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Mapping the Genre Device - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2006-07-10 12:55
Subject: Mapping the Genre Device
Security: Public
Tags:lj, process, writing
On the plane I've been working on my portion of the next column specficrider and I need to deliver to the Internet Review of Science Fiction. We're talking about the anatomy of an idea. It led me down something of a rabbithole about ideas and story elements, and I've run into something I'm having a lot of trouble characterizing. Since I'm pretty certain we're not going to embed much of this discussion in the column, I thought it might be interesting to toss it out here and see what other folks think.

Basically, I was noodling with the concept that there are three ways of looking at a SF/F story. (For the sake of discussion we'll talk about short stories here, but I'm not sure this is much different from novels. See my earlier comments on that subject .) Let's call it the three axes-of-story.

The first axis-of-story is the story elements themselves. These are the things we can elucidate with a fairly simple critical reading. Classically, in Western fiction, this is a character in a setting with a problem, who makes multiple attempts to solve that problem with increasing stakes for failure (three is the magic number here), before coming to a resolution. Resolution is often followed by validation. I'm cribbing mercilessly from Algis Budrys here, and many other folks have explained this over the years far better than I can, so I'm going to presume this isn't subject to much, if any, argument. Please, suggest refinements or extensions of this in comments.

Story Elements
  • Character

  • Setting

  • Problem

  • Try/Fail Cycle(s)

  • Resolution

  • Validation


The second axis-of-story is craft techniques. These are the things we can elucidate with a fairly simple critique (as opposed to critical) reading. Here we're talking about voice, point-of-view, structure, style -- all the narrative and technical choices that a writer makes to build a story. This list is less well-defined than the previous list, and it evolves over time as a writers' skill improves and their meta-ideas about storytelling change. Just for the sake of some yayas, I'll lay something out here. Again, please suggest refinements or extensions in comments.

Craft Techniques
  • Voice

  • Style

  • Point-of-View

  • Structure

  • Person/Tense

  • Punctuation

  • Paragraphing


So far, so good, though the craft techniques could probably be argued about ad nauseum. That's fine, that's what writers do. As someone once said to me, "You people can talk about commas for an hour." (I don't think it was meant to be praise.) With those two axes-of-story, we can talk about most fiction, achieving the two dimensions of analysis which are often used by writers seeking to improve their own work and understand the work of others.

Here's where I got in trouble. It seems to me in some murky way that in genre fiction there ought to be a third axis-of-story here, a third dimension of thought. Call them genre devices. These are the things which make a genre story what it is, rather than naturalistic fiction. It's quite clear to me this ought to be true, and I think that as both a reader and a writer I have an instinctive grasp of the idea of a genre device, but when I try to outline a list of genre devices, I fail. It's the ultimate Potter Stewart moment.

It then occurs to me that it is precisely this failure to be able to define genre devices which leads to the endless fighting at the barricades about what SF really is, about what fantasy really as, about what the difference between the two is. We don't have a handle on this question as a group or as individuals, so we're all responding to those questions in ways which don't necessarily align well.

Here's what I'm throwing out to the Mighty LJ Brain: what would constitute a list of genre devices which are roughly parallel to the story elements and craft techniques list? Can those devices even be defined? If not, why not?

I've already rejected plot elements as a way to look at it -- ie, "time travel," "epic quest," etc. Maybe that was wrong of me. Likewise looking at subgenres -- ie, "alternate history," "urban dark fantasy." Again, maybe the wrong approach.

But how to approach?

