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Posts tagged ‘Literary Theory’

Meta-review: A Review of My Reviewing


The other day, the Professor observed that it has been a long time since I posted a straight review. And it’s true: while I tend to discuss many books in my posts, and often specifically discuss new books that I’d received as ARCs, I haven’t posted a straightforward review since May of this year. I have read plenty of books in the interim, some of which I requested, some of which were sent to me, and some of which I picked up in the store because I was interested. So why, then, the dearth of reviews?

Genres and Conventions in Literary Criticism

As anyone who has read a single post of mine can probably guess, I like criticism. I like dissecting literature, art, and culture to gain some modicum of understanding. And over the course of the past few months, I have been thinking about the purpose and nature of literary criticism, about what it accomplishes, and how my own meager attempts contribute in some fashion to the field. In a sense, I’ve been turning a critical lens on the field of criticism itself.

And I am quite surprised that this field of meta-criticism features a more muddled vocabulary than even literary criticism itself (which is saying something, and what it says is not very polite).

Everyone these days plays the role of “critic:” reviewers who recommend books to other readers, analysts who explore the broader field of literary production, writers who discuss their methods, process, and thinking, etc. To express a thought – any kind of thought – about the written word is likely to be labelled “criticism”, and with global communications at our fingertips, the barriers to entry are very low.

But criticism itself takes on many forms, and we write it and read it for many reasons. Like the stories we read, criticism can be sub-divided into a number of genres, each of which has its own conventions, its own devices, its own markets, and its own audiences. Like genres in fiction, critical genres have porous borders, and there is much overlap between their methods and devices. But all that being said, I think it is safe to propose several key categories:

Commercial Reviews
Short (< 300 words) reviews which typically provide a brief overview of the story’s plot, highlight one or two salient details (either positively or negatively), and sometimes mention similar or vastly different titles for the sake of comparison. Primarily aimed at a professional audience of booksellers and librarians, and because of their professional reputation used by publicists to provide consumers with juicy and authoritative blurbs.
  • Kirkus Reviews
  • Publisher’s Weekly
  • School Library Journal
  • Locus Magazine

Perception Pieces
Longer (300 – 2,000 words) articles that are targeted specifically at prospective readers. Structurally, they tend to present the critic’s highly subjective perceptions of a specific title, of their experience reading it, and offer a handful of very specific examples from the text. Sometimes, depending on the critic, those perceptions are contextualized through a discussion of the title’s broader genre, or of the author’s previous work, though these are not defining features of the category. What is notable about this category is that there are no structural differences between a typical perception piece in The New York Times, a book blogger’s review, or a consumer’s write-up on GoodReads. Much as professional reviewers might grumble, the only real difference lies in the audience’s perception of the reviewer’s authority, which typically stems from the brand on the masthead (although the quality of individual reviews will, of course, vary).
  • The New York Times
  • The New Yorker
  • The Los Angeles Review of Books
  • Book Bloggers
  • GoodReads
  • Amazon.com Reader Reviews

Technical Analyses
These are also longer reviews, but they differ structurally from most perception pieces in that they focus more on the methods by which a given story achieves its effects. I suspect many of the reviewers who write technical analyses (myself included) are themselves writers of fiction, and see their “review” as a dissection of authorial technique. The level of technical detail into which such reviews go, the “closeness” of their reading, exceeds that typically found in a perception piece.
  • Book Bloggers
  • Books/Essays on Writing
  • Books of Literary Criticism

Generalized Commentary
Where perception pieces focus on the reviewer’s reaction to a specific title, generalized commentary broadens the discussion to encompass an entire artistic field (however the critic chooses to define it). Such generalized commentary draws broad conclusions, sweeps the field with generalizations, and discusses stylistic, thematic, structural, commercial, etc. trends. While such commentary can often resemble that found in perception pieces or technical analyses, the scope is broad enough to extend beyond individual titles.
  • The New Yorker
  • The Guardian
  • Book Bloggers
  • Writers’ Blogs / Essays
  • Books on Writing
  • Essays in Anthologies

Academic Criticism
At its best, academic criticism resembles a fusion of technical analysis, generalized commentary, and perception pieces. However in contemporary practice, it has become a genre unto itself. Its markets are limited to peer-reviewed critical journals and (at book length) university presses, and its stylistic conventions often veer towards the incomprehensible (for which I think we have Jacques Derrida in particular to thank – and by thank, I mean the opposite). Its audience is almost always limited to academics, to critics with a stomach for the stuff, or to truly adventurous writers.
  • University press-published books of criticism
  • Critical conference proceedings
  • Academic papers

My Goals as a Critic

As I said when I first started up this blog, lo these two years ago (my how time flies when you’re having fun!), my goal is to better understand the field of speculative fiction, both on a cultural and a technical level. I want to understand the roles that science fiction, fantasy, and horror all play in our lives, and to understand how (by what means) different stories affect us as individuals and as a society. Or at least I want to understand it more than I do today.

The majority of my blog posts tend to be general commentary, probably closer in kind to technical analysis than to perception pieces. And my reviews, whose frequency has gradually decreased, tend to be more technical. As I state in my review policy, I tend to review books and stories that strike me in some way, where something about either their ambitions or their methods stands out within the broader field.

