Archive for July, 2006

Genre Don’t Get No Respect

July 31st, 2006

So much is it disrespected that people outside genre will go to great lengths to disassociate themselves from it, so much that Ansible regularly features the disclaimers of various Literary Personages: “My work isn’t science fiction, it’s [perfect description of science fiction].”

Those of us within genre tend to object that the various Literary Personages are just being fatheads. If science fiction includes fiction set in the future, then any literature set in the future must by definition be science fiction – right? But this, as simple as it might seem to us, isn’t at all what the Literary Personages mean when they declare: “My work isn’t science fiction.” And it is no use insisting, as we often do, that the Literary Personages are only displaying their ignorance of actual science fiction, that they don’t understand science fiction is exactly what they are doing when they write a work of realistic fiction set in the future, without, say, any talking squids. Because it is not the subject matter of the work they are referring to. What they are actually saying is: “My work isn’t crap.” And the unspoken premise is quite clear: because science fiction is crap. Because genre fiction is crap. No one respects it.

The genres even disrespect themselves, renaming themselves, attempting to distance themselves from the genre labels. Science fiction is SF, it’s Speculative Fiction – but never “sci-fi,” which is the term we reserve for crap. Fantasy keeps adopting trendy new labels, trying them on for fit: magic realism, or fabulism, or slipstream fiction – anything but That Genre Crap. So we have “genre romance” vs Jane Austen; we have “genre fantasy” vs Italo Calvino. One is crap, the other is genius, or maybe “literature.”

It seems absurd, though, to talk about “genre fantasy.” If fantasy is a genre, then wouldn’t that just mean “fantasy fantasy?” And isn’t the notion of a non-genre fantasy simply contradictory? But the term “genre” has come to mean something entirely different from a story’s subject matter. A story’s subject matter may fall under the heading of fantasy, but now it must be further categorized as genre or non-genre fantasy. “Genre” is what Jane Austen doesn’t write. Genre is not-literary. And in the eyes of many, genre is crap.

What exactly does “genre” mean in this sense? Just what is it that distinguishes the genre from the non-genre story when their subject matter may be exactly the same? This is the sort of question that seems to call for Damon Knight’s ostensive formulation: Genre is what we mean when we point to it.

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Red Book of Hergest & Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin

July 31st, 2006

The full text of The Red Book and Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (The Black Book of Carmarthen) are available online.  How kewl is that?

Love, C.

More On “The Long Tail”

July 29th, 2006

In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “Backlist to the Future,” the publishing industry considers the long tail concept.

Kinda boils down to, ”too much trouble and too expensive.”  In the meantime — I pull this from the article:

Paradoxically, the online sales technologies on which the long tail depends may actually be undercutting backlist sales by squeezing them between the two poles of the market: new frontlist titles and used books, which are easier to find than ever thanks to the rise of online booksellers and search engines like BookFinder.com. This is a potential problem for most publishers, who rely on backlist sales for a significant part of their business. Titles more than one year old — including best sellers with staying power like “The Da Vinci Code” — account for 62 to 68 percent of annual sales at Barnes & Noble, said Robert Wietrak, the company’s vice president for merchandising. “It’s what the business is built on,” he said. 

Comicon International 2006 — The Movie Star, the Professor and the rest of the crew

July 27th, 2006

Last year, just in time for Comicon, my sister scheduled her wedding opposite the Masquerade, which I consequently missed.  This year?  Well, I missed the Masquerade again, but only because of other complications.

Where to start?  Where to end?  Egads, I’ve been going to this thing for twenty years now, saw it when it was small, saw it when it was dying, then saw it when it moved to the new convention center and doubled in size every year, even as they continued to enlarge the convention center.  I remember a couple years ago when I made the mistake of being on the main floor when the crowd capacity overtaxed the air conditioning and I nearly fainted on top of Guillermo Del Toro as he was slipping out the back of the Marvel booth and under my arm as I supported myself on a pillar.

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Le Tour or Vive le difference

July 26th, 2006

Just finished watching the Tour de France, one of my two sporting addictions. I loved the comment of one analyst: it seems American Tour winners must visit Hell before they reach their destiny in the Tour. Europeans climb slowly and politely through the cycling ranks, from club riding to semi-pro to professional support rider to team leader to Tour winner. Americans must be either mostly dead from a gun shot, a cancer survivor, or a young fellow with a necrotic hip who falls into the Pit of Despair and hauls himself out again with sheer will, guts, and strength.

Which led me (believe it or not) to think about heroes and storytelling. Is one kind of story more satisfying than the other? Is this another expression of our discussion regarding literary vs genre fiction? The Pit of Despair can lend itself so easily to melodrama, the slow dutiful rise to subtler crises of faith. Hmmm…

The Five Elements Common to All Stories

July 26th, 2006

I’ve been thinking about the purpose of telling stories. Simply for amusement or diversion, as the most cynical critics suggest? For education, as those in the ivory tower suggest? For enrichment of the soul, as the spiritually inclined might say?

