Skip to content

Archive for

Feeling Under the Weather

Sorry, folks. I’m afraid I’m feeling a touch under the weather today, and as my brain stops working when I come down with something, I don’t trust myself to make sense. So I won’t offer my fevered ravings here, amusing as they might be.

Instead, I’m going to sequester myself with some hot tea and think healthy thoughts (or I’ll drown my illness with tea and play Xbox…that’s healthy, right?)

Either way, I’m sorry to say there won’t be a real blog post from me today. Hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow and I’ll have the mental acuity to edit my current draft into some semblance of logic at that point.

SF Signal Mind Meld on Urban Fantasy

Just in case you missed it, there’s an interesting discussion of where urban fantasy is headed over on this week’s SF Signal Mind Meld.

Lots of interesting points of view!

Some Mechanisms Underlying Narrative Tension

Since the WIP I’m finishing up is an espionage fantasy, it’s safe to say I’ve been thinking a lot about pacing and how thrillers achieve their heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat engagement with the reader. Superficially, they do it through mounting tension followed by an action-packed release of that tension. But that describes the characteristics of their pacing, and not their mechanism. How is that effect produced?

I’ve got a theory (which I go into below), but I’d love to know what everyone else thinks.

Where Does Narrative Tension Come From?

Alfred Hitchcock famously suggested that tension didn’t come from a bomb exploding under a table, but rather from the audience knowing that the bomb was about to go off while the hero did not. I can’t think of anything more important to narrative tension than this principle: tension doesn’t come from plot, and it doesn’t come from the characters. It comes from the reader.

When we read a story, we bring our own experiences to the table. One might even think of stories as being half-complete without the reader: our physiological, mental, and neurological reactions are the medium through which the story gets perceived. But as lowly writers we rely on our words to push the reader’s buttons and so evoke an emotional, physiological, and intellectual response.

Like time, narrative is never static, and it moves in only one direction. This structure gets reflected at every level of storytelling, from in the overall shape the story takes all the way down to the sentence. The fact that narrative has sequence makes tension possible because the two mechanisms through which tension is created rely on it. Without sequence, anticipation and resolution would be impossible.

Anticipation, Uncertainty, and Attention

I like to think of readers’ capacity to experience narrative tension as a happy consequence of our evolution: the same pattern-seeking that let our ancestors eat, today enables us to enjoy stories. We are structurally savvy as a result: give us two beats and we expect the third.

This means that when we experience a story, we constantly strive to stay one step (or more) ahead. This anticipatory tendency occurs along all dimensions: we anticipate how characters will feel, we anticipate how characters will think, we anticipate how events will unfold, and we anticipate how the story will affect us.

These many levels of anticipation are directed by the writing: as we read, we learn more about the events of the story, about the characters’ perceptions, about the direction in which the writer wants to take us. We find this evidence in the events the writer portrays, in the way the prose is expressed, and even in the structures of sentences and chapters. We internalize all of the evidence, and it shapes our expectations. Yet there always remains a degree of uncertainty.

We are imperfect predictors, and our expectations are just as fallible when experiencing narrative as when predicting the stock market. Our own awareness of this fact generates uncertainty around our expectations: we think we know what will happen, but until it does, we are never completely certain.

The act of reading is one of battling uncertainty: as we follow the story, we collect additional evidence to refine our unspoken expectations. With each sentence, the range of possibilities narrows. If all of the evidence confirms our expectations, proves that we were right, then the story becomes dull and predictable. But when events unfold in an unexpected direction – while retaining their plausibility – our attention gets focused.

This is why complications and setbacks are such powerful storytelling tools. Complications for the sake of complication are worthless. A checklist of challenges that must be overcome does nothing to heighten tension. Yet when a complication is non-obvious but internally consistent with all the preceding evidence, it represents a significant new set of facts for our pattern-seeking minds to take into account. This focuses our attention, as we use this new information to refine our expectations going forward.

Each time our attention is re-focused, our investment in the story increases. We become more engaged and we pay closer attention, so that our updated set of expectations can be more accurate than our last.

The Evidence that Drives Expectations

The content of the story (i.e. the events, the characters, and their emotional journey) is some of the most significant evidence that readers use to shape their expectations. When it comes to the content, everything is of a piece: character, events, and emotions all shape one another.