Does the decreasing frequency of my reviews mean that there is less technical innovation taking place in speculative fiction? I honestly don’t know. Does the fact that few books have recently moved me sufficiently to write a review mean that I subscribe to the much-discussed belief in the genre’s exhaustion?

I hope not. I hope it’s just a combination of having more interesting thoughts about broader subjects, or of wanting to discuss specific titles within a wider context. But despite this hope, I still find myself awake at night thinking about what this implies for both myself as a reader/critic, and if anything, for the genre.

For those who’ve been reading me for awhile – or for those who’ve gone back in the archives and read some of my reviews – do you miss them? Should I try to cast a wider net in my reading or to make a concerted effort to write more of those kinds of reviews? Or does my general commentary from the last several months still work for you?

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?

What is Science Fiction for?


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No matter how many times the community debates science fiction’s viability, direction, and future, a fundamental question goes unasked: What is the purpose of science fiction? The answer to that question is at the heart of every (often recurring) debate about the genre, yet I have rarely seen it asked directly. Consider:

Quality: Genre vs. Literary Fiction Science Fiction’s Exhaustion Award Criteria

These are just the most recent paroxysms of genre self-confidence that I can recall from the past year. And in most cases, the resulting discussion is necessary for the continued health of literature (and of our genre, in particular – see my earlier thoughts on that front here and here). But in each discussion, the debaters speak from a particular perspective, heavily informed by their underlying and unarticulated perception of science fiction’s purpose. It is the implicit background which every one of us takes for granted, but which leads to miscommunication, misunderstanding, and grossly divergent conclusions.

The Amorphous Purpose: A Definition

(NOTE: I would love to see a story entitled “The Amorphous Porpoise”. Just saying.)

The purpose of a genre is – by its very nature – protean. It is an amalgamation of methods, effects, and consequences within literature and society. If the concept appears fuzzy and imprecise, there’s a good reason for that: It is. Like so much critical discussion, it is a philosophical abstraction. We cannot apply it to any particular title, nor even to a particular series. To be meaningful, it must be broad enough to contain contradictions, and resilient enough to withstand them.

Despite its imprecision, genre’s purpose remains a powerful critical tool. When Damon Knight says that “science fiction is what we point to when we say it”, he relies on the particular mix of methods, effects, and consequences of a given story to group it with other stories of similar purpose. Conceptually, it is similar to Brian Attebery’s “fuzzy set” of genre markers, but its value goes beyond the merely taxonomic: genre’s purpose contextualizes the stories within the genre, and thus creates a framework for our interpretations and responses.

When Christopher Priest laments the nominee slate for the Clarke Award, or when Paul Kincaid observes the “exhaustion” of science fiction in the Best-of anthologies, their concerns can be reframed in terms of genre’s purpose. Between the lines, they each suggest an indistinct and idealized vision of science fiction. Neither offers a clear prescription, but it is clear that they have set their own bars on the basis of some criteria, whether articulated or not. If we reframe their arguments (hopefully without doing damage to their intentions), we find that Priest observes that the Clarke Award does not reward the fiction he believes aligns best with science fiction’s purpose. Paul Kincaid believes that much of contemporary science fiction aligns with an outmoded purpose, which may no longer be culturally relevant.

In both cases, they leave the purpose of science fiction implicit and unarticulated, which I think does their core arguments a disservice. I think a debate about the purpose of science fiction and its role within literature and society is an interesting and valuable one, from which interesting ideas about writing and genre can both flow.

On the Constitution of Purpose

I think of genre purpose as having three components. There may be more, particularly since this is still a concept I’m trying to wrap my head around. But in general, a genre’s purpose is the combination of its:

Methods
These are the techniques, conventions, and devices which are employed in stories ascribed to a particular genre. They are directly observable within the text, no one story will ever use all of them, and any one story may specifically reject or subvert one or more of them.
Science Fiction Examples:
  • Scientific plausibility
  • Fictive Neology
  • The Novum
  • Rational actors/consequences
  • Naturalistic prose
  • Reliable narrators
  • Unreliable narrators
  • The imagined future
  • Interstellar travel
  • Intelligent alien life
  • Sentient artificial life

Effects
These are the emotional and mental responses produced in the individual reader as a direct result of the genre’s methods. They are not observed within the text, but are observed within its individual readers. Certain effects may be generalizable across an audience, but because no two readers experience a story in the same way, the effects are never universal for any story. The effects can likewise be directed, e.g. “fear of science” or “fear of government”, etc.
Science Fiction Examples:
  • Escape
  • Entertainment
  • Imaginitive speculation
  • Wish fulfillment
  • Ethical Uncertainty
  • Sadness
  • Horror
  • Terror
  • Optimism
  • Ambition
  • Transcendence
  • Affirmation
  • Curiosity
  • Rumination
  • Satisfaction

Consequences
These are the cultural reactions that a genre produces. They may be expressed outside of the literary sphere, for example in education, cultural sensibilities, or public mores. They may also be expressed within future texts, as a response to or expansion/subversion of the genre’s purpose.
Science Fiction Examples:
  • Fleeting enjoyment
  • Scientific/technological development
  • Changed social acceptance/rejection/prejudice
  • Perceptions of government power
  • Perceptions of civic responsibility
  • Perceptions of civil rights/roles
  • Adjusted conceptions of justice
  • Adjusted aesthetic sensibilities
  • Adjustments in personal priorities

I believe that all fantastic genres (science fiction, fantasy, and horror), and possibly all literature shares the majority of their effects and consequences, but that they rely on different methods to do so. I imagine – and I hope – that there are people who disagree with this, as their thoughts might provide fascinating insights into the purpose of literature and art.