I'm going to keep thinking about this. I'm curious what you think.
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Swan Tower: writing
User: swan_tower
Date: 2006-07-10 20:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:writing
For fantasy, perhaps things like magic/metaphysics and theology -- you could lump those in with setting, but I think that's their surface aspect. When you regard them as the infrastructure of the cosmos in which the story is being told, then they become, for me, a crucial and diagnostic element of fantasy.
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Josh English
User: joshenglish
Date: 2006-07-10 20:22 (UTC)
Subject: Some muddled thoughts on the subject...
All this to get to a simple question: What is Science Fiction? What is Fantasy? I'm struggling with genre classification myself. I can almost be happy with defining SF as extrapolation of any scientific principle from any science to some extreme in a way that is essential to the central conflict of the story. I think that this could still exclude stories that happen to exist on a space station if the central conflict is about bullying. Even if the bully is an alien, the science doesn't come into play unless the solution derives from sociology.
I agree that looking at sub-genre's is inaccurate. One reader's grit is another reader's satire.
What about verisimilitude? Is the science/magic believable enough? Is the extrapolation of a current science appropriate to the story?
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John
User: djonn
Date: 2006-07-10 20:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hmm.

If there's a third axis-of-story, I think "genre device" is not quite the right label. Off the top of my head, I think I want to call the third axis "context".

Genre (or possibly genre vocabulary) arguably constitutes a form of context, but I don't think it's the only significator. Purpose is probably a context significator (and we can argue about whose purpose); audience (intended or actual) may be one as well.
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Zhaneel
User: zhaneel69
Date: 2006-07-10 20:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Honestly, for me the difference in teh overall characters/plot/structure/world's willingness to accept something new. SF that something is aliens, interplanetary travel, etc. In fantasy it is magic, spells, fey creatures. Something differnet, not of us. That is what a genre story is.
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Sherwood Smith
User: sartorias
Date: 2006-07-10 20:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think of that third axis as paradigm. In realistic fiction, paradigm seems to be invisible: the writer is assuming our world, though of course rpesenting aspects of our world through the narrative lense.

In genre, we generally seem to assume a different paradigm at the outset, whether we call it AU or AH or another world and time altogether. So . . . its elements? Gyeagh, that's tougher. Worldbuilding skill? Believable extrapolation of ideas?

The thing that bothers me about this paradigm idea is that so many of the great novels of the past actually posited a subtly different paradigm mapping over the present--which later became true, and so now is effectively invisible. Like Middlemarch for example.
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Swan Tower: writing
User: swan_tower
Date: 2006-07-11 02:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:writing
Paradigm might be a good umbrella word for what I was wandering vaguely in the direction of with my comment.
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David D. Levine
User: davidlevine
Date: 2006-07-10 20:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I can understand why you rejected "plot elements" but I think the third axis might be something along those lines. I'll call it Fantastic Elements for now (because that's easier to type than "Weird Sh*t"). A story's Fantastic Elements combine aspects of plot and setting. Fantastic Elements can include:


  • FTL travel
  • Time travel
  • Aliens
  • Psi powers
  • Magic
  • Invisibility
  • Interstellar empires
  • etc. etc. etc.


There are many types of each class of story element and craft technique, and many ways to use each in writing. For example, the types of character include sympathetic/unsympathetic, heroic/antagonistic, and competent/incompetent; the ways to write about a character include close/distant (in their head/not in their head) and well/badly.

In the same way, there are many types of fantastic element. Types of aliens include humanoid/inhuman, comprehensible/incomprehensible, more powerful than humans/less powerful; ways to write about aliens include materialistic/mystical and well/badly. One of the most important considerations on this axis seems to be whether this particular expression of the basic idea has been done before, and if so how this expression differs from the existing one(s).

In addition, the fantastic elements can be combined with each other, often because one implies the other (e.g. aliens imply space travel, FTL implies time travel), or just mixed 'n' matched (e.g. China Mieville's mystical/technological world).

Genre stories seem to be judged on the quantity as well as the quality of fantastic elements. If a story doesn't have enough, it may be dismissed as not really genre (e.g. the whole kerfuffle over "What I Didn't See"). If a story has too much, it can collapse of its own weight unless masterfully crafted. Also, a certain amount of some classes of fantastic element can be tossed in for free. For example, in some early stories FTL travel was the only fantastic element of the story, while today it's often used as a background detail just to enable getting to the rest of the story.

