The Map Is Not The Territory

September 26th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Dan Green (The Reading Experience — an absolute must-read, in our opinion) picks up on one of our favorite themes: artists who “disappoint” by not producing clones of previous successes. He notes that the motion picture business thrives on repeat successes, so it expected in other media. The publishing industry, alas, can’t turn around fiction rapidly enough to build on the same concept. Which, we maintain, is the best possible thing for our society.

Locking authors into slots is a product of a marketing-dominated business. Marketing, rather than editorial influence, has become a dominant factor. We like money, don’t get us wrong, but success isn’t always a matter of gross revenues. We believe readers are willing to try new things — some will follow, some won’t, some will join anew — but when the decisions are so strongly tied to marketing souls, who so love to use the “same old, same old” theme (it’s easier than thinking), creativity suffers.

Green, however, loses us by tying two concepts together. He marries the idea of producing clone work to the idea that genre fiction, because of structure, limits creativity. We’re not sure if he’s being provocative or reaching for an analogy when he says (either way, we pick up the challenge):

Is genre fiction–crime fiction, SF, horror, what have you–itself a product of this seemingly ingrained preference for reading (or viewing) only the sort of thing we’ve read and enjoyed before? On the one hand, these genres could be seen as challenges to the methods and assumptions of mainstream fiction, but on the other hand, doesn’t the very notion of “genre” require a degree of repetition of established formulae? Certainly many genre writers struggle against and stretch these formulae, but ultimately there would have to be a point beyond which a writer has stretched the form so far that the form breaks and readers conclude the result no longer belongs to that genre–and is presumably no longer of interest to those readers.

Surprisingly, Green melds structure with formula (which implies the same results are expected each time because the same steps are followed — pretty much the definition of every high school chemistry class). If he were to expand his definition of genre to include concepts like haiku or sonnets, would he use the same argument? Before we discuss this, we want to define our idea of structure. To do this, we will use high-level definitions of certain major genre fiction types. Your definitions may vary.

  • Mystery (also includes Crime): Something unexpected happens. Someone must get to the bottom of it. The mystery is always solved.
  • Romance (can include women’s fiction, which may encompass chicklit): Two people (genders may vary, depending) overcome differences and make a commitment.
  • Science Fiction (we’re including fantasy and even Westerns here, though it may be a stretch): Good triumphs over evil.

These definitions represent, in our view, reader expectations. When someone buys a book by, oh, Terry Brooks, they expect a certain type of resolution (authors like Brooks push reader expectations by writing extremely lengthy series, but, in each installment, there must be a fulfillment of the author/reader contract). Now, authors being authors and stories being stories, the reader may not be fully satisfied. If you have written much, you know that what happens on the page can surprise you. But, if evil wins and good ends up working in the coal mines, the author has failed and reader is lost. That is not to say this can’t happen, but genre fiction makes an implicit promise to readers: you will get the ending you desire. If the author fails to meet reader expectations, as happens in series, sufficient trust must be established between the author and reader or sufficient craft must be employed to convince the reader that they are not wasting their time.

Meeting reader expectations is a fact of the fiction writer’s life. If you are writing for publication, you must, at some point, acknowledge your audience (but please not while you’re actually in the creative mode). You have to face the reaction of the reader — and if you’ve made a promise (as genre fiction writers do), you need to make your choice to abandon that promise understandable. Readers are very forgiving. As long as the author has done the hard work. Each author must establish goals, but if readers are among them, this must be acknowledged.

So, the constriction, if any, on these types of stories, is that they must end in a way that satisifies the reader (and, frankly, if you write genre fiction, that has to be a goal — in fact, we believe most authors who work in this area have this concept engrained in their storytelling DNA; we are particularly drawn to the romance novel, but if you knew us and our world, this would strike you as strange — this is what we write, no matter how far we stray from the expected course). So-called literary fiction (we use the working definition of “we know it when we see it”) bends expectations; if the goal is wide readership, we’re not sure it’s always successful, but without someone pushing boundaries, we have reading homogeny. Who wants that? In genre fiction, you meet reader expections. All other plot elements, character studies, themes, subplots, whatever are open to the author’s imagination. Structure does not limit creativity, but it does create boundaries. See previous re: haiku.

Do genre fiction authors move beyond defined structure? Yes. This probably moves them into another, well, category of fiction. Not a bad thing, unless you’re the marketing staff of the publisher trying to build on a previous success. It is our personal belief that artists need to be true to themselves. This is very difficult when you also have to be true to a mortgage or car payment.

We love the concept of archetypes because they, mostly, represent, universal concepts in our culture (we are Western with a strong Eastern philosophical bent). We believe in heroes (gender neutral), we believe in good, we believe in community, and, to some extent, self-sacrifice to serve the greater good. And we believe in twisting these ideas. Perhaps this is why Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” remains both a personal literary favorite and personal nightmare. Talk about genre twisting.

Marketing departments, and, we suppose, lazy artists, fall into the trap of believing that the same as last time is a laudable goal. We know far too many genre fiction writers, in many genres, who continually strive to push the boundaries? Do they always succeed? Well, we’ll soon be posting on what we consider a failure, but our belief is writers, instrinsically, strive to move one step beyond. And then another.

Marketing sucks!

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