truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (writing: glass cat)
[first published on Storytellers Unplugged, January 7, 2011]

click! )
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
The Requip has gone from making the RLS worse to helping. Sort of. I still have to take oxycodone to sleep, and I'm not getting any more fond of it the longer I take it.

Started physical therapy Monday. The therapist was very encouraging and helpful: my ankle's mobility is already improved, although there's still a long way to go. And I've met an old friend: one of the exercises he has me doing is the towel crunches [ profile] thecoughlin had recommended for my tendinitis--which, the therapist tells me, is likely to make a comeback when I start walking normally again. Something to look forward to, you betcha.

On the plus side, as I discovered out of idle curiosity, I can now do the tree pose to the left--it's not a fantastic tree, but it's pretty solid, compared to what I could manage before. So there are benefits to being unable to put any weight on your right foot for six weeks. Really.

I'm reading and re-reading and re-reading Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails, and I'm not quite sure why. It's a very peculiar book; I don't know of any other book quite like it.

On the one side, it's part of the sequence with Ten Days' Wonder where Dannay and Lee (EQ the author) are taking a baseball bat to the god-complex of EQ the character, which I find fascinating on the meta/genre theory level. background and unpacking for those who are interested; spoilers for Ten Days' Wonder )On the other side, it's a serial killer novel written in 1949. As far as I know, it is the only Golden Age mystery written about a serial killer (as opposed to the dozens, if not hundreds, of Golden Age mystery novels written about villains who commit serial murders), and it is a very strange hybrid. Because it's still an Ellery Queen novel, with the elaborate logical structure, hypothesis and counter-hypothesis and all the artificial trappings of the form, but it's also aware, as Ellery Queen novels sometimes aren't, of the human cost--even just in fictional lives--of its existence. The victims in Cat of Many Tails, even though we meet none of them until after their deaths, are very vividly presented, as is the grief of the survivors. There's a sense of them as real people quite contrary to the usual attitude of Golden Age detective fiction, which tends to treat its characters as chess pieces. (Possibly there is a sly remark on this habit in the fact that the first victim is a complete and utter cipher, so complete that the police can't quite believe it.) Dannay & Lee love their genre, that's very clear, but this novel is one where they're also exploring its limitations.

It's also a novel about New York City--and in that sense may be a partial exception to my claim that Dannay & Lee did not write novels with mysteries in them. Because the novel is very interested in New York and in New York's reaction to the serial killer called The Cat. This novel is very conscious of its setting and very aware of that setting as a character, as it signals from the opening lines:
The strangling of Archibald Dudley Abernethy was the first scene in a nine-act tragedy whose locale was the City of New York.

Which misbehaved.

There's a sort of triangular relationship in this novel between detective, murderer, and setting, and it's handled with the affectionate irony characteristic of later Queen. I'd still say it's a mystery novel rather than a novel with a mystery in it, but it's a very large mystery novel (spiritually, if that's the word I want), a generous one. Dannay & Lee have gotten through their pretentious phase; they're confident enough that they don't need to call attention to their craftsmanship. Which means that this is a profoundly readable novel.

Hence, I suppose, the fact that I am rereading it obsessively, despite the fact that I do not like serial killer stories.

It's dated, of course, particularly in the very Freudian nature of its psychology, but I don't even mind that. There's something about it that hits the sweet spot in my brain, something about the story-telling and the use of Ellery Queen as a character and a detective, and particularly as a character who is well established as a detective, and . . . I don't know. I suppose if I could figure it out, I wouldn't be on my sixth or seventh chain rereading.

The book also has my current favorite example of implied stage directions in dialogue. Ellery and his father (Inspector Richard Queen, NYPD) have just found out something vital, their first real clue:
"We've got to have the run of that apartment for a few hours." Ellery took out a cigaret.

"Without a warrant?"

"And tip him off?"

The Inspector frowned.

"Getting rid of the maid ought to present no problem. Pick her day off. No, this is Friday and the chances are she won't be off till the middle of next week. I can't wait that long. Does she sleep in?"

