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Posts tagged ‘Literary Criticism’

‘Tis the Season: What Good are the Hugos?


Saturday’s announcement of the 2013 Hugo Award nominees has done what it always does: On the one hand, nominees and their friends were (justifiably) pleased, happy, and excited to be so honored. On the other hand, certain corners of the community were dejected, dissatisfied, and frustrated by the nominated works individually and the system which nominated them collectively. This is a cycle that we repeat every year and for just about every major award the field confers. It is not a debate limited to the Hugo Awards, nor to the Nebulas, nor to the BSFAs, nor to the Clarke Award. It is part of a perpetual cycle of community introspection and cultural validation.

On the Award Season Cycle

As I wrote last year, the disagreements produced by such awards are healthy for the field and for the community. Though the discussions seem repetitive, by constantly worrying at the bias demonstrated in nominees, by re-examining the processes through which works get nominated, and by criticizing the factions and reasoning for/against a particular title, we are all inching our community forward (or at least two steps forward and one step back).

One can wonder, for example, whether the increased frequency of female nominees on the Hugo slate is a result of previous year’s complaints, or whether it is merely a reflection of changing values/mores amongst Hugo voters. It’s a Zen koan-like question, and one which I think is ultimately unanswerable. Whatever the “truth”, I will cheer the Hugos’ increased inclusiveness regardless, while simultaneously lamenting that that they are not yet inclusive enough. I am confident that in time we will see still more diverse lineups, and maybe even (gasp) nominees who don’t come from a Judeo-Christian/English-oriented background. Every chance I get, I will wish for that and I will speak out for that. But I recognize that such change will take both time, and an exploration of how the Hugo procedures either inhibit or promote such inclusiveness.

The Unanswered Questions in this Year’s Discussion

This year’s paroxysms of disgruntlement, particularly the essays written by Justin Landon at Staffer’s Book Review and Aidan Moher at A Dribble of Ink, make me wonder about a more fundamental, heretofore unstated question: what good are the Hugo Awards? What is their purpose? What role(s) do they serve?

Every person who voices an opinion on the nominees, or the winners, or the awards process itself, has some presumptive answers to these questions. Are my answers the same as Justin’s? Are his the same as Aidan’s? Are ours the same as Kevin Standlee’s? Are Kevin’s the same as Hugo Voter X? Without exploring our unstated assumptions, it will be difficult to understand and contextualize either the complaints about the Hugo Awards, or the defenses of the same. Accusations of demagoguery and privilege are already flying in the comments to Justin’s post, and I suspect they stem from a disconnect in a basic question: what purpose do the Hugo Awards serve?

It is possible for each of us to answer this discussion differently, and yet to find common ground when discussing the Awards. Different individual values underlie any democratic system. Ask two people to prioritize the functions of government. You’ll get widely divergent lists, even among those who profess the same political beliefs. Yet by making those priorities and those values explicit, we can gain a better understanding of the real source of dissatisfaction. And it is that kind of understanding which I think is necessary if the Hugo Awards are ever to improve in any way.

Here are the unstated questions that I think deserve an exploration:

  1. What is the purpose of the Hugo Awards?
  2. Who is the primary audience for the Hugo Awards?
  3. Who are the Hugo Awards valuable to, and why?

Having asked these questions, I’ll take a stab at answering them, too. These are my own answers, and odds are they differ from those of many people. I’d love to hear what you think, though: it’ll help us find common ground on how to improve the Hugos.

What is the purpose of the Hugo Awards?

I believe that the purpose of the Hugo Awards is to celebrate “worthy” works in the field of science fiction and fantasy. The process by which the Hugo Awards get selected is a system designed to assess a given title’s relative “worth” within the field. What constitutes that worth is idiosyncratic and highly subjective.

For example, I might nominate the works which I consider to be the most challenging, the most forward-looking, the most interesting in any given year. That’s because in my personal system of judging “worth,” those are criteria which rank high. Whether I enjoyed a given work or not may be of secondary concern (for example, I consider Lavie Tidhar’s 2011 Osama a “worthy” title, even though I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked to). Yet someone else might nominate the books that they enjoyed the most, irrespective of their progressive values, their innovation, or their challenging themes and techniques. That’s the nature of democracy.

As a result, the Hugo Awards are there to offer us a snapshot as to the creative/aesthetic values of fandom at a particular moment in time. The voting system is meant to take disparate and divergent priorities, and to aggregate a selection of the “worthy” titles. Some years (historically, rather often), the result may be backward-facing, reactionary, and nostalgic. Other years (even more often, I think), the result may be comfortable, safe, and conservative (culturally – not necessarily politically). And still in other years, the result may be innovative, challenging, and refreshing.

