at intellectual exploration, science fiction produces a sense of wonder, etc. These are the responses that different narrative conventions evoke in the reader. When we understand how the text produces such responses, then we can begin to understand the art of storytelling.

And when we write, we apply – either knowingly or not – the tools and techniques that we have learned from other stories. We might say “That’s a cool trick – let’s play with that” or we might say “That’s an overplayed cliche – let’s subvert it”, but in each case we utilize our inspirations in our own work.

When one of us applies a particular technique, it is an individual act. But when enough of us use the same tool, our individual applications rapidly accrete to create a convention. When enough such conventions have accreted, then we look around and find that we have created a genre, or a style, or an artistic movement. And eventually, these conventions become tropes at which point their subversion becomes another convention, and the cycle repeats. In other words, genre is an emergent property of the act of writing.

Hybrid Monsters: How to Merge Genres

Much as I love readers, much as I respect booksellers, at a general level this process has nothing to do with either: it has everything to do with how writers experience stories and respond to them in our own work. But when we look at individual stories, at a particular writer’s specific application of a set of techniques, the (unknown and unknowable) reader’s experience becomes relevant. Will they be able to interpret it? And will they be able to enjoy it? The answers to these questions are, alas, never discrete. They are always found somewhere on a continuum that varies across readers, from one story to the next, and that are changeable in time. That’s why applying conventions from one genre alongside those from another can both be incredibly rewarding, and incredibly risky.

When done well, our words serve double (or triple) duty, eliciting the responses familiar from each of the genres we endeavor to blend. Consider John Crowley’s Little, Big or Jeffrey Ford’s The Physiognomy: on the one hand, each story clearly employs the narrative conventions of disparate traditions of fantasy (interstitial/wainscot fantasy in one case, and secondary-world fantasy in the other). And yet both incorporate stylistic techniques more common to mainstream literary fiction.

When done poorly, the result is a story that is impossible to interpret or that fails to satisfy its audience. In one sense, this ties to the concept of the author’s contract with their reader: the reader goes into the story with a particular set of expectations, and if the story neither conforms to those expectations nor distracts the reader sufficiently to change them, then the reader will be dissatisfied. One example that comes to mind is the criticism often leveled against Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which in its attempt at existential philosophy broke with the prevailing thematic conventions established by the television series that preceded it while maintaining its aesthetic and structural conventions.

So what, then, is the trick to merging genres? I think the answer is to focus on the core of each genre. Though the creation of genre is an accretive process, at the heart of every genre there lies a kernel of convention so intrinsic to that genre’s function as to be indelible. That kernel is the core of the genre, what makes that genre distinct from its siblings. More often than not, that kernel even forms the root of the genre’s name: thriller, romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, realism, etc.

The narrative devices that comprise the conventions of each genre contribute – in some fashion – to that kernel of genre truth. Identifying what that kernel is, and then determining particular narrative techniques that contribute to it gives us techniques that can be ported across genre lines.

For example: looking for a faster pace and heightened tension in your fantasy? Many commercial thrillers use short chapters, short paragraphs, short sentences, and cliffhanger chapter-endings to contribute to that effect. Looking for a hint of the numinous in your realistic novel? The language of realized metaphor found in fantasy and myth might be just the ticket.

Though these are just two simple examples, the same principle can be adopted at all levels of storytelling: linguistic, structural, thematic, emotional, etc. So long as we focus on techniques that contribute to the genre’s core, I believe those techniques will play well outside of their “original” genre.

Maps Are Not the Journey

While genre conventions provide us with techniques and guidelines for how those techniques interact, they are no substitute for skillful storytelling. I do not advocate turning to genre conventions as a “paint-by-the-numbers” guidebook for aspiring writers. If that’s all you want, then I urge you to check out Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook (which, incidentally, is a fascinating morphological study of classic pulp plots – an interesting theoretical read in its own right, even if one doesn’t take its prescriptions to heart).