The Evolving Purpose of Genre

When each of us thinks of a literary tradition – be it science fiction, biography, or mystery – we value different methods, effects, and consequences differently. This is partially a consequence of our individual tastes, and partially the result of our philosophical values. Genre’s purpose – in its abstract philosophical sense – does not have intentionality. But when we begin to discuss a genre’s purpose, each of us prioritizes certain methods, effects, and consequences over others, and this gives genre’s purpose a directionality.

The cycles we see in science fiction – whether it was the gradual move away from scientific romance conventions in the pulp era, or the New Wave’s focus on the sociological, or cyberpunk’s psychosocial aesthetics – are a consequence of genre’s constantly-evolving purposes, which in turn are an emergent property of our consumption of media and our experiences of daily life. The sometimes acrimonious divide between “hard” and “soft” SF merely reflects differences in our community’s priorities, tastes, and philosophical values.

Our individual values, and the intentions they lend to our perception of genre, inform everything we do when it comes to genre. When we write genre fiction, we (hopefully) write what we think it should be, applying and communicating our values. When we review genre fiction, we express how an author’s work is executed relative to our individual conception of the genre’s purpose: did the story successfully align with what we want from the genre? When we criticize genre fiction, we generalize across multiple stories to either gain insight into how genre’s methods, effects, and consequences interrelate or to articulate our generalized desires about the genre.

Perhaps, rather than rehashing the perennial “genre is exhausted/dying/dead” debate it would be helpful to take a step back, and articulate what we think genre should be, and start from there. There will be plenty of disagreements if we do: this is actually pretty complex philosophy, and it has flummoxed much smarter people than me. I suspect that for many of us, it is easier to express our values through our fiction than it is to spell them out. But I think as a community, it is a discussion worth having nevertheless.

But if we want to advance our understanding of the art form, and if we want to advance the quality (howsoever it gets defined) of that art form, shouldn’t we at some point spell out where we want it go?

A Reaction to Klein’s Pyramid of Literary Quality


When I was fifteen, I went through a psychology phase. Fascinated by the workings of the human mind, I dove through Freud, Jung, Skinner, Pavlov – the whole crowd, always looking for deeper understanding. But it wasn’t until I came across Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” that I had one of those forehead-slapping “Of course!” moments. His hierarchy of needs was so elegant that it instantly passed my common sense test. And while my assessment of his theory has gained in nuance since, it still forms a framework for how I think about human motivation. Which is why when Cheryl Klein (executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books and the author of Second Sight, which I reviewed here) posted her concept of a Pyramid of Literary Quality, I sat up and took immediate notice.

NOTE: Since this is meant to be a response to Klein’s post, I won’t re-hash her theory here save to link to the diagram she included in her post. If you’re interested, I suggest you go read her original post and the comments people made there. It is short, and well worth the time.

On the Utility and Limitations of Sweeping Theoretical Frameworks

The Klein Pyramid of Literary Quality

Copied from Cheryl Klein’s blog on September 4th, 2012. Image by: Ed DeCaria.

First, I applaud the simplicity of Klein’s pyramid. I get annoyed at much of the last half-century’s criticism because of its obscurantist tendencies, and so whenever I find something profound stated simply, it is a breath of critical fresh air. Klein’s theory is general, abstract, and high-level. As such, it works well as a model for how to think about aesthetic quality. But it is important to understand both its strengths and its limitations as a critical tool. While there are many types of criticisms, ranging from the consumer review to the in-depth analytical exploration, I believe that criticism is fundamentally concerned with three questions:

1. What is the quality/value of a given work (or body of work)?
2. By what methods does a given work (or body of work) achieve or fail to achieve its artistic effects?
3. What is the cultural significance of a given work (or body of work)?

The first of these questions is categorical: a book can be good, or it can be bad, or it can take on any gradation between or beyond. It is subjective, in that the judgment stems from a particular critic’s own values, and those values are almost certainly not universal. The answer to this question may be valuable, and it may be interesting, and the exploration of its underlying rationale may be thought-provoking, but the question itself is very simple: it can be captured in a discrete thumbs up/thumbs down, or a star rating system.

The second two questions, however, are diagnostic in nature. They cannot be summarized in a pithy and universally understandable iconographic system. They focus more on questions of “how” and “why” and demand a more nuanced exploration of the methods at play in a literary work.

Sweeping generalizations like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are only valuable insomuch as they offer a methodology, a way of thinking, about the questions we pose. While they are valuable as mental models for complex processes, they tend to fail as diagnostic tools because they over-simplify very complex systems. For example, when confronted with the specific and idiosyncratic complexity of an individual’s or group’s neurophysiological, emotional, cultural, and psychological motivations, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs gets caught up in too many caveats to be useful.