What is more, this process will vary across categories of work. While – for example – the Best Novel category may be deemed “safe” one year, another category (Fan Writer, say) may push the envelope in interesting ways. It is a messy, unstable process – like all democracies.

Yet in each case, the underlying purpose of the Hugo Awards remains the same: to select a “worthy” set of titles. I use that word advisedly, and you’ll note that I don’t say select the “best” works in the field. I know that the awards themselves label themselves “Best Novel” and so on. But the Hugo Awards are no more representations of the “best” in the field than the Oscars are a selection of the “best” films produced in a given year. The one adjective that I think can comfortably be applied is to say that they are all “worthy” titles.

And the purpose of the Hugo Award (honestly, even of a Hugo nomination) is to designate a title as worthy.

Who is the primary audience for the Hugo Awards?

This question, I think, is much more difficult for me to answer than the last. One can make an argument that the Hugo is addressed to many audiences: to cognoscenti, to authors, to booksellers, to librarians, to non-readers of the field, etc. And while the Hugo does reach and communicate to each of these audiences, I think its primary audience is rather insular. I think the Hugos speak most loudly to the authors whose works are being celebrated.

This is – I suspect – a fairly controversial viewpoint. I would like an award addressed to broaden the fold, but the Hugos aren’t it. They have never been designed to reach or communicate beyond the borders of a particular subculture (fandom). Their procedures have always been built to select for more creatively conservative works that operate solidly within the genre’s historical conventions. Consider the arguments for a new sub-genre put forth by Gareth L. Powell in The Irish Times.

The Hugo Awards’ primary audience is the authors and editors who produce the works that win them. In this, they are like the Nebula Awards and the Oscars. They are a selection of worthy works, and the communication of their worth to the authors who created them. There is nothing wrong with this. This is not a complaint. It is merely an observation of the practical audience to whom the Hugo Awards seem to matter most.

Outside of the science fiction and fantasy community, the Hugo Awards are sadly irrelevant. Even in neighboring genres (like YA), people fail to differentiate between the Hugo Awards, the Clarke Award, and the Nebula Awards. That doesn’t happen with the Booker Prize. That doesn’t happen with the Newbery. It doesn’t happen with the National Book Award.

It is comfortable for us to lament this as the continuing ghettoization of our genre, but I think that’s overly simplistic. The Hugo Awards are not addressed to new readers of the genre. Nor are they (like the Newbery) targeting actors in the supply chain, such as librarians or booksellers. They are relevant solely to the authors, and to a lesser extent to the vocal minority of fans who wish to support them.

One can make the argument that the Hugo Awards should be targeting new readers, to widen the fold, so to speak. But that would mean changing their primary audience, which would have dramatic consequences for longstanding procedures.

Who are the Hugo Awards valuable to, and why?

A corollary to the question of audience is the question of addressed value. If the primary audience for the Hugo Awards are the creators themselves, who are they most valuable to? At first blush, it would be easy to say that they are valuable to those authors because it gives them a boost in sales.

But anecdotally, I have heard that Hugo awards offer a minimal sales bump. Is this true? When YA/MG titles win the National Book Award for Young Readers, or the Newbery Medal (or even get nominated), they typically see a significant sales bump. It is that sales bump which motivates their imprints to slap medal seal stickers on their covers or to accelerate their paperback reissue: the added expense is justified by the virtuous cycle of the even bigger sales bump thereafter. Even decades after their win, books like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time still wear their medals proudly.

I haven’t seen science fiction and fantasy imprints do this with the Hugo, which supports the anecdotes that Hugo Awards don’t offer a significant sales bump. What’s the truth of this? I suspect that the Hugo Awards fail to yield significant sales dividends (which further supports my belief that their primary audience is not the broader public), but I’d love to see hard data if anyone’s got it.

The lack of a sales bump would suggest that the Hugo Awards have little value in the genre publishing supply chain. If they were valuable to booksellers, you’d see more active promotion of the Hugo Awards at the retailer level. And we just don’t see that, outside of a limited number of specialist booksellers. If the Hugo Awards were valuable to librarians, you’d see libraries touting them in the local library. I’ve been to four libraries in the last three weeks, and not one of them had a “Hugo Award Winners” section (they had award-winning sections for other genres, though). Because they are not valuable to booksellers or librarians, they are likely of marginal value to publishers: Nice to have, but only important inasmuch as they secure a “floor” for a title among a core group of readers (the in-group of fandom).

So who then, are the Hugos truly valuable to? I believe they are most valuable to the authors themselves, because they provide some measure of creative validation and spark creative discussion. I also believe they are valuable to the cognoscenti in fandom because it likewise celebrates a genre tradition and gives us an outlet for expressing our tastes and values. Both are culturally important: the former feeds into and shapes future creative endeavors, while the latter helps cement bonds within the subculture.

