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Posts tagged ‘Genre Theory’

Speculative Fiction 2012 Contributors Announced!


Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays, and Commentary With this cold I’ve got, I’m a little late bringing you this exciting news (but better late than never…):

Over at The Staffer’s Book Review, Justin Landon and Jared Shurin (from Pornokitsch) have announced the lineup of contributors to Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays, and Commentary.

It looks like an awesome lineup, with essays from folks like Elizabeth Bear, Paul Kincaid, Christopher Priest, NK Jemisin, and plenty more. And to my shock and delight, I’m in there, too!

The anthology comes out a short month from now, on April 25th, 2013. And all profits from the book will be donated to Room to Read, an international charity dedicated to literacy and gender equality in education.

A Rant on Exclusion and Genre Pedantry


The other day, I read a fascinating (and wonderfully titled) essay by Simon Spanton, Deputy Publishing Director for Gollancz, wherein he discusses speculative fiction’s relationship to mainstream literary fiction. At first, the thought of yet another volley in the interminable genre wars made me groan. But the essay – and some of the ensuing discussion in the comments – did make me think, and those thoughts have gradually grown into a rant. While Simon’s essay raises excellent questions about genre awards, I’m more inclined to rant wonder about Simon’s main point: why do speculative fiction fans bristle at the prospect of non-SF writers employing speculative devices?

The “War” is Over. We Won.

I think it is fair to say that speculative fiction has essentially won the culture wars. The devices and conventions of science fiction and fantasy have achieved a degree of mainstream popularity that couldn’t have been imagined eighty years ago. They dominate both the big and small screen, form the core of the console gaming market, and feature prominently on literary bestseller lists (whether under the aegis of an SF/F imprint or not). The fact that Samuel Delany’s “About 5,750 Words” could benefit from some updating is, I think, a testament to the success of speculative fiction’s penetration into the cultural mainstream.

Yet for some reason, when authors who do not self-identify as science fiction writers (or as fantasy writers) make use of science fictional/fantastical devices, we’re quick to look down our noses at them. We argue that they “appropriate” devices from “our” genre, that they perpetuate genre elitism, that they are ignorant of speculative fiction’s traditions, etc.

To quote Damon Knight: So what?

The first of these claims is meaningless, the second is laughably ironic, and the third is simply irrelevant.

Appropriation of Genre Devices as the Cornerstone of Literature

Appropriation of devices, structures, and conventions is the foundation of literature. Writers have been stealing each others’ tricks ever since the second story was told around a campfire. What would James Joyce’s Ulysses be without Homer’s The Odyssey? Oh, dear, I am sorry: I forget so often that it isn’t worth reading if it doesn’t have a spaceship on the spine. Ahem. Let me use a different example: would we have Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings without William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, or H. Rider Haggard’s She? Or would Robert A. Heinlein have written The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress without the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? Would Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey have been possible without the influence of Jane Austen?

To criticize the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenger, etc. for “appropriating” speculative devices is petty. Who cares if their stories feature tropes more commonly published by genre imprints? One can make the equally meaningless claim that science fiction has been “appropriating” characterization from mainstream literary fiction. Literature is always in conversation with all of the literature that came before it: every story incorporates elements from other stories, puts those elements together in new and interesting combinations, and thus gives future writers something else to appropriate. That’s the way all literature works, whether inside or outside of speculative fiction.

The Snobbery of Pedantry

When we claim that writers like Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy perpetuate the snobbish genre divide, really it’s just the pot calling the kettle black. So Atwood thinks of science fiction as “talking squids in outer space”. Why should such a reductive classification bother us?

There are as many definitions of science fiction as there are science fiction consumers, and their attitude towards the genre ranges from uncritical boosterism to generalized dismissal. Like Kipling’s tribal lays, all of those definitions – and yes, including Atwood’s – are right. Such definitions are ontological and fluid; they are a subjective amalgam of what Brian Stableford calls “fuzzy sets”.

And there is nothing to be done about them.

Yet when we get sniffy about how one or another “authority” defines our genre, all we’re really doing is throwing a pedantic temper tantrum. If we claim that Only Our definition is Right and Proper, or if we claim that Your Definition is Wrong and Evil, we are engaging in the same exclusionary discrimination that our own beloved genre has been subject to for so long. When really, that classification isn’t solely up to us.