Characters respond to events and in so doing create new events. Their responses are influenced by their emotions and knowledge, which in turn are both shaped by past events. When a story gives us insight into a character’s inner perceptions, when the writer shows us something about the character’s nature, it provides enormous amounts of additional information which we subsequently use to adjust our own expectations as audience.

Luke Skywalker and Han Solo will respond to the same stimuli differently. We engage more fully with (read: we pay closer attention to) characters who are more complex because they force us to re-evaluate our expectations more frequently. If we have a one-note character, their responses to events will always be predictable and our attention (and resulting investment in the character) will flag. But a character whose motivations are more complicated has a greater capacity to defy our expectations, which in turn increases our attention and our investment in the character and their story. Which is why Han Solo is more beloved of fans than Luke Skywalker (the ostensible hero).

But defying audience expectations is not universally good. When events unfold without adequate setup, then the contract between writer and reader gets broken. That implied contract states “Everything I show you contributes to the story.” The implicit consequence of this contract is that the reader can shape his or her expectations based on the story’s prior evidence. But when events and character responses unfold implausibly given that prior evidence, then the rationale that enables anticipation – and its resulting tension, attention, and investment – collapses. Which is why the Star Wars prequels fail: they invalidate the evidence derived from the original trilogy, and within their own story arc, their events develop implausibly. (I’ve got an earlier post on plausibility’s relationship to surprises and tension here)

Resolution, Acceleration, and Satisfaction

Stress is bad for our health. And unresolved tension, the kind of unflagging suspense that only increases without any release, becomes quite stressful. For tension to be productive, it must at some point get resolved.

We all know the feeling: that relaxed sigh of release at the end of a roller-coaster, or at the end of a particularly powerful experience. In fiction, we get that when all of the uncertainty and varied expectations crystallize into one – internally consistent – reality. It is where the disparate plot threads and character arcs come together on thematic and contentual levels.

But to produce a satisfying resolution, the means by which the tension gets resolved must remain plausible within the context of the prior evidence given to the reader. Without that, the anticipation that has been so painstakingly built is undermined at the most important moment. This gets complicated, particularly with complex stories with multiple levels of conflict and warring internal and external priorities. But that’s why successful resolution almost always relies on acceleration.

Good stories are often equated to roller-coasters, and that’s because the structure of their anticipation and resolution resembles one. The tension mounts as we go up the ever-steeper hill. We slow down, and the anticipation of the plunge to come grows. Then we reach the crest, and our car plummets down.

The plummet – contrary to simplistic views – is not the moment of resolution. It’s not the moment of release when we can sit back and enjoy a feeling of well-earned satisfaction. The plummet is the moment of acceleration, when the gradual accumulation of evidence (and its consequentially mounting anticipation) kicks into overdrive.

The whole way up, we’re collecting sensory evidence: the thinning air, the view from way up high, the slowing of the car, etc. That evidence tells us “We’re going to fall.” And with each rickety inch upwards, this expectation strengthens. At the top of the hill, we’re still collecting that evidence: now we see the drop, and so our expectations begin to crystallize. The range of possibilities narrows, and we say “We’re definitely going to fall.” As we take the plunge, we’re still collecting evidence: the howling wind, the yawning pit in our stomach, the screams around us. The rate at which evidence is accumulated, the degree to which the senses and the intellect are engaged, increases dramatically. And, influenced by our physiological response, our expectations naturally shift from “We’re definitely going to fall” to “We’re going to die.” When we survive, in defiance of everything our bodies led us to expect, that is the moment of resolution and the resulting sigh of release.

In fiction, the fast pace that leads to the story’s cathartic climax works the same way. The readers expectations modulate over the course of the story, expanding and contracting as new evidence of an emotional and experiential nature is offered them. The anticipatory tension grows leading up to the climax, and then the rate at which evidence is offered, the speed with which possibilities are narrowed down, accelerates dramatically until it resolves into the final – true – outcome.

When done well, the accelerating evidence remains consistent with what came before. But the amount of new evidence given the reader increases, while the space in which that information gets communicated shrinks. In other words, information density grows. If the plausibility of the new evidence is maintained, this creates a sense of inevitability: “Of course that’s how it happened! How else could it have?” And it is from this sense of inevitability – which exists in tension with our previous expectations – that satisfaction derives. And the degree of satisfaction we feel is ultimately determined by the degree to which all of the story’s elements – its characters, its plot, its writing, its themes, etc. – were unified in contributing to those reader’s expectations, and to maintaining the plausibility that lends the story inevitability.