Note, that these values are irrespective of whether one agrees with or disagrees with a given nominee/award winner. Consciously or not, our attitudes towards recent winners (in essence, the “headliners” of our narrow field) influence or at least shape the fiction we ourselves create. We may emulate their aesthetics or reject them, but they still influence us. Similarly, for every defensive SMOF who bristles at the suggestion that the Hugos are irrelevant or “broken”, their bonds with other SMOFs of similar outlook are strengthened by their shared defensiveness. The same goes for the “complainers” who attack the Hugos and gripe about the system. The genre contains multitudes, and even in their controversy, the Hugo Awards help to tighten the bonds between and among members of the genre community.

Where do we go from here?

So if that’s what/who the Hugo Awards are for, where do we go from here? I think that given the above, the Hugo Awards are doing their job just fine. I would like to see more works nominated from the younger, newer, and particularly vibrant online genre community. I would like to see more works from diverse backgrounds, particularly from outside of the English-speaking world. I would like to see more works by women.

But the current Hugo nominating systems will get us there, eventually. I wish we’d get there faster, but I think that history is on my side.

Do I think that speculative fiction needs a prominent award that will reach across the genre aisle and communicate to the broader literary community outside of our insular little world? Yes. I would love for there to be an award like that. The Hugo Awards simply ain’t it, and if we ask them to be then we really should re-examine the entire system that produces them.

Speculative Fiction 2012 Contributors Announced!


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

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

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

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

CROSSROADS: The Western Hero in Speculative Fiction


Amazing Stories Logo With Thursday upon us, that means it is time for another Crossroads post over at Amazing Stories. This week, I look at the archetypal western hero, and the ways in which that hero shows up in science fiction and fantasy. Specifically, I explore the traditional usage of the western cowboy/outlaw and the ways in which SF/F dilutes that archetype, and discuss how contemporary western-themed SF/F (e.g. Weird West, steampunk, alternate history, etc.) subverts the archetypal western hero in fundamental ways.

You can find the whole essay here: CROSSROADS: The Western Hero in Speculative Fiction

CROSSROADS: An Exploration of Science Fiction Romance


Amazing Stories LogoFor this week’s Crossroads post at Amazing Stories, I take an in-depth look at science fiction romance, and explore how its non-literary pop culture support may contribute to it selling less than paranormal romance. There’s also an in-depth discussion of how its devices contribute or impede the sub-genre’s accessibility.

Please, stop by and take a look: CROSSROADS: Science Fiction Romance – a Niche Before Its Time?

Accessibility: Speculative Fiction’s Pernicious Strawman


NOTE: My thinking here is a bit of a tangential response to some of John H. Stevens’ recent Erudite Ogre columns over at SF Signal. I strongly recommend those columns as an insightful exploration of genre and genre identity. Here’s a link.

Once we create a work of art, the next step is to get that work into the hands of the largest (hopefully appreciative) audience we can. That’s a natural and universal desire, and it is this desire that lies at the root of the ever-present question faced and posed by speculative fiction writers: how can we get more people to read speculative fiction? But a real, substantive answer to that generalized question is a lot more complicated than the question itself. Which is why, more often than not, we re-formulate that question into the more tractable: why don’t more people read speculative fiction?

That question tends to elicit a Pavlovian response among fans and creators alike: SF needs to be more accessible. Characters over idea. Et cetera, et cetera. Unfortunately, the question and its stock answers suffer from three related problems: first, they observe non-existent symptoms (audience disinterest in speculative fiction), and then misdiagnose the causes of their incorrect observations (accessibility), and prescribe the wrong medicine for the wrong illness (making SF more accessible).

Hypochondria in the Speculative Genre

The rumors of speculative fiction’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Those who claim that interest in speculative fiction is flagging must be living on a different planet. Consider:

  • Box Office Results. This past weekend, six of the top ten grossing movies were explicitly science fiction, fantasy, or horror. According to Rotten Tomatoes, their combined weekend gross was over $120 million, which represented 83% of the top ten combined weekend gross. If speculative fiction no longer resonated with audiences, would they flock to see alien invasions, science-based super heroes battling it out over New York, or vampires?
  • Adoption of SF Devices across Genres. Genre fans like to grumble that mainstream literary fiction is “stealing” genre devices (the fact that all literature steals from other literature tends to go conveniently unmentioned). But why would mainstream literary novels – neither marketed at genre cons or with genre markers on the cover – adopt the devices of a “failing” genre? It would be rather counterproductive. And the fact is that they aren’t. In fact, they are adopting new (for their genre) narrative devices that resonate with readers.
  • Young Adult Speculative Fiction is Going Gangbusters. The younger generation is devouring speculative fiction. But these younger readers don’t distinguish between science fiction, fantasy, and horror and older readers don’t notice what’s happening in YA (see my earlier rant on this score).