I tried to break down the story into its most base elements. What are the ingredients that no story can possibly do without? Every time I tried to think of something that fit this description, I kept coming up with exceptions. Eventually the only things that remained were somewhat… metaphysical.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.

1. Change. We can argue about whether the classic Aristotelian concepts of storytelling (inciting action, rising action, climax, etc.) apply in every case. But in every story ever told, something happens. Characters move from place to place, characters grow in their understanding of something, characters fight and deal with conflict and come to decisions.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to write a story in which characters don’t change. Not every story has to end with our protagonist learning a Very Important Lesson, and it’s certainly possible for your protagonist to be the same stubborn, ignorant son-of-a-bitch in the story’s last sentence as he was in the first. But something has to happen in the interim, or it’s simply not a story — it’s a description.

2. Causality. Not only does something happen in every story ever written, but the cause-and-effect principle has to be present as well. If event B follows event A and there is absolutely no causal link between them — even a thematic one — then you haven’t written a story, you’ve written a series of descriptions.

Keep in mind that cause is a different thing than reason. A bolt of energy from the QX-5 dimension may strike your character dead for no apparent reason, but there is a cause-and-effect principle at work here.

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Com Con 2006

July 24th, 2006

I wasn’t there, for obvious reasons.

However, reports are floating in from a number of directions: friends, radio, lists, newspapers.

In the last few years, and even more so this year, this enormous comix convention is where Sf/F writers (and others too — the graphic novel isn’t restricted to sf/f/superheroes, etc.) who want to sell to the movies are finding their luck.

Hollywood’s scouting has come up gold — and they don’t need to worry about original scripts.  Or as one writer remarked with a mixture of bitterness, scorn and cynicism, as well as delight, since he and his co-writer scored a deal: “O look, pictures!  All story-boarded out and lots of good ideas for shots already!  No pesky writers to hire for a script!”

The trade publishers have reps there too.

The drawbacks, if you aren’t a deep fan or already deeply connected, one would think, are many, starting with the cost.  The convention is enormous and getting exhibit space is competitive, i.e. expensive.  Getting face time with anyone is really competitive, unless you are already a quantity that is known.

OTOH, one needs to begin somewhere to cultivate friends and acquaintances.

It might be the right thing for you and your goals.

The website is here. 

Mary Sue, Heroes, and Protagonists

July 22nd, 2006

Discussing Mary Sue characters seems to bring out anxieties–as if a writer is somehow doing something wrong by writing stories featuring characters with aspects that are always attributed to Mary Sues, such as beauty, ability, smarts, etc. Not true! We come to genre because we like heroic stories, or least I know I do. So I’m coming at the subject from the comparison angle. These are not even remotely critical tools so much as thought experiments–ideas to think about when we evaluate that story we’ve just written, or are contemplating writing. Or evaluating a book that might have worked, or almost worked, or definitely didn’t work for us because of the main character.
So for purposes of thought (or discussion) here’s the distinction that I see:

Protagonist. This is the main character. The main character might not have any saving graces, or only an attribute (Madame Bovary is beautiful, but there’s little to admire in her else, and she doesn’t come to a heroic end, but what the 19th C considered a “deserving” one); the protagonist can meander through a story rising or sinking or just plain going nowhere. You’re not guaranteed any resolution at all with a protagonist as the lead. The guys forever waiting for Godot are great examples of protagonists. Any story in which the main characters appear to be constrained to helplessness, repulsiveness and pointlessness might be said to contain protagonists.  Anti-heroes are sometimes also protagonists.
Hero. The hero may or may not have gifts–ability, brains, beauty, powers–but will have to fight to achieve success, or will die heroically. Winston Smith is a hero. So is Frodo. Neither of these “wins” in any sense, but when we finish the books they belong to, we think about their heroic battles. They did make a difference to those around them. The hero is challenged, has weak moments, changes. The hero does not walk confidently through the story always on the high moral ground, he or she has to reach for the right choice, fight for it, perhaps even struggle forward, always in doubt. But at the end there is resolution, the hero has grown, and has made a difference in his or her world.
Mary Sue. Never leaves the moral high ground–he or she is perfect all the way through. Dangers might come along, but the right power or the right tool comes just when it’s needed. Mary Sue is never really shaken, and thus, never grows. How can perfection grow? Instead, she accretes more and more power, attention, whatever, but inside she’s basically the same as when she started. Acorna, at least in the first book, is a classic example. Beautiful, kind, powerful, she moved sedately through her first story (I never read any of the others) collecting a posse and powers with the confident serenity of one who was born perfect and needs no challenge or change.

Of course there are books where it seems the lead partakes of qualities of all three. One could say that Lymond begins as a protagonist, and afterward veers between hero and Mary Sue: he always has the long view in mind, triumphs over every adversity, though there are costs–heroic costs–though otherwise he’s got all the attributes of Mary Sue: beauty, grace, smarts, talent, and a subcontinent-wide posse who talks about him endlessly, considering every move he makes. Flashman could be called a protagonist-hero, though satiric characters don’t comfortably fit into any model but that of satire.