Just a few thoughts off the top of my head. Hope this helps.
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Elf M. Sternberg
User: elfs
Date: 2006-07-10 21:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But then the third axis travels away from the zero point and at some stage you leave the world of Contemporary Fiction and enter the subgenre zone: Mundane SF. At the near end of Mundane SF you have Greg Egan's Cocoon, and at the far end you have the kind of SF Charlie Stross writes, which edges into Vinge's Hard SF, which travels for a while until you get to Mainstream SF (where Weber and Bujold, "space opera" lives), and then goes on until it becomes truly Fantastic, and you run into people like Michael Moorcock and, uh, Charlie Stross again.
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David D. Levine
User: davidlevine
Date: 2006-07-10 22:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If I'm understanding you properly, I agree completely. Fantastic elements can be used minimally (close to mainstream literature), judiciously, (Mundane SF, hard SF, urban fantasy), liberally (most SF and fantasy), and with abandon (New Weird).
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Elf M. Sternberg
User: elfs
Date: 2006-07-11 03:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
When someone says "axis," I think in terms of distance from origin, and when it comes to a "genre," there is a tendency to wander farther and farther away from the expectations of the NY Times Review of books.
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A large duck
User: burger_eater
Date: 2006-07-10 20:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The third axis should point toward the reader. A story has an expected readership, and the knowledge that reader will have, and their expectations, should form the third axis.
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mallory_blog: pic#47746478
User: mallory_blog
Date: 2006-07-10 21:50 (UTC)
Subject: sprinkles...
Keyword:pic#47746478
It's just sprinkles like those you put on cupcakes, little decorations to disguise the fact that you are really eating plain old cake that should be well made, taste good and contribute to your overall health - it's the sprinkles that make you smile...

Genre is sprinkles...
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bram452
User: bram452
Date: 2006-07-10 21:50 (UTC)
Subject: no third axis
Put me down as a vote for the "genre identity as convenient lie" school of thought.

I think the differences between genre and naturalistic fiction is sufficiently explained by the second axis -- differences in the approach to narrative voice, relative emphasis (or not) on plot, etc.

A story about an alien surgically altered to look like a sexually attractive woman picking up male hitchhikers in order to ship them off-world as a delicacy can be shelved with Tolstoy and Updike. (It's called Under the Skin by Michael Faber. Not bad, but with some decisions about narrative voice, pacing, and symbolism that didn't sit all that well with me -- I'm a genre reader.) I can make a list a yard long of similar examples.

The idea that genre is different from non-genre is kind of like the idea that a $20 bill is a physical instantiation of abstract value -- it's really useful to act as if it were true.

If you get right down to it, though, genre differences are a kind of literary play behavior on the part of literary critics both amateur and professional.
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Tom Simon
User: superversive
Date: 2006-07-11 00:29 (UTC)
Subject: Re: no third axis
That may be true, but then it’s worth going one more step and asking why it’s useful to act as if it were true.

In the case of the $20 bill, it’s because money is no longer based on specie, but on debt. In effect that Federal Reserve note is an IOU from Uncle Sam, and if you cancel that bit of debt by giving it back to him on April 15, he will not send nice young men from the IRS to confiscate your kneecaps. All fiat money is fundamentally based on this dodge.

In the case of genre distinctions, the reasons are more complicated and subjective, and have so far resisted definitive analysis. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real distinction; only that genres are radial categories, not Aristotelian, and therefore subject to strange statistical outliers like Under the Skin and The Handmaid’s Tale. In those particular cases, the lack of genre labelling results at least in part from the snobbery of literary blokes.
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bram452
User: bram452
Date: 2006-07-11 03:16 (UTC)
Subject: Re: no third axis
You make some excellent points. Let me see if I can address them without makin' myself look like an idiot.