Some stories play with this process in their dénoument – notably post-resolution. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd both do so by forcing a re-evaluation of prior evidence and expectations after the action’s resolution.

In other words, a reader’s attention is a function of mounting narrative tension, which itself is a consequence of the reader’s (conscious or unconscious) tendency to anticipate. As the story nears its conclusion, the rate at which evidence accumulates accelerates, which further focuses the reader’s attention and engagement with the story. And whether this resolution finally satisfies or not depends on the plausibility, internal consistency, and unity of all evidence when the story wraps up.

That’s my theory, at any rate. What do you think?

Why Do Thrillers Outsell Science Fiction?

I’ve written before about the relationship between spy fiction and science fiction, but after recently re-reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, the relationship is even further solidified in my mind. While Fleming and Le Carré provide good examples of using world-building and neologism in an otherwise realistic environment, Clancy wrestles with the tension between scientific accuracy and the narrative’s accessibility in the same way that hard science fiction authors do.

The more I thought about this fact, the more I realized that techno-thrillers (whether espionage-focused or not) are absolutely science fictional. But that begs a basic question: why do Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, etc. regularly hit the top of the bestseller charts, while more fantastic titles tend to rank lower?

I think the reason is twofold: on the one hand, thrillers have largely avoided the critical condemnation that has afflicted science fiction for much of its history, and on the other hand, I believe that thrillers place a higher priority on emotional accessibility than science fiction does.

Thrillers and Science Fiction: Two Genres, Both Alike in Narrative Devices

I’ve written before about how espionage fiction incorporates cognitive estrangement and jargon into its world-building, but the thriller genre uses many more science fictional devices. Techno-thrillers in particular throw a tremendous amount of technical detail at the reader, asking them to understand submarine naval engineering (Tom Clancy), microbiology (Michael Crichton), or encryption (Neal Stephenson). The fact that much of the science fiction community claims two of those three authors as “its own” should give some indication of the porous borders separating the two categories.

Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, for example, is brimming with highly detailed explanations of submarine propulsion and sonar systems. With relatively little modification – merely by changing a few words here and there in the text – it could easily be recast as a novel about starships.

The technical detail that techno-thrillers utilize serves a similar purpose to the technical detail included in much hard science fiction: it provides some measure of cognitive estrangement for the reader, signalling that the text necessitates a different set of reading protocols than a mainstream realistic novel. It can also serve as a fig-leaf in the quest for verisimilitude: a profusion of technical details may obscure the blatant implausibility of the story’s technological conceit, for example. And thematically, the technology or its consequences may well be the point (whether metaphorical or not) of the story.

In this, thrillers and science fiction are very similar. However, when we consider the two genres’ histories, their paths begin to diverge.

The Shared Roots of Thrillers and Science Fiction

DISCLAIMER: I’m not really a genre historian, and so this is a broad and sweeping set of generalizations that might not stand up to closer scrutiny. If you know of anything to either support or demolish my theory, please comment and let me know!

While both thrillers and science fiction can trace putative roots back to myth, I think that for all practical purposes both genres really got their start in the 19th century. “Sensational” stories like The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Miserables were published alongside scientific romances like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or gothic fictions like Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

The two categories shared many of the same narrative devices, and many of the same narrative structures. They both belonged to a macro-class of fiction that one could justly call “adventure fiction”, and which also included the mystery (as pioneered by Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle), the adventure (as executed by H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson), and later the western (Karl May, Owen Wister, and Zane Grey).

All of these siblings found a popular home in short fiction magazines, particularly in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. And all were – initially – derided by critics as popular literature of an escapist (at best) or immoral (at worst) bent. But then in the 1920s and 1930s, something changed.

Mysteries and thrillers – particularly spy fiction – began to focus inward on the character, and on the character’s emotions and attitudes. Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout for mysteries, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene for espionage, Joseph Conrad (again) and Damon Runyon for adventure – suddenly the focus of their stories had shifted inward onto the character and onto the emotional journey the story took the reader on.