No amount of theory can make up for poor execution. The quality of our execution comes from a variety of factors, not least being our own creativity, the vibrancy of our imaginative vision, and our ability to communicate that vision to our audience. Without the skillful application of whatever genre-derived techniques we employ, we risk stories far less interesting than Victor Frankenstein’s eight-foot tall, yellow-skinned monster (though, to be fair, writing stories that interesting is hard!).

It is not the quality of the map – nor even that of the roads – that determines the quality of the journey. It is the skill of the navigator.

Sorry! Traveling!


Sorry, folks! I’m leaving Hanoi today and heading back to the US (actually, I’m writing this at Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei at the moment), which means that my opportunities to post something meaningful today will be rather limited.

However, I’ve got some good books for the sixteen hour flight, and I plan to spend at least some of those hours working on more posts. But since my flight will be landing late, and family takes priority over blog, I’m afraid I won’t be posting or commenting ’til Wednesday.

“Science Fiction” and Literature – or Thoughts on Delany and the Plurality of Interprative Processes


NOTE: Once again, I apologize for posting this a bit later than usual. I’m abroad for only one more week, though, and then we’re back to our regular Tuesday schedule.

I’ve long believed that Samuel Delany is one of the sharpest, most insightful, and most comprehensive critics in the field of science fiction/fantasy criticism. His non-fiction – from The Jewel-Hinged Jaw to About Writing or Starboard Wine and beyond – are a master-class in exploring the ways in which fantastic literature functions, and I freely admit that a lot of my own thinking is based on insights I eagerly cribbed from his work. But that being said, I think his theories on the relationship between science fiction and literature are due for a re-examination.

In “About 5,750 Words”, Delany draws a very distinct line between how readers interpret science fictional texts and how they interpret mundane texts. His argument is extremely fine-grained, focusing on the words and sentence constructions that are employed in both fictional forms. But he presupposes a certain sequential process by which readers interpret each: “A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.”

Delany’s micro-focus doesn’t work for everyone, and some very smart people have criticised his fixation on sequential reading. They argue that not everyone interprets prose sequentially, that the process may be more fluid than the step-by-step plodding that Delany describes. And to be fair, they are correct: the process isn’t necessarily sequential. But those who focus on Delany’s sequence often miss a simple fact: he uses sequence as a pedagogical tool, a way to illustrate his broader underlying argument for which sequence is actually almost irrelevant.

The Idea of Differing Interpretative Skill-sets

One of Delany’s core points (which he highlights in essay after essay) is that readers of science fiction apply a different set of skills to reading science fiction texts than readers of mundane fiction apply to the reading of mundane texts. He goes on to use this distinction to explain why some readers of mundane fiction find themselves categorically unable to read/interpret/understand/enjoy science fiction.

In his compelling examples, he points out that sentences composed entirely of individually intelligible words (such as “The red sun was high, the blue low.” or Heinlein’s “The door dilated.”) become meaningless if read as naturalistic prose. He argues that a certain imaginative leap must be made, an extension or expansion of our imaginative capacity, to consider events, objects, and actors that do not yet exist and possibly cannot exist. This, he claims, is a process alien to the experience of nnaturalistic fiction.

I am sympathetic to this distinction. I think that for many years, and for many readers, this was exactly the case. But cultural capabilities, and their distribution throughout the population, is not static. And Delany himself realized this fact in his essay “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’ – or The Conscience of the King” (you can find it in Starboard Wine).

There, he explores the question of whether literature will subsume science fiction or whether science fiction will subsume literature. And he makes a very compelling case for the encouragement of a pluarility in the methods of literary interpretation. Though he does so relying on Foucault’s exploration of the author, Delany readily admits that as only one way of looking at the interpretative process of literary criticism. Yet nevertheless, readers are vast and contain multitudes: just as a plurality of interprative modes exist among readers collectively and individually, so too does such a plurality exist among critics and authors.

He makes the case that skill-sets evolve and change, which naturally makes me wonder about how those skill-sets have changed in the reading public since “Science Fiction and ‘Literature'” was first presented thirty three years ago.

