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Posts tagged ‘Charles Stross’

eBooks and the Death and Ongoing Life of Genre


So the last couple of weeks have seen a lot of interesting discussion around the nature of genre, and the future of speculative fiction. What really got me going on this started in a fascinating Twitter discussion with @JMMcDermott and @EruditeOgre, and was then furthered by Elizabeth Bear’s hilarious essay at Clarkesworld, to which Abi Sutherland at Making Light offered a poignant rejoinder, and then Charles Stross posited that e-books will kill the concept of genre within our lifetimes. These essays are part of the periodic paroxysm of existential fright that grips genre aficionados about once every eighteen months. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the second book printed on a Gutenberg press was a polemic about the death of genre.

And yet, we come back to this question time and again because it does have value. It is valuable to us as both creators and consumers of speculative fiction, in that it forces us to explore our consensus definition of genre, and shapes the borders at which innovative creators strain. I have nothing significant to add to either Bear’s essay or Sutherland’s response, but Stross’ contention that “within another decade, two at most, science fiction as a literary genre category may well die” (emphasis his) is one with which I strongly disagree.

Stross argues that the concept of genre is relevant inasmuch as it assists in channeling economic activity: facilitating the organization of physical books in a bookstore so as to aid consumer navigation, and indicating to consumers books which share characteristics with other titles they might have enjoyed. And yes, genre and the genre markers that adorn (so often laughably) book covers do serve these two purposes. And Stross is absolutely correct that as digital distribution of narrative increases (and potentially overtakes its analog ancestor) the relevance of genre to these economic functions will decrease (possibly to zero, though I doubt that). But this will not mark the death knell of genre for the simple reason that genre’s uses go beyond the two economic purposes he focuses on. To paraphrase V for Vendetta, genre is an idea. And ideas are very hard to kill.

The Idea of Genre

When we talk about genre – about speculative fiction, historical romance, literary fiction – we are engaging in an activity that separates homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom: pattern recognition. As we read and write, we notice patterns. Pattern recognition is hard-wired into our neurology, and it is something that our brain just does. And it is precisely this capacity for pattern recognition that gave rise to genres: when the first audience told the first storyteller to tell them a new story “like that previous one” genre was created.

Whenever we compare one work of art to another we are engaging in a discussion of genre. When we label a genre (mysteries, for example) we use that to define what Brian Attebery calls a “fuzzy set”: a porous, inexact understanding of shared characteristics. What I understand as “mystery” might differ significantly from your understanding. But if there is enough overlap in the characteristics that comprise our definitions, then my mystery and yours become compatible. And we can discuss them. At its heart, this is the core of genre. It does not have a purpose other than to group a set of narratives which share some common pattern. But such a pattern can be utilized for a variety of purposes – including, but not limited to those that Stross suggests may be doomed.

The Utility of Genre

Because genre is a construct that emerges from our human nature, we all use it. Consumers use it. Booksellers use it. So do publishers. And writers. And yes, even critics. But the ways in which each actor makes use of genre differ.

In essence, a consumer’s primary relationship with genre is to identify it when they see it. Whether consumers apply a genre label to a work of art or not, it is their consensus view of shared characteristics that ultimately defines a genre. Even if – as Stross describes – traditional genre labels (science fiction) grow more fragmented (becoming police procedural, cyberpunk, near-future), consumers will still rely on the concept of genre to differentiate between types of texts. But consumers do not operate in a vacuum: their view of characteristics is shaped by (and in turn shapes that of) all the other actors, especially other consumers.

It is in this sense that the idea of genre defining and being defined by a community arises: a mutual appreciation for a set of narrative characteristics implies further commonalities between people. It’s that old pattern recognition deal again: if we both like X, then we have similar tastes, we think the same way, we are fans, we are friends. And at extremes of identification, it becomes “we are Borg”. This natural sense of community is centered around the thorniest aspect of consumers’ relationship to genre: value (which stems partially from individual taste, and partially from socially-constructed norms). When we mix genre and community with value (which is wholly independent from either), then we get conflict. Bear in mind, however, that this conflict can occur either between genres (SF versus mainstream literary fiction) or even within a genre (e.g. light-hearted vs grimdark). Yet when such conflict arises, it ultimately strengthens community ties within genre, though this can lead to ghettoisation of genre (or sub-genre). And this evolving identification and valorization of genre and its constituent components feeds back into the other actors’ and their view of genre.