"I don't know."

"I want to get in there over the weekend, if possible. Do they go to church?"

"How should I know? That cigaret won't draw, Ellery, because you haven't lit it. Hand me the phone."

That cigaret won't draw, Ellery, because you haven't lit it. I love this sentence. I love the throwaway nature of it, sandwiched in the middle of a discussion of ways and means. I love all the work it does, everything it tells you--everything the narrative is not telling you--about Ellery's state of mind, and everything it incidentally tells you about the two characters involved. (The relationship between Ellery and his father is something else, previously in the series rather implausible and irritating, that this book deals with very well.) It's beautifully done and it's barely even noticeable. For me, the whole book, even the clunky bits, is like that. It has a sense of grace.

This is a funny place to find grace, but I'll take it.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
I get story ideas from dreams fairly often ("Straw" is a readily available example, if you're curious), but this is the first time I've had an insight into narrative craft.

The idea that a narrative is a series of questions is not a new one. It's another way to think of genre, if you're approaching it from the academic rather than the marketing angle: a genre can be defined as the list of questions a story chooses to answer. (Notice that it isn't the story's answers that necessarily define its genre, but the questions it engages with.) And it has occurred to me, in thinking about this dream of mine, that one way to judge the degree of conventionality of a given story is to look at how many of its answers you can predict before you finish it (or before you even start). The question of all romance is, "Will the protagonist find true love?" If you're reading a category romance, you know that the answer is yes before you so much as read the first line. (I deliberately chose an extreme example to make it obvious what I'm trying to say.) If the story poses a question ("What's wrong with this protagonist?") and you immediately roll your eyes and answer ("He's insane." "She's dreaming." "He's a vampire." "She's a ghost."), then you are reading a highly conventional story. If the story poses a question and you don't know the answer--or you think you know the answer and it proves you wrong--then you are reading a story that is either not conventional or that has deliberately engaged with its conventions in order to confound them.

None of this was the point of my dream.

The point of the dream was the relationship between conventionality and narrative tension.* It pointed out first that, yes, if the story poses a question and the reader knows the answer ("Will the homicidal demon nutbar take out the hapless bystanders in the teaser?" "Oh HELL yes."), there's likely to be a significant decrease in narrative tension, and a significant INCREASE in reader impatience, especially if the answer is not something the reader wants to watch play out. (I badly wanted to be able to TIVO my imagination at that point, so we could just skip past the part with the riding lawnmower. And on the other side, think of the disgust of the little boy in The Princess Bride: "Is this a kissing book?")

But if this were a simple 1-to-1 correspondence, there would be no market for highly conventional stories, and it takes only the most minimal acquaintance with the media-consumption habits of the modern age to see that that ain't so. And my dream went on to show reasons why that's so, how the answering of questions interacts with narrative tension, even if the audience knows the answers.

Point one, most obviously, is that narrative tension is heightened if the reader doesn't know the answer. What do the mysterious partially excavated underground fortifications have to do with the homicidal demon nutbar? (I never did get an answer to that one.) Even if the big question of your story has a conventional answer (Will the protagonist find true love?), you can still have plenty of narrative tension around the questions of "how?" and "with whom?"

But the second thing, and the thing that I hadn't ever realized consciously before, is that you can generate narrative tension by deferring the answer. In particular, by introducing other questions related to the conventional question which are not themselves conventional. So, given that my dream was pretending to be a TV show, the main (and conventional) question was, Will our heroes defeat the homicidal demon nutbar? And we know the answer is yes, even if I woke up before they managed it. But--unlike the thing with the riding lawnmower--that question isn't answered as soon as it's posed, nor is it obvious what the answer is. Beyond "yes"--but the question of "how?", which can't be answered right away, is the thing that any narrative is about. Narratives aren't about yes/no questions; they're about "how?" And before that question ("how will they defeat the homicidal demon nutbar?") began to be answered, new questions were put into play, like the underground fortifications, and the fact that our heroes were being transported willy-nilly from one alternate universe to another, all focused around those fortifications and the homicidal demon nutbar. What's the connection? I still don't know. The dream teased me with a partial answer (and, no, I wasn't really surprised to learn that the fortifications had human bones mortared into their foundations), but it deferred the resolution past the span of the dream. (Yes, thank you, I am frustrated by this.)