Works get classified into genres at many stages: Their authors can self-identify with a particular literary tradition while writing the damn thing. Agents (or the authors themselves) can submit the book to a particular genre imprint. The imprint can decide the book aligns well with its category/aesthetic/list. The art management team can select a cover that adheres to a particular subset of genre aesthetics/conventions. The bookstore can shelve it in a specific section. And finally, and most importantly, the consumer crafts their own opinion as to how they think of a given book.

Atwood’s definition, my definition, and your definition are but a few of the many voices in this process. One hundred years from now, a literary critic will be able to better judge the genre classification of The Handmaid’s Tale. History, context, and critical distance will all help. But, for the time being, should we wash our hands of the brilliant thematic explorations of Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale or The Time Traveler’s Wife because their authors’ definitions of genre differ from our own?

The Sin of Ignorance

Likewise, when did ignorance become a cardinal sin? As writers, we’re all guilty of a bit of hubris. We all think we’ve done something neat, something cool, something interesting. Sometimes, we even think we’re the first ones to do it. And every now and again, we’re right. But more often than not, we’re wrong. Ignorance is a common characteristic amongst our species, I’m afraid, and wearing the badge of genre is no defense against it.

So why should ignorance of genre traditions, of the myriad ways in which genre devices have been employed previously, condemn a writer? Mary Doria Russell’s ignorance of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience when writing The Sparrow does nothing to detract from the latter’s beauty or power. To generally condemn a writer – regardless of the genre they identify with – for their ignorance strikes me as arbitrary, and perhaps more importantly, as critically vapid.

It is critically interesting to compare Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road to George Stewart’s Earth Abides, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even David Brin’s The Postman. Such an examination is specific, and can be critically meaningful. It can give us insight into meaning, metaphor, aesthetics, and structure. In such a comparison, McCarthy may even be deemed to be unoriginal, or uninteresting, or dull (I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but critics’ opinions will vary). Such an analysis would be critically valid, a meaningful contribution to the exploration of literature. But to generalize McCarthy as ignorant of the post-apocalyptic tradition and on that basis to dismiss his work? What does that add to the critical conversation? Nothing useful. Nothing interesting.

Genre is Not a Badge

Genre is not a badge of honor, and I say that knowing full well that I could not and would not divorce myself from my genre roots (heck, my blog’s title is a riff off of Dunsany’s classic The King of Elfland’s Daughter – I’m wedded pretty tightly to speculative fiction). Genre is “merely” a collection of aesthetic, structural, and cultural characteristics which make one creative work resemble another. Genre does not have to convey membership in any kind of subculture, although it often does. If creators wish to self-identify with a subculture or if creators, agents, publishers, or readers wish to specifically position their works within a genre, that is all to the good. They are not wrong to do so, and why should we be so churlish as to reject them for not wearing the “right” clothes?

I think that such pedantic rejection of fiction with speculative elements is short-sighted, silly, and at its heart, useless. It does nothing to broaden the popularity of speculative fiction, nothing to educate the broader public about speculative fiction’s history or aesthetics. If anything, it further solidifies long-standing cultural prejudices on both sides of the genre divide.

Writers who publish mainstream literary fiction – but do so with speculative elements – want the same things as self-proclaimed genre writers: They want to sell books. They want to exert an influence – however small – on the dialogue of letters. They want to affect readers, whether to “merely” entertain them (no mean feat) or to change their worldview. They’re all pulling in the same direction we are.

Mainstream literary fiction audiences are different from speculative fiction audiences. There is some degree of overlap, but there are enough readers in each camp who are ignorant of the other. Publishing – and the culture it speaks to and grows from – is not a zero-sum game. We gain nothing by treading on our colleagues’ heads. Instead, both speculative fiction and mainstream literary fiction benefit when we celebrate one another’s strengths, when we cross-promote to our respective audiences, when we educate one another’s audiences about the strengths of distinct literary traditions.

I am willing to bet that plenty of magical realists would love to read before the kind of crowd found at even a small genre con. And I am equally certain that plenty of speculative fiction authors would love to get critical attention from the likes of the New York Times Book Review, or the Booker Prize judges.

