March 22nd, 2006


Literary genre without mentioning the "s" word

From an email list... (some of you have seen versions of this commentary from me before)...I'm the "A" voice. Not very well edited for blogging purposes, but I kind of like it, and I'm too tired to clean it up.

Disclaimer, mme_publisher has a lot to say about this, too, and to some degree I'm quoting her without credit in the thread below. This was not inappropriate in the private context of the email, but I want to give her big props here in public.

Q: Here's something else I've been wondering. What is a "literary story with genre sensibility"?

A: Gardner Dozois talks about 'the furniture of science fiction', meaning story elements (plot, theme, memes) which belong to SF collectively and recur a lot, signalling what kind of story the reader is seeing. (I suppose those might correspond to Delany's famous reading protocols.)

Well, one characteristic of SF is the need to establish context on a much broader basis than in naturalistic fiction. So, for example, the sentence "Rabbit is rich", as written by John Updike, has a pretty clear context. When an SF writer says "Rabbit is rich", we don't know if 'rabbit' is a name, a nickname, a species, a physical descriptor or something else entirely, and we don't know if 'rich' refers to culinary qualities, fuel/air mixtures, an aspect of humor, finances or something else entirely.

A more clearcut example is "Her eyes wandered around the room." In naturalistic fiction this is an overt metaphor, probably a cliche. In science fiction, it quite well could be taken literally.

So to write genre fiction, you must somehow map the reader's expectations of setting, character and rules-of-the-world quickly enough that the reader doesn't misconceive the story and have to do a major mental reset while reading, generally thereby losing interest. Writing in a clearcut genre is a simple, effective way to do that -- hence the earlier discussion about writing Fantasy in a noire voice, for example. That strikes many of us as funny because it violates this convention.

A 'literary story with a genre sensibility' can be a piece of naturalistic fiction (ie, a non speculative plot, character and setting) where the writer assumes an SFnal approach to world-building, so that the reader gets observations and explanations of things like cornfields and football games written as if the reader had no experience of those things. When done poorly, this bites rocks. When done well, it can be fascinating, in part because the writer may be able to use telling details which don't map to our stereotypes.

It can also run the other way, using speculative plot, character and/or setting with a straightforward, naturalistic narrative style that seeks to explain nothing but merely tells the story in this context. This is sort of how magic realism works -- not Latin American fabulism per se, which has some significant religious and cultural context interwoven, for example a certain view on the miraculous, but more the absurdism and magic realism of North American writers building on or reacting to the Latin American tradition.