Of course, it is possible to lean too heavily on the tactic of deferral; you have to judge how long your audience will remain interested in a question before they need an answer, and likewise, how many complicating questions they will tolerate. I despaired and gave up on Robert Jordan because it didn't seem as if the major questions of The Wheel of Time were ever going to be answered and I could no longer keep track of all the complicating questions he'd thrown at me, but I know that a great many people have not given up. So that particular question is a matter of the alchemy between writer and reader and thus, like all such things, unfathomable.

But I understand something about building narrative that I've never fully grasped before. Which isn't bad for a night's work.

*For the two people who probably want to know, the dream was pretending to be an episode of Supernatural. I don't know why, as I have watched in total about three minutes of one episode of that show in my entire life, but it is not news that my subconscious moves in mysterious ways.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
I want to talk for a minute about why "genre" is the wrong word for science fiction and fantasy--though not necessarily the wrong word for horror. And how that makes the whole question of genre vis-a-vis sffh so damn complicated.

I'm sure I've said most of this before, probably more than once, so here's a cut tag for those of you who don't want to sit through it again.

but if you do, click here )


Aug. 29th, 2008 12:30 pm
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (valkyries)
TIME: 15 min.
DISTANCE:1.8 mi.
[break due to phone-call]
TIME: 18 min.
DISTANCE: 2.2 mi.
TOTAL: 4 mi.
NOTES: Obstinacy. I has it.
SHIRE-RECKONING: We burst into song. Again.

There is a direct correlation between how much I know about the works Prof. Rabkin is discussing and how much I yell. Today was Jules Verne and I only muttered a couple of times. And at least one of those was him doing his conflation thing again, where he's talking about Verne as being in the tradition of Robinsonades, goes back to talk about Robinson Crusoe, and then announces that Robinson Crusoe demonstrates thus-and-such about science fiction.

Which, hello, it does not.


Aug. 18th, 2008 01:51 pm
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (valkyries)
TIME: 30 min.
DISTANCE: 3.5 mi.
TOTAL: 29.7 mi.
NOTES: Too busy yelling at Prof. Rabkin to go for the burn.
SHIRE-RECKONING: I can see the River from here!

We've started Part 2 of the lecture series and Professor Rabkin is defining science fiction. He constructs a definition of science fiction in which the prototype has three characterisitcs:

1. claim of plausibility against a background of science (he's also asserted that Star Wars is science fiction, and I'd really like to know where he finds the claim of plausibility in it*)
2. high adventure (at this point, I yelled "MIKE!" at the DVD player, because Growing Up Weightless is brilliant science fiction and not even remotely "high adventure"**)
3. intellectual excitement (I will grant that good science fiction does provide this, but you know, so do mysteries. Fantasy can do it, too--at least I hope to hell fantasy can do it, or what on earth have I been doing for the past fifteen years?)

There's also an implicit, unexamined definition of science fiction against fantasy, whereby science fiction is (a.) for adults and (b.) literature.

And I'm sorry. Taking cheap potshots at the MOVIE VERSION of Dracula (and he doesn't even specify which movie) to assert that Frankenstein is more scientific and more plausible, and he conflates the Karloff Frankenstein with the Shelley Frankenstein anyway, since Mary Shelley very carefully avoids ANY explanation of how Victor animates his creature--I think that was the point at which I descended into name-calling . . . no, sorry, that was when he was expressing ASTONISHMENT that Asimov and Tolkien should be grouped together by publishers. I very nearly stopped the CD at the point where he was explaining prototypical definitions with the example of female beauty. "We look at a woman," he says, and you know what? That "we" does not include any women in it. It's that nice unexamined "the generic pronoun in English is 'he'" kind of misogyny which has no animus against women, and it doesn't matter unless you ARE a woman, in which case you suddenly feel like you've been asked to leave.