We should not be ashamed of our relatives in other genres, no more than they should be ashamed of us. I am buoyed by the fact that while I often see speculative fiction lovers grumble about the literary fiction camp, our prizes – in particular the Clarke and the Nebula – tend to be more open-minded. I think we could do with more of such openness, and that both genres could benefit from a greater degree of cross-pollination, for it is that cross-pollination that lies at the heart of creative progress. Speculative fiction has been trapped in an echo chamber for many, many years.

Now that we have the opportunity to branch out, why not do so?

Ephemeral Horror and the Diffusion of Genre Markers


Content, when it comes to genre taxonomy, is king: we categorize stories based on the conventions they employ and the devices that show up within their texts. Spaceships, time travel, aliens? Let’s call it science fiction. Magic and knights? Let’s go with fantasy. A five-act structure centered around mutual attraction and misunderstanding? Romance. A crime that needs to be explained? Mystery. (Yes, I know this is a gross over-simplification – but that doesn’t make it wrong.) These devices, the objects and tropes of most genres, can easily be slapped on a cover to communicate the story’s category to booksellers and readers.

But then we come to horror. Peter Straub is right (hat tip to Robert Jackson Bennett for pointing this essay out) when he says that horror is the only genre whose defining characteristic is absent from the text: horror gets categorized as horror because of the reaction it produces in the reader, not because of the devices it employs (although those devices do contribute to the reaction). The ephemeral nature of horror’s defining characteristic is both a strength and a weakness for the genre.

The Strength and Freedom of Ephemera

Creatively, Straub is exactly right when he writes:

…this absence of specificity is not at all a limitation but the reverse, a great enhancement. That no situational templates are built into horror grants it an inherent boundarilessness, a boundlessness, an inexhaustible unlimitedness. If the “horror” part is not stressed all that overtly and the author spares us zombies, vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, hideous things in bandages, etc., what results is fiction indistinguishable, except in one element alone,  from literary fiction.

Horror lacks the constraints that more solidified genre conventions impose. We can write a horror story – like Shirley Jackson’s classic “Flower Garden” – without a single element of the supernatural or the inexplicable. But even such a “mundane” story can still evoke a sense of horror similar to The Haunting of Hill House.

This freedom means that – in order to be effective – horror must sneak past the reader’s natural defenses, must directly speak to the reader’s perceptions, values, and fears. This is the kind of deep-seated, emotional and perceptual communication that the literary fiction genre has traditionally claimed for itself. But where literary fiction uses such emotional and philosophical intimacy to explore comfortably distanced morality, horror uses a highly sensitized point-of-view to get as close to the nerve as possible, to map even the most painful experiences from the inside.

When a horror story fails to achieve this effect, when it fails to develop such a reaction, it fails to be a horror story. There is a reason why vampires and werewolves and zombies now fill shelves of urban fantasy and paranormal romance: fictional devices that once terrified, now no longer do so. And herein lies the weakness of ephemeral genre definition.

Content is (un)Dead

What is the taste of blue? That is the same kind of unanswerable question as “how can you tell a horror story from its cover?”

There was a time – not all that long ago – when vampires were horrific. Their stories evoked the frisson of terror and repulsion that characterizes the horror genre, and so slapping a vampire on the cover sent a message to the reader that said “This book will horrify you.”

But over time, and in paticular over the last thirty years, we have become acclimated to vampires. They stopped horrifying us, and so have oozed into science fiction (e.g. Peter Watts’ Blindsight or Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series), romance (e.g. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stories, etc.), fantasy (Jasper Kent’s Danilov Quintet), and so on. When we see a vampire on a cover today, we are more likely to think of these genres than of horror.

This dissolution of the communicative value of fictional devices is a normal part of the creative cycle, and it affects every genre (and is particularly accelerated in YA). But because horror is defined by the reaction it produces, the genre is more exposed to this danger, and its covers (and sales) are disproportionately affected by it.

The Future of Horror?

I think the future of horror will be much like its past: subject to boom-and-bust cycles closely tied to society’s fluency with and acclimatization to the devices which evoke the reactions that define the genre.