The backdrop to Stross’, Bear’s, and Sutherland’s points is that we now live in a world where the traditional lines conflict between various genre labels is fading. Today, one traditional genre (mainstream literary fiction) can blithely adopt the devices and conventions of another (magic, imaginary technology, etc.) and vice versa, all without finding its genre label changed. This is not – contrary to Stross’ point – an erosion of the concept of genre. It is merely the evolution of our current genre labels.

Booksellers – whose goal is to get a consumer to purchase a book – have the narrowest set of uses for genre, and rely most heavily upon genre labels and their external markers. They use the concept of genre in exactly the sense that Stross discusses: to help consumers find books that may appeal to them. The conventions of a genre and the intertextual dialog within and across genres is irrelevant to their needs: such an understanding will rarely help them sell a book. But having the ability to identify the characteristics endemic to a particular genre will tell the bookseller where to shelve the book, and give them a sense of what it may be similar to. For this particular group of actors, Stross is correct: ebooks are starting and will continue to disrupt both the process by which consumers find books that will appeal to them, and the reliance on physical genre markers (which brick and mortar stores need). But this is not to say that genre distinctions will become irrelevant. More fragmented, as Stross suggests, possibly. The list of “usual suspects” might change. Tag clouds might replace menu systems. And yes, “science fiction” may become a sub-genre of literary fiction. But writers will still write, and they will still write in dialog with one another, and they will still rely on conventions and characteristics in creative ways…thus perpetuating the existence of genre itself.

At one level, all writers are fervent consumers of the written word. They are passionate and vocal members of a self-defined community centered around the object of their appreciation: the genre of writing they enjoy and produce. But because writers are engaged in the production of art, they are by necessity forced to a greater awareness of the characteristics that constitute their chosen genre. And that awareness seeps into the writing, and manifests itself in the intertextuality many genres are known for. When we write, our oblique references and thematic responses to, and structural divergences from earlier writing within and outside of genre represents a dialog across years and bookshelves. Intertextuality is not limited to speculative fiction, though sometimes it seems like we think it is. All genres are intertextual, whether it is mainstream southern gothic or paranormal romance, and it is the writers’ role to direct the progression of their genres’ evolution. By choosing which characteristics to reject, which to adopt, and which to tweak writers are steering the ship of genre. Of course, provided that publishers print what they write.

I suspect that publishers have the most complicated relationship with genre, because they exist at the nexus of all other actors. In one sense, a publisher can be thought of as a collection of more specialized actors: senior management, editorial, design, sales, marketing/publicity, etc. Just as booksellers use genre to facilitate a consumers’ purchase of a book, publishers use genre to optimize their unit sales. Across all of the specialists within a publishing house, everyone must have an awareness of consumers’ approach to genre for the simple reason that the publisher is always chasing consumer taste, desperate to get ahead of it.

Consider how senior management responds to new trends through their imprint portfolio and list management strategy: is leprechaun fiction the hot new sub-genre? That makes it time to either buy an imprint that understands that sub-genre, or to expand the list into that arena. Which falls to editorial, who rely on their sense of genre to identify and position titles within their lists, as well as to provide a vocabulary for interacting with their writers. Editors work with writers to “make the best possible book” – but what that really means is that editors use an in-depth knowledge of narrative conventions (spanning all genres or particular to a particular one) to coax writers into optimizing their work such that value (the subjective assessment of quality simplistically represented through sales) can be maximized. Editors’ familiarity with genre conventions, with the bones of storytelling and structure, facilitate this discussion and help them to select the best (read: most likely to sell or earn critical acclaim) titles. Designers must use their awareness of how booksellers utilize genre to make choices about book specs and cover art. And marketing, sales, and publicity must all understand the relationship that consumers, critics, and booksellers all have with genre so as to engage with each group of stakeholders when and where appropriate. If the publisher or some department thereof does not understand the genre, then performance (as measured by sales) will be weakened. From the publishers’ perspective, value is equivalent to sales. But that is not necessarily the case: a book may be immensely valuable, but have rather abysmal sales. And to a great extent it falls to critics (and consumers) to direct this consideration.

