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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Killing Speculative Literature

In the last year I've been realizing some growing trends that have made reading very difficult for me. Some of these trends have been in books that have gained popularity and the worst part of this is that these books become examples of good speculative literature when in reality they are not even good literature to begin with. We should not accept these trends, or allow these trends in any way to shape the direction of speculative literature. To do so could very well kill the genre, or at least kill its chances to be accepted by the academic world. It is already difficult for the literary academia to accept science fiction or fantasy as true literature and they will have no reason and no desire to accept it if they are forced to sift through dozens of books just to find one that is written well. So here they are (feel free to add to this):
  1. POV Violations
    I've read two books now that violate POV. One time I can accept, even two times doesn't bother me too much, but when it becomes common it drives me up the wall. I had to quit on a book recently because it constantly jumped around the POV in the midst of fight scenes and places where you have to be very focuses. I can't stand it. What exactly has changed in our society to make this acceptable? Are we lessoning our standards? Why would an editor let this garbage slip by? Why would a writer or a copy editor let this slip by? Every time I see a POV violation in a book, I have to put that book down. POV has rules. If you're not going to follow them, don't write and while many rules can be bent, you still cannot expect me or anyone with a literary mind to take your work seriously or to even finish it if you randomly switch POVs. You can have multiple POVs without switching in the middle of paragraphs or scenes. As an example, read Ragamuffin by Tobias Buckell (yes, I'm using you as an example again Tobias). Great use of POV. He doesn't randomly switch in the middle of a scene, everything is divided appropriately so you know to expect a potential POV switch.
    Follow the rules. They were made for a reason. Even literary fiction doesn't break this rule...as a rule at least (play on words there).
  2. Unrealistic Fantasy
    Fantasy writers, I think, have the hardest job of all writers. Why? Because they have to take something that isn't real and never will be real. Science fiction writers are able to write things that could potentially be real; they have science behind them. But fantasy writers don't have that luxury. At most they have access to medieval history, but that generally doesn't help someone develop vast fantasy worlds like Tolkien.
    Given that, a fantasy writer absolutely must make his or her world believable. The creatures in it have to make sense. Mostly this applies to fantasy for adults simply because adults, in general, don't have the wild, illogical imaginations of children.
    Unfortunately, some books don't do this. They create creatures that are unbelievable. Four-winged dragons that have thoughts are not realistic. The only creatures on our planet that have four wings are insects, and insects can't really think. Most birds are not intelligent in the sense that they have significant reasoning power. How is one to dispel disbelief if the very world he or she is trying to imagine doesn't even make sense?
  3. Unbelievable Characters
    This applies to all literature. Characters have got to be believable. We have to look at what they do by the end of the novel and understand the reason for it. Their actions must make some sense, even if we don't agree with it. Even aliens must make sense so far as we have to understand that their actions are simply alien, but at the same time there is a reason for it that is logical to that alien species.
    To sacrifice characterization for style should never be acceptable. Yet there are many books now out there that seem to ignore characterization. Why? Science fiction and fantasy are less about the worlds they are set in than about the characters that populate the story. Lack of characterization hurts the value of literature.
  4. Series
    I think other people have had this issue with fantasy already. One thing that is really hurting fantasy is the series. There are countless multi-volume series out there, all going beyond a simple trilogy. People are going to get sick of it. Generally we all don't want to have to wait until the next volume to find out what happens. And what about the unfinished series? The unfortunate thing about series is that it takes a long time to do. Robert Jordan left an unfinished series behind and so did Roger Zelazny. It's unfortunate that those two authors died before finishing, but I also feel sorry for the fans who will never have closure to the story. Hence why shorter series--trilogies or quartets--or even single volume books will do much better in the future.
  5. Complex Science
    The good side of science fiction is that it is constantly being renewed as science advances. The bad side is when science fiction writers let science get in the way of the story or even in the writing. Most people who read books are not scientists, most people who read science fiction are the same. There is no need to bog down prose with references to things that people won't understand, especially if you don't intend to make it clearer to the reader. Just because Quantum Physics makes a marginal amount of sense to you doesn't mean it will make sense to your reader. The reader needs to understand.
That's all I can think of right now. Any other ideas?

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16 comments:

  1. Andrew5:01 PM

    Bravo, Shaun. I especially agree with the parts about POV switching, unrealistic fantasy, and unrealistic characters. While pathetic, I find them slightly reassuring in that if they could get published, surely one of us can, too.

    One thing I think you should have added: unrealistic plot points, such as a character getting lucky to the point where it's absolutely absurd. ;)

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  2. Thanks. One thing you should realize is a lot more crap gets published than good, and alternately a lot of crap books get attention they don't deserve and loads of brilliant, genre defining works get no attention whatsoever. You'd be surprised how many failures there are from a monetary perspective, and the sad part about that is those authors may not get published again because of that failure.