For designers and publishers in the field, I think that the challenge is to disentagle cover design from the devices used in the content. Thrillers and (to a lesser extent, mystery) have both broadly succeeded in doing so: their covers tend towards the iconic, rather than the representational. It is worth noting that cover designs for horror perennials like Stephen King and Peter Straub seem to employ this exact strategy, and I suspect that it helps to smooth the genre’s traditional boom-and-bust cycles.

For authors in the field, I think that the trick to continued artistic success will be to focus on that reaction, on the emotional and perceptual effects which define the genre. Essentially, to stick to our knitting. Those who manage to evoke that sensation of visceral repulsion or terror will continue to sell, will continue to have readership, because the darker facets of human nature have and will always fascinate.

And with that being said, I have to wonder: how does reader reaction and the diffusion of genre markers extend or impact on other genres, like science fiction and fantasy?

Why Process, Criticism, and Theory Can Be Good for All Writers


What’s the fastest way to start an argument with…
The Professor? Advocate an analytically-driven, engineered writing process.
Chris? Advocate process-less, instinctive writing (“Just write!”)

Obviously, this is one subject on which my wife and I disagree. Sometimes quite vehemently. And this is also an argument that I’ve seen writers manifest in the perennial debate over outlining, writing synopses, or just seat-of-the-pantsing it.

Why Seat-of-the-Pants vs Outline is a False Dichotomy

That question, beloved of the interwebs, is bogus. For a story to be effective, it must be coherent on one or more levels. And coherence in narrative results from having a plan. If a story didn’t have an underlying plan, it would be stream of consciousness and word association. And while some few (*cough* James Joyce *cough*) may have pulled it off, most of us won’t. The real question is one of timing, worldview, and brain wiring.

Let’s posit two (obviously extreme) writers: Jane Outline and John Pants. Obviously, Jane likes to map out the events of her story before sitting down to pen some prose. John, by contrast, sits down and lets his characters tell the story. Both John and Jane still execute on a plan. The real difference is when each prepares that plan.

Jane, with her spreadsheets, notes, and color charts front-loads a great deal of the work. Before she writes her opening sentence, Jane knows what her characters will do at each stage of her story. She knows what motivates them, and how they will react to the situations she puts them in. For her, the act of writing is more a question of finding the words to best express actions that she has already mapped out. The events of her story will rarely surprise her, but her execution might.

John, by contrast, sits down with a character, a voice, or a sentence. He has a hook that brings him into the world of his story, but beyond that he doesn’t know much of where the story is going. After he writes that first sentence, or the first paragraph, he lets the character/voice guide him. The story that unfolds might surprise him, though he counts on his facility for language to express that story as it makes itself apparent. If John has a plan, he makes it up as he goes: he knows what will happen in the next sentence, the next paragraph, or the next scene. But he might not necessarily have an end-goal in sight. His plan is gradually uncovered in parallel to the story.

Both plans come from the heart of storytelling in our souls. Those of us wired like Jane might consciously try to tap into that wellspring, while those like John might have to negotiate access on a moment-by-moment basis. But if we want to write at a professional level, we need to develop the capacity to touch that heart of storytelling whenever we need to. Waiting for the elusive muse, or relying on some ritual, is counterproductive and inhibiting. And that is something that the Professor and I agree on. So how can writers – regardless of whether they plan ahead of time or not – develop the capability to build stories? While at its most basic level the answer is practice (or as the Professor tells me constantly: Just write, dammit!), I think the more complete answer depends on how our brains are wired.

Creative Tools for the Analytical Writer

I’m a fairly analytical fellow by both nature and training. I see patterns and systems just about everywhere (whether they’re really there or not). When I sit down to write, I try to think of it in terms of systems and processes. This isn’t to say that I write by the numbers, but I find that I will always try to build a conceptual framework around whatever writing project I’m working on at any precise moment. Sometimes, that conceptual framework manifests itself in an outline, other times in a synopsis, and sometimes (usually when I write short fiction) it stays in my head. But the quality of those conceptual frameworks, and the tools that I can apply to them are actually the result of critical theory and extensive analytical reading.