At the same time, Gernsbackian “scientifiction” shifted early science fiction in the exact opposite direction. Where crime, adventure, and espionage writing prioritized the philosophical and emotional exploration of character, science fiction pointedly shifted it outwards onto the larger-scale extrapolation of technological consequences.

The critics in the 1940s – 1980s preferred the new-found inward focus of mysteries and thrillers to the outward focus of pulp-era science fiction. The critics prioritized that exploration of morality and character which early science fiction didn’t focus on. And it was those critical opinions in the 1940s – 1980s that discredited science fiction as “trash” literature in the popular imagination.

A Question of Priorities: Differences Between Thrillers and Science Fiction

The consequences of that shifting focus can still be seen in the genre today. Readers – and editors, publishers, and critics – have certain expectations of thrillers and certain expectations of science fiction.

Thrillers, as the name suggests, thrill. They get our hearts pumping and our fingers flipping pages. We engage emotionally and intellectually with the adventure and the characters. If a thriller fails to develop that intense edge-of-your-seat engagement with its reader, then it fails as a thriller: it disqualifies itself from its own category (like a category romance with no romance).

Though science fiction – and even hard science fiction – have focused increasingly on character, emotion, and moral philosophy in the last fifty years, as a genre we continue to prioritize high-concepts over visceral excitement. We look for the cool novum or the intriguing concept, and feel that the story’s underlying conceits are valuable in and of themselves. If the story is exciting, too, then that’s a bonus. In order to be published, a science fiction story does not need (nor is harmed by) the emotional intensity of a thriller. This is not a criticism, nor is it a complaint. It is merely my observation of priorities in the speculative fiction community.

If science fiction is a genre of ideas, then thrillers are a genre of tension. And even if Tom Clancy includes pages and pages of prose describing the detailed engineering of a submarine propulsion system, that technical detail is in service to the tension of the story, and only works insofar as it helps to contextualize or heighten that tension.

Why Thrillers Outsell Science Fiction

So given all this, why then do thrillers outrank science fiction on the bestseller lists? First, I think that the critical condemnation heaped upon science fiction for much of the 20th century cannot be overstated. Mysteries and espionage in particular have gotten much critical love over the years, while science fiction has only relatively recently come in out of the critical cold.

This critical condemnation inculcates – and has inculcated – several generations of readers against science fiction. It is not that these readers reject science fictional narrative devices – they merely reject the category that explicitly contains them. Label those same narrative techniques as a “thriller” and they’ll buy the hardcover.

Furthermore, I suspect that for many readers thrillers are more accessible than much hard science fiction. Thrillers prioritize character and the reader’s emotional journey over science and philosophy. This makes the story more accessible, and anecdotally, I know many thriller readers who gloss over the techno-babble to get to the action (loosely defined).

Technology is rarely the focus of even the most technical of techno-thrillers. Cool Science for the sake of Cool Science is almost non-existent in the thriller genre. Instead, the genre focuses on the application of Cool Science rather than its explication

And finally, thrillers are typically either set contemporaneously to their reader’s experience, or close enough in time that the technology in use seems more plausible. I know just as much about submarine propulsion as I do about starship propulsion (which is not much). But the imaginative effort I must make to understand Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October is far lesser than that which I must make for Peter Watts’ Starfish. Both may be (and are) well-executed and rewarding stories, but the level of effort needed to earn that reward is markedly different.

In other words, thrillers outsell hard science fiction because as a genre they are historically less stigmatised, more emotionally focused, and feature technology that is easier for readers to internalize.

A Future Recombinant of Thrillers and Science Fiction?

Given all of this, and given society’s increasing familiarity with science fictional devices, what does the future hold for both genres? Personally, I think we will see certain branches of science fiction increasingly resemble the thriller genre.

Science fiction – even “hard” science fiction – has been shifting its focus inward for the past fifty years, and this is an ongoing process that is nowhere near complete (if such a process can ever actually be completed). Many notable authors in the genre – William Gibson, Tim Powers, Ian McDonald – write stories that could easily be published either as thriller or as science fiction. And some authors, like Mira Grant in her Newsflesh trilogy, take the strengths of both genres and integrate them so seamlessly as to approach perfection.

I’d like to see more of that. And I’d also like to know what you think. Why do you think thrillers regularly outrank science fiction on the bestseller lists? And what are the implications for either genre?

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.

%d bloggers like this: