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Types of Fictions

I am looking forward to a cross-country plane flight on Sunday, and I am not likely to read any of the work books I will take onto the plane--even though I will try, and intend to. Instead, I will take and almost surely read Walter Jon Williams's Implied Spaces, and Iain M Banks's Matter. I know in broad outline what kind of book Matter will be: it will be set in a galaxy-spanning space-traveling future, inhabited by super-intelligent robots with jokey names, show bizarre technological and natural marvels of enormous scale, involve fearful fanatic antagonists who cannot be reasoned with, contain do-gooders who leave a cornucopiac utopia to try to help the less-fortunate using whatever means are necessary, and at the end those protagonists whom a malign fate has put at the end of the spear that might thwart the evil purposes of the antagonists will screw their courage to the sticking place, remember that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, do what needs to be done, and die--or maybe not, if Banks is feeling exceptionally generous.

But I will not read a serious work of fiction on an airplane (or when overtired, or when stressed, or in a bunch of other situations).

I am trying to think why this is so. And I start with Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings on romance novels:

Obsidian Wings: Misogyny Day At The Washington Post (Part 1): UPDATE: Gary [Farber] and others were offended by the part about romance novels.... [L]et me try to explain what I meant. First, a clarification: I meant, and should have said, genre romance novels. I did not mean Jane Austen. Moreover, I meant genre romance novels, not genre fiction generally. In general, I do not think that points made about one type of genre fiction apply to all types of genre fiction; in this specific case, I think that both science fiction and fantasy, for instance, are quite different from romance novels in some of the respects I was thinking of....

[T]he part about romance novels was meant to imply that women's taste in fiction runs to romance novels, which (according to Charlotte Allen) don't stack up well against fiction generally. My point was that that is not the relevant comparison. If you want to make some sort of stupid generalization about women, then it matters what the male analog of a romance novel is.... [T]his does not imply, and I did not mean it to imply, anything about the quality of genre romances. I honestly think not just that most of them stack up pretty well against your average Hustler centerfold, which isn't hard, but that some of them are quite good.

About whether genre romance novels are "books"... that was undoubtedly the wrong way to put [it]... and I regret having put it that way. However, I also think that there is a decent point here, which I expressed in a needlessly dumb way. What I meant was: Genre romance novels are, in my experience, written according to very serious constraints... plot constraints, characterization constraints, all kinds of constraints... certainly more stringent than those that govern fiction generally. When I assess a non-genre novel, I assess it as a work of imagination, in which the author is free to do as he or she wants. I take the author to have a kind of complete freedom: there she sits, confronted by a blank book, and she can do whatever she wants with it. Seeing what she ends up doing with all that freedom, and deciding what I think of it, is what criticism of normal novels is all about.

Assessing genre romances is different, precisely because there are so many rules. I do not think badly of a particular genre romance because the author should not have made the hero so strong, noble, and self-contained, or because its heroine should not be so completely ignorant of her own charms, or because some complication prevents the hero and heroine from recognizing their attraction to one another until they are forced into close proximity by some unexpected turn of events. Those are the rules.... I think it was Tanya Modliewski who wrote that genre romance is, for this reason, best thought of as something closer to a very constrained kind of performance than to non-genre novels.... The basic parameters are laid down in advance, and what matters, if you're writing a genre romance at all, is the grace and style and beauty with which you do it. In this, genre romance is strikingly different from non-genre novels (I'm leaving other genres out, as I noted above). Moreover, for anyone who knows the rules of genre romance, reading a genre romance would have to be different from reading a work that had no such rules, in the way that, for someone who knew the rules, watching the short program in figure skating that includes the compulsory elements would have to be different from watching a freestyle program.

With this as backdrop, when I said that "romance novels are not "books", as that word is normally used", I should, first of all, have said not "books" but [mainstream] "novels."... I did not, and do not, mean this claim to imply anything at all about the merits of genre romance novels.... I do think genre romance novels are a different sort of thing from non-genre novels. But that doesn't imply anything at all about whether the kind of thing they are is a better or worse thing to be.

Again, though, I was deeply unclear, for which I am sorry.

And this is somehow related to science fiction/fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold's description of her latest four-volume supernovel as an attempt to do three things.