I try to read as much critical theory as possible. And since I write primarily in the speculative genres, I also read heavily in genre theory. If your only exposure to critical theory has been Derrida (ick) or most of the other post-modernists, then I strongly suggest you take a look at some of the more formalist schools of thought: there’s a lot of value to be found there. I’ve found that useful critical theory expands my conceptual vocabulary, and gives me a way of thinking about story structure, character archetypes, and narrative techniques. Unlike how-to-write books or blogs (which can also be helpful), most good theory isn’t didactic. It’s diagnostic: it describes what the investigator sees in the field, rather than what a practitioner should do.

Why is this helpful? It explains what other authors, schools of writing, or genres have done. If I’m writing a fairy tale, I find that I keep Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale close to hand. Not because I slavishly stick to the plot constructions he describes, but because he has laid out a time-tested architecture for fairy tale storytelling. I might choose to diverge from his framework, but if I do so, I do so consciously: I know where I’m diverging and why. When I write fantasy, I keep in mind Farah Mendlesohn’s categories of fantasy (from her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy). Doing so does not limit my writing, but it expands my awareness of where my story might go.

Analytical reading is a way of consciously constructing my own conceptual vocabulary. When I read a story, in particular when I’m reading something for review consideration, I’m always asking myself what techniques the author used to manipulate the reader’s perception. I examine their effectiveness, and the reasons driving it. In essence, I’m creating my own internal critical theory that then informs my writing and affects how stories get constructed in the deeper recesses of my brain. A big part of this blog is actually my attempt to further systematize this nebulous personal critical theory and deepen my conscious awareness of it through its articulation.

“Theory is Boring, Didactic, and Risky,” says the Instinctive Writer

Our theoretical John Pants (and The Professor, and a who’s who list of amazing writers) would probably disagree with everything I just said above. They would say that theory can be inhibiting, leading us to write by the numbers. And yes, this is a real risk. Just consider all of the dross produced on the back of the Campbellian monomyth. Instead, they would probably suggest that people should just read extensively and analytically, and write, write, write.

And that is absolutely true. But extensive reading (whether consciously analytical or not) has the same ultimate effect as reading theory. Have you ever found yourself reading extensively in a particular time period, or genre, and discovered that you’ve picked up habits (sentence construction, pacing, plot) from your reading? Even if we don’t consciously dissect our reading material, the act of reading still builds our internal critical theory. Consciously, analytically, or through osmosis, the act of reading assembles our conceptual vocabulary whether we want it to or not. Whether we can ever consciously articulate that theory or not doesn’t matter: it’s still somewhere in our brains. And it percolates there, and then leaks out to flavor our writing. And the more extensive our internal critical theory, the wider assortment of narrative tools we have in our writing workshop.

I admit, I’m not one of these instinctive writers. But I suspect the biggest challenge for such writers is to work through the moments in their writing when their limited conscious plan peters out. “Where do I take the story from here?” is a question I suspect many struggle with at some point. Which is why they say Broadway is paved with excellent first acts. The exhortation that writers force themselves to write, come hell or high water, is designed to train us to smoothly access our conceptual vocabulary – whether we’re conscious of the process or not. And the wider our reading, the broader and deeper that conceptual vocabulary becomes. This then lets us avoid such dead-ends, or to more easily identify them so we can backtrack to fix them.

Process vs Ritual: The First is Good, the Second is Bad

We writerly types are fairly idiosyncratic. Like athletes, we all have our little habits that put us in the zone. Whether it’s a particular chair we love to write in, or a particular time of day to write at, or a particular process that we go through before setting fingers to keyboard, we’ve all got our little rituals. And rituals are bad. They’re crutches that over the space of a career are just not sustainable. Because life generally is not conducive to ritualized work processes. Sooner or later, our favorite chairs break, mugs get lost, schedules get all mixed up. Life just gets in the way. And if we’re beholden to our rituals, then our writing will suffer.

Imagine if John Pants lands a three book deal, with a national book tour (okay, I realize this isn’t likely in the modern world – but for illustrative purposes only, bear with me). He’ll be on the road for eight weeks plugging the first book in his trilogy, meanwhile his deadline for book number two is rapidly approaching (if it hasn’t already passed). If he’s addicted to his favorite writing chair, or to his cat lounging on his feet, he’s going to have a lot of trouble finishing book two while on tour.