In this context, I mean critics in a broader fashion than that of people who write book reviews. Instead, I mean all those individuals who engage with writing in a critical, exploratory fashion and who – as a consequence and over generations – shape consumer opinion and understanding. This includes professional reviewers, book bloggers, vocal consumers, and university professors. Each of these uses genre to explore four different subjects:

Quality The readability, entertainment value, and philosophical worth of a work of art.
Intertextual Relationships The relationship of one work of art to other works (essentially the exploration of the genre itself).
Cultural Observation The relationship between one work of art and our society or a subset thereof.
Writing Techniques The techniques through which a work of art achieves its effects.

The latter three subjects all require a fluency with genre characteristics to be successful. One cannot comment meaningfully on the intertextual relationship between John le Carré and Ian Fleming without being familiar with spy fiction. One cannot meaningfully explore SF fandom without knowing its community. And one cannot explore the structure and content of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland without knowing both epic fantasy and travel guide conventions. But it is the first critical subject – that of assessing quality – that is most problematic.

Critics are consumers first: they have their own tastes and their own predilections just as any other consumer. They are part of a community of readers and fans, whether they self-identify as such or not. Their tastes and membership of a particular community centered around one or more genres shapes their perception of quality: I know what I like, and I like what I know. The broader a critic’s familiarity with multiple genres, the deeper and more insightful the criticism they can provide. But the critics most (educated) consumers interact with are university professors, who are often woefully narrow in their tastes: whereas professional reviewers and bloggers tend to read widely, the modern academic world puts a premium on specialization. And when these critics’ critical assessments of quality run up against a consumer’s or another critic’s tastes, conflict is produced. When this happens repeatedly, we get into a conflict of community that gives us a ghettoisation of a particular genre. And so the cycle continues.

Quo vadis, genre?

So is Stross right that ebooks will doom genre? I don’t think so. As I’ve outlined above, ebooks will mostly affect two actors in the space that defines genre: booksellers and publishers. Consumers, writers, and critics (and for that matter editors and to a lesser extent designers) will continue to spot patterns in what they read and write, and they will continue to make future decisions/purchases based on the patterns they have identified. Until and unless our neural wiring gets completely redesigned, that is not going to change. At least, I hope it won’t.

The concept of genre is, I think, quite safe. But the particular genre labels and the relationships between those labels is likely to change. For one thing, as Stross points out, it will become more fragmented. But that fragmentation is the fate of every genre, as it fissions into sub-genre after sub-genre, until eventually a sub-genre eclipses in relevance the genre that spawned it. After all, that is exactly what happened with mainstream literary postmodern texts and the modernist fiction that preceded them. We will just have to work that much harder to stay abreast of changing genre labels and conventions. But this is nothing new (see my earlier rant about ignorance of contemporary YA SF).

But just because ebooks won’t wipe the concept of genre from the planet, the world of literature will nevertheless be changed by them. The internet is lousy with insight into how ebooks will affect publishers, and booksellers, and consumers, and writers. But I have seen no real discussion of how ebooks will affect literary criticism. I’d love to know what you folks think about that: I have only just started to think about this dimension of ebooks, and as it stands I don’t have any real opinions yet. What implications do ebooks have for literary criticism?

Earning/Maintaining a Reader’s Trust: World-building, Story Structure, & Consequential Plotting (part 2 of 3)


NOTE: This is the second installment in a three-part series on earning and maintaining a reader’s trust. The previous installment focuses on earning initial trust just at the start of a story, while this part focuses on how world-building, consequential plotting, and story structure/pacing affect the reader’s trust. The third and final installment dealing with character consistency/reliability will be was published on Tuesday, December 6th, 2011.

