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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-01-30 06:22
Subject: The genre experience
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
Still gnawing on yesterday's thoughts about genre-from-the-auctorial-side. There's an argument there about who "owns" the genre experience, and for me it seems to have broken thusly so far.

In conversation with karindira, I'd essayed the comparison of a writer employing genre tropes without any understanding of their history, meaning or context to that of a writer addressing the Black experience in America without actually knowing anything about African Americans. That's a bad comparison for several reasons. The obvious one is that it is heavily loaded with emotional freight that completely distracts from the argument either way. More to the point, as she objected, the Black experience is a real, tangible thing, with history and human beings tied up in it. Time travel is not.

I'm bothered by this push-back, though. The genre experience is real, albeit intangible. A better comparison might be a musician who seeks to address a specific tradition without actually understanding it first.

It's not that I think non-genre writers should stay out of genre. Far from it. We're all the richer for the books by Bakis, Faber and Niffenegger, which I cited in my pull quote. I liked all three of those books. What specficrider and I said was they could be oddly unsatisfying to a genre reader. That's a narrow statement of worldview. And it's quite literally true. I found myself reading The Time Traveler's Wife on two levels simultaneously. My inner genre writer/critic was looking at it one way, my emotional reader-self was looking at it another way, with two distinct reactions.

To go back to a charged example, this question of "who owns the experience" is mildy analogous to the "writing the other" problem we were discussing here a while back -- the challenge of being a majority writer addressing a unprivileged minority without being exploitative or disrespectful. For me, any writer is free to address anything that pleases them. The proof is in the text, all else is commentary.

But darn it, I want my genre to be intelligently executed.
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User: muneraven
Date: 2007-01-30 15:18 (UTC)
Subject: Respecting the genre
When I was in an MFA program, and later while teaching, each year I would run across a new poet who seemed weirdly unfamiliar with poetry. And when I spoke to them about this, they would always give the same answer: "Oh, I like to write poetry but I really don't like to read it." I was always stunned by this response. It seemed the height of arrogance and laziness.

Now I don't think that, in order to write in a genre, one has to have read EVERYTHING in that genre. But I do think that a writer should be both humble and hard-working enough to gain, at a minimum, a working knowledge of the sort of material he or she is writing.

Of course what I REALLY believe is that all writers should read some of everything. But hey, I was voted the bookworm of my eighth grade class and I continue to live up to that billing.

By the way, my favorite justification people use for not reading in the genre one is writing: "I don't want my work to be influenced." LOL!!!!! Ask any of the great writers who their influences are and then sit back and prepare for a long listen. Skillful writers have many influences and they KNOW that.

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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
User: muneraven
Date: 2007-01-30 17:57 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Respecting the genre
Actually my take is that we are talking about people who SAY they are not writing within the genre, or who are marketed as such, but who are indeed writing stories that look quite a lot like SF in many ways. "The Time Traveler's Wife" could very easily have landed on SF shelves had the publisher or author gone that direction. If a book is not "pure" SF does that excuse the author from being familiar with with SF? I don't think so, and thus I feel my point is valid.

I don't read spy thrillers, but if I set out to write a fantasy novel with major elements of the spy thriller genre as part of the story, you'd better believe I would be reading a lot of spy thrillers prior to writing the book in order to do my job right. Even if I planned to market the book as fantasy alone, I would still educate myself about the tools I was borrowing from a different toolbox.

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scarlettina: Book love
User: scarlettina
Date: 2007-01-30 17:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Book love
I found myself reading The Time Traveler's Wife ... with two distinct reactions.

That was exactly my experience and why I think it's a good example for your argument. On an emotional level I found it very satisfying, but my genre head kept saying, "But... but... but..." Examine the genre element like a genre reader and it holds together with threads at best; for mainstream lit readers, it's a tour de force and more an exercize in the dramatic power of foreshadowing than it is a time travel story, which makes me consider what we as genre readers look for, which takes us right back to understanding the tropes of the genre.

Years ago, I had a conversation with a Publishing Type who reminded me that the core science fiction readership is a small but extremely vocal community, maybe 10-15,000 readers at best. The larger readership is much larger, and is more diverse and generally more forgiving than the core (which explains Mr. Crichton's readership among other things). This, I think, is true of writers as well. There's no question that I, too, want my genre intelligently executed, and we have a core of science fiction writers who do exactly that. My question is, does intelligently executed science fiction, by its nature, limit its readership, which gets into questions about marketing, sales, and genre ghetto-ization (is that a word?). Do books like Jurassic Park or The Time Traveler's Wife do a service to the deeper genre by making its ideas more accessible even if they don't respect the genre tropes? I think that maybe they do. I think it's up to the reader to dig deeper into the genre to find more meticulous execution, and up to the writer to decide at what level she wants to execute.
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User: manmela
Date: 2007-01-30 17:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm probably so out of my league here. Hello, be gentle with me!