Also, when he talked about the types of definition, citing Wittgenstein (prototypical, functional, characteristic, and social) he forgot to mention the other crucial axis, prescriptivist vs. descriptivist. But since he's chosen to make a prototypical definition, he's prescriptivist by default. Which means I will be severely skeptical from here on out.

Also, he's trying to claim The Tempest is science fiction. Where is the science? Where, for that matter, is the claim of plausibility? WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, OVER.


Well, you know, it got my heart rate up. *g*

*My Star Wars canon includes only three movies and does not contain the word "midichlorians" in its lexicon. And Rabkin's only talking about A New Hope anyway.

**Speaking of Mike, I hope he knew about and visited the Mid-Continent Railway Museum. We went last weekend, and I kept thinking, "Mike would love this!"
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (ws: castabella)
1. Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen reviews The Bone Key, which [ profile] mrissa and [ profile] stillsostrange have also recently confessed to liking. (Given [ profile] mrissa and given [ profile] stillsostrange, I consider this a very neat trick indeed.)

ETA: [ profile] buymeaclue also likes it.

2. I have not abandoned the Due South episode analyses, but in the meantime I have a question for persons more knowledgeable about Canadian literature than myself. Is there a sub-genre of Mountie-lit, and does it replace or overlap with or otherwise have a relationship with the Western? Does Canada have an indigenous tradition of the Western (i.e., stories about cowboys and wild frontiers and lawmen and rustlers and robbers rather than stories about, say, Vancouver) or is that genre American?* I have a rather muddled idea about Due South and the Western, and it could use some grounding.

3. BPAL's Titus Andronicus (Dark musk and black amber with frankincense, red sandalwood, neroli and bergamot.) may be edging out Sin (Thoroughly corrupted: amber, sandalwood, black patchouli and cinnamon.) in my affections. Considering my unholy love for the play, this seems no more than appropriate.

4. Speaking of unholy love and Renaissance drama, if you're interested in revenge tragedy at all, I highly recommend Revengers Tragedy (2002). It's like the psychotic bastard child of Almereyda's Hamlet (2000, Ethan Hawke) and Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes), and like any self-respecting bastard in Jacobean tragedy, it takes down both its progenitors and does the Monster Mash on their faintly twitching corpses.

(N.b., our excellent local indie video store shelves Revengers Tragedy under Comedy. Be prepared.)

5. The Formerly Feral Ninjas are very odd little girls. I don't know if this is to do with being feral rescues, or to do with being warped in their childhood by me and [ profile] mirrorthaw and [ profile] heresluck, or if they would have turned out this way regardless. But definitely odd. They have Designated Petting Places. Outside a DPP, one does not touch the cat; inside a DPP, one MUST PET the CAT, biPED. The First Ninja will actually come fetch me and lead me with imperious mews to her DPP. Her sister, the Second Ninja, is more flexible about these things, and will designate temporary PPs as needed (You may pet me when I stand here as opposed to the true DPP: I am standing here! You must pet me!), although some places are simply Not Suitable and you will NOT touch the cat you icky biped. Neither of them approves of bipeds bending over them. The Second Ninja's DPP (the radiator cover in our bedroom) puts her at waist height, whereas to pet the First Ninja, even in her DPP (the front stairs), it is necessary to sprawl full length on the stairs and follow her as she weaves up them. Or down them, for that matter, although she's only persuaded me to do that once. What's interesting is that they have quite distinct and nontransferable DPPs. I've never seen the First Ninja in the Second Ninja's DPP at all, and while the Second Ninja perforce transverses--and often hangs out in--the First Ninja's DPP, she does not want to be petted there and attempting it will get you fled from as perfidious and untrustworthy and probably planning to eat cats.

Catzilla and the Elder Saucepan think the Ninjas are very weird.