    On the point of unrealistic plot points, that one might be a bit hard to do with that phrasing. Here's why:
    Lucky people exist. Things seem to always go right for them, they get everything they want, etc. So it does happen, just not commonly. So perhaps you should call it Unrelatable Plot Points. That would mean plot points that the majority of the reader can't relate to. If a character always wins, always gets the girl, never struggles, never gets in trouble, is always right, etc., then there's little for the reader to put back on him or herself. We can relate to someone who has trouble with authority, we can't generally relate to someone that never has any problems at all, and even when problems arise it just seems that they meant nothing to the character.

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  3. Grea post and I agree with you on most points. But personally I see nothing wrong with a thinking four winged dragon in fantasy. I think you are trying to establish rules for making creatures where there realy shouldn't be. Sci-fi on the other hand might be constrained in how some species might "evolve" (and I think you know how I really feel about evolution) but not fantasy. The size of one's braincase is not relevant to a creatures ability to think or talk. Not when the governing force is magic.

    Now if an author laid down some very specific rules for magic and existence in general, and then violated his own rules with a creature, that is something else altogether.

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  4. Andrew10:50 PM

    Yeah, that phrasing could have been better. I was thinking more along the lines of a character is in a city with no memory at all, then stumbles onto a house to beg, and in the end it turns out the person who answered the door was their father. There are lucky characters, but if I read that in a story, I would probably have to put it down for a while, unless some explanation was given during the revelation.

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  5. Yeah, I know how you feel about evolution. I'm a proponent for evolution, but that's me. But I'm not one of those "evolution disproves God" people, because that's just stupid. God is...God...so technically he could have done the whole evolution thing if he wanted to...it could all be in his plan or something. Who knows. That's why we're human and we have science, to ask questions and find the answers :).

    On the other hand, I think fantasy has a harder job than science fiction because it isn't rooted in real science. The worlds are make believe, unreal, filled with creatures that never existed. I just personally have problems with things that don't sound real to me, and maybe that is because I have a scientific outlook, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that fantasy seems to be flooded right now and it becomes harder and harder to please me, so I become increasingly strict on what I deem good fantasy.

    Andrew, see, that would be unrelatable. I'm sure something like that HAS happened, but not to a lot of us at all. Actually a really good movie that had that idea was The Majestic with Jim Carrey, one of my favorite roles for him. But the ending has a HUGE twist. You should see it, great flick in my opinion. Watch it with a girl though, it's sort of a chick flick.

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  6. Follow the rules. They were made for a reason. Even literary fiction doesn't break this rule.

    Er, there are no rules. There are things that work, and things that don't work. Tightly-coupled third-person POV is a stylistic choice - and one that is more popular in the US than it is in other countries.

    Four-winged dragons that have thoughts are not realistic. The only creatures on our planet that have four wings are insects, and insects can't really think.

    Now you're being silly. Dragons are made-up creatures, so they can have as many wings as the author wants. And they can have as many deep thoughts as the author wants, too.

    There is no need to bog down prose with references to things that people won't understand, especially if you don't intend to make it clearer to the reader.

    So all authors should pitch their fiction at readers of low intelligence and no education? Just because you don't understand the science in a story, that doesn't mean nobody else does. But yes, there is a fine line between "enough" and "too much".

    Oh, and I agree with you on the unbelievable characters. I'm in two minds about series - they're more commercially successful than stand-alones, so we're stuck with them. But good stand-alones are often better than good series.

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  7. Oops. I've only just realised that I implied you were of "low intelligence and no education" yourself in my comment. Which isn't what I meant at all. I was trying to point out that lowest common denominator fiction is usually bad fiction - and not cast aspersions on your intellect and education. Sorry.

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  8. There are rules. Our language has rules on how it works, how it is put together, and how it is spoken. Writing in the creative sense also has rules, otherwise anything and everything would get published and none of us would be remotely qualified to judge literature at all, including teachers. There is a reason why POV has rules and why you don't break them by default. Anything that can potentially confuse the reader is a no-no.

    "Now you're being silly. Dragons are made-up creatures, so they can have as many wings as the author wants. And they can have as many deep thoughts as the author wants, too."

    I would only grant you this if the author of a book using four winged dragons had made it clear that his world was entirely a fantasy, a world far removed from ours, but in the case of that example the author had intended to make it all seem logical in how the dragons existed and thought and moved. There are different ways to portray fantasy: as fairy tale, unreal, unimaginable, like a dream-like fantasy, and then real, as in a real world, a world that could have existed if magic existed. The example I used was the latter and in a real world example no intelligent animal could exist with four wings. The amount of brain function required for such an animal would be astronomical.

