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Posts from the ‘Writing’ Category

Thoughts on Narrative Framing Devices

The other night, the conversation around our dinner table turned to narrative (as it often seems to) and a lively (read: heated) discussion on the relative merits of narrative framing devices ensued.

Personally, I’m a fan of framing devices. When used judiciously, they can produce effects which sequential narrative alone cannot. But they do have an inherent danger: because framing devices – by definition – play with the flow of the narrative, their use risks disrupting the reader’s engagement and momentum through the story.

Since I’m considering using a framing device in my next novel, I naturally started to wonder what types of framing devices work effectively? And what makes some effective, while others fall flat?

What is a Framing Device?

I’ve often seen framing devices conflated with meta-fictional devices, and while there is significant overlap, I don’t believe the two are either equivalent or necessarily conjoined in any meaningful fashion. While some framing devices are good tools for meta-fictional exploration, most are not. Here are the types of framing devices that I was able to come up with (note: this is not a complete list – it’s merely what I was able to recall over coffee this weekend. If there are other examples, or other types, please let me know in the comments!)

Nested Stories
One or more characters within the frame story acts as a storyteller, and through telling the other characters one or more stories, the narrative is simultaneously communicated to the fictional listener(s) and the reader.

The Story as Object
One or more characters within the frame story reads a book, watches a movie, etc. and either the reality of the frame intrudes upon the fictional world of the story, or the fictional world of the story extrudes into the reality of the frame.

Found Narrative
The story opens with an explanation, justification, and introduction for the narrative. The frame narrator provides context for the story (e.g. describes the means by which the text was found), may or may not interject further perspectives as the story progresses, and may or may not offer concluding remarks once the story is complete.

Epistolary Frame
The story is either communicated through or interspersed with fictional media (e.g. journal entries, letters, etc.). Traditionally told through letters and journal entries from the perspective of one or more fictional characters, in its more modern form often features newspaper fragments, blog entries, video transcripts, etc. in place of more traditional media.

Epigraphic Frame
This is a fascinating framing device because it is – in essence – optional from the reader’s perspective. The frame is separated from the core of the story, both within the design of the text and in its content. The framing device will often appear either as chapter/section epigraphs or as footnotes throughout the text. The epigraphic frame may be explicit (e.g. Dune) or it may be implied as in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

Interrogative Frame
More commonly seen in film than in fiction, the story itself is told in flashback by one of its principle actors. Typically, the flashback is incited by an interrogation, whether friendly or hostile in nature.

The Purposes and Methods of Framing Devices

I believe that there are certain effects which cannot be achieved in narrative without the use of a framing device. Some of those effects may be meta-fictional in nature, but many are much more basic, and relate to the strengthening and communicating of the story’s intended themes. Yet despite the fact that framing devices can – at times – be essential to achieving the story’s goals, they do make it harder for the reader to engage and stay engaged with the story. Like so much in writing, if we decide to use framing devices in our narrative, their effective execution will ultimately be a balancing act.

When framing devices work well, they mediate the story for the reader. They establish a filter, a lens through which the reader experiences the story. When used purposefully and executed well, this filter can enhance the emotional or thematic impact of the story. I believe this happens through four mechanisms:

Refutation, Reinforcement, or Redirection The frame story unifies – at either an emotional or thematic level – the encapsulated stories. It either refutes, reinforces, or redirects conclusions or impressions that the reader may have taken from the encapsulated stories.
Meta-fictional Exploration By blurring the boundaries between the reality of the frame story and that of the encapsulated story, the framing device focuses the reader’s attention on the structures and purposes of the entire work and on its operation as a work of fiction.
World-building By placing the encapsulated story within a broader context independent of that story, the verisimilitude of the fictional world is increased, that world gains in depth and becomes more immersive.
Explication The frame story makes it possible to answer a fundamental question (of thematic and emotional import) implied but unaddressed by the encapsulated story.

Refutation, Reinforcement, and Refinement through Framing Devices

This effect is most often found when the framing device is presented as independent and wholly separate from the encapsulated story. It is the mechanism on which nested stories and found narratives in particular rely.