If speculative fiction were dying, then none of these three observable phenomena would hold true. What these trends do mean, however, is that a genre that spent most of its life cloistered in its own “genre ghetto” is now interfacing with a broader community – with new readers and new viewers, who are not as versed with genre history, or who are ostensibly not as focused on the issues that our community holds to (the future! big ideas!).

It is not that this new audience rejects speculative fiction: they simply value different aspects of it, and thus prefer certain types and flavors of SF. That’s evolving taste, and it is nothing new. Every genre – speculative fiction included – is at all times subject to the evolution of taste.

The Misdiagnosed Illness: Accessibility

Those who lament the death of speculative fiction look for a quick fix. That’s only natural, and I certainly understand the impulse. But much of the community tends to see both the illness and the solution in one place: accessibility.

Speculative fiction has spent so long in its ghetto that it has developed a natural superiority complex to “other” genres. This psychology has even filtered into our genre’s discourse: ours is the genre of ideas, ours is “high concept”, we build worlds, etc. That all of these statements are true, however, only makes it easier for us to (by implication) look down on works that lack SF elements. And “accessibility” is more of the same.

The concept of “accessibility” is vast, and it does contain many facets. But the least complicated, most easily-grasped dimension is that accessibility equals simplicity. When many of us say that SF needs to be “more accessible” what we are really saying is that it needs to be “less challenging” or “simpler”. You know, so that mainstream folks “can get it”. Fewer neologisms, less science, more unobtanium, etc. This is a solution that lets us retain our superiority: after all, we are the cognoscenti who grok the rarefied heights of speculative fiction. But to be more popular, we have to dumb it down for everyone else.

This type of thinking is wrong-headed. The fact is that “everyone else” groks SF just as much as we do. That’s why consumers lap it up in film, books, comics, television, etc. Time travel, alternate reality, dystopia, space travel, magic…these are no longer outré narrative devices: they have entered our social consciousness, have been absorbed and internalized by popular culture.

Terms like “accessibility” are dangerous because they make it too easy to prescribe simplistic and inaccurate solutions. For too many, they mischaracterize the symptoms, misdiagnose the illness, and prescribe the wrong treatment.

Engage-ability vs Accessibility

The dimension of accessibility that, I think, makes more sense and is more helpful (and more accurate) is not the degree to which a work of fiction is “accessible” or not. Instead, it is the degree to which its audience can engage with it.

Some might say they are the same, but that’s incorrect. Accessibility is a negative concept: it implies that someone “can’t get in.” But engagability (and yeah, I know that isn’t really a word…but it should be!) is a positive concept, and it is a lot more difficult to both define and achieve. To make a work more accessible is simple: just make it easier to follow, easier to understand. But how to make a work more engaging? How do we make a work of art more compelling for our audience? That is the question that keeps artists up at night, always has and always will.

Engagement with a work of fiction is driven by a host of factors, and the balance between those factors among different readers will vary significantly. That’s why it is so complicated. Some of us might value plausibility over excitement, or characterization over world-building. And even these are false dichotomies: the reality is a spectrum spanning all aspects of narrative.

Alas, I don’t have a prescription. I wish I knew how to make stories more engaging. I have my theories, but they work for me as a reader and me as a creator and might not work for either other readers or other creators.

If we write the stories we care about – stories that engage us intellectually, emotionally (whatever pushes our personal buttons) – then odds are those stories can find a like-minded audience. Getting the word out, informing that audience of these stories’ existence, is an entirely different challenge, and one in which the artist is only one actor among many (publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and yes, readers, all play a role). If we focus on the quality of the work, on making it as compelling and as engaging as possible, then by doing so we maximize the likelihood that it will develop a devoted audience. And an entirely separate discussion should be had around the marketing and promotional methods that can help maximize that audience’s size.

As creators of speculative fiction, we should rejoice that our potential audience – that segment of the population who can grok the devices we employ – is now so large, and growing every day. We should credit them with the intelligence to recognize compelling art when they see it. After all, we don’t like it when mainstream literary snobs condescend to us. Should we really return the favor?

eBooks and the Death and Ongoing Life of Genre


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

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

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

The Idea of Genre

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

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

The Utility of Genre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quo vadis, genre?

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

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

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

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


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

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

A Criticism of Critical Theory and the Application of Science

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

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

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

A New Formal Science for Literary Analysis: Macro versus Micro

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

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

A Framework for Quantitative Literary Theory

A Framework for Quantitative Literary Theory

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

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

Moretti’s Critical Toolkit

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

State of the Genre: Graphs

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

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

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

State of the Book: Maps

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

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

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

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

Relationships Between Books: Trees

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

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

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

Doing What It Means To

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

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

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

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

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

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

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