Klein’s pyramid of literary quality faces the same problem. As a framework for thinking about aesthetic quality, it is useful. As a tool, it can even provide a method to answer the first of those three critical questions. But on its own, a mental model cannot really explore the specific diagnostic issues inherent in the second two. Klein’s pyramid of literary quality cannot answer questions of “how” or “why”.

But that’s okay, and in my view does nothing to diminish the value of her pyramid of literary quality. What the pyramid does well, I think, is provide a system for careful exploration of literary techniques and devices. For each component of Klein’s hierarchy, one can identify diagnostic tools, techniques, and perspectives through which to explore literary works.

Completion and Competence: Important in Specific Contexts, but Should be Flipped

The fact that Klein’s pyramid starts with “completion” and “competence” (as in “readable and understandable” for someone not the author) should not be surprising considering her work as an editor. She no doubt has to deal with piles of half-finished, and utterly incompetent manuscripts on a daily basis. But most critics, in particular those of us who criticize traditionally-published titles, rarely face incomplete or otherwise incompetent work.

If a book comes across our desks, and if that book has been edited and published by a reputable publisher, odds are that the story is “complete” and the writing “competent” according to several objective and presumably knowledgeable assessments. But with the rise of independent publishing, and in today’s series-heavy genres like science fiction, fantasy, and mystery/thriller, the concepts of completion and competence both need greater nuance.

First, a writer’s assessment of their own work is always skewed by their intentions, their aspirations, and their emotional investment in their own work. That’s only natural, and it is universal whether we publish through traditional channels or go independent. In traditional channels, there are multiple voices that weigh in on the book before it ever reaches the shelf: the editor, marketing, publicity, sales, etc. all comment and review the book before it even gets acquired, let alone printed. As a result, there are many individuals who assess whether the writing is “competent” (read: understandable), and whether the story is “complete”. This often, and even for experienced writers, provides some measure of reality check.

But if we publish independently, then we risk missing out on that reality-check: we might think we write as well as Shakespeare (fine, we can be humble and think we write like Marlowe) or we might think that our book is done. But outside opinions – not informed by our intentions, aspirations, and emotions – might have a different view. Thus, for independently published books that might not have been subjected to the same editorial process as traditionally published titles, the concepts of “competence” and “completion” become both important and relevant. For books that are traditionally published, competence in my experience tends to be a given, but the completion of the story remains interesting.

The concept of completion as a criterion of quality – and the definition of a “literary work” itself – becomes more interesting when we consider a series. Science fiction and fantasy, in particular, are famous for their sweeping epic sagas that span multiple books. This raises an important, I think, question of when should a literary work be judged? Should we judge George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire based on its component novels as published? Or should we wait for the story to complete? And what of series like Frank Herbert’s Dune books, or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, where the author passed away before their magnum opus was complete? And where different authors were brought in to “complete” the cycle? These are fascinating and nuanced philosophical questions which make the – seemingly categorical – criterion of completion more complex than initially thought.

For this reason, and outside of a specific editorial-context, I would suggest flipping Klein’s first two elements. Competence, as in the degree to which sentences, thoughts, and paragraphs can be understood by a reader other than the author, is the more categorical and the more contained of the two criteria: whether a book is competently written or not is usually apparent within the first several sentences (or paragraphs). Whether a book is complete or not can be debated at length even after it has been published.

Charisma, Questioning, and Quality: The Heart of the Matter

The heart of Klein’s pyramid, literally and figuratively, combines the concepts of “charisma” (the intersection of author intention and reader emotional response), “questioning” (thematic exploration), and “quality” (a nebulous conjunction of prose, character, and plot). This is both the most interesting and the most problematic of Klein’s levels, I think.

Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t have an issue with Klein’s concept of charisma. While I might choose to de-emphasize authorial intention and focus more on reader response, I still think that “charisma” is a good way to characterize the ways in which a story engages its reader on an emotional level. This, I think, is a quibble that stems from the differences between editorial and critical perspectives. But that is all that it is: a quibble.

Similarly, I don’t have any issues with her criteria of “questioning”: as charisma focuses on the emotional response generated by a text, so questioning focuses on the intellectual or philosophical response. Makes perfect sense to me.

But the third component of this level – the very heart of the pyramid – is where I start to question a little further: Labeling this criterion “quality” mixes ontological concepts a little dangerously. After all, the pyramid as a whole is intended to serve as a framework for literary quality: as currently labeled, the pyramid suggests that “quality” is at the heart of “literary quality”. This might be a semantic quibble, but leaving the label as is risks undermining the pyramid’s value through an implied tautology.

I understand and support the purpose of labeling each level of the pyramid with a K-sound: it makes for an easy mnemonic, and plays nicely with the sound of Klein’s name. It would be a shame to forgo that pattern once established. That being said, I think we could re-label the “quality” section while both maintaining its phonetic characteristics and strengthening its conceptual utility. Rather than “quality”, I would call it “content”.