In nested stories, the frame story typically embeds multiple independent tales within its pages (e.g. The Decameron features ten stories, The Canterbury Tales has – by most counts – twenty-four, etc.). Taken on its own, each of the stories told features its own emotional arc and its own themes. But these can be further contextualized by the frame story, which has the opportunity to refute, reinforce, or redirect the reader’s conclusions.

Nested stories are, I believe, the hardest framing device to employ effectively. The borders between the framing device and the stories it frames are at their most rigid and stark. By design, this structure draws the story’s momentum to a halt repeatedly throughout the text. Since each of the nested stories is – by definition – a self-contained whole, momentum can only be derived from either the style of the prose itself, or from the plot, tension, and style of the frame story (whose own momentum is weakened by the fact that it is broken up by its component stories).

Found narratives rely on the same mechanism, but the effect is achieved with a lighter touch. Unlike nested stories, they typically encapsulate only one story. The framing device is used to contextualize it, to apply a very loose-fitting filter through which it can be experienced. For example, the text of Nabokov’s Lolita can be read entirely without its contextualizing forward, but that forward is centrally concerned with the book’s primary themes (and with the character through which those themes are expressed). As a result, the framing device adds context and deepens the intellectual and emotional take-away from the core story. By contrast, James Clemens’ Wit’ch Fire, which is purportedly structured as a found narrative, wastes the context provided by its framing device since the themes established in the framing device are ignored by the encapsulated story.

Epistolary stories can also employ this mechanism, but they can only do so when their epistolary framing devices are independent from the story itself. For example, the blog posts in Mira Grant’s Feed reinforce the themes of the primary story’s narrative, while the anthropological reports in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness similarly deepen the exploration of the core story’s themes.

Where the epistolary novel’s medium is dependent upon the story’s characters (e.g. when it uses letters or journal entries from those characters), then it becomes harder for the framing device itself to make use of this mechanism. At that point, it is only possible where the form of the framing device directly lends itself to the representation of the story’s themes. For example, the epistolary structure of Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters makes it possible to concretely portray the novel’s concerns with language while the journal entries in Flowers for Algernon are able to eloquently demonstrate the novel’s exploration of intelligence.

Meta-fictional Exploration through Framing Devices

Meta-fiction has always been trendy. It’s a cool special-effect which plenty of great stories use to explore fiction itself as theme. And framing devices – in particular the story-as-object, the epigraphic frame, and the interrogative frame – can use this mechanism to explore their effect.

Where refutation, reinforcement, and refinement rely on the separation between frame and story, meta-fictional exploration purposefully blurs the boundaries between them. For example, in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler the borders between reader, fiction, and meta-fiction are practically erased as fictional readers move in and out of a fictional world within their (fictional) story.

Epigraphic and interrogative frames can similarly explore the relationship between fiction, storytelling, and reality, though they do so less overtly and with a lighter touch than in stories-as-objects. In particular, they introduce a degree of unreliability into the narration which enables an exploration of truth (see The Usual Suspects), or the relationship between story and narrative conventions (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels).

Framing Devices as World-building Tools

Every framing device provides an opportunity for economic introduction of world-building details. Because the frame story establishes context for what it encapsulates, it can quickly introduce many world-building details. For example, the environment of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion gets established within the first several pages of the frame story and sets the context for the encapsulated tales.

In epigraphic and found narrative frames in particular, the framing device offers the illusion of greater depth to world-building. It explicitly communicates to the reader the existence of a world beyond the confines of the story, with its own histories and its own events that the reader knows nothing about. This deepens the realism of the fictional world and creates a more immersive experience for the reader, should they avail themselves of it.

However, this is the type of mechanism where less is more. Tolkien didn’t include the full text of The Silmarillion in the The Lord of the Rings for good reason: too much detail risks overwhelming the reader and grinding the story’s momentum to a halt.

The Framing Device’s Use in Explication

The final mechanism I’ve been able to identify for framing devices is also my favorite. It is – I think – the least common, and produces one of the coolest audience experiences. Certain stories rely on an underlying question for their primary momentum. We want to know the killer, we want to know why Dean Keaton died, we want to know Paul Edgecombe’s story, we want to know what happened to Kvothe, etc. These stories use the framing device to pose an implicit question, while they rely on powerful characterization to earn the reader’s emotional investment.

