Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Box

I’m still thinking about Nick Hornby and Banks, and what that says. I looked back at my original post for which I’ve been chided for being naïve about the sf market. But the post isn’t really about the market. It’s about an aesthetic issue. Relationship of the artist to the audience stuff. Economics does affect that, of course. One of the things that being incomprehensible to all but a fairly small audience does—you know, writing books for 10,000 people to read—is it gives people a lot of freedom to write what they want.

Science fiction is, like all fiction, a fiction of conventions. Conventions like causality, which works a lot more strongly in narrative art than it does in real life. Conventions like the way that showing a character with a lot of books, or reading, or learning something like music or French will signal a sympathetic character. (It’s a modern day white hat.) One of the tricks of art is to work enough within the conventions that a your audience gets what you’re doing. Stephen Spielberg is really good at this. But work that is too conventional is cliché and although there will always be readers who do like cliché (particularly naïve readers) the majority probably won’t. There was an Italian actress in the nineteenth century, Elenora Duce, who was the hot actress of her day. She is considered one of the three great European actresses of the century (along with Sarah Bernhardt, no relation to Sandra, as far as I know.)

The theater repertoire of the day was heavy on melodrama, and in one play, Elenora Duce, as the young mother, stood with her young son in front of her, back against her long skirts, which her husband explained why he was abandoning them. There are lots of famous gestures from the days of melodrama, like the back of the hand against the forehead. Elenora Duce was considered a very naturalistic actress in her day, a kind of Italian Meryl Streep. A conventional melodrama gesture would be to fold her arms across her chest, hands against her shoulders. Instead, La Duce leaned down and folded the boy’s arms across his chest.

Audience members sobbed. Critics wrote about the scene. What she had done was to take the convention and re-interpret it, not so much that the audience didn’t get the information conveyed, but enough that it felt fresh to the audience. That bit of novelty seems to be a conduit for emotion.

So, I go back to Nick Hornsby. Bank’s Excession is incomprehensible to him. It’s not to me. I like Excession quite a bit. Banks is a little like La Duce in that he has taken a really old hoary set of conventions—the galaxy spanning empire, huge starships, spies, gadgets and exotic cultures—and updated the convention. But over the years, we’ve seen a lot of writers take those conventions (Star Trek used them, for God’s sake, and Star Wars, and Asimov) and do stranger and stranger things with them. Dune’s navigators had to have spice and didn’t really seem like the dashing spacemen of old. But other conventions in Dune were rigorously followed, like the hero as special (in this case, the Messiah) and a traditional political system that takes its conventions from feudal history. Dune was weird enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to follow. I mean we all get the noble Duke versus the decadent Duke.

Delany’s Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand gets weirder with them. The language is weird. The sexuality is weird. The audience is smaller.

I’m not crying for Banks. I’m saying this is an issue we can consider as writers. Our own expectations of the rigorously new extrapolation of conventions means that the barriers between us and the reader gets higher and higher. But science fiction doesn’t have to only be about rigorous extrapolation, no matter what John Campbell said. The stuff that is escaping the genre is often far less rigorous. And some of it is downright irritating. In Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s unabashedly apocalyptic future novel, the world is populated more and more by genetically engineered animals who have escaped, like genetically engineered corn cross-pollinating into other corn fields. One of the animals she describes as having escaped and adapted to the wild is white rabbits that glow in the dark. I read about Alba, and Alba is pretty neat. But as an ecological niche for an herbivore, glowing in the dark just sucks. Not one of these critters would live to breed. But nobody but me is griping about that. People hated Oryx and Crake for other reasons—it’s anti-technology bias for example (technology and the people who make it are evil).

David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest has a science fictional element in the dead center of the plot. A film maker who has committed suicide before the novel opens has created a film that people can’t stop watching. (Neal Stephenson did a similar thing in Snow Crash.) Does he rigorously extrapolate what a future society might be like where brain control could come over your television set? Advertising? Porn in such a future? No, in one sense it’s like those old stories where there Tom Swift would invent something and off we would go. Because ‘rigorous extrapolation’ is a convention of genre. We admire it. It’s never accurate, science fiction doesn’t predict the future. We just like extrapolation that has multiple ramifications because its an accepted virtue in the genre. It’s like La Duce crossing her arms protectively across her bosom. And it’s a nice place to go, ‘Ah, isn’t that cool.’

Which makes me wonder if science fiction is an interesting place to be anymore? There are other things science fiction does, besides rigorous extrapolation. Near future sf often doesn’t extrapolate at all. Or it extrapolates just enough to comment on society, i.e. in Vonnegut-like fashion it isn’t pretending to show the future so much as blatantly pointing out the present. (All sf is about the present anyway.) Some sf is nostalgic. It consciously echoes the sf of the past. My favorite of these is Karen Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” which both responds to “The Women Men Don’t See” by James Tiptree, Jr. and the White Men On Expeditions and Great Apes stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I like nostalgia quite a bit. But a little goes a long way for me. It can get gimmicky really fast.