I find that I struggle with a variety of rituals in my writing. For example: when I sit down to write a short story, I like to write a complete draft in one sitting. Silly, but it’s just a little ritual or idiosyncrasy that I’ve got. Or if I’m working on a long form work, I like to write a complete scene, or a complete chapter. As far as rituals go, this isn’t that bad (the upside is I usually finish the stuff I start). But it still means there will be times when I decide not to write because I know I won’t have time to get far beyond a single sentence or paragraph. If I don’t have an hour or two to focus, I might just wait for later. And that’s an inhibiting habit that I’m working on breaking. It’d be nice to be able to write effectively at any time of day, whether I’ve got five minutes or an hour to do so. With the Professor’s exhortations (and mockery) I’m working through this, but it’s something that takes – and will continue to take – work.

But there is a difference between ritual and process. Process is an outgrowth of how our brains are wired, and so if we need to write an outline to tell a story, then I say go for it! But we cannot let ourselves become slaves to that process. An outline is one process that is particularly suited to those of us with an analytical mindset. There are others (synopses, notes, mind-maps, and yes – even just winging it, etc.). If we say we absolutely need an outline to write, and then we get stuck in the outlining phase, that might mean our process has broken down for a particular project.

If our process has become a ritual, we might get stuck. But if we have the flexibility to switch to a different process, the odds of bogging down fall dramatically. The last three long works I’ve drafted (one fantasy novel, one graphic novel script, and one alternate history novel) all used a different process. The first had a detailed outline before I ever started writing it. The second had a loose synopsis. And I winged the third until I got about halfway through it, then built a detailed scene-by-scene outline from there. Much as I like process, it can be a crutch. And here my wife’s aversion to analytical writing is dead on: At some point, crutches always break. Which is why having the widest possible assortment of processes in our writing toolkit makes good analytical sense. It is always good to push our own boundaries as writers, to play and experiment with different tools, techniques, and methods.

So what processes work for you in your writing? What techniques would you recommend? What techniques have you tried that didn’t work for you?

REVIEW: Graphs, Maps, Trees by Franco Moretti and a Critical Wish List


Title: Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History
Author: Franco Moretti
Pub Date: July 21, 2005
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A stimulating model for literary criticism.

So I’ve got a bit of a confession to make: I’m a critical theory nerd. I love the philosophical debates that arise from Russian formalism versus post-structuralism, and I get a twisted masochistic enjoyment from reading Derrida’s mysticism-disguised-as-science. If I’m not reading genre fiction, odds are my nose will be buried in a critical text. But despite this guilty pleasure, it is the rare work of theory that changes how I think about the written word. But that’s exactly the kind of reaction I had to Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History.

A Criticism of Critical Theory and the Application of Science

Even at its most basic “Spot runs” level, the key to effective writing has always been communication. Which is why I’ve always found it mystifying that the lions of critical theory forget this basic tenet. It is a shame that in the practical world of academia, a book as lucid, well-reasoned, and communicative as Farah Mendelsohn’s impressive Rhetorics of Fantasy will spawn far fewer doctoral dissertations than the jumbled arguments of Derrida’s Of Grammatology. This just makes me sigh.

I suspect it is because my background – for the most part – lies in market research, computer sciences, statistical linguistics, economics, and mathematics. My brain is wired to work in an analytical fashion more commonly found in the hard sciences. In those fields there is zero room for the ambiguity and fuzziness present in critical theory. If a mathematician were to try to publish a paper whose equations were as muddled as the majority of critical theory texts, she would be laughed right off the top of the ivory tower. Ultimately, beneath the rhetoric of their presentation lies objective science.

However, objective need not mean uncontested or incontroversial. Consider today’s economic debates about the “right” solution to the Greek debt crisis. There’s a joke that says if you put two economists into a room, you’ll have three opinions. Yet since the early 20th century, the critical theory establishment has eschewed a rational, scientific approach to literary analysis and instead has gone down the rabbit hole of spurious semantic navel-gazing. And while that has done a lot to further the peer-reviewed publication credits of many theorists, I’d argue it hasn’t done terribly much to move our understanding of literature forward. And it also limits the critical debate to the in-crowd who grok Derrida and Foucault.