Klein explains how her concept of “quality” rests upon a combination of the story’s prose, characters, and plot. While I would suggest adding a fourth leg – narrative structure – these are all identifiable tools which writers use to produce the effects that Klein calls “charisma” and “questioning”. They are quite literally the content of the story, the words, sentences, paragraphs, perspectives, and chapters on the page. And if a literary work evidences “charisma” or “questioning” in Klein’s vocabulary, then it is expressed through the content of the story: namely its prose, its plot, its narrative structure, and its characters.

And Klein is exactly right when she claims that when a story’s quality content, charisma, and questioning work together in a cohesive, unified whole, the result is consonance. This is a concept to which I subscribe 100% percent (and which I’ve written about before here and elsewhere on the blog).

What’s (not) Missing: Pleasure, Ethics, and Resonance

In her own post, Klein asks whether Pleasure or Ethics should be included in her pyramid, and further in the comments to her post there is some suggestion around the concept of Resonance. While I am sympathetic to these questions, I do not think they have a place in Klein’s pyramid: Pleasure, Ethical Judgment, and Resonance are the effects a literary work evokes within the reader, and not the means by which a literary work achieves quality.

Pleasure is an emotional response to the story: a reaction produced by any combination of the story’s charisma, its questioning, or its content. That pleasure may be intellectual, it may be emotional, it may be physiological (the heart-racing in response to tension, for example). But it is a reaction to characteristics described elsewhere in Klein’s model.

Ethics, or more specifically the reader’s ethical judgment of the text, is similarly an intellectual response to the content, questioning, and charisma of the story. It is a response produced by the text within the reader, and the strength of that response may well be a measure of the story’s literary quality (consider the relationship between content/prose and the reader’s ethical judgment for a work like Nabokov’s Lolita). But that makes ethical judgment a measure of the story’s quality, and not necessarily a contributing factor.

Like pleasure and ethical judgment, Resonance is also a reaction in the reader to the text. I think of resonance as the reader’s reaction to what Klein calls consonance, or a story’s artistic unity. When a work is consonant, when its content, charisma, and questioning are unified, it will resonate with the reader.

Conceptually, Pleasure, Ethics, and Resonance are all missing from Klein’s pyramid. And that is as it should be, because they are not methods by which a story achieves literary quality. They are literary smoke: a second-order effect, a consequence of the literary fire built into the story.

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.

“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?

Wrong and Wrong: Reviewers, Cliques, and Bullying


NOTE: Sorry again for the delay! But here’s the now edited post I had wanted to publish yesterday. I’d love to know what everyone thinks!

Internet Drama is ugly as hell, and I usually try to keep well clear of it. It’s always a train wreck, with at least one party and often more in the wrong. Typically, it is a storm in a teacup and over just as quickly. I don’t comment, I don’t wade in with The One True and Correct Opinion (ludicrous as that concept might be). I lurk, and I observe the train smash off the rails like some kind of digital rubber-necker. But the recent GoodReads Bullying Bru-haha has had me giving it quite a bit of thought, and I find that I can no longer resist weighing in.

Here’s what I think: on the one hand, the creators of the Stop the GR Bullies web site have crossed an important line and broken the social compact between readers, reviewers, critics, and writers. Their methods are deeply flawed, unethical, and morally bankrupt. And their underlying cause – to protect authors against “bullying” reviews – arises out of the most dangerous mix of ignorance and good intentions.

On the other hand, I think many in the reviewer community are just as ignorant. The idea that the reviewer label and the Internet’s capacity for anonymity absolves a writer of responsibility for their behavior is laughable, and to me at least, offensively stupid. We reap what we sow, and if we’re douchebags to people, our moral high ground becomes a little shaky when people are douchebags to us.

NOTE: For the purposes of this discussion, I will assume you are familiar with the Stop the GoodReads Bullies web site and related controversy. If not then I suggest you check out the discussions in the blogsophere. Foz Meadows’s, John Scalzi’s, Stacia Kane’s, and SB Sarah’s are particularly recommended.

Reviews Are a Natural Consequence of Published Work

Any art – whether written, painted, sculpted, spoken, sung, etc. – is a social act. It is made by one or more individuals, perceived by one or more members of the audience, and the resulting exchange is by its very nature social. With more art than any one individual could consume in a lifetime, reviewers (who I differentiate from critics) fulfill an important function: to aid the audience in identifying and selecting the works of art they want to consume.

Reviewers need not be paid. We need not, in fact, have a platform. When a friend asks us what we thought of a movie, we fulfill that reviewer function when we answer. Reviews are the natural consequence of consuming art, and this is the first fact which I believe many of the Stop the GR Bullies supporters fail to recognize: when we publish a book – whether self pubbed, indie pubbed, small press, or Big 6 – we do so because we want people to read it, and consequently to form an opinion of it.

Of course, we all want our art to be liked. We want it to win awards, fly off the shelves, and give us the cash to buy a small island. But when we make our art public, we are telling the world that we are prepared for whatever response it might produce in our readers. Those responses might sting. In fact, they might hurt like hell. But the moment we release our art into the world, we grant our audience the right to form and express opinions about it. If we’re not ready to hear those opinions – good, bad, or ugly – then we shouldn’t publish our work. When we publish, we become public personas, and must live with that fact.