SF has built a box. And the question more and more for me is what can I do in that box? Boxes aren’t necessarily bad, a sonnet is a box. And a wonderful little mechanism whose very structure insures that something will happen in the poem. I don’t know if the sf box allows me to do what I want. As an artist. These were some of the ideas that I was starting to grope towards when I posted about Nick Hornsby. And I'm still turning it over. I don't think I'm anywhere done thinking about this.

14 Comments:

Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

s. But work that is too conventional is cliché and although there will always be readers who do like cliché (particularly naïve readers) the majority probably won’t.

The content of the bestsellers list (and the lyrics of Britney Spears tunes) disagree.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Hit me, baby, one more time. Indeed.

When I was having lunch the other day, we were talking about getting oversophisticated. Like al lthe work we've put in figuring out how to avoid infodumps? Well, as far as I can tell, most readers don't actually care. Infodumps are fine by them. What is Tom Clancy if not a long string of infodumps strung together with a tissue of plot?

But that's just riffing on Nick.

What I really came to say was, have you considered mystery, Onyx?

5:16 PM  
Blogger Onyx said...

Britney Spears (at least initially) and bestsellers have all some, however minor, way of breaking convention. To be a bestseller requires that the distance from really cliche probably not be too far, but none-the-less, something was happening in "Hit Me Baby (One More Time)" and "Opps, I Did It Again" even if that was just the unacknowledged sort of weird manga-ish girl porn schoolgirl thing she did. That even Britany Spears does something a little different becomes really obvious when you look at slush or listen to demos, or go to open mike night.

Safe light, what about mysteries? I don't read them or write them, so I can't really talk about them. I know they're pretty rigidly codified, and I suspect that the search for novelty is why we are getting mysteries set in Africa like The Number One Lady's Detective Agency.

Joni Mitchell has a song where she says "the three great stimulants of the exhausted ones" are "artiface, brutality, and innocence." Britany Spears was working the novelty of porn/innocence for awhile in a mildly novel way for mainstream (although not novel for anyone who knew much about manga.) She's not innocent anymore. She's trying for artiface, but unlike Madonna, doesn't have the smarts for it. Madonna has also played the brutality card in some of her S&M stuff. Although she hasn't done it as well as Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan.

5:54 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

Onyx, I'd fear for the consequences to my mental equilibrium of trying to do the research to figure out whether that's true or not, but it's at least an interesting possibility.

I'm remembering this MTV News bit from the early 90s (it's better in Kurt Loder's deadpan): "Courtney Love yesterday accused Madonna of trying to appropriate Love's spoiled-virgin image." (Beat.) "Madonna was quoted as asking: 'Who is Courtney Love'?"

6:44 PM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

That even Britney Spears does something a little different becomes really obvious when you look at slush or listen to demos, or go to open mike night.


Hmm, I've done every one of those things, the first two for a living, and I've noted that there is something "a little different" within every piece of slush and every demo tape as well. In fact, there are somewhat greater differences within that stuff insofar that much slush and many demo tapes go beyond mere cliché, which sells extraordinarily well, and into outright reaction. Slush not only stands athwart history and says "Stop!" but says "Back up!"

I also read a fair amount of midlist knock-offs of bestsellers, and often it is the "failed" bestseller that is really the piece that's slightly off. The tiny amount of midlist horror published by, say, Leisure, is generally "darker" (resolutely unhappy endings) than the Stephen Kings books which directly inspired 90% of the list.

safe light, I think infodumps are half the reason for the popularity of Clancy, Brown, et al. People who rarely read fiction (and this is the majority of readers; a bestseller is a book read by those who do not read) want to feel that they're "learning something." Since they're ignorantly/arrogantly sure of their perfect knowledge of the human condition (e.g., I had sex so I know what sex is like, my grandmother died so I know all about death) what they like to learn is trivia about submarines or painting or computer hacking or forensic psychology, etc.


The other trick is to write it poorly enough and quickly enough that it reads like a movie shot and edited with traditional Hollywood coverage (the greatest lexcial cliché!) looks. I explored how that works in the first graf of the daVinci Code here.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Onyx said...

I've only read slush for about three houses and only briefly, but a lot of the slush I read seemed very, very conventional. Although the really bad stuff is not conventional--it doesn't feel plotted, for example, because it doesn't display the specific rules of casuality we prefer in fiction (we like our coincidences limited, most of the time, to events the plot doesn't turn on, and we don't like too much randomness in our fiction either.

I think the whole hatred of infodumps is really an over-reaction to specific kinds of infodumps. The ones where characters explain things to other characters that those characters already know. And the infodump that delivers information that the writer wants the reader to have before they get to the section where it is needed. I like infodumps if the information is interesting, or if it comes right as I need it. I think people will even read info dumps where one character explains things that the other character already knows if the reader wants to know it.

Here, a lot of open mike night is three chords and a guitar or what feels to me like very derivative rap.

I think the Da Vinci code, besides doing the reader-this-is-a-movie thing, also tells a great number of people something they feel is really juicy. A lot of my students who read the book (at a Catholic University, mind you) believed that the information in The Da Vinci Code is accurate, that it might be true. So the book, as Nick pointed out, makes them feel virtuous and that they're 'learning something.' What they are 'learning' feels 'important' without making them have to reconsider their lives in any way. My students were not nearly as happy to read Fast Food Nation as they were other books assigned in a nonfiction writing class.