The Dread Mary Sue

July 20th, 2006

For those who know what a Mary Sue is, skip to the next graf. Long ago in days of yore–AKA late sixties, early seventies–Star Trek fanfic proliferated across the country. Most of it written by women. And many of those women had not written much before their Trek stories, so their early ones–especially those written by teens, for example many of my friends–tended to produce a story roughly like this: a young, always brilliant, usually beautiful, ensign is assigned to the Enterprise. Kirk and Spock fall in love with her during the course of her madcap adventures. Meanwhile the entire crew is fascinated by her, she may or may not be kidnapped by Klingons or Romulans, but one thing for sure: she will save the Enterprise single-handed, a few planets along with it (if not the entire Federation) and then she departs, or dies artistically, and Kirk and Spock are devastated. (Those were the very early days when delicately raised young ladies couldn’t quite imagine what happens past the first kiss…or else could imagine it fine, but knew better than to put it down on paper in case nosy parents or teachers found it. ’twas bad enough that they wasted their time on that stupid sci-fi stuff in the first place!) There were so many versions of this same story that eventually the publishers of the fanzines said, “No more Ensign Mary Sue stories!”

Well, since then, the term Mary Sue (and sometimes Marty Stu or other variants for the guy version) has been incorporated into general genre writing talk. My problem is this. I’ve seen writers’ workshop people label as Mary Sues characters who are beautiful, or who are talented at something, leaving writers wondering if they are to people their stories with ugly clumsy dolts?

To my view, a Mary Sue is not always the most beautiful, but she is always the center of the novel–the center of attention, the plot revolves around her, the characters seem to have her at the center of their lives, and they talk about, and think about nothing else. But that’s just the first half of the Mary Sue equation. The second half is that she’s got the “mark” on her, that is, she is the Special One. She might have come from an abusive family, or is an orphan (few Mary Sues have had normal home lives) but something, whether a super-intelligent animal friend (horse, dragon, leopard, wolf, cat who takes one look at her, their souls bond forever, and the companion tells her she’s The One), or a Wise Old Mage, or a ghost lets her know she’s It. Or else she is born with a mark, or she’s given a special thing by an old granny, a witch, or a passing knight who conveniently drops dead right after. Anyway she subsequently gets her mega-mind-reading talent, or her wowza magical ability, or some sort of secret knowledge is handed to her. She doesn’t have to train, she just has to wish hard enough before that “breakthrough” at the climax where her powers become exponentially more powerful, and the Dark Lord is vanquished at the end, no matter how many centuries he’s been torturing entire planets every day before lunch.

A really brilliant writer can make a Mary Sue story work–see Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. Lymond is a total Mary Sue, but readers love him anyway. Most of the time the Mary Sue novel is going to be a fun, relaxing read, but we always know, from the very first page, when she finds out she’s the Special One, that she’s gonna win in the end, and everybody will love her even more.

There’s nothing wrong with Mary Sues. They are usually morally upright, kind to animals and hapless rejects, they are always inclusive and other-aware, in fact, though they be bratty, and will certainly be maligned and misunderstood, they never step down from the moral high ground, and they promise to use their powers only for good. But Mary Sue does have one flaw: she’s a tough character to fit into a deepgenre novel. Unless, of course, one is as brilliant as Dorothy Dunnett.

Hovel Day

July 17th, 2006

One of the many complaints about fantasy writers (and is pilloried in Diana Wynn Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasy) is the Peasant Hovel villages, towns, streets just below the castle. If you feel your world requires the wide economic divide between rich and poor, at least spend a day in your own hovel thinking about what life is actually like.

Here are my Hovel Day suggestions:

One, go camping. i don’t mean at some lovely place that has rustic cabins with electric lights and clean toilets that you don’t have to clean yourself, hot and cold showers, and a dining hall just down the path that someone leveled for you, I mean out in the wilderness somewhere. Spend as long as you can. you probably won’t want to hunt for food, but to make the test work, while you are going through the labor or building a campfire, cooking your meal, serving it, then cleaning up after it, reflect on how and wherefrom you would have obtained that meal.

Next, experience the tasks of getting through a day: where are you going to the bathroom? How are you keeping clean? If you camp long enough, how are your clothes getting clean, or are you compromising and wearing them over and over? What are you doing for entertainment since there is no electricity? How are you protecting yourself if the area is known for roving wildlife searching out food?

If you can’t go camping, then have a no-electricity time at your house–a week if you are venturesome (and this opportunity might be given to you if you live in a hurricane or quake area) for at least a day. How do you perform your daily chores if you cannot turn on a light or stove or washer? How do you communicate if there is no phone? You are permitted to use the toilet, but post a sign in front of the can saying “Where would I put it when I am done?” Cook without gas or electricity. Get from room to room without electricity–this is where writers often fall down, characters run around as if the lights were turned on in Ye Olde Castle. What does a room look like when you enter it carrying a lantern or candle? What do the stairs look like when you mount them with a candle dripping wax if you are not careful? (And where did you get that candle?) What does it smell like? Writers often blithely have characters with tallow candles–do you know what tallow is, how much it stinks, and how poor its lighting is?
A day spent without amenities can help make those poor folk in your fantasy land more convincing.

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