The framing device represents the promise of an answer, and – if executed well – can enhance the reader’s engagement with the story. It offers some measure of stakes, a promise of consequences and an underlying tension. It creates a palpable sense of discovery as the story progresses, as the reader fills in the blanks they have anticipated (see my earlier thoughts on narrative tension here).

Once the promise gets fulfilled – when the implied question gets answered within the core story – it transmutes the mechanism into one of refutation, refinement, or reinforcement. It offers us an opportunity to underline the story’s core themes, enhance their emotional resonance, and all while avoiding polemic.

Of the various mechanisms, I think this is one of the hardest to achieve because it is so centrally concerned with narrative tension. Too heavy a hand on the frame, and the question’s answer is given away and narrative tension destroyed. Treating the frame too lightly, however, leads to the frame being too disconnected from the core narrative arc, and thus dropping the reader out of the story.

Are Framing Devices Useful?

I think framing devices are useful for specific purposes. However, the Professor does have a point: they have been so popular throughout history and used well and badly across so many media, that their shapes are often predictable. The balance between keeping them fresh, and maintaining reader engagement with the story is a hard one to strike, and their failure mode is dreadful. They’re not easy, but done right I think they can accomplish some pretty neat narrative tricks.

What do you think?

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.

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.

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.

Information Density and Selecting Planks for Story Scaffolding

Information density, or the “I had to do a lot of research, and now you, dear reader, must suffer for it” tendency, is one of the perennial challenges of good fiction, and over the past several days Alec Austin and Marie Brennan have posted some interesting thoughts on the subject (also, check out the ensuing discussions in their comments sections). Since I love history and tend to write alternate history or heavily historically-inspired stories, this is something I’m usually really sensitive to, both as a reader and as a writer. But the lens through which I view this problem tends to be one of narrative purpose.

What is the story about?

Fiction at its heart is a representational art form, which means that the words we write are not the objects/events we write about: they are facsimiles, symbols which evoke a sense of mimesis in our reader. When we sit down to write a story, we must consciously choose which details (historical or otherwise) to include, and how to portray those details. Alec and Marie refer to this as “simplification” and “flattening,” and while I recognize the value in such terms, they are the diametric opposite to my own way of thinking. Rather than “simplification”, I prefer to think in terms of “selection”. The end point may be the same, but the mental path I take to get there is a little different.

Here’s a writing exercise to illustrate my point: try to completely describe everything in your immediate environs over a five second period. Actually, don’t: to do it right, you’d be there ’til the heat death of the universe.

It is a physical impossibility to capture every aspect of even a limited scope in symbolic representation (and that’s without getting into the details only observable by electron microscope). When we write, we choose the salient details, those that are relevant to our artistic purposes. We might use motifs, or facts, or events, or emotions and more besides. But we choose what we portray, and leave the rest of our imagined reality in the empty spaces between our words. We rely on the reader’s imagination to fill in those blanks. Our job is to use our words to give the reader enough of a scaffolding on which they can hang their imaginings. And the process by which we do so relies on choosing the right words, the right details, to erect that scaffold.

The complex messiness of history, sociology, economics, anthropology, biology are the planks through which we assemble that scaffold. But not every plank is interchangeable: depending on the nature of our story, depending on our artistic purpose, depending on our narrative structure, different planks are needed in different points.

To riff off of Marie’s excellent example of the English Civil War (the history of which she knows infinitely better than I do), the economic pressures on the Crown are at best only marginally relevant if I am writing a fairy tale set during Charles I’s England. A little child who enters the woods and encounters a witch would be unaware of those economic pressures, and they would be irrelevant to the narrative’s overall trajectory. To switch to the European mainland for a moment, it is hard to imagine Hansel and Gretel pausing to explain the economics of the 17th century Black Forest farming communities. It is equally hard to imagine the narrator of Hansel and Gretel doing so because those economics are irrelevant to the story’s goals.