Reviews Are Not for Writers

The corrollary to the above is that reviewers are not there to help writers sell more books. Many of us are happy when that happens, but quite frankly most of us don’t really care: the responsibility we take on (usually without compensation) is to provide an assessment of the art we consume. That assessment isn’t for the book’s author.

I tend to write very analytical, in-depth reviews. I try to dissect the books I review and see what makes them function as stories, as narratives. I do so to learn about craft, to strengthen my own writing, and when I publish my reviews, I hope that my findings will help other writers strengthen their writing as well. But the author of a reviewed book doesn’t figure into the equation at all. Sure, I’m glad when I hear/read that an author whose work I’d reviewed appreciated my analysis. But that’s not why I do it.

Reviewers can and do interact with authors and publishers in many ways. We receive complementary review copies, we do interviews, giveaways, etc. But none of this interaction represents a contract between the reviewer and the writer. For reviewers who take their reviews seriously, a free review copy doesn’t buy our integrity. And that is something that authors – especially, in my experience, indie/self-pubbed authors new to the travails of being a public figure – should understand.

There is a reason why the big six publishing houses don’t care about bad reviews. Remember the old saw that any publicity is good publicity? Publicity – good or bad – drives book sales. I’ve heard big six publicists even say that their data suggests that negative reviews drive more sales than positive reviews. People who feel stung by critical reviews, who were offended by a reviewer’s invective, should remember that.

Whether a reviewer gives a star rating, writes a single sentence, or posts a two thousand word essay doesn’t change the fact that the book’s author is not the reviewer’s intended audience. If that’s not the case, then the reviewer isn’t really writing reviews: they are trying to engage in a dialog with the author, which is a different form of discourse entirely, subject to a different etiquette and to different norms of behavior.

The only people to whom the reviewer is responsibile are their readers. If that sounds like something one might say about authors, well…there’s a good reason for that.

The Reviewer as Public Figure

Most reviewers, I think, would agree with me when I say that the act of publishing a book automatically makes the author into a public figure, subject to the public opinions of consumers and media alike. But I think many reviewers, in particular those whose rhetorical style tends towards invective, forget that the exact same principle applies to their own reviews.

A review is itself a piece of media which if we post to a public place (GoodReads, blog, newspaper, etc.) exposes us to the same public discourse as the artist whose work we criticize. The Internet affords us great anonymity – hell, I make use of it on this blog. We may choose to keep our real names off of our reviews for a myriad of personal and professional reasons. But just because we can be to some degree anonymous does not change the public nature of our reviews.

Most reviewers, I think, are prepared for people’s disagreement. Many of you have often disagreed with my assessments or comments, corrected me when I got facts wrong, etc. and I love when you do. That is part of the dialog in which reviewers engage, and that dialog can and should sometimes get contentious. And yet, the tone of that dialog – anonymous or not – gets set by the initial review.

Imagine for a moment that you are at an art gallery with a friend. There’s a little wine, tiny cubes of cheese, and the artist herself is there beside the gallery owner, chatting with a collector. You quietly ask your friend what they think of a painting. And they start loudly spewing vitriol about the artist and the work, venting their spleen of all the noxious contents therein. Everyone in the gallery can hear, and everyone naturally turns to stare. Would you be embarrassed? Of course you would. Because your friend broke the unwritten social norms of that environment. In the real world, your friend might get kicked out of the gallery, possibly arrested for harassment and making a public nuisance of himself.

Online, a reviewer can fill their review with the same kind of vitriol, snark, and malice and suffer no direct consequences. I myself tend not to write reviews like that, and I usually don’t read them (genuinely funny snark is perhaps the most difficult rhetorical style to pull off, and I rarely see it done well). Sensationalist rhetoric is designed to elicit a response, to get a rise out of the audience, and that response can take many forms.

Thankfully, most people ignore that kind of rhetoric. They adhere to the principle of not feeding the trolls, and that is by far, in my opinion the wisest course of action. It isn’t cowardice to ignore assholes: it’s just common sense. But sometimes, people will react to aggressive rhetoric, and offer tit for tat.

And sometimes, they might confuse a highly critical review with aggressive rhetoric. The two are usually separated by a thick line, in my opinion, but misinterpretation is a hallmark of personal interactions. And reacting to perceived slight, particularly a slight designed to produce an emotional response, is a human tendency.

When reviewers are labelled as bullies or worse, too many of us raise the fig leaf of our reviewer status, as if there were some sort of secret club that lets us be assholes without consequence. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Every review we write falls somewhere on a continuum that ranges from the thoughtful and well-argued to the agggressive and offensively shallow. Sometimes, it is difficult for authors and readers to tell where along that continuum it falls. But it is incumbent upon us as reviewers to be understanding of that fact, the same way that we ask authors to understand that we might not have liked their book.

If we make hateful statements about others online, we have to be prepared for others to say the same about us. That’s the natural consequence of having a public-facing persona, anonymous or not. Sorry, reviewers, but that knife cuts both ways.

The Existence of Reviewer Cliques

The Stop the GR Bullies site claims that there are groups of “bully reviewers” who go around hounding authors. The reviewers so accused bluster their innocence and call such attacks ridiculous. Unfortunately, that’s because those reviewers have apparently never really studied social networking theory or paid attention to the way online communities work.