Early Days: The Importance of Accessibility

Getting the reader to turn past page one is only the start of the battle. Once we’ve got the reader reading along with us, the next step is to make sure that they stay engaged and gradually become more immersed in our fictional world. I think this rests on the concept of accessibility, and in speculative fiction that accessibility relates very closely to world-building.

When we read, we store all of the salient facts about the fictional world in our brains. We need them to put the story in context: they color how we imagine events unfolding, and they ensure that we understand what it means for the Dothraki to invade Westeros. Cramming all of that information into the reader’s head decreases the book’s accessibility, risks wearing the reader out, and gradually degrades the reader’s trust in the author’s skill. Which is why I believe that accessibility is a key virtue of maintaining reader trust: if the world-building, characterization, and plotting is presented in an accessible fashion at a rate that the reader can internalize without drowning in detail or florid prose (*cough* Umberto Eco), then the reader is far more likely to trust the author enough to keep reading.

Nevertheless, world-building and detail remain an intrinsic component of all fiction. Our job as writers is to strike an appropriate balance between our world-building and our story’s accessibility. If we throw in too much world-building, the detail might occlude the story (the literary equivalent of hiding a forest behind too many trees). On the other hand, if we withhold too many details then our story loses clarity. Both mistakes can lose the reader’s trust, which is why a balance must be struck between them.

Finding the Balance Between World-building, Detail, and Accessibility

We don’t read books for the setting, or for the characters, or for conflict. We read books for the underlying story, which we access through the characters, conflict, and setting. Just about any story can be told in a different environment or with completely different characters, and to maintain reader trust, we need to make sure that the details we offer don’t obscure the story that underlies them. The more details we load into the text, and the rate at which we pack those details into our paragraphs, the harder it will be spot the underlying story. But some detail is always needed, whether we’re writing a secondary world fantasy or a contemporary mainstream realistic novel.

As Charlie Stross points out in this excellent essay on world-building, every piece of fiction relies on a balance between what the author shows/tells the reader, and the reader’s shared experience of the world. If we’re writing a realistic piece of contemporary fiction set in New York City, our readers will open the book with preconceived ideas and experiences of what NYC is like. Even if they’ve never set foot in Manhattan and unless they’ve been living in a cave, they will have certain images and concepts taken (accurately or not) from movies, other books, and their own cultural background.

If we’re writing a piece of contemporary realist fiction, we can rely on their shared experiences and thus skimp (to some extent) on the details. We don’t need to define, explain, or depict a car or a traffic light for the reader to understand what’s going on. Since we can eschew detailed explanations, we can instead focus on how those objects act or are acted upon within our story. This shared experience establishes a certain baseline for reader trust.

Eric Flint, 1632, 2001

It is when our story diverges from the reader’s expectations (when we put the island of Manhattan on the Yangtze River, for example) that we risk that trust. Diverging from shared experiences makes it incumbent upon us to offer some sort of explanation for the new or unusual elements. It takes groundwork on our part to prepare the reader for that type of cognitive estrangement. This groundwork happens at many levels within the story, and it actually starts with the book’s marketing category and design. For example, the cover of Eric Flint’s 1632 immediately tells the reader that they’ll be dealing with some type of anachronistic story where armored knights on horseback encounter modern pick-up trucks. If the reader is expecting a completely realistic story, they know just from the cover to look elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely on design and marketing category to do the heavy lifting for us (for one thing, traditionally published authors rarely have any control over either). The details we include in our text, the way we talk about our characters’ assumptions, the descriptions we offer of our setting, the words our characters use are the hammers, screws, and nails of our world-building. Consider what an innocent verb like “steamroll” implies about a world. Sure, it’s tempting in our contemporary context to describe an overbearing character as a “steamroller” or to say that character X “steamrolled” character Y. But if our story is set in a pre-industrial world, then “steamrollers” or even steam-rolling mechanisms for clothing likely wouldn’t (yet) exist. It is this kind of minor, precise detail of world-building which risks undermining a reader’s trust in the author and our world-building.