This isn’t a “simplification” or a “flattening” of the detail any more than is the omission of unrelated events halfway across the globe: it is simply the selection of salient information. When we write, our job is to select the salient, relevant pieces of information that the reader needs to perceive in order to achieve our narrative goals.

Illustrative Information versus Explicative Information

However, even if the story is not “about” the economics of 16th/17th century monarchy, the inclusion of such details may add to the sub-textual content of our narrative: to its verisimilitude, or to its tone, or to its broader themes. To run with my Hansel and Gretel example, I can imagine a modified version of the story where the economics of the Black Forest are relevant (the upwardly mobile step-mother desperate to ensure her own children’s future in times of famine, say) to the story’s narrative purpose. If the history, if the detail, is relevant to my story’s overt or sub-textual purposes, then the question is no longer whether to include it or not, but instead morphs into how to do so.

In my reading, I’ve found two different strategies for this, which I think of as the illustrative versus the explicative approach. And interestingly, I find classic fairy tales to provide excellent examples of both strategies. Both are equally valid, and can be equally effective, but they work in different ways. To some extent, these strategies can be thought of as “showing” versus “telling”, but I think that grossly over-simplifies them.

Consider my hypothetical modified Hansel and Gretel example, where I have determined that I must somehow communicate a modicum of the economic context to my reader. I can choose to do so in an illustrative fashion, by depicting the consequences of those economics. I have a vast number of ways to illustrate those economics, but the two easiest are to either (please forgive the quick-drafted examples):

A: allude to them in the step-mother’s dialog

“But Hansel; but Gretel,” said their new mother, “you wouldn’t want your new baby brother and sister to starve, would you? Please, fetch some berries from the wood.”

B: imply them through my prose description of their farm/farming community.

With the pox so recent, and the winter so cold and hard, most of the neighboring farms sat fallow: untended, untilled, unloved. Hansel and Gretel’s farm, though scarcely large enough for the three of them in the lean months, was one of the few that bloomed that year. Still, however tight their belts, Father always found an apple for the widow next door, and for her baby boy and toddling little girl as well. With their own mother in Heaven, God rest her soul, the whole village knew it would not be long before Hansel and Gretel had a new mother, and with her a baby brother and hungry little sister.

In each case, I would concretely depict the consequences of the economics, so as to show their effect on characters and setting. I would allude to or imply the broader economics, and I could do so with greater or lesser narrative economy which would in turn be determined by the story’s narrative structure.

Whether I do it in dialog, or in prose, or in both, and whether it happens in one sentence or six paragraphs depends on the point-of-view it is told from, and the narrative voice in which the story is written. The illustrative technique, however, communicates the relevant economic context through implication derived from action.

An explicative approach, where the background is explicitly explained to the reader, would be equally valid. It might be as simply done as the classic “once upon a time” fairy tale opening, where the relevant facts are stated and accepted as given. This might be accomplished through a distant or even omniscient narrator (check out Olaf Stapledon or Mervyn Peake for awe-inspiring examples of this), or the explanation might be heavily inflected by a narrator’s subjective point of view (think Raymond Chandler).

Of the two approaches, I think the explicative is the more difficult to pull off for modern readers. The illustrative approach relies on character and narrative voice to pull the reader along, leaving the intellectual dimension as subtext. As a result, it is more accessible and “less dry” for most readers.

The explicative approach, by contrast, relies on the intellectual dimension and voice to make its content interesting and compelling. Alec mentions Kim Stanley Robinson’s infodumps, and for me they are an excellent example of relying on the intellectual dimension to carry the reader through the relevant background. They are very hard to pull off, and arguably only effective for a limited audience, precisely because this explicitly intellectual approach is “dry” by modern standards of fictional narrative. Explicative approaches that rely on voice, such as Raymond Chandler or Damon Runyon, tend to be more accessible because the narrator’s voice itself connotes character.

Historical Fantasy and Narrative Structures

Given this framework, I think one can communicate just about any level of complex background, economic, social, or otherwise. But it does affect the complexity of the underlying narrative structure. It may lead to more perspective characters, or to a different narrative voice. And those, in turn, may further limit the audience or otherwise decrease the story’s accessibility.