In my reading of hundreds of short stories in slush, or in novels, I didn't notice that there was something different in each piece of slush. Except at the most literal level. They often seemed mind-numbingly similar to me in terms of their technique, emotional content and strategies. And I haven't heard a lot of demos, but a surprising number of them sounded like American Idol auditions.

What do you hear different in them, Nick?

8:00 PM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

The question of slush/demo was whether or not they were similar to bestsellers in their cultivation of cliché.

Bestsellers like The daVinci Code are all about cliché; the Christ family as grail as a plot hook has been around for decades and even dribbled down to comics and RPGs in the decade before the book's release. The use of Famous Places for action scenes was old when Hitchcock did it. Even the silly details are clichéd: why is the professor from Harvard instead of Princeton or Duke? Cuz when you ask someone "Where do geniuses go to college?" they pipe up "Harvard!" What do heroines do when they're afraid? Why their "green eyes flash fear."

What cracked me up is the list of similarities between The Code and the earlier book The daVinci Legacy. What the author of the latter book sees as proof of plagiarism is essentially a list of clichés!

In the slush, I've actually come across many Codesque books (this before the Code was published), most of them written as a popular substitute for the scholarly non-fiction the author was incapable of writing, but needed to if they really wanted to prove whatever Heavy Shit they were obsessed with. (Brown knows he's hoaxing, at least).

The differences were generally political: the far right seems to love thriller fantasies that are Really Really About True Stuff. And of course, the writing was horrid (e.g., constant use of speech tags other than "said", ridiculous prologues, protagonists that vanish for two thirds of the novel, trite Hallmark Card themes).

This was also true with other sorts of books. I read an immense amount of rhyming poetry in my slush, for example, sometimes even with poems about how unfair it is that nobody publishes rhymed couplets anymore. The "punk" titles I read were all well-worn variations on On The Road. Most of the political nonfiction was obsessed with "taking back the Constitution" or apocalyptic hysteria about this or that Presidential election. Zombie novels were ALL like Eurogrindhouse Romero stuff.

With demos, the trick was this easy: play the demo, then announce what bands influenced the band in question. Then read the cover letter, which inevitably included the exact same list.

9:08 PM  
Blogger Qwui said...

It sure does seem to be easy for snobs and wannabees to toss off quips about how bestsellers like _DaVinci Code_-- or Brittany Spears-- are lacking in all originality.

It's certainly a lot easier to denigrate the audience than to ask the questions of exactly how the work achieves its effect.

The prose of _DaVinci Code_ ain't gonna win awards for beauty, or for that matter, for clarity, either. OK, fine, get over it. Quit whining and bitching about how it's junk, you losers. Take it apart. Why does it work?.

12:31 AM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

OK, I'll take a swing.

Let me out it in an upper level post, though...

2:56 AM  
Anonymous Nick Mamatas said...

It sure does seem to be easy for snobs and wannabees ... Quit whining and bitching about how it's junk, you losers.

Big talk from Pseudonymous Yutz #5 (of 6). If only you guys were half-wits, then you'd be able to run THREE blogs.

Why does The da Vinci Code work? Well, because its publisher released more galleys than any of this sextet has ever even had as a print run for their actual books. Brown's previous books were just as shitty (cheap cinematic writing, lots of infodumps, Central Casting characters, every chapter ending in a cliffhanger, etc), but he was a midlister until a push was generated. Ditto the very similar The da Vinci Legacy; it did very well for a thriller in its first release but didn't set the world on fire. You can break down the content of bestsellers all day in the hope of one day being something other than a von Holtzbrink tax write-off, but that sort of theorization is useless since there are literally tons of non-bestsellers with the same exact thumbprints.

The annual big hardcover book is generally big because resources are poured into it from the beginning. The zillion titles just like it are there as a fairly low-margin item for grocery store shelves.

And indeed, even the Great Big Books don't last. Go to a Salvation Army one day and dig through the books. You'll find plenty of paperbacks from the 70s and 80s emblazoned with legends like "Over 1,000,000 in print!" And when you see 'em, you may as well buy them for the 50¢, because they're not in print anymore.

4:09 AM  
Anonymous Vera Nazarian said...

QWUI said:

"The prose of _DaVinci Code_ ain't gonna win awards for beauty, or for that matter, for clarity, either. OK, fine, get over it. Quit whining and bitching about how it's junk, you losers. Take it apart. Why does it work?."

My guess:

It works because most common denominator readers (at least readers of bestsellers) read because they simply want to know what happens, and are willing to tolerate, ignore, or bypass altogether the style and presentation of the thing they are reading.

Indeed, the more minimalist the presentation is and the faster it gets to the gist of the story, the better they like it.

Which in turn makes me think that bestseller readers are indeed not readers at all, as Nick Mamatas says, but a general audience for entertainment in written form.

3:22 AM  
Blogger Safe Light said...

Okay, that's a disctinction I don't understand. Seems to me like if someone's reading, they're a reader.

Could you help me out with what exactly the line is you're drawing?

3:45 PM  
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