  1. To do a "new world" rather than an "old world" fantasy: Lois McMaster Bujold Bonus Q&A: TSK began as a project to give myself pleasure in writing again at a time when I felt very dry.... I was doing several literary experiments at once.... [First,] playing with landscapes and social-scapes that were distinctly New World, not recycled European medievaloid...

  2. To do an anti-Manichean fantasy: To see what would happen if I gave my characters a real grown-up problem to grapple with, one that defied easy, cathartic solutions like cutting off some bad guy’s head or toppling the Dark Tower du Jour...

  3. Most of all to do a fantasy that was also a romance, or perhaps a romance that was also a fantasy: But foremost I wanted to see what would happen when I tried to make a romance the central plot of a fantasy novel... after all, I’d had romantic sub-plots in both my fantasy and my SF books before, and wasn’t it just a matter of shifting the proportions a bit?...

And it did not work:

[W]ow was that ever a learning experience, not only about what makes a romance story work, but, more unexpectedly, uncovering many of the hidden springs and assumptions that make fantasy work. It turns out to be a much harder blending that I’d thought.... The two forms have different focal planes. In a romance in the modern genre sense, which may be described as the story of a courtship from first meeting to final commitment, the focus is personal; nothing in the tale (such as the impending end of the world, ferex) can therefore be presented as more important.... [I]t has been borne in upon me how intensely political most F&SF plots in fact are. Political and only political activity (of which war/military is a huge sub-set) is regarded as “important” enough to make the protagonists interesting to the readers in these genres.... [A]ttempts to make the tale about something, anything else – artistic endeavor, for instance – are regularly tried by writers, and as regularly die the grim death in the marketplace. (Granted The Wind in the Willows or The Last Unicorn will live forever, but marginalized as children’s fiction.) I have come to believe that if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, F&SF are fantasies of political agency. (Of which the stereotypical “male teen power fantasy” is again merely an especially gaudy and visible subset)...

And with Teresa Nielsen Hayden's remarks about how writing under constraint and to expectations is only a bad thing if it is annoying and badly done: In longer works, the greater pleasure is seeing how the book makes its way from here to there, from its interesting beginning to its satisfactory if perhaps unsurprising end. You already know the detective is going to figure out which guest at the cocktail party murdered Edna Furbelow in the linen closet of her sumptuous Park Avenue apartment. The bickering couple forced to keep company with each other while having some mild adventures will infallibly fall in love no later than the second-to-last chapter. And the earnest young person born under mysterious signs and portents will inherit the Charm Bracelet of Doom, defeat the Dark One, and bring peace and plenty to The Land—five or six books from now.

Clichés are only clichés if they bother us. When we’re expecting something new and interesting in the way of a narrative mechanism, but instead get the same old same old, it feels like a cliché. If a novel employs a narrative maneuver that’s just as well-used, but we aren’t expecting novelty—hey looka, it’s yet another Regency Romance that has a scene set at Almack’s—then it’s not a problem. A book that starts from a bog-standard plot but uses it with inventiveness and grace will read fairly well—which means the bog-standard plot doesn’t bother us, and therefore isn’t really a cliché.

What does bother us are worn-out devices for setting things up or moving the story along. Mark Twain nailed James Fenimore Cooper for his habitual use of them.... One twig is a fine device. A twig or two per book is excusable if there’s enough other stuff happening; even a battered old prop can look okay if it goes past you fast enough. Too many twigs become irritating, and are therefore a cliché...

And Jo Walton:

just scenery: what do we mean by "mainstream"?: In the Handicapping the Hugos thread, there's a discussion of what "mainstream" means. In the simplest sense, "Mainstream" is everything that is not... "mystery" or "SF" or "chicklit" or "literary fiction".... That's a fairly useless category, though, because it's too huge.... [C]ategories exist to help people find books they'll like, and "If you loved Middlemarch you'll adore Rainbow Six" isn't going to do much for anyone.... What I find interesting is when there are books that are "obviously" SF but that some people think are mainstream.... The Yiddish Policeman's Union (an alternate history about a Jewish state in Alaska) is "mainstream" is that it has mainstream sensibilities, mainstream expectation, and, most of all, mainstream pacing. They may also mean that it had mainstream publication and that Michael Chabon is a writer who made his name selling mimetic fiction -- which is still true even though his last three books have been genre....