Evidence for the Merging of “Science Fictional” and “Mundane” Interprative Processes

Looking at what is being published and analyzed today, I believe that the interpretative processes for science fiction and mundane fiction are merging. This starts with the writer, who weaves in structures modeled after mundane fiction into their fatastical yarns (consider the best works of John Crowley or Tim Powers) or who weaves in science fictional elements into an otherwise naturalistic novel (the whole “magical realist” movement, for example).

To make such novels work, the writer must internalize and integrate the structures and conventions of stylistically and structurally disparate genres: if that isn’t a plurality of interprative modes, I don’t know what is. In many ways, this is a creative process that Delany himself talks about in “Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student” (in About Writing). It is an interstitial and conversational act which purposefully interlocks the building blocks of narrative like jigsaw pieces. Only this is a puzzle with no edges: those are cut by the reader, who bounds his interpretation using his own subjective experiences and interprative processes.

Yet the economics of book publishing don’t lie (in the longterm): if readers could not employ a plurality of interprative modes, then they would not buy books which rely on it, and so publishers wouldn’t sell them, editors wouldn’t buy them, and writers wouldn’t write them. However much artists might cringe at the sharp palm of the invisible hand, it does provide some insight into both the state and direction of literary culture.

Possible Reasons for Increased Interprative Plurality

So why now, after close to a hundred years of “modern” science fiction, do we see science fictional texts coming in out of the critical cold? What drives this increase in interprative plurality? I think the answer lies in pop culture.

Though I might be misremembering (since I’m currently in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel and don’t have my books close to hand), I believe Kingsley Amis wrote in The James Bond Dossier that popular literature should be judged as significant literature precisely because of its very popularity. The popularity of any individual or class of work might not translate into “classic” status (whatever that means), but it nevertheless engages in a dialog with the art and culture that preceded it and the art and culture that will follow. Pop culture is a window into the values and priorities and concerns of the culture that consumes it.

And for the past two generations, pop culture has increasingly been adopting the devices and concommitant interprative techniques native to science fiction. Whether it is Star Wars, any of the successive incarnations of Star Trek, the science fictional music of Rush (which, to be fair, I don’t particularly care for), or the near-universal and growing interest in super-heroes doesn’t matter: the net result is that as a society our imaginative vocabulary is increasing.

When Delany first wrote “Science Fiction and ‘Literature'”, he included an example sentence: “Then her world exploded.” Back in 1979, a relatively limited population might have had the cultural vocabulary to interpret that sentence plurally as metaphor and/or literal event. But since then, at least two generations (and soon three) have grown up having seen Alderaan scattered across the stars. Don’t believe me? Check out this three year old exclaiming how “They blowed up Princess Leia’s planet!” Our parents and grandparents do not necessarily have the same interpretative facility, as their formative cultural touchstones were perforce different.

Though one might get fancy and call this an increase in the plurality of interprative processes, I actually think that its foundation is deeper and more basic: it is an increase in our cultural vocabulary, which is itself the ontology that underlies our interpretations. Ray guns, space ships, spells – these are no longer exotica. In the west (and in much of the rest of the world as well), they have become part of our cultural lexicon.

And writers across all genres are benefiting, as it offers them more space to play in. It increases the size of the board, and gives them new puzzle pieces with which they can construct new dreams. But nevertheless, there remains and always will remain a farther frontier.

The New, The Weird, and the Unknown

Even if the “meat and potatoes” of science fictional narrative have been incorporated into our literary vocabulary, science fictional narrative is no more static than the culture which creates it. People continue to write, and so they continue to innovative stylistically and thematically.

While “spaceships” and “parallel worlds” and “time travel” and “alternate history” might be reasonably understandable and familiar even to mundane readers, there remain authors who stylistically carve new pathways into the narrower science fictional vocabulary.

Authors in the New Weird, for example, titillate and enthrall with their twisted and unusual constructs, coupled with stylistic flourishes that often draw from more poetic or literary roots than mundane readers might expect. But because of their strangeness, that crucial “weirdness”, their interpretation relies on a vocabulary that many mundane readers will simply lack. Time travel they might grok, and even grok they might grok, but human/insect hybrids? For the moment, those may be a bridge too far for many.