*Yes, it is embarrassing how little I, as an American, know about Canada. Also embarrassing that I am, in this, typical of my countrymen and -women. :P
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (ds: fraser)
Due South, Pilot
Original airdate
: April 23, 1994
Favorite line:
DESK SERGEANT: You like pigeons?
FRASER: I don't have much experience with them.
DESK SERGEANT: It's not that they're dirty. It's just that I'm starting to question their loyalty.

Spoilers for all four seasons of Due South below the cut.

They'll hunt you to the ends of the earth. )
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
ROSENCRANTZ: I don't know how the next scene starts! Shut up!)

[ profile] peake posted yesterday about this attempt to define a "slipstream canon." Or possibly I mean a "slipstream" "canon." Or, well, here. Have some quotation marks--""""""""--and punctuate as seems best to you.

for them as cares, click with the clickyness )

(ROSENCRANTZ: There! See? I'm writing. Satisfied now?
GUILDENSTERN: [reading over ROSENCRANTZ's shoulder] No.)
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
[ profile] coffeeem has a wonderful post about Western as a genre. As she points out, what she says about Westerns goes for SFF, too.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (cats: problem)
It's a thought-provoking morning in the SFnal corner of the blogosphere. Which is good, because outside the blogosphere it's -5 (F) and snowing, and I am so not leaving the house. Except of course to check the mail.

John is musing about Hugo categories, with surely the most rigorous casual thoughts ever recorded for posterity on the Intarwebs.

Scott is ranting a beautiful and well-deserved rant about ideas in SF: "ideas are like cat toys for authors; they're what we play with as cutely as possible when we think people are watching." The phenomenon he's responding to is, I think, one I posted about a while back: to wit, that there are two entirely different categories of people who read SF. Different in that they want COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THINGS from their reading. Sometimes, a writer can please both camps. Sometimes, she can't. Sometimes, he doesn't even WANT to.

And sometimes readers react to that as if it were meant--exquisitely crafted, even--as a personal affront.

SF is no longer monolithically "the literature of ideas," if it ever monolithically was. SF is being written, published, bought, and read that doesn't give a damn about science, hard or soft, or about the sort of social thought experiment that LeGuin brought to SF's table. It's SF that wants to blow things up and not have to think about it.

I'm a member of the SFBC, although I almost never buy anything (budget!), and I've seen in their flyers over the past few months more than one SF book that is defending, even glorifying, genocide.

This is genocide, of course, of evil BEMs* created specifically by the author for the purpose of deserving genocidal retribution.

Circular logic, much?

Because, see, the thing about fiction--any kind of fiction--is that the author sets the parameters. If it is inevitable and necessary for the characters in a story to commit genocide, it is inevitable and necessary because THE AUTHOR MADE IT THAT WAY. Don't forget the puppet master, folks. Don't ignore the man behind the curtain.

I have a problem with the idea of making genocide a simple, inevitable, necessary decision. Or, you know, not even a decision at all. A given. I don't deny the possibility, for the universe is infinite, that there may be, out there somewhere, a race of BEMs so inherently, biologically anathemetic to us that there will be no choice for the brave little toaster human species except to wipe them out.

But I really, really doubt it.

And even if there is such a species and we do have to wipe them out to ensure our survival, that doesn't mean they will have deserved it. It will not be something we should be going around patting ourselves on the back about.

And although I am very very leery of yoking moral purpose and fiction together, if SF has a moral purpose, or any kind of moral responsibility, I think that moral responsibility is NOT to practice the rationalizations that will let future generations commit genocide without guilt. We have enough genocide already, thanks.

If you're gonna blow something up, you should have to think about it first.

*Bug-Eyed Monsters
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (mfu: ik-phd)
So the cem of The Mirador has arrived, and I am having an anxiety attack. And watching myself having an anxiety attack and thinking that there's something quintessentially life-of-the-writer about it. Also, you know, utterly counterproductive.

Yes, in my brain, the commentary track feature is always on.