Just like a high school, online communities form networks of like-minded individuals. Small or large, these informal associations have different types of members, including influencers, leaders, followers, etc. And they tend to engage in similar in-group activities, be it reviewing, commenting on each others’ blogs, chatting on Twitter, etc. It is easiest to see these groups and understand their extent from the outside, just like in high school.

This is a natural, unavoidable consequence of human socialization. It is also not unethical, malicious, or aggressive. But when authors feel persecuted by a tight-knit cabal of reviewers, they are in part justified: from their position outside of the group, that is exactly how it can seem. To shrug off such claims as author paranoia suggests an appalling lack of empathy or self-awareness on the part of the reviewers: our intention might not be to persecute or hound the author, but the effect from the author’s perspective is just the same.

When it comes to their innocence, I think reviewers protest too much, and claims that no such cliques exist are at best naive, and at worst disingenous.

Where Stop the GR Bullies Crossed the Line

All of this being said, I do not support the Stop the GR Bullies campaign. And that is because they crossed several important lines. Most significantly, they breached and encouraged others to breach the anonymity of people who – for their own reasons – had wanted to remain anonymous. And that breaks the accepted norms of online interaction.

Their defense – that they merely aggregate information that GoodReads reviewers have posted on other sites – is flimsy at best. Maintaining anonymity on the Internet – where behavioral profiles and third party cookies are the norm – is extremely difficult, even when one is technically profficient. With a little dilligent searching, one can peel back the layers of anonymity. But doing so when a review’s by-line is anonymized or pseudonomous is a breach of the reviewer’s privacy. Furthermore, publicizing that information and encouraging other aggrieved parties to reach out is an incitement to persecution.

I might not agree with a reviewer. I might vehemently disagree with what they say and how they say it. But if they choose to participate in online public discourse anonymously, I must respect their wishes. As the threatening phone calls one reviewer has received prove, breaching that anonymity puts people in danger. And there is no review, however vile, that gives anyone the right to endanger anyone else.

The Stop the GR Bullies site is flawed on many levels (its apparent misogyny being another big red flag for me), but this is its deepest and most important flaw. And, honestly, it is a flaw which overshadows the points the site’s creators may be attempting to articulate. It clouds their issue, and ultimately defeats them.

And that is sad. Because I would love to see a discussion of reviewing methods and reviewing styles, and to participate in an active and reasoned dialog on what rhetorical approaches work best for reviews. But something tells me I’m not going to get that on the Internet. And certainly not in the GoodReads Forums, or interacting with the Stop the GR Bullies crowd.

Which is why I wish both sides in this “debate” would just start acting like responsible professionals. They’ve already lost one member of their audience, and audiences aren’t stupid.

The Uses and Value of Realism in Speculative Fiction


I’ve just gotten back, having spent a wonderful long weekend at Readercon, where it was great to see old friends and meet new ones. Alas, my brain is too full of valuable insights to really do a single comprehensive con write-up. Instead, I’m going to write about something that came out of one of the many panels I attended: how realism can be valuable to speculative fiction.

Judging solely by the panel title and description, this was an issue that I expected one panel in particular to explore. Alas, I found that it bogged down in a discussion of the value of fictional memoirs versus true memoirs, and thus didn’t really explore the question I had hoped it would. But with a long drive home from Boston on Sunday evening, I had a lot of time to think about it myself. And I’m curious to know what everyone else thinks of these ideas.

The Aesthetic Purpose of Fiction

To be effective, fiction must communicate or reveal something true. That truth is a slippery concept, precisely because fiction by definition is so patently false. In this case, that truth is not necessarily factual (such-and-such happened), but is rather more nebulous and insightful (such-and-such could have happened). The particular action in those sentences may itself be event-oriented (such as a sequence of actions), or it can be character-oriented and thus speak to the inner experience of either specific individuals or to a more general community. In either case, effective fiction must communicate or reveal some truth about the human experience, either as lived, imagined, or perceived by its readers.

We use resonance to gauge a fiction’s truthiness, which is why the experience and appreciation of fiction is so subjective. Our response to the truth in a particular work of fiction is informed by our past life experiences, our previous reading, and by our neurophysiology (which itself has roots in our genetics). Your mileage may vary, and our tastes and appreciation may differ.

But if the aesthetic purpose of fiction is to communicate or reveal some deeper truth, then how do we accomplish that? What are the techniques that we use to produce resonance in the reader? Answering that question gets us to the heart of the aesthetic debates that over the years have given rise to so many aesthetic “movements”.

Realism Is Not Real

Where I think the Readercon panel got side-tracked lies in a – perhaps subtle – realization about the concept of realism: realism need not be factually true. It must instead give the appearance of utter plausibility. As a philosophical movement with its roots in the 19th century, realism lauded the portrayal of the plausible and valorized the inclusion of extensive detail and minutia to heighten the verisimilitude of the text. In other words: realism need not be real, but it needs to give a convincing portrayal of reality.

The realist movement was itself a response to the more fantastical romantic era, and rejected the latter’s heavy-handed symbolism and implausible adventures. When we think of classically realist works, the kind that get thrust upon us in school, there are no works of speculative fiction on the list. Instead, we get the likes of Eliot, or Dostoyevsky, or Balzac: authors who specialize in the portrayal of the mundane and quotidian.