The same difficulty holds true in “harder” (as in more science-laden, not necessarily more challenging) science fiction texts: the stylistic techniques employed by writers like Peter Watts or Greg Egan push the boundaries of science fiction’s own vocabulary. Is it any wonder, then, that readers not quite fluent in that vocabulary would have difficulty enjoying them?

Yet, culture rolls on. Literary vocabularies shift and share, and I believe that some of what is strange and difficult today will gradually find its way into popular culture, and from there it will enrich the broadly-held cultural vocabulary, and as a consequence the multiplicity of our interprative processes will increase. At the same time, other elements of our cultural vocabulary will fade out of use, leading to a further decrease (Delany offers a great example of this in the added dimension offered to Shakespeare by a familiarity with 16th century Warwickshire slang).

Such has been the history of our cultural development, I think. And such – broadly and with enough remove – has been the history of literary criticism. Is there any reason to suppose that would change?

Some Thoughts on How POV Works


NOTE: I apologize for posting this a little bit late, but I’m in Hanoi at the moment on business, and I’m swamped with meetings. I hope you will forgive both my tardiness and editorial clumsiness in exchange for some pictures of beautiful Hanoi (click on them to enlarge).

I haven’t written much about point-of-view before, probably because I find it so intrinsically wedded to voice that separating the two has always seemed pointless. But on the (long) flight to Hanoi, I read a couple Daniel Silva books (The Kill Artist and The Unlikely Spy) and his use of an omniscient narrator and shifting POV within individual chapters leapt out at me, and made me reconsider my somewhat flippant attitude.

People like to use metaphors to describe point-of-view: it’s where the camera sits, it’s the lens through which we see the story, etc. While such metaphors do have some descriptive value, I don’t think they’re actually useful for talking about how POV fulfills its function, which at its heart is to engage the reader and lock their attention on the story. Voice serves the same purpose (which is probably why the two concepts are so closely wedded in my mind), but POV can accomplish some goals that voice alone cannot.

The Selectivity of Fictional Description

All fiction is a description of made-up events taking place in fictional environments which the reader constructs in their imagination. When we write, we suggest the elements and images and actions that we want our readers to imagine. While we will never know what they really see in their mind’s eye, if we fail to plant some consistent images in the reader’s mind then we won’t have a story. Point-of-view is the tool through which we select the relevant facts.

Consider the story of Cinderella: if you strip away the stylistic elements, if you strip away the voice, if you strip away the characters, what you are left with is a collection of (fictional) facts which nevertheless have a point of view.

Fact: a young girl has a stepmother and some stepsisters. Fact: the stepsisters and the stepmother make the young girl work very hard. Fact: the young girl is unhappy. Fact: she wants to go to the prince’s ball, but her stepmother and sisters won’t let her. Fact: she goes anyway. And so on.

That brief set of facts, presented clinically and with no more panache than a grocery list, nevertheless has a point-of-view that is inherently sympathetic to Cinderella. It ignores the concerns of Cinderella’s stepmother or stepsisters. It ignores the concerns of the prince – at least, those which do not relate to Cinderella. It ignores the state of the kingdom’s economy, the country across the bay, or the weather. Those concerns are irrelevant to the story being told – and it is point-of-view that communicates which facts are relevant.

Subversion of known stories is almost always predicated on a shift in their point of view. The story of Cinderella might be a told from a perspective sympathetic to one of the stepsisters (as in Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister), or the stepmother, or the prince, or a palace servant. The tentpole events of the story might remain the same (the cleaning, the ball, the search, etc.) but the details through which the events are described – which in effect comprise the story’s content – would be totally different.

Subversion of narrative conventions likewise relies on a shift in POV. For example, the “gritty” fantasies of Glen Cook, Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, etc. subvert the tropes of heroic high fantasy by shifting their POV to the grunts in the mud on the front lines. But POV is more subtle than merely switching the focus of the reader’s sympathy.