Okay, this is going to look a lot like circular reasoning, but hang with me: Pretending that genre exists is useful because it lets us talk about genre. We do have mental contructs -- Mystery, Fantasy, Romance, Horror -- that serve as a rough shorthand. By and large people have an impression of what you mean when you say these things and (most importantly from an economic point of view) where those books are shelved even if they can't tell you what exactly makes something belong to one form or the other.

It's a tool of rough, gross, roadside literary criticism. And that's useful. If I want a book that's kinda like X I can go to where the X books are shelves and look around. Even if it's arbitrary and absurd, it's simplifying and useful.

You say that Under the Skin and Handmaid's Tale avoid genre classification. I don't think they do, because in my semantic world, "Literature" walks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck and the duck is named Genre. It's the genre for snobs the way that romance is the genre for lonely housewives and science fiction is the genre for dateless geeks. (Please note the intentionally humorous use of stereotyping.)

And back to your first point, all money is fiat money. The gold standard just pushes it back one level to gold being the physical embodiment of abstract value. Labor theory doesn't make sense. The only thing that creates a usable currency is the agreement that there's something you'll use as currency.
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Tom Simon
User: superversive
Date: 2006-07-11 03:30 (UTC)
Subject: Re: no third axis
Actually, no, all money is not fiat money. The difference between fiat and specie remains an important one in monetary theory. Gold and silver, so to speak, are democratic in Chesterton’s sense of the word: elected by the people and tradable everywhere, without reference to governments. Fiat money has always ceased to be valuable whenever the government that issued it would no longer accept it in payment of taxes. A country can default on its currency (like Germany in the 1920s, or Yugoslavia in the 1990s), but nobody can default on gold. It retains its value as long as enough people want it to have value.

When I say that Under the Skin and Handmaid’s Tale avoid genre classification, I am of course using the terminology of those who oppose ‘literary’ to ‘genre’ instead of recognizing that ‘literary fiction’ is itself a genre. I should have chosen my words more carefully, of course. They were SF novels that escaped being labelled as SF because their authors had the proper Lit’ry credentials, and the critics who raved over them werer appropriately ignorant of SF (else their New York Lit’ry Establishment cards would have been revoked).
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bram452
User: bram452
Date: 2006-07-11 03:55 (UTC)
Subject: No damn cat, no damn cradle (was Re: no third axis)
Yeah, okay, I was being glib. There is a difference between fiat money and the gold (or silver or whatever) standard, but it's a difference in which set of rules you want to consider, not whether the whole thing's gaming.

The point I was trying to make was that there's nothing inherent in a particular metal that makes it carry value. What's so cool about gold that it can be traded without reference to government? Only the fact that a bunch of people in a bunch of different places have agreed to use it to represent abstract value. Take a pile of ingots to a place where they use cowrie shells as currency instead, and people are going to look at you funny. Price theory is the only one that makes sense to me, and that's all about play behavior.

And when you say:
I should have chosen my words more carefully, of course. They were SF novels that escaped being labelled as SF because their authors had the proper Lit’ry credentials, and the critics who raved over them werer appropriately ignorant of SF (else their New York Lit’ry Establishment cards would have been revoked).

I don't know that you needed to choose your words better -- I understood what you meant, and I didn't mean to blow you off; I agree. I was just running my definition set up the flagpole to see who'd salute. I'm willing to stipulate that the sentence "Under the Skin is a work of literary fiction that uses some of the tropes of SF" means the same thing as "Under the Skin is an SF novel that escaped the genre label because of its style of prose and the social forces surrounding its author."

Credo: Genre is an artifact of play behavior based the mutual agreement to pretend it exists and which is nonetheless useful.
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bram452
User: bram452
Date: 2006-07-11 03:58 (UTC)
Subject: Re: No damn cat, no damn cradle (was Re: no third axis)
Which is to say, we seem to be wholly in agreement.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-07-11 00:39 (UTC)
Subject: Re: no third axis
I read Under the Skin -- karindira gave it to me a while back. It was a pretty good read as litfic, but when I tried to analyze it as genre, it fell apart pretty fast. I felt the same way about Lives of the Monster Dogs. For me as a reader, The Time Traveler's Wife was a more successful example of this point.