With this historical baggage, it is understandable why a term like “realism” might be a dirty word to some who write in genre: after all, many of us (myself included) trace a direct line of descent from the romantics to contemporary speculative fiction, and the realists were at the opposite end of the scale to our illustrious artistic ancestors.

And yet, we actually rely on their techniques to tell our fantastical stories.

Superficially, Realism is the Lens Through Which We Relate to the Fantastic

Speculative fiction relies upon the fantastic, the unreal, to tell its stories. We use dragons and faster than light space travel to entertain and actualize the metaphors we employ to communicate our deeper truths. Our job is to make the implausible and the imaginary real to our readers. And we use the expository techniques of realism to achieve this. If we were to take our imagined constructs, unpack their underlying metaphors, and explicitly discuss them in our stories, they would cease to be stories: they would become philosophical tracts (and those don’t tend to be as popular with readers, alas).

Rather than write such tracts, we carefully describe our dragons or spaceships (or dragons on spaceships) using realistic terms. We need that degree of realism to relate to the text, to understand it, and to internalize it at any number of levels. On the purely descriptive level, we want to know how something utterly fantastical looks so that we can imagine the story’s action. On the deeper philosophical level, we want to know how something utterly fantastical works so that we can better internalize the story’s subtext. I might not need to know a dragon’s place in a secondary world’s ecology, but if the author hasn’t at least considered it, then the verisimilitude of the text will be damaged, and I will find the story less engaging (perhaps fatally).

These are the techniques which realism applies, and they are an incredibly useful tool that authors of the fantastic can gain deep insight from. Want a model for portraying an oppressive urban environment where the individual is subsumed by the city? Check out some Dostoyevsky. His descriptive methods – perhaps modified somewhat for contemporary stylistic sensibilities – can be applied to any secondary world or primary world urban fantasy, and work wonders. While I haven’t seen China Miéville reference Dostoyevsky specifically, I would be greatly surprised if the latter did not influence the former’s Bas Lag novels.

Similar lessons can be learned from more contemporary authors, who while likely eschewing the realist label, tend to write mimetic, mainstream literary fiction. I have, for example, often heard that the difference between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction is that the former prioritizes characters, while the latter prioritizes plot. And while I am sympathetic to this statement, I see no earthly reason why speculative fiction cannot do a better job with character by adopting the techniques of mainstream literary fiction.

But a more difficult question, perhaps, goes below the superficial level of verisimilitude in our prose: does the philosophical aesthetic of realism have value for those of us writing in the speculative vein?

Daily Life Aboard a Spaceship: Real Realism in Speculative Fiction

The realists’ true contribution to art, I believe, isn’t their prose techniques or expository methods. Instead, I think their true innovation lies in their focus on the quotidian aspects of daily life. This especially relates to the classic realists with which I am most familiar: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Crane, etc.

By focusing on the mundane (I use that term advisedly, more to come in a second!) aspects of daily life, the realists were able to address a different underlying truth than their romantic predecessors. These were not, as in so much of the romantics’ work, aspirational truths. Instead, they were observational ones about the lives of regular, otherwise unremarkable, people. This is a truth that has tremendous value, and it is a truth which quite frankly I often find lacking in a genre which tends towards larger-than-life heroes.

I think this lack of quotidian speculative fiction has its roots in two issues: none of us has ever lived aboard an interstellar starship, or had to defend a village from dragon attack (…or had to defend a space ship from an advancing fleet of space dragons). As a consequence, we must imagine the fantastical environment in which a character’s daily life unfolds before we can imagine that daily life. This produces at least two levels at which we must imagine, and thus two levels of remove from our own experiences. It is difficult (though I suspect not impossible) to make a story engaging enough for the reader to do that work.

I also suspect that there is philosophical opposition to this aesthetic amongst speculative fiction readers. Many (myself included) like our fiction to be fun and exciting. Many don’t consider Middlemarch or Anna Karenina a fun read. Much as I might disagree, I can acknowledge the point: we often read speculative fiction to distract ourselves from quotidian life, so why should we subject ourselves to more of the same in our fiction?

The Future of the Quotidian Fantastic?

A topic that came up now and again at Readercon was the Mundane SF movement, which strives for greater realism in science fiction. But much as I am sympathetic to the values of the Mundane SF movement, I suspect that by focusing on the realism of the science fictional elements themselves, its stories often miss the bigger, more important picture: the deeper truths that lie below the surface of our daily existence. That was realism’s true innovation, and its lasting contribution to literature. Across the aisle in fantasy, I find that the magical realism movement (which itself often gets categorized as “literary fiction”) does a better job of this.

I believe that quotidian speculative fiction has its place in the genre. And that is precisely because it speaks to different truths than most speculative fiction: it speaks to the little heroisms of daily life, and to the practical challenges that arise from our human and social natures. These are not greater truths, nor are they more important, or even more relevant than those which speculative fiction most commonly explores. But they are categorically different, and so require different techniques to realize. And models for those techniques, I think, can best be found in realist fiction, and its mainstream literary descendents.

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?

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?

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