But that’s a fact of life: every word we write limits our audience to some extent. Which is why selecting the right word is all that matters.

A Recipe for Revolution in Speculative Fiction

Every year, when the US’ independence day rolls around on July 4th, my thoughts naturally turn to revolution. And no, that’s not because I think we are due for a rebellion, or that we even need one. As a narrative device, though, revolutions are hard to beat – particularly in speculative fiction. Yet, as so much of the current harvest of lackluster dystopian YA suggests, they are also hard to pull off. So what makes a fictional revolution effective? Why do we feel for Enjolras in Hugo’s Les Miserables, for Florian in Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, or Jack Sperry in Morrow’s City of Truth?

Revolution as the Aristotelian Crucible of Significant Action

Revolution is a perfect tool for unifying characterization, plot, the story’s underlying political/philosophical themes, and expressing all three through the same significant action.

At the general, thirty thousand foot level, revolution explicitly pits two opposing ideologies against each other. Baldly stating thematic logic halts any story’s forward momentum (*cough* Atlas Shrugged *cough* ). But by representing that thematic logic through the concrete and significant actions of characters in the story, we can transmute logos into ethos and pathos…which together form the engine that drives the story. Consider Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which explicitly pits the Loonies’ libertarian ideals against the more collectivist values of Earth. While it can be argued that Heinlein is politically heavy-handed in the text, his political themes do not obstruct the story’s momentum.

Closer to the story itself, revolution enables us to test the characters we care about. In Hugo’s Les Miserables, for example, Marius Pontmercy faces an impossible choice between two “right” options: whether to follow the woman he loves, or to join his friends on the barricades. Revolution forces characters to consciously choose the values they will fight for. Suzanne Collins forces similar choices on Katniss Everdeen in Mockingjay, where the heroine must decide who she believes, who she values, and who she brings into her life. When characters face such choices, they concretely evidence their agency. And a revolution forces such choices on its participants.

At an emotional level, revolution has the capacity to put ethos in direct conflict with pathos, and thus to heighten the tension derived from the characters’ agency. The choices that Marius Pontmercy and (to a more diffused degree) Katniss Everdeen face are poignant because they dramatize the conflict between their values/beliefs, and their personal desires. By the time each revolution comes about, we as the reader are fully invested in the character: we want them to have their cake and eat it, too. But when the author puts the characters’ ethical values in conflict with their personal desires, we end up on the edge of our seats, biting our nails to see how our beloved characters will choose. This imbues the resolution – whatever that resolution might be – with a significant degree of catharsis.

And the greatest advantage that revolution confers is that the same concrete action – the act of rebelling, the battles, etc. – can dramatize conflict at all of these levels simultaneously. It provides great narrative economy, and enables significant emotional density in the text. But the effect can also fall flat, particularly when the background to the revolution is flubbed.

Recipe for Revolution: It Must Simmer and Mix

Because of revolution’s myriad dramatic advantages, it is a tool that authors reach for quite often. Especially with the popularity of dystopian YA, it seems like every other book I pick up features a determined heroine forced to lead/spearhead/personify a revolution. In and of itself, that isn’t necessarily bad. But to be effective, the world-building has to make such a revolution plausible.

The roots of every revolution go back generations, and it is never a clear-cut case of right versus wrong. Whether it is the American Revolution, any of the myriad French Revolutions, the Russian Revolution of 1918, or the more-recent Arab Spring, revolutions take time to simmer. When faced with hardship, most would-be revolutionaries will grit their teeth and bear it until their oppression finally becomes unbearable. There are good evolutionary and sociological reasons for this, but if we forget this fact in our world-building then we risk undermining the inevitability of our plot device.