A New Formal Science for Literary Analysis: Macro versus Micro

Which is why Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees is so refreshing. First, his argument has a clarity to it that most critical theorists lack. He lays out a logical case, and presents his arguments in a reasonably accessible fashion.

Fundamentally, Moretti is trying to bring the science back into critical theory. In one sense, he is updating the early 20th century’s formalism with the computational tools available to us in the 21st century. And that means that he’s mixing oil and water: words and numbers. Moretti’s underlying claim is that the close reading that forms the foundation of post-structuralism, New Criticism, most contemporary brands of Marxist criticism, etc. is a shibboleth: its propononents risk missing the forest for the trees. He argues that we can learn more about literature by applying statistical techniques across and within multiple texts. He proposes a separation between data collection and its interpretation, which is how economics, mathematics, physics, and literally every hard science in existence has operated for centuries.

A Framework for Quantitative Literary Theory

A Framework for Quantitative Literary Theory

Comparing it to the dismal science (economics), Moretti’s approach is to close reading what macroeconomics is to microeconomics. Moretti argues that we now have the tools to analyze literature at a macro-level, thus enabling us to notice aspects that close reading’s micro-approach would not spot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this approach is controversial. Most of the folks I’ve met in the humanities self-select as “bad at math.” So a theoretical framework that relies on statistics and charts is likely to be scary: it is quite literally a new critical vocabulary, requiring an entirely different set of skills. Yet this vocabulary can be particularly compelling, and offer new insights to our understanding of genre and literature.

Moretti’s Critical Toolkit

In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Moretti explains three independent tools that can be applied to literary analysis. He devotes an entire section to each of these three techniques, and the they can even be read separately without losing much of his over-arching argument.

State of the Genre: Graphs

Of the three, the first section (graphs) is the most compelling, most understandable, and most readily applicable. A picture is worth a thousand words, and I don’t need to be in the business of data analysis (which in my day job I am) to know that graphs can communicate information more succinctly than pages of text. The statistics that Moretti employs are as simple as they get: there are no formulas, no equations, no actual math is ever shown. All Moretti does is visualize data on publication history. That’s the kind of charting we all learned back in fourth grade, but which has so rarely been applied to literature.

Once that data gets visualized, Moretti is absolutely right that certain basic trends jump out at us and demand explanation. Which is where the critical aspect comes into play. Data by its nature is an observation: it tells us “what” but not “why”. And so Moretti attempts to explain the observed behavior of the data, providing some interesting insights into the periodicity and lifespan of genres in 19th century British texts. His critical conclusions – as he himself states – are not new. Others had made similar observations before. But by visualizing an extensive set of data Moretti is able to make a stronger – less anecdotal – case. In one sense, it is like particle physicists seeking empirical proof for the Higgs-Boson. The theory supporting its existence is not new: but there’s a lot of data crunching needed to prove it.

In speculative fiction, genre fragmentation is a very real trend. We’ve got hard SF, soft SF, zombie, splatterpunk, cyberpunk, sword and sorcery, steampunk, etc. And because our minds are statistical supercomputers, we perform quantitative analyses like Moretti’s every day when we say “Vampires are so over!” or “Hard SF is dying.” We base statements like that on a fuzzy sense of what’s being published, but we generally lack the hard and fast numbers to back up such hyperbolic statements. This is just as true for critics as it is for consumers, authors, publishers, and booksellers. By looking at actual data on published texts, we can lay to rest these debates about the health of different sub-genres and perhaps identify incipient trends that are just beginning to percolate. If I were a genre publisher, or a bookseller, I would be running these kinds of analyses once a quarter to have a more scientific handle on what’s going on in the marketplace: what my competitors are publishing and what my consumers are reading. Note that this analysis has nothing to do with the quality of what is being done: merely an observation of what is happening.

State of the Book: Maps

In his second section, Moretti dives into a deeper analysis of particular texts. Rather than try to put together graphs, he draws maps based on the events, characters, and locations of the texts he is analyzing. His argument that visualizing the relationships within a book may provide us with insights into its themes and characters is extremely compelling.