I dreamed last night that [ profile] heresluck and I were discussing Tolkien (and along the way proselytizing someone we'd met in a library who thought she wanted to read Tolkien but wasn't sure about it)--and in the dream I was trying to explain something that I think is actually kind of interesting.


(Look, I'm having an anxiety attack, Giant Spotted Snorklewhackers and all, just smile and nod, okay?)

See, the thing is that secondary world fantasy, as a genre, has gotten the idea that it must have Epic Sweep and Casts of Thousands and go on for reams and reams, and we all know we think that because of Tolkien, because this is what happens when you redact a genius into a rubric. But Tolkien himself is doing exactly the opposite. He's doing that thing that they tell you to do when you're trying to learn to write short stories, which is that you figure out what the climax is, and then you work backwards to the minimum amount of information you can give to have that climax make sense.

And, really, The Lord of the Rings is a remarkably well-focused narrative, all things considered.

click here for the world's longest digression into raw geekitude )

And now, having digressed ourselves RIGHT OFF THE MAP, we return you to the discussion of Tolkien in progress:

As per usual, the trick is to imitate the deep structure of The Lord of the Rings, instead of the surface structure. Because they are radically different. Surface-structure TLotR gets you D&D and bloated fantasy "epics" and ObQuests and all the other trappings of what [ profile] papersky calls Extruded Fantasy Product and the essential intellectual and emotional bankruptcy that gets secondary world fantasy so often tarred with the brushes of "escapism" and "hackwork" and all the rest of it.

It's the deep structure you've got to look for, the machinery that's doing the work. Because that's the stuff that lets the narrative reach out. It's not that there are elves and dwarves and dragons. It's what the elves and dwarves and dragons mean, what Tolkien makes them mean. And not in an allegorical sense, but in the sense of intellectual and emotional investment. That's why Tolkien is a genius rather than a rubric. And that's what we've got to learn.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (writing: david bowie-jump)
Sunday, I turn in The Mirador. Monday, I come down with a cold.

The universe just LIVES for moments like this.

I've been meaning for a while--like, say, a month--to make a post about prologues in fantasy novels, and now that I have a head cold as an excuse for any really wrong-headed things I may say, I'm gonna go ahead and do it.

The short version: Don't.

The long version: It is, of course, more complicated than that. )

What the story needs should always trump what the genre wants.

1Unless you're J. R. R. Tolkien. In which case, all bets are off.
2Please notice the unexamined assumptions I've assigned to the hypothetical reader in this case. I personally believe that fantasy novels are real novels. They're just not realistic.
3I've had to train myself out of establishing shots, because in a novel--as opposed to movies and graphic narratives--there's no way to use the medium itself to de-emphasize certain segments. All five letter words take up roughly the same amount of space.
4One word: tobacco.
5There's a whole 'nother jeremiad about the things the fantasy genre has talked itself into believing it needs, but that's a post for another day.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
My article on world-building, "The Importance of Maps" is part of September's Broadsheet, at Broad Universe.

It's free. Go read.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (mfu: ns-napoleon & albert)
And the trouble with sff is that it's a living genre.

Not, mind you, that this is "trouble" in most contexts. It's a joy and a delight--except when you want to talk about it as a genre, and then it's like trying to take still photographs of a rapidly moving object, such as a kitten or a dragonfly.

I'm thinking about this specifically because two people can be talking about "science fiction" or "fantasy" and mean the same general pool of books, and yet be talking about two completely different things.

Let me 'splain. We have (fortuntately or unfortunately) plenty of time.

Most genres talked about by academic genre theorists are genres that are either dead (seventeenth century English revenge tragedy) or have such a tremendous weight of tradition (the sonnet) that there is some common ground, certain things that do in fact characterize the genre.

Now fantasy and science fiction are, in the first place, Frankenstein's monsters. They're hybrid genres, taking things from the gothic, from the modern novel, from the romance, from the avant garde and surrealisme and experimental literary fiction, from the travel narratives and utopias of earlier centuries, from the pulps, from detective novels and film noir ... a smidgen of this, a snippet of that; they beg, borrow, and steal without shame of any kind. Oh, and then they just plain make shit up. And there are no protocols for it. Nothing's off-limits, and, contrariwise, there's nothing that everybody MUST use, or they'll be drummed out of the regiment and their propellor of their propellor beanie ceremonially broken.

