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Warning: White Noise.

Last week, i posted about the lack of art in fiction. I had gone over to John Shirley's blog, and he was talking about how a lot of his ideas weren't commercial, and how he picked things that were commerical to write. It's not an uncommon thing to read, and I figured (and still do) that people ought to worry less about what is commercial, and what is interesting, intelligent, and that a wank word that no one likes to utter, art.

There are a whole bunch of pros and cons to that argument, but I'm just going to shrug them off and say I don't give a shit, I'm here for that art. Feel free to laugh it up. It's a statement easy enough to ignore in its validity because, lets face it, I have an audience of five, currently living in Denmark, perhaps, and the money I do make out of writing would make any hard working hack of a writer laugh at me. Of course, I get paid obscene amounts of money to teach writing to the young and impressionable up and coming writers of the world, so in another way, my opinion is more important than what most would be comfortable with.

Which of course, means you can take or leave what is said next as you please, picking the choice that makes you most happy.

In the aforementioned post, I was asked, in the questions, what I figured gave rise to the more formulaic writing patterns that are in abundance in the world. I immediately thought to myself, Well, people are stupid but that's just because I like to say that, and not because I actually believe it. I mean, sure, people are stupid. There's evidence of it every day: Ray Martin continues to find a place on TV, the political lies told to us don't force mass protesting and violence, reality TV in all its various incarnations is huge and, in one case, creating the next wave of musicians based of their looks and their ability to sing Elton John tunes. Stupidity is rife.

But it's not enough.

Now, take Schrodinger's Cat thought experiment. Stay with me for this, I promise dead cats at the end. Anyhow: the quick run down of the experiment is this: there's a cat in a box. We don't know if it is alive or dead. If we take the lid off the box, poke holes in the box, whatever, then we'll know for sure that it's a dead cat inside. But did it die the moment we had a look? How do we know it's not alive in the box? In the quantum universe that supports this cat, it is both alive and dead at the same time. The cat inhabits both these states, and it is when we open the lid, or poke a hole in, or do whatever, that the probabilities of the cat then form one single conclusion, which in this case, is a dead cat.

If you're good with that paragraph explanation and you follow it, then consider that the physical presence of a book is like the box that holds the cat. Thus, what we are looking at now is a blank book. We don't know what is inside it, but some old bearded guy looking a bit like Schrodinger walks up, and says that there is a piece of fiction inside the book. He doesn't tell us what kind, but the possibility exists that it could be from any genre: crime, fantasy, romance, take your pick. Could be cross genre. Could be anything, because inside the book, as far as quantum universe is concerned, are all the genres. It so happens that when we open that book, all the probabilities that we think of, collapse into one result just like a dead cat. But instead, we get a genre, and following that moment when we realise that what we have in our hands is, say, a piece from the detective fiction genre, then all the probabilities of what we are getting continue to collapse into this strain of narrative reality.

The fault lies in our ability to want concrete details to know where we are and where we're going. We want to know where we stand, fuck it, if you don't tell us, we ain't going forward...

Genre definition gives us that.

When we hold the book that is a certain genre in our hands, a part of our head says, This won't go a way I don't want it too. This is just what I want.

Sure, there are exceptions to this, and there always will be, but I'm talking in a general, mainstream, fiction gets me millions of dollars, it's commercial kind of way. Think John Grishom. Think J.K Rowling. Think Tolkien. Think Elmore Leonard. Think whoever you want to think, but don't think that their books are bad, or that as writers they lack ability (which is why I threw in Leonard, for those who know the other people don't do it for me) just think that what you have here are writers who are popular, and who produce work that hit all the necessary pieces of narrative reality when building their genre work. Their popularity, in part (because you cannot explain the heights of popularity that these writers have gone too--and stay at, in some cases--with this) stems from the fact that they do not stop in the middle of their narratives and tell you that it's now time to change the genre and make you think you're getting something that won't fulfill the reality you paid for with purchase of the book.

But that reality is not unique to those writers I just named. The reality that they offer belongs to the genre, and genre has now become solidified in our world as a certain set of defined attributes. Like, for example, a rock. You can touch a rock, you throw, and you can say to your friends, I got this rock here for skimming and they know what you're talking about, despite the fact that there are many different kinds of rocks. A good rock for skimming, is flat and round, and a good genre for reading on a Sunday afternoon when you don't want to think too much, and just enjoy the sun, is fantasy, which has princesses and princes, and quests, and daring deeds done with a little bit of dash.

Rocks and genre: everyone knows what they're getting when you say, I've found good skimming rocks and I've found a fantasy novel.

