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12 April 2009 @ 10:06 am
On Writing Different Genres  
Last week's Black Gate post. Behind, as always these days.


Last week I had no figures at hand regarding children and teen reading rates. A 2007 National Endowment of the Humanities report on the topic is available here in pdf format (number 47). The short version is that the reading rate is not declining for children, but that as teenagers increasing numbers of kids stop reading. The 20-page executive summary does not define what they mean by "literary reading," but in the summary for report 46, it's given as "The reading of novels, short stories, poetry, or drama in any print format, including the Internet. Any type was admitted, from romance novels to classical poetry."

Also, I inadvertently posted an outdated bestseller list. Here is the most recent PW children's fiction list online; the ABA's indie children's bestseller lists overlap but are not identical. Both are heavily weighted toward fantasy, and this is even more true of the series lists.


Yesterday (my yesterday; I'm 8 hours ahead of EST) Theo asked about subgenre preferences. I write in several different subgenres ranging from mythological fantasy to hard sf, and all writing is difficult, as far as I'm concerned. I do think there are differences, but first, a quibble, terminological or semantic as you prefer: all fiction is fantasy. Those of us of Indoeuropean linguistic and cultural affiliation participate in a set of related literary traditions who knows how many millennia deep, in which there are major narrative genres consisting of stories not considered true. This isn't so in all other parts of the world. Academic folklore (a Western, mostly Indoeuropean invention) has even hung itself up on the analytic criteria of "belief" and whether believing or not believing in a story's contents is a universal definitional criterion. It isn't. Quite a few literary traditions admit only true narratives (what is meant by true is a more complex matter than it would be for us, but that's another topic).

I bring this up partly because it seems that the sf/f genre subdivisions, and some of the arguments about the same, and some of the relative difficulties writing the same, are rooted in this deep IE literary division between true and untrue stories. Fantasy is stories about things that could never happen, while sf is about things that, based on what we can extrapolate from what we know now, might conceivably happen. I've heard many a sniff from hard-core sf readers that fantasy is a degraded genre because "anything can happen," and "you can make it all up." Excuse me, but I'm a fiction writer, and I can make it all up. By definition even the most rigorously extrapolated (read: imagined) future is never going to happen; at the level of content it's all "what if?"

At the level of execution, however, subgenres do use different sets of literary conventions. Sf has an extra set of formal rules that have to do with narrative treatment of the physical world: its workings have to seem as if they could be true. That statement has all kinds of qualifications which I won't get into right now; the relevant point here is that those can make the writing of it harder, but don't necessarily do so.

The difficulties, for me (getting around at last to that), arise less from the rules per se and more from their interaction with other aspects of story setting. In most fantasy, the setting is not that different from present-day mainstream US consensus reality, in which I include our common cultural heritage. The story is full of recognizable objects: house, rock, water, tree, cloth. The writer may tinker with the boundaries of certain qualities, for example that between animacy and inanimacy, but both are completely familiar concepts. Animate houses or swords may not belong to the reality that most of us inhabit, but the reader still pretty much knows how to imagine them, because all the elements are familiar.

My mythological fantasy Bear Daughter was in many ways easier to write than much else I've done, because I knew most of the pieces of it in advance. It was based largely on a non-consensus mythic tradition, but one very familiar to me. I would have said the story and its setting were fairly transparent. Some readers did not think so, and one reviewer said it was more alien and difficult to comprehend than far-future sf. It contained too many unfamiliar concepts for her; the magic and the magical beings didn't behave like mainstream-consensus elves and talking animals.

I've written earth-based near-future sf in which most of the setting is the familiar here-and-now, just add aliens. The way sf conventions required me to extrapolate about those aliens and the consequences of their actions was an extra set of rules I had to follow, but not a particularly problematic one.

The setting of my recent space opera novella "Pelago," in contrast, had to be completely re-imagined. It was set inside an AI-slash-space artifact, and information, its movement, and impediments to same were crucial to the progression of the story. I couldn't get my characters through a doorway without knowing how much the doorway knew, and how it felt, about their genetic makeup. Since I had set myself to follow hard-sf rules, I couldn't just wave my hands and say, "The space artifact is animate, and knows all!"; I needed a believable. it-could-be-true technology through which the artifact could know these things. That technology (which counts as part of the story setting) had all kinds of other ramifications for setting and characters and story progression. Making that as consistent as possible was a constant battle. Plus, once you change your setting that radically, you have to devote much more of the story to making the setting comprehensible to the reader. Yes, writing that kind of sf is much harder than writing any story, fantasy or sf, in which a door is just a door.

While writing "Pelago," another challenge for me that, say, a physicist wouldn't have faced, was making sure my space artifact (and the people on it) behaved according to conventional physics when that was appropriate. But that, I think, is in principle not that much different than knowing when the full moon rises, which in turn harks back to the issue of appropriate verisimilitude that has been discussed here before.

I think the issue Theo mentions, of the present changing too fast for sf to keep up, is a valid one, but probably applies more to near-future sf than other kinds, because that sub-subgenre directly invokes the present. Far-future sf has a much stronger admixture of "what if?", making it in that respect more like fantasy.
Comrade Cat: books-idle thoughtscomrade_cat on April 12th, 2009 10:12 am (UTC)
case example
Quite a few literary traditions admit only true narratives (what is meant by true is a more complex matter than it would be for us, but that's another topic).

But a completely fascinating one; any recommended reading? :)

Anybody have any conclusions on why teens stop reading? I would guess part of it is expanded opportunities of things they're allowed to do, so they have more leisure options, but I'm guessing that's only a small part, something that *lets* them stop reading.

I'm friends with a mother-daughter family down the street. The 15-year-old daughter has sort of turned into my protege, in that she loves cats & fantasy novels & plays Magic: The Gathering with me. (Since I don't want children, it's kind of nice to know somebody else will like good books when I'm gone.) Sometime in the past year the mother said to me she's glad I came along a few years ago, because Dragongirl had nothing to do & her mind was expanding, & now she reads all the time. My side was that Dragongirl loved Harry Potter, & one day I went into her room & was shocked to find she had no books at all. I know this is partly (mainly, in this case) income dependent, but I was just shocked. I grew up with literally thousands of books sitting around. So for Christmas, I gave Dragongirl a whole bag of used books, & that apparently started her off reading. She seems to go by topic - it has to be about dragons or vampires, & then she has to like it. We seem to have partially the same taste in writing style, but for me the style determines what I read & offers topics (I'll read anything if the writing is right), whereas the topic has to get her attention first.
Judith Bermanfilomancer on April 21st, 2009 04:16 am (UTC)
Re: case example
The NEA report talks about competition from other media, especially (iirc) interactive ones. My own history was that in high school I had much less time to read, because of coursework and other semi-mandatory activities, and much less access to f/sf fiction, and then in college I basically had no time to read anything for pleasure. Not absolutely true as I also had a social life. :-)

People do put much more weight when you're a teenager on the social value of what you read, so you have to push your way through that thicket if what you like isn't what your grownups think you should like. My sister-in-law criticized her oldest daughter (in her hearing) for always reading teen romances. Jeez, she was reading!!

any recommended reading?

I've put some in a separate post.