I suspect there are as many techniques for effective world-building as there are books. Regardless of what technique we apply, it is the consistency of that world-building which maintains the reader’s trust. In the previous installment, I quoted from the opening of Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. Her first paragraph establishes that we are dealing with a secondary world (the fictional land of Linderwall, east of the fictional Mountains of Morning), that is quasi-medieval in nature (a feudal system with kings, queens, princes/ses, and knights), and magical (dragons and fairy godmothers included). This single paragraph establishes the entire context necessary for the rest of Wrede’s world to be imagined and understood. Were Wrede to introduce a new element into her story (witches, for example), it has to fit within that context. If her new element does not fit (e.g. airplanes), then without expanding the context to make it believable, it would create a dissonance that damaged the reader’s trust.

Because Wrede does an excellent job of concisely contextualizing the story’s environment in her first paragraph, she levels up and earns the ability to quickly introduce new elements into her world’s context. So long as she maintains consistency with that brief initial context, we won’t even blink at the introduction of characters transformed by witchcraft, or of magical forests. We are able to internalize them as rapidly as the author serves them up because of that consistency.

However, consistency does not give us carte blanche to infodump detail on our poor unsuspecting reader. Ultimately, it is the story that should determine the rate at which new details are introduced. In Dealing with Dragons, Wrede could have theoretically taken ten pages and written a description of her world’s geography, its politics, and the systems of magic that operate within it. But doing so would have halted the forward momentum of the underlying story, and given the reader too many details (however consistent they might be) to maintain the story’s accessibility. Story is key, and no amount of world-building detail should ever obscure it. When I think about this in my own writing, I think of it in terms of Hemingway’s iceberg theory: sometimes by consciously leaving details out of our text, we actually make both the world-building and the story more accessible.

The Use of Icebergs in World-building

As the creators of our worlds, we should know everything there is to know about them. Their historical background, their cultural environment, technology, idiosyncrasies, etc. In our heads, we should have a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about our made up world. But that doesn’t mean the reader needs it.

An Iceberg in Profile

An Iceberg in Profile, via Wikimedia. Created by Uwe Kils (iceberg) and User:Wiska Bodo (sky).

If we’ve done our homework, and if we’ve fully imagined our world, then even if we don’t explicitly include details in our text we will still write consistently within our context. That’s because all of that detail – from the shoes our character might be wearing, all the way to their fraught childhood relationships with neighbors – sits in the back of our brain and trickles through onto the page. The reader doesn’t need to see that, because it becomes the underlying detail that exists between the lines on the page. It’s what Hemingway called the iceberg effect, where only the top 10% of the story is actually shown to the reader. The rest remains in the author’s head. Even if we never show the reader those details, readers will still have the palpable sense that the details exist somewhere: that the author knows what they are doing, and that they will include only the necessary details in the text.

This ties into the concept of including details as demanded to by the story. If, lacking a particular detail, the story won’t move forward, then by all means include what’s necessary. If your character needs to leave on a space ship, you’ll need to introduce the minor detail of the space ship itself. But if you only include the information the story needs, and you make sure that information is consistent with a more generally established context, then I think you’ll go a long way to maintaining reader trust. Our job is to give the reader the details they need to understand what happens, and enough context to imagine the rest. So long as our world has some logical underpinnings, and so long as we consistently depict the extrapolations of our world, the reader will have confidence that we know what we’re doing. At least, that’s my hope.

The Accessibility of Story Structure

Just as a balance must be struck between world-building and the story’s accessibility, there exists a similar balance between story structure and its accessibility. Fiction is wonderful in that we can play many fun games with non-linear stories, jumps in time, jumps in perspective, etc. Our range of motion and range of structures are arguably limitless. But the more complicated we make our story structure, the more mental gymnastics our readers will have to perform to follow along.