(Taste, btw, is subjective, and I'm not looking at that at the moment. If you don't fantasy, pick crime, and swap what you expect the genre to be.)

The reason that maintaining the reality you pay for is so important is, I reckon, due to the place that fiction has in society.

For the majority of people, reading is not their occupation. It's done between work, fucking, studying, drinking, playing games, taking drugs, running from the law, learning the harmonica, and whatever else fills the endless run of a daily life. It is merely a part, not the whole, and for most, it is a recreation. That means, of course, that you don't put a lot of effort in, and you don't want to learn new narrative possibilities, and you don't want to see the reality that you understand and accept within that possibility subverted to such a point that it is alien to you and thus you can not enjoy what you have paid for. The end result of that being that you are unsatisfied, you put the down, you get confused, you spend longer on it that you would like, or the other negative results that happen when your expectations are not met.

That is formulaic, safe, narratives, are considered more commercially viable than those that are not.

It doesn't have to be this way (and, in my personal opinion, shouldn't) but the fault lies in what we have made our genres to mean. For things to change, people don't have to get smarter, authors don't have to throw their money away, and we all don't have to burn no effigy of the publishers who continue to support this view of a genre. It probably wouldn't hurt do those things, but mostly, I figure, reading fiction has got to reassert the fact that it is not just about leaving the reader satisfied, that it is not just here to provide escapism, and that intellectual and emotional responses outside simple enjoyment, are reasons to purchase and read and spend our time with.

Comments

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bodhichitta0
Jul. 28th, 2004 09:27 am (UTC)
You're fucking brilliant. Be sure to save this explanation somewhere other than here, okay? And if you ever wanted to make a true essay out of it, you could also address how the evolution of brand and niche marketing in the Western world affected the book industry's desire to define a genre--defining "Nike" (like defining a skimming rock) and defining "legal thriller"... they're not that far apart at all.

And I wish it was as easy as people being stupid, don't you? :-)
capnoblivious
Jul. 28th, 2004 03:16 pm (UTC)
Second the 'fucking brilliant.'

Second the 'wish it was that easy.' :)

Stu.

benpeek
Jul. 28th, 2004 06:02 pm (UTC)
sure, it's brilliant today, but it's, 'you insane bastard' tomorrow. actually, usually it's the same day.
benpeek
Jul. 28th, 2004 05:59 pm (UTC)
hey, thanks.

i think it's a bit messy and i got told a bit confusing, but it was fun enough to write. thought i might get a few more comments on it, though. oh well. feel free to link it round.
mariness
Jul. 28th, 2004 07:33 pm (UTC)
Sorry, meant to comment on this at work, but then a student interrupted me, a student, moreover, who was quite clearly illiterate and should be studying reading skills, but this isn't precisely about him.

Now, I like genre fiction. It's comforting. Frequently it's total crap. In fact, I can point you to a book on my desk right now that I rather hope you won't read, but I can't give you its title for fear that you will be convinced that I have not only lost my brain cells but all of my critical taste and appreciation for fiction. It's comfort food.

And while most of it is crap, some of it is pretty damn good -- Ursula Le Guin, for example, for fantasy, and I could name others if my brain isn't fogged. And about the same thing happens in a lot of so called "mainstream" fiction. This is the sort of stuff that I typically pick up at the airport, which likes to mix nicely pretentious books with New York Times bestsellers and inspirational books and what is oddly called by them the new genre of Christian fiction. (Frequently I am positive that I am the only person at Fort Lauderdale’s airport with any familiarity with medieval authors.)

Now, every once in awhile the airport books will surprise me with something like the curious incident of the dog in the night-time which was rather good, but then again, I get stuff like The Lovely Bones which I need to write about in my own LJ, which started out as an outstanding, fascinating, original work and dwindled into nothingness.

My point: regular fiction isn't always doing us any favors, either.

And some books appear to have been placed in various genres by mistake – this tends to happen in both the mystery and, sigh, the romance genre. On romance shelves I expect to find crap. That is where crap goes. That is where the dreadful, unreadable books are expected to end up. And then you hear a friend saying, "No, really, you need to read this particular book," and you find that it’s in the romance section and you really almost feel ill, and you grab it and wonder why the hell someone shelved it there.

Admittedly this has only happened with two authors who are shelved in romance in the U.S. (and Canada and Britain id one of these authors as a mainstream fiction writer; this is an American problem.) But still.
benpeek
Jul. 28th, 2004 09:26 pm (UTC)
actually, you know, i should've made it more clear in the bit that i viewed that there was nothing that wasn't a genre anymore. even the 'mainstream' fiction is a genre in itself, hitching up to family, realist issue/depictions out there.

but otherwise, yes, agree.
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