Consider the background to the recent Egyptian revolution: the division of Egyptian society between privileged elites and the poor masses, the scarcely-checked powers of the police, the restrictions on free speech and concomitant limitation of political rights, and the de facto hereditary nature of rule were issues that Egyptians have wrestled with going back at least to Egypt’s time in the Ottoman Empire. And yet, revolutions throughout Egypt’s history have been rare, typically spaced out by one or two generations. A similar pattern is observable across every nation that has rebelled (at least as far as I can see, but I’m not a historian so I might be missing some counter-examples). What matters from a narrative standpoint is that revolutions do not foment at the drop of a hat. The demographic and social structures must be in place for a spark to fall on dry tinder. This level of world-building does not need to complicate or weigh down the story. Instead, it can be used to add a degree of verisimilitude that deepens the reader’s engagement with the characters and their problems.

Similarly, historical revolutions are never as clear-cut as future independence day celebrations like to make out. Each side in a revolution features individuals of laudable moral character, fighting for what they believe in. This can be narrative gold, precisely because it paints in stark relief the choices that our characters must make. But ignoring the messiness of true revolution is a tremendous narrative risk: by making a revolution entirely one-sided, we eviscerate its ability to express deeper political/philosophical themes and risk its ability to generate dramatic tension. This, I think, is the hardest trick in building a fictional revolution because of the degree to which it ties into point of view. It is difficult (though not impossible) to humanize the “oppressive regime” when the only eyes through which we perceive it are those of a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary.

The Counter-argument: Revolution as MacGuffin

There is, however, a counter-argument to what I just said: Star Wars (the original trilogy, not the poorly written fan-fic prequels that followed). In A New Hope, the Empire’s oppression is implied and expressed with great economy. The audience does not see the Empire’s heavy boot: we are told that it exists, and because our characters take it for granted, we do as well. No attempts are made to humanize the Empire, to justify the Emperor’s policies, or to present the stormtroopers as anything other than faceless, gun-toting oppressors. So if Star Wars ignores my advice above, why does it (the original trilogy, again) still work? Because the revolution is not used as a unifying device.

The revolution and the Rebel Alliance’s victory over the Empire are not the climax and natural conclusion to the story. It is not used to unify the disparate character arcs, or to represent the thematic discourse of the story. The real climax and the story’s real narrative arc centers on the more personal concerns of Luke Skywalker on the one hand, and Leia Organa/Han Solo on the other. The revolution is merely a colorful backdrop to their personal stories, and it is treated as broadly incidental. The rebellion is to Star Wars as the Civil War is to Gone with the Wind: setting.

The original trilogy works because the actors earned our engagement, and because their characters’ personal stories are compelling enough to take and maintain our focus. The revolution is neither needed for their stories, nor is it used to dramatize any aspect of the conflict. It is, to some extent, the thematic and structural equivalent of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin.

A Revolution Every Day

Revolution can be a powerful tool for unifying the strands of our storytelling, but like any such tool it requires solid work to establish its foundations. Without laying the groundwork for a revolution, it will fail. And if it is intended as a unifying element in the story, then it must maintain its plausibility and depth in order to achieve the desired unifying effect. In such cases, sacrificing the revolution’s depth will similarly sacrifice the story’s depth. If, however, the revolution is just a Cool Event that Happens independent of the story’s underlying thematic tension, then attempting to shoe-horn depth into it (as those aforementioned prequels do) will derail the train of story.

But enough about fictional revolutions for now. For those of you in the US, I hope that you have a wonderful 4th of July, that you stay cool despite the massive heatwaves (and power outages) sweeping the nation, and that you enjoy some great BBQ and awesome fireworks. Happy Independence Day, everybody!

Fourth Street Fantasy 2012: Thoughts After the Con

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I spent the past weekend at Fourth Street Fantasy, a fantasy/science fiction (and that order does matter) conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While I’ve been to plenty of New York Comic-Cons and to BEA, etc. this was only my second genre con (after Readercon last year) and it was my first for both being on some panels and being able to stay for the entire event.

I had been looking forward to the con with a school kid’s mix of eagerness and trepidation. On the one hand, the program looked fascinating: panel after panel discussing thought-provoking subjects immediately relevant to my writing. On the other hand, the program was vaguely terrifying: I’d have to somehow avoid making an utter fool of myself, both on and off stage.

The Writer’s Seminar at Fourth Street

Friday morning featured an optional writer’s seminar not included in the con membership. Each of the seminar speakers gave a brief (thirty to forty-five minute) speech, discussing various facets of writing and storytelling, followed by extensive Q&A.