Great discussion, btw. Thank you.
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fjm
User: fjm
Date: 2006-07-11 05:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Sf argues with the universe, it yells, "hey! get the damn rules right! I want to use them as a lever."

Fantasy says to the universe, "I know you have rules, but let's make them as moral* as we can". *Moral in this case does *not* mean happy.

I think the third element of any genre is what is asked of the universe. The above would ally Sf with crime, but fantasy with horror. Although crime novels sometimes prefer moral rules to physical rules.
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Rose Fox: thoughtful
User: rosefox
Date: 2006-07-11 07:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:thoughtful
My favorite panel at Readercon was on genre definitions (among many other things), and by the end of it pretty much all of them had been swept aside and people were talking solely in terms of whether a story makes the reader comfortable or uncomfortable. I don't think that that, in and of itself, is an axis (as you put it); I would say that rather there are three axes within it:

* Whether the writer intends the story to provide comfort or discomfort
* Whether the reader expects the story to provide comfort or discomfort
* Whether it does in fact provide comfort or discomfort

Perhaps only the first is inherent to the story, which is to say, the only one that exists before an individual reader enters the equation. On the other hand, the writer's intent and expectations are based on an assumption of a certain type of readership. Habitual horror readers may find axe murderers comfortable and familiar; romance readers may not. Habitual romance readers find heterocentric standard-gender-role storylines comfortable and familiar; lesbian feminists may not.

So to bring this back around to your idea, I would say that the third axis is the writer's expectations of the reader's expectations. That expands to include soi-disant "non-genre fiction" and therefore matches your other two axes, which I think is important: I personally don't believe there is any such thing as fiction without genre, as that would be fiction without context. Both writers and readers have context. The critical thing about genre is what context the writer believes the reader has--assumptions that magic conforms to a given set of rules, skepticism about binary stars with Earth-type planets inhabited by bipedal English-speaking intelligent life forms, suspicion that if you're alone in an old house at night and you think you hear something in the basement it's probably a bad idea to go down there and investigate--and how the writer addresses that belief.

Perhaps the axis could also be phrased as the extent to which the writer chooses to conform to the reader's assumed expectations. Formulaic doorstoppers would be on one end, unreliable narrators and experimental pieces such as La Disparition/A Void on the other. I would put most "literary fiction" near the conformist end, for the most part, but that may be because most fiction is near the conformist end for reasons somewhat having to do with the difficulty of true innovation and mostly having to do with marketing.

It is, of course, endlessly interesting to map the change of a work's position on the "reader comfort/discomfort" axis as reader expectations and contexts change over time, both for individual readers and for various segments of the population such as SF fans or middle school students, but I think that's a separate discussion.
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Swan Tower: writing
User: swan_tower
Date: 2006-07-11 15:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:writing
It's interesting to see other people take a different spin on Jay's use of the term "axis" than I did. Neither of the axes he gives above, in my reading, imply distance -- they're more collections of elements instead. You're not the only one to take it in more of a graph-like way, though.
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Rose Fox
User: rosefox
Date: 2006-07-11 20:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's what comes of being a math major, I suppose: give me three "axes" and I start visualizing 3D space and digging out my notes from linear algebra.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-07-12 12:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Or I could be blowing smoke up Jay's nether regions

Wow, so that's what that was...
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2006-07-12 13:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think Mikal is onto something.

Personally, I see SF not so much as the literature of ideas, but as the literature of change. Combining that with Mikal's proposal then one could propose the third axis of SF as a story wherein (a part of) base reality changes (to a greater or lesser extent). Not transcend base reality per se, as SF remains grounded in reality: our perception/viewpoint of reality may change, but SF remains an inherent part of it. Even as (part of) it changes, we remain part of it.