But fantasy and science fiction are also, as I write this in the middle of A.D. 2006, genres that have accreted a certain amount of tradition of their own. Certain things that, yes, you can point to and say, "this is characteristic of the genre." But just because they're characteristic, doesn't mean that they're compulsory, either. Because, see above re: hybrids.

And so there are two (at least two) quite different ways that a reader in the sff genre can approach a novel. I'm going to call these two approaches Protean and Procrustean (Proteus being the chap in Greek myth who had no fixed shape and Procrustes being the fellow with the bed where if you were too short, you got the rack, and if you were too tall, you got bits of you lopped off until you fit), because, as I said in an earlier post, as a member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens, I need to name things in order to talk about them. Neither Proteus nor Procrustes was exactly the sort of guy you'd want to be trapped in an elevator with.

The Protean reader is the reader who loves hybridity and fusion and subversion, who's bored by traditional treatments of genre tropes and shouts with joy at particularly clever deconstructions, who seeks out moral ambiguity and difficult protagonists. (True Confession: I am myself a Protean, both as a reader and as a writer.) The Procrustean reader is the reader who prefers conventions to be followed, who isn't interested in experimentation or transgression.

Protean readers tend not to like Procrustean books, and vice versa.

And both readers and writers can be Protean in one respect and Procrustean in another. It's not a tidy binary.

Now the snag is that both Proteans and Procrusteans love sff. But when they want from sff are quite different things, and when they talk about sff, it can get a little like the North-Going Zax and the South-Going Zax: everybody's going the right way and nobody's going to step aside.

Proteans see the glory of a genre that will let you get away with anything you have the cojones to try. Procrusteans see the security of a genre that has a good seventy-year tradition, that has developed certain rubrics about narrative and characterization and world-building. And because these two approaches are as hopelessly entangled as the genres of fantasy and science fiction themselves, there's no way to separate them into camps. (Anybody else remember the old MTV spot with Dennis Leary: "Okay, the shiny people on this side of the bus, and the happy people on this side.")

People are coming to sff, in other words, with widely divergent expectations of what they're going to find.

And as an sff writer that's frustrating. Because, believe me, whether we're Procrusteans or Proteans, we're not setting out deliberately to disappoint people. But the genre has such a wide range of readers, it's like trying to aim a cannon loaded with buckshot at a single dandelion clock.

Of course, this is nothing new. But I've been trying to figure out a way to articulate the muddle, and this is as close as I've gotten. It's the same genre, but there are two sets of (sometimes oppositional) genre expectations at work.

The trouble with poets is still that they talk too much.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
[ profile] wicked_wish was talking recently about the difference(s) between fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and whether we really need dividing lines or not. And the subject has been niggling at me ever since. Not, of course, that the world particularly needs my opinion, but hey. What is the internet for (besides porn and cat pictures) if not for sharing unsolicited opinions?

There are three quite different answers to the question of whether the Siamese triplet genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror need to be separated:

1. Yes.
2. No.
3. They're just marketing categories.

Let me deal with the three in reverse order.

3. They're just marketing categories. )

2. No. )

1. Yes. )
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (mfu: ik-stet)
[ profile] scott_lynch joins in on the tagging of overused fantasy tropes.

And along with all the other intelligent and useful things he says, he has a caveat up front that I think I need to re-emphasize over here:

Scott saith:
I still shy away from that sort of bold "never, never!" pronouncement, because as far as I'm concerned execution trumps conception in every instance-- the hoariest cliches known to fiction can be made magical by a writer of sufficient skill and passion, while the most startlingly original ideas can be transmuted to Kentucky Fried Boredom Nuggets by a shitty grasp of writing essentials.

And of course he's right.