The presentations were interesting and entertaining, though the one-day format of the event didn’t really allow the speakers to dive deeply into a great many subjects. The two presentations that I found most interesting were Beth Meacham’s discussion of editor attitudes/processes, and Scott Lynch’s practical discussion of the reader/writer relationship. And from the latter, two of Scott’s statements particularly struck me as deserving repetition:

“Readers own their own experience of your book. They own the intensity of it. You provide an experience, but what they do with that is entirely up to them. You don’t dictate – and don’t get to dictate – the emotional keys that it plays.”

“Literary fiction is – in some respects – the literature of disconnection and alienation and ineffectuality. It is the literature of being a chip upon the flood, unable to affect the world around [you]. Fantasy is the literature of significant personal action, where you can take arms against your sea of troubles and actually do something about them.”

These are some meaty, insightful statements that might brook discussion or arguments and certainly demand exploration. They also set the tone for the rest of Fourth Street’s programming.

The Fourth Street Panels

Each of Fourth Street’s one hour panels featured a few minutes of moderator-directed questions, followed by a moderated discussion with the audience. While there was some variability, the ratio tended to be 25% moderator-generated, and 75% audience-generated questions, which made for a fast-moving, far-ranging, and insightful discussion. From conversations that I had with other attendees, this seems to be a reversal of the panel structure typical at most genre conferences; the emphasis on discussion particularly stood out for me.

The panels themselves tended to skew in the direction of theoretical/philosophical analysis of narrative structure, craft, technique, and current trends, and the exchange of ideas and opinions produced vibrant debate. Many perspectives and insights were exchanged, sometimes in stark disagreement, which left me with many concepts to think about later. Because there were only one hundred twenty or so attendees, anyone who wanted to participate could and did. This made the discussion flow more like a true conversation than a standard Q&A session, which was refreshing.

This was not only my first complete con, but also the first where I got to speak on two panels (respectively Accessibility, Genre, and Depth and Science, Technology, and Fantasy). Whether I made a fool of myself or not I shall leave to others to judge, but I know that from where I sat the conversation was stimulating, and hope that the other attendees and panelists agreed.

After each hour-long panel, Ellen Klages auctioned something off to raise money for next year’s Fourth Street Fantasy. She was engaging and funny and there was broad participation and laughs all around. The auctions made for a perfect segue to the brief coffee/bio breaks between the panels.

The Evening Revels

When the panels were all over, the discussions naturally continued into the evening. And continued into the evening means late into the evening. For me, it was a novel and wonderful experience to discuss – in detail and at depth – narrative structures, historical non-fiction, research processes, biology, and ecology, with much smarter people late into the night.

And the background folk music? Provided by an inordinately talented circle of musicians and singers? Simply amazing. The conversations eventually shifted to hilarious stories, more folk music, jokes: a bonding, entertaining, and thoroughly enjoyable way to spend the evening (PSA: should Scott Lynch ever begin a joke that involves purple ping pong balls, heed my advice and run for the hills).

The only “complaint” I could possibly voice is not really a complaint, and actually had nothing to do with the con itself. Instead, it has to do with Minnesota’s monstrous mosquitoes. Seriously, we’ve got plenty of them in NJ and since my house backs up to a swamp, I thought myself quite familiar with the little blood-suckers. But these Minnesotan vampires are more vicious than any I have ever encountered before. To give some sense of how hardcore they are, one bit my thick-skinned palm while I was slapping it out of the air. These beasts are not to be trifled with, and when I return next year, I am going to bring/buy some bug spray and bathe in it.

Final Conclusions on Fourth Street Fantasy in 2012

Overall, this was an amazing experience for me. Being able to discuss literature, history, art, culture, and fantasy with so many intelligent, erudite, and passionate people was new and energizing. All weekend long, I felt like a kid at a candy store, and I left Minnesota with new friends and many interesting ideas and thoughts floating around in my brain.

I strongly recommend Fourth Street Fantasy to anyone who is looking for in-depth and thought-provoking conversations about fantasy, literature, and culture.

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