There's a case for understanding your audience and delivering upon their expectations (not in terms of plot, but in terms of literary satisfaction)

Yet, genre is never going to move forward unless people break some of those rules and traditions. A lot of it will fall flat, but some of it... well perhaps some of it will be brilliant, unique and propel the genre forward.

As someone who is beginning to seriously try and write genre fiction, I have an issue. I see general writer's groups where the aim is always to play safe, write short stories that have almost a formula to them, and to send off to competitions and literary festivals. I don't wish to be unfair to those people, some of them (probably most of them) are far better writers than me, and many people enjoy both writing and reading those stories.

I'm seeing some of the same patterns in Genre as well. There is less formula, but it still exists... the acceptable concepts of things like time travel, generation ships, etc. I'm genuniely wondering whether I should earn my stripes in short story writing, submitting stories to Interzone and Asimov's and other genre publications. However, I don't think I am a short story writer (my ideas start out as a 5000 word story, and end up something that would dwarf the Wheel of Time series). As someone who has written non-fiction, I know that you always change your writing to suit the publication. I genuinely worry that whilst the scope of these publications is very wide, there are indeed goalposts, and my best ideas come when I start mixing ideas that conventionally shouldn't go together.

The novel (or indeed a short story that isn't being written with a specific publication in mind) has none of these goalposts. It's only limits being the economics of a minimum and maximum word count. So what if conventional writers stray into elements of Genre in the course fo their story? Let them create concepts of Time Travel, inter-galactic propulsion, and McGuffin devices that suit and service THEIR story.

I'd argue (although I'm sure people will prove me wrong) that setting out to write genre can be setting up goalposts or pigeon-holing the story. Instead, write the story and then work out where it sits afterwards.

Do the romanticists complain when love is handled differently in a Sci-Fi story than in a traditional romantic novel? Do you care if they do? Fiction classification is just there to make it easier for librarians, and the different genres shoudn't be building walls and defenses around their areas of literature telling people "Do it this way or we'll fire". Sure, have an opinion. Enjoy (and indeed dislike) the stories you like for whatever reason, but don't become defensive and a traditionalist on how a genre should be handled otherwise the genre will never grow.

There is nothing wrong about writing to the expectation of elements of the genre audience, but I'd argue there is nothing wrong with breaking those conventions either.

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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
User: juliabk
Date: 2007-01-30 20:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I didn't have a book with me and wanted to read at lunch, so I checked TTW out of the campus library. I'm not very far into it (they're back at his place after that first dinner) and so far, I'm not terribly impressed on any level beyond the basic idea of the 'chrono-challenged' or whatever it was called. I can tolerate first person (though it's far from my favorite), but the two characters don't have much in the way of unique voices. Not even unique between them. (And is the author British? Because the characters don't sound American but so far seem to be written to be American. Casual use of the word "posh" kinda threw me.) I'm hoping the differences are just very subtle and will develop over time. The fact that their POV sections are prefaced by their names isn't a good sign, IMO.

So far, it feels pretty much like I'm reading alternate universe Quantum Leap fanfic. Maybe I'll feel differently by the time I finish it.
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Tansy Rayner Roberts
User: cassiphone
Date: 2007-01-30 20:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's also worth noting that there are plenty of genre writers who work in particular areas/topics/themes without having read the classics that could be said to have defined the science fictional use of those topics.

Sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes this is a bad thing.
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User: martyn44
Date: 2007-01-31 22:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't have much of a problem with 'mainstream' authors playing fast and loose with genre tropes. They are there for any and all of us to use and misuse as we will - like a contemporary mythology.

What does bug me is when said mainstream types are lauded by mainstream critics who don't know where they have (very often) at least 'borrowed' their ideas from. Over here, AS Byatt and Martin Amis spring readily to mind - Amis 'borrowed' so closely from Phil Dick that some might use another word for it, and he has no excuse, given who his dad was.

Whatever, there is no excuse for using any trope sloppily. My office is split between us F/SF readers - who found TTW not that hot - and the non F/SF readers, for whom it was wet knicker time.
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