Samuel R. Delany has talked about the importance of reading protocols, and reading SF as SF. I tend to read everything as SF.  When mainstream writers come to write SF, it's normally the case that they don't understand the idioms of SF, the things we do when we (SF readers) read SF. This is very noticeable in things like Marge Piercy's Body of Glass (published as He, She and It in the US) where Piercy had clearly read Gibson but nothing much else, or Doris Lessing's Shikasta and sequels. The mainstream writers know how to do all the basic writing stuff, stories and characters and all of that, sometimes they know how to do that really well. They really want to write SF... but they don't know how SF works. They explain too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things.... They don't get the thing I call "incluing", where you pick up things about how the world works from scattered clues within the text. I don't feel that Chabon has this problem in the slightest, because he is an SF reader and knows how to inclue -- indeed I very much admire the brilliance of his worldbuilding -- but he's very unusual.

I had a great revelation about this some time ago when I was reading A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. This is a mainstream story in which a female academic buys a bottle containing a djinn and gets it to give her wishes. It's a mainstream story because she finds the bottle on something like page 150 of 175. In a genre story she'd have found the bottle on the first page. It has mainstream pacing and expectations.... The story is really about how simple answers are not fulfulling. The djinn is a metaphor in exactly the way Kelly Link's zombies aren't a metaphor. People talk about SF as a literature of ideas... [but] I don't think it's so much the literature of ideas as the literature of worldbuilding. In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character. In a mainstream novel, the world is implicitly our world, and the characters are the world. In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven.  In the old Zork text adventures, if you tried to pick up something that was described but not an object, you'd get the message "that's just scenery". The difference between a mainstream novel and an SF one is that different things are just scenery.

Writing under constraints, literature of world-building, fantasies of magic- or technology-enabled political action, or ways of fitting into the reader's expectations to add resonance to the words that are on the page--I am not sure what to make of these perspectives. I do know that I want to think about them.

I know only two things:

  • Contra Hilzoy, Pride and Prejudice is too a genre romance novel--but one in which Jane Austen is always the mistress and never the servant of the constraints of the form: she makes them sit, roll over, and beg like dogs, and never lets them push her to a place she does not want to go.

  • Perhaps "literary fiction" is simply a grab-bag of genres that never took off--that never developed a critical mass of readers who said "I would really like to read something like that" and writers who said "I really could write something like that--and would really like to."

APPENDIX: Hilzoy's unfortunate take on the romance genre was a side effect of her being allowed to read Charlotte Allen--one of many reasons why in a good and just world the Washington Post would have shut down long ago. Allen wrote:

Obsidian Wings: Misogyny Day At The Washington Post (Part 1): [I] wonder whether women -- I should say, "we women," of course -- aren't the weaker sex after all. Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial.... I am perfectly willing to admit that I myself am a classic case of female mental deficiencies. I can't add 2 and 2 (well, I can, but then what?). I don't even know how many pairs of shoes I own. I have coasted through life and academia on the basis of an excellent memory and superior verbal skills.... [T]he women in history I admire most -- Sappho, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I, George Eliot, Margaret Thatcher -- were brilliant outliers. The same goes for female fighter pilots, architects, tax accountants, chemical engineers, Supreme Court justices and brain surgeons.... I don't understand why more women don't relax... and revel in the things most important to life at which nearly all of us excel: tenderness toward children and men and the weak and the ability to make a house a home.... Then we could shriek and swoon and gossip and read chick lit to our hearts' content and not mind the fact that way down deep, we are... kind of dim...

Hilzoy's justified explosion at Charlotte Allen contained the line:

Obsidian Wings: Misogyny Day At The Washington Post (Part 1): [R]omance novels (update below the fold) are not "books", as that word is normally used. They are either tools for relaxation or the female equivalent of porn. They should therefore be compared not to War and Peace, but to either "Ultimate Sudoku" or the Hustler centerfold. Personally, I think they come out fine in either comparison, but that's probably because I'm just a dumb woman...

If only she had written "Botticelli's Nascita di Venere" rather than "Hustler centerfold"!

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