Unfortunately, the science in this section of the book begins to break down. While his maps are thought-provoking, he fails to provide us with an explanation of how they were generated. In the hard sciences, nothing can be proven if a given result cannot be replicated independently. Yet Moretti fails to provide an explanation for process by which his maps were derived. Are they based on actual observed/collected data? Or are they instead conceptual diagrams meant to symbolically represent relationships within and between texts?

If the former, then a further and more precise explanation of his methods would be necessary. Such an explanation would allow other critics to replicate, test, refute, and expand on Moretti’s findings. If the latter, then a discussion of the principles and approach by which he designed the maps would also be helpful for the same reason. While this opens the door to interpretative ambiguity, it would be helpful to give other critics insight into this tool.

I would love to apply Moretti’s mapping concepts to fantasy fiction in particular. Think of the classic fantasy texts that rely so heavily on location: Alice in Wonderland, Little, Big, Peake’s Gormenghast books, or the Lord of the Rings. Speculative genres – which rely so fundamentally on world-building – are particularly conducive to this kind of analysis, and I believe we can gain much deeper insight into their themes and techniques through its application.

Relationships Between Books: Trees

In the third and final section, Moretti describes trees as a tool for analyzing the relationship between different texts. Again, this tool is less a statistical one than it is a way of visualizing large amounts of information. Essentially, trees present a certain hierarchy: they have a flow to them from one point (or set of points) to another. We’ve seen these kinds of trees many times before: flowcharts, genealogies, or folders on our computer.

But by visualizing literary works in a tree-like structure, we are able to notice relationships and trends that might otherwise get drowned out. This is particularly interesting as we examine the evolution of genres. Moretti is well aware of this, applying this technique to the mystery genre. In particular, he uses trees to visualize how Arthur Conan Doyle and his contemporary mystery writers used clues in their stories. He makes a claim that Doyle’s use of clues is why Sherlock Holmes and the rationalist mystery has survived into the present day, while his contemporary competitors have been forgotten.

His argument is compelling, and it would be far more difficult to communicate if he did not have diagrams and pictures that made it easier to follow his argument. This is another tool that I would love to see applied to speculative fiction. For example, I would love to represent the presence of invented languages in speculative fiction using these tools, and then juxtapose that against their sales statistics. Whether we learn anything that publishers, booksellers, or authors can apply is uncertain: but the results would certainly be interesting.

Doing What It Means To

At its core, Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History does what it sets out to. It describes a set of techniques that can – and should – be utilized in the world of literary analysis. It shows how those techniques can be used to derive new insight into literature and genre, thus giving us a greater understanding of how written art functions.

At first glance, these techniques may seem scary. But in reality, they’re not that terrifying. Moretti’s techniques don’t use, or even any math that goes beyond an elementary school level. If he uses that kind of math, it is hidden beneath his accessible charts. If you know how to plot a simple graph, then you can begin applying his techniques. For teachers of critical theory, they offer a powerful tool to make theory accessible. Ultimately, one of Moretti’s pictures is worth ten thousand of Derrida’s words…if only because it is so easy to grasp.

From a scientific standpoint, this book is not perfect. It lacks some of the detail that would be laudable or expected in the hard sciences. But Rome was not built in a day, and had Moretti included that level of detail, I imagine that many critical theorists would be even more frightened by his ideas. I hope that more theorists – and especially genre theorists – look at Moretti’s work and try to apply some of its insights to speculative fiction.

With that in mind, here’s a short wish list of analyses I would love to see. These are really just a list of charts/diagrams that would then be wide open to interpretation and further analysis, but I think they would be really interesting and thought-provoking:

  • Graphs:
    • Number of Genre Texts Published in Hardcover vs Softcover by Sub-genre over Time
    • Unit/Dollar Sales of Genre Texts by Sub-genre over Time
    • Median Advances by Sub-genre over Time
    • Median Length of Texts by Sub-genre over Time
  • Map Analyses:
  • Trees:
    • Plot Tropes in Hard SF over Time
    • Gender Characteristics by Sub-genre over Time
    • Economic Systems by Sub-genre over Time
    • Usage of Neologisms by Sub-genre over Time

Golly…I wish I didn’t have to work for a living and had easy access to the archives of Bookscan / Amazon.com data to do even a quarter of those analyses. Anyone in the publishing industry want to pay a peer-reviewed, internationally published market researcher to put together some of this research?

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