Sometimes, we want a complex structure. Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler is multiply-recursive, extremely meta, and is half told in second person. It is a complicated puzzle-box of a novel. However, it remains a delightful (if challenging) book to read. Justine Larbalestier’s Liar jumps backwards and forwards in time, and wrestles with an unreliable narrator who at several points recants most of the preceding story. It too has a complicated structure, and challenges the reader to understand what is actually happening.

Both Calvino and Larbalestier employed complex structures because those structures helped accentuate the themes they wished to explore. They faced a trade-off between the degree of complexity (decreasing the story’s accessibility and risking reader trust) and the efficacy of their thematic goals. When it comes to story structure, I suspect the trade-offs are more numerous than that. Generally, I fall into the school of thought that says story structures should be simple unless their complication is thematically driven. But I know many others successfully complicate their structures for more tactical reasons: managing suspense, pacing, or side-plot resolution.

When working on story structure, I think every decision to complicate that structure needs to be carefully considered. If it detracts from the story’s accessibility, it should at the very least maintain the story’s forward momentum. Decreasing the story’s accessibility will gradually erode the reader’s trust, but losing that forward momentum is a much faster way of losing that trust. After all, they’re reading the story for the story. If your structure stops the story’s progress, then the reader is no longer getting what they’re looking for. And what readers want is a sequence of events where each event follows in some logical fashion from the events and choices that preceded it.

Consequential Plotting and Reader Trust

The very concept of story is predicated on events and choices having consequences. A description of unrelated events does not constitute a story: it is just a recitation of unrelated facts. When readers begin reading our story, they are investing effort to internalize our world and follow our structure because they want to see what happens. They make this effort because, if we’ve done our job right, they trust that we are giving them the salient facts and details which they need to maximize their enjoyment. If what they read on the first page has no bearing to what they read on the last page, then as writers we have betrayed that trust, and the reader is right to feel cheated.

This is why deus ex machina is so often deplored. It implies that everything the reader worked to get through is meaningless for the story’s conclusion. It makes the story a trick, misdirection, sleight of hand. If such misdirection is part of the book’s thematic purpose (as with Larbalestier’s Liar, for example) then groundwork needs to be laid throughout the story that makes it plausible within the story’s context. It’s the equivalent of setting up the prestige in a magic trick: all of the work that makes the trick functional happens before the trick itself.

In the movie Serenity, Joss Whedon killed off one of the series’ beloved characters to make an existential philosophical point. Many fans – myself included – felt betrayed by this event, because there was no groundwork within either the movie or the preceding television series to prepare the audience for it. Of course, Whedon’s point was that death can strike at any time and especially in situations of high danger. But at no point prior to this did he lay any groundwork for this thematic and tonal point. As a result, the atonal dissonance of the event struck many fans as an effect without a prior cause. This weakened (and in some cases broke) many viewers’ trust.

Compare this to the way that George R.R. Martin deals with the death of beloved characters in his Song of Ice and Fire series. At the end of Game of Thrones (the first book in the series), one of the principle characters gets killed. But unlike Whedon, Martin carefully laid the groundwork throughout the preceding pages for this event to be plausible within the context of his story. He put in the work to make the death consistent on a tonal, thematic, characterization, and plot level. Early in the book, one of Martin’s other characters – a young child – gets chucked out of a window by two other principle characters. If nothing else, chucking that kid out of the window established that this was a story where horrible acts occur to undeserving people. As the plot unfolded, Martin carefully made sure that his characters were put in varying degrees of real, consequential danger and discomfort. He balanced the motivations on all sides of the conflict. This stands in stark contrast to Whedon’s out-of-left-field “hand of Author as a Capricious God” moment in Serenity.

It is this consistency and consequence of story, plot, and character which maintains the implied contract between the reader and the author. And that consistency is equally important when dealing with the characters and narrators who tell the story, regardless of how reliable they may be.

NEXT: Come back on Tuesday for Check out the third and final installment on how character consistency and reliability contribute to managing reader trust.

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