The Relationship Between POV, Facts, Tension, and Theme

The facts of a story, and the point-of-view which selects those facts, are used to either give the reader the information necessary to understand the events of the story, or to draw the reader’s attention to the author’s thematic intent.

In Daniel Silva’s The Kill Artist, switching POVs between different characters informs the reader of facts unknown to other characters. This is a classic Hitchcockian technique for building tension: we might know about the trap awaiting our protagonist around the corner, but because they do not, the level of tension (and our engagement with the story) increases. Will our hero survive? Tune in next time!

On a thematic level, Silva uses POV shifts to give the reader a clearer picture of characters’ emotional states, which thematically serves to establish a certain degree of moral equivalence. Because these POV shifts occur within chapters and without clear textual markers, they introduce a greater narrative distance into the text which in turn contributes to a concomitant slowing of the story’s pace (quite frankly John Le Carré achieves a similar thematic and emotional effect less clumsily with less frequent POV shifts).

And while Silva relies on shifting the perspective of characters to draw the reader’s attention to his artistic goals, POV can use other devices as well. For example, one can imagine a retelling of Cinderella that maintains its focus on Cinderella’s concerns, that adheres to the tentpole events of the story, that is even told in a voice similar to the Charles Perrault story, but which draws the reader’s attention to Cinderella’s poverty, or her stepmother’s desperate desire for upward social mobility, or that otherwise suggests concerns with social class. The POV need not be mobile to achieve these effects: it merely needs to select for different facts or to draw attention to different details.

POV’s Relationship to Character and Voice

Most stories operate on both an external/physical level (character X does Y) and on an internal/emotional level (character X feels Z). On both levels, character is the common factor: when we read, it is the characters who engage and maintain our attention. And POV is the tool through which we tell the reader which characters are deserving of our attention.

I think the distant narrator is a dying breed: almost every narrator I can think of these days is a close narrator, either first-person (it doesn’t get any closer!) or close-third. There are good reasons for this, in particular because such close perspective engages our emotions more rapidly and draws us into the story sooner. But the point of view is the marker by which the reader learns who they should care about.

At the same time, combining POV’s selectivity with its focus on character presents an opportunity to deepen our characterization. POV selectivity is all about choosing and presenting the details that are most relevant to our narrative goals, but the details that we select can tell us a great deal about the character our POV is focusing on. Careful selection of details enables our words to serve double duty: to further the external/physical level of the story, and to deepen the reader’s understanding of the internal/emotional level. The surroundings, emotions, sensory details, etc. that we include express our character’s value system, priorities, attitudes, philosophy, etc. POV, in fact, is one of the strongest characterization tools.

And it is through POV’s relationship to characterization that it meets its natural partner: voice. If POV subtly communicates a story’s character(s), then the way in which that POV communicates – how its paragraphs are constructed, sentences structured, and the words selected – can rapidly offer the reader greater insight into the character. If we forget this fact, if we introduce a disconnect between our POV and the voice, we risk the plausibility of our characters and the cohesion of our entire story.

POV/Voice vs Accessibility/Pace

I’m never entirely sure which matters more to me – POV or voice – or which creates the other. It’s the kind of circular discussion that requires a bottle of whiskey and a late night under the stars, and which never gets resolved. I believe that POV and voice are both inherently in tension with a story’s accessibility and pace.

Shifting POVs may undermine the reader’s ability to invest in any one character (as in Silva’s The Kill Artist), which in turn weakens their ability to invest in the story. A POV which selects dense details for inclusion may overburden the reader with facts irrelevant to the story. A voice which is highly idiosyncratic and difficult to follow may decrease the reader’s willingness to decode and internalize it. And every time we ask the reader to do a bit more mental work, to store additional facts or decipher complex sentences, we slow the story’s pace.

But despite this tension, that doesn’t mean that there’s ever a single “right” way to approach POV: the “right” technique depends on our artistic goals for a particular story, and on the other techniques and structures we employ to achieve those artistic goals. Which while not particularly helpful in a prescriptive sense, hopefully offers some food for further thought.

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