In the axis viewpoint SF would be the 'real' part, as it still relates to base reality by way of the physical laws, that is, reality has changed, but according to the rules of the possible.

Fantasy, on the other hand, would then be the 'imaginary' part of the axis, where reality changes according to impossible rules, in an analogous manner like the square root of minus one being the base of the imaginary numbers (excuse my mixed metaphors, here).
Thus, for fantasy (part of) base reality changes, as well, but in ways that ignore the rules of the possible. And, as such, fantasy can indeed transcend base reality, as it need not, and in case of indeed transcending reality cannot be part of base reality, almost by definition.

As a lot of others, I'm thinking out loud, and hope it makes sense.

Jetse
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The Green Knight
User: green_knight
Date: 2006-07-12 15:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In the axis viewpoint SF would be the 'real' part, as it still relates to base reality by way of the physical laws, that is, reality has changed, but according to the rules of the possible.

Fantasy, on the other hand, would then be the 'imaginary' part of the axis, where reality changes according to impossible rules, in an analogous manner like the square root of minus one being the base of the imaginary numbers (excuse my mixed metaphors, here).


That's a definition I can live with. I much prefer it to the often quoted 'SF looks to the future, Fantasy to the past' which I find rather annoying.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2006-07-12 15:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thus, in Jay's axis-of-story viewpoint we would have:

Axis 1: Story Elements

Axis 2: Craft Techniques

Axis 3: Deviation of Base Reality

In this manner, axis 3 could be used a yard stick to measure the fantastic genre, which – if I understand it right – is what Jay was aiming at with his post.

Thus: value of Axis 3 = 0 means the story is not fantasy, nor SF (but can still be literature, crime, western, romance, horror, and whatnot);

Value of Axis 3 = a ‘real’ number means the story is SF to a greater or lesser extent;

Value of Axis 3 = an ‘imaginary’ number means the story is fantasy to a greater or lesser extent.

And then, roughly speaking, Axis 1 determines the quality of the story, while Axis 2 determines the quality of the storytelling, with the caveat that both these axes influence each other, have a strong mutual interaction.

The advantage of these analytical (and rather dry) subdivisions is that they are, to a high extent, independent of the subject matter. It defines SF or fantasy purely on the way the subject matter is handled. This links with a remark from Ellen Datlow that I read recently on the Asimov’s boards:

“I feel horror is not at all defined by subject matter but by the affect the material has on the reader.”

In that light, horror is also defined by the way that it handles the subject matter, albeit that this affect is a much more personal one. So, a story is horror if it scares the reader, with the caveat that this can be highly personal: what scares one reader doesn’t necessarily scare another.

The above SF/F definition, though, is largely independent from personal taste.

Great post, Jay, which forces me to order my thoughts.

(Of course, YMMV ;-)

Jetse
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The Green Knight
User: green_knight
Date: 2006-07-12 15:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If you can write a perfectly good, engrossing dramatic story about a family crumbling from the pressures they exert on themselves, what is it that makes you, the writer, insist on bringing some element of the supernatural, say, into play in order to make said story 'work' for you?

Literary authors write about the sixteenth century or set books in China - but that's a well-respected form of challenging preconceptions, forcing the reader to engage with the whole text, and making him work out what relevance those strange events have for a contemporary audience. Shakespeare did it, too - some things are easier to say when you are talking about Julius Cesar or long-forgotten Danish Princes than when you're addressing the people right who are sitting opposite you.

Speculative fiction takes those things a step further. Readers don't bring preconceptions to fictional texts, at least much fewer preconceptions - if you show two unknown armies, they *won't* know which side to take, they'll have to read a little first. If you show them Yorkists and Lancastrians, they might already be partisan before you even start.

Speculative fiction asks 'what if' and it can take ideas much further.

Me? My mind just does not do mundane.
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