I sometimes forget to put the ObDisclaimer in front of my various jeremiads and animadversions, and sometimes this upsets or confuses people, or leads them to think that the first thing they must do in engaging with what I've written is prove me wrong or list exceptions to my "rule."

And sometimes I get tired of the endless hedging and disclaimers that are de rigeur for internet discussion. Sometimes I just want to shout FUCKBUNNIES! at the top of my lungs and let rip. Because I can be an unreasonable bitch just as much as anybody else.

Ergo, let me say this, loud and clear:

It's all situational. It's all subjective.

No matter how stringently I forbid something--the word "somehow" came in for this a few weeks back, because I was pissed off at Angus Fletcher's Allegory--I know that what I say isn't an absolute. How egotistical would I have to be to believe that? Last time I checked, my ego was not large enough to flatten Tokyo, and I'm trying to keep it that way, thanks.

It's a problem for writers--and, I suspect, for artists of other stripes--because we all desperately want to know How It's Done. We want there to be rules. We want there to be a password and a secret knock to get into the clubhouse. Because if there's a password--if there are rules--you can learn them. And when you've learned them, that's it. You're set. You can go swaggering on your way like Scott's Bold Prince Thundernuts, secure in your Heroic Morality Exception and Heroic Battle Death Exception, to kill all the women and rape all the men and be showered with praise and glory for it.

It'd be nice if it worked that way.

It doesn't.

There are no rules. There is no clubhouse. No password. No secret knock. People who tell you there are are either lying or misguided--or their egos flattened Tokyo several years back and are looking for new cities to destroy.

What I say, here or on panels at cons or wherever, is what's true for me. And I'll tell you what's true for me to the best of my ability, as clearly and simply as I can. But it's still only what works for me. My list (with inevitable clarification) could just as easily have been titled Eleven Things I Could Never Write Without Subverting.

This is all my opinions, people. That's all I've got.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (writing: virtu (Judy York))
So my list of eleven common characteristics of fantasy I can do without has sparked some discussion, particularly of # 7, in the course of which it has become clear to me that I have, once again, failed to say what I mean.

So, because I'm stubborn and a slow learner, I'm going to try again.

What I said was:
7. Social predators (thieves, assassins, etc.) with whom the reader is supposed to sympathize. Particularly if we're supposed to sympathize because of #4 [the correlation between beauty and goodness].

What it looks like I'm saying--and I freely admit this interpretation is right there at the front of the line--is that I object to social predators as protagonists. Which I don't.

My objection is to something more subtle, which is probably why I didn't articulate it well. So let's talk about heroes, antiheroes, and protagonists.

"Protagonist" is the fancy litcrit technical term, and means the character in the story who acts. In general, this is also the main character of the story (if your main character isn't your protagonist, your story may well be in trouble--I have historically had more than a little trouble with this) and also your viewpoint character (ObException: The Great Gatsby). These--"protagonist," "main character," "viewpoint character"--are all value-neutral terms, which is why I personally prefer them to the word "hero."

"Hero" has a lot of baggage to schlep around with it; calling a character a hero assumes that he or she (it even assumes the character's a he, hence the word "heroine") is Good, that he does the right thing and wants to do the right thing, that he stands for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and if in light of what America's been doing recently, you have some questions about how well those three things actually go together ... well, this is where the word "antihero" comes in.

An "antihero" is a protagonist who isn't a hero--aggressively so, even. My all-time favorite example is George MacDonald Fraser's Harry Flashman, who is a coward, a liar, a braggart, a bully, a lech ... and an amazingly engaging narrator.

This is where the word "sympathize" was the wrong word. Because as a reader, you can certainly sympathize with antiheroes. What I was trying to get at was the habit in fantasy novels of treating social predators as if they were unproblematically heroes, rather than highly problematical antiheroes.

I'm actually all in favor of antiheroes and morally ambiguous protagonists, and think fantasy could use more of them--as long as it treats them honestly.

Another way to put it is, I don't think murder should be sexy. Even in fiction.


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