    "So all authors should pitch their fiction at readers of low intelligence and no education? Just because you don't understand the science in a story, that doesn't mean nobody else does. But yes, there is a fine line between "enough" and "too much"."

    Not what I meant. Authors should make their writing accessible to more than just a tiny little cast of people, especially if they intend to be read. Your audience as a science fiction writer are not text book writing physicists, but readers of science fiction, who may or may not be text book writing physicists, but most likely are simply readers of the genre. A story should not be hindered by the science, but enhanced. There are ways to use Quantum Physics in a story, a science that most scientists don't even understand, and still make it accessible to the every day reader. Spin State by Chris Moriarty did this, and he as kind enough to offer a bibliography of his research in case one was interested in learning more. His book never relayed a concept and then let your head figure out how it worked. He showed it. He made it visible to you as the reader so that you didn't need explanation. It just made sense.

    And I agree entirely that series do sell better than stand alones. But I think at some point that will end. The genre of fantasy will probably endure forever though, in some form or another.

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  9. Just wanted to say Chris Moriarty is a she.

    Other than that I can say I also slightly disagree on some of your points, they seem more like specific instances that stand out to you more than indisputable rules.

    Any rule can be broken, but to be ignorant of them completely is what makes for bad literature.

    Also, there are many many respected writers who force you to go to the dictionary or wikipedia (I can only wonder how people read before wikipedia) every couple of pages. There's no reason an SF writer shouldn't be able to force you to wikipedia "Matrioshka Brain" or something similar. At the same time I sometimes want to tear excessive infodumps out of a book, so I can see where you're coming from. Its a fine line between explaining too much and not enough.

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  10. My goodness, I thought Moriarty was a man. I just read her bio on her site and it doesn't even indicate she's a she. That's wild. Thanks for correcting me. Appreciate it.



    Any rule can be broken, but to be ignorant of them completely is what makes for bad literature.


    Yes, any rule can be broken, but it's when you do things in the story that draw the reader away, confuse them, etc. that you've crossed the line. The problem with the things I have seen with POV, on a lot of occasions now, is that the writer changes randomly in the middle of paragraphs, switching back and forth without breaks at all. So, in the instance of a fight scene, rather than focusing on the mind of the character who was already the POV of that chapter, it goes back and forth between minds and everything starts to get confusing. I read a scene just like that and about two paragraphs into the action I had to stop because it was going all over the place. The worst part of that scene is that the character who wasn't central to that chapter as also a character that never needed a POV to begin with because she served no real purpose to driving the story. Plenty of rules can be broken. But there are some things about rules like in POV that if you break them you run the risk of confusing.

    Also, there are many many respected writers who force you to go to the dictionary or wikipedia (I can only wonder how people read before wikipedia) every couple of pages. There's no reason an SF writer shouldn't be able to force you to wikipedia "Matrioshka Brain" or something similar. At the same time I sometimes want to tear excessive infodumps out of a book, so I can see where you're coming from. Its a fine line between explaining too much and not enough.

    In regards to authors making you go look something up, that's not what I meant at all. I don't mind when an author brings something up that I might want to know more about. But the author should still make it clear in the story what he or she is talking about. They don't need to go into the details of how something works, just show us in some way how it works. We can understand what an Construct is pretty quick in Spin State because Moriarty makes it very clear in the prose what it is, even though some of us might not have a clue how that works. Moriarty was nice enough to give extra reading though so you could research things further. So, if I read something and I see reference to something and I'm curious what it is, I can look it up, but I should have to study an entire science to understand the book. That's mostly what I meant. If I have to practically be a Physicist to understand why things work the way they do in the book, then the author isn't doing his or her job. Again, I go to Moriarty. I have no idea how Quantum Physics works, I don't understand it and probably never will, but her novel Spin State made so much sense to me despite that it didn't even matter that I am ignorant of QP.

    Thanks for the comments though! I think I should have been a little clearer in what I was talking about, but oh well. This makes for conversation!

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  11. There are rules. Our language has rules on how it works, how it is put together, and how it is spoken. Writing in the creative sense also has rules, otherwise anything and everything would get published and none of us would be remotely qualified to judge literature at all, including teachers.

    But literature is entirely subjective. There's nothing objective about it - not even the grammatical or syntactical rules of language: for example, both A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker are considered classics of literature...

    Again, there are no rules. There are things that work and things that don't work. And which is which will depend entirely on the reader.

    (Incidentally, not even language rules are laid down in stone. For example, in British English using "they" to refer to a non-gender-specific singular is considered grammatically correct.)

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  12. A Clockwork Orange follows the typical rules of first person. It simply developed a character that was quite different from other stories of its type, which is why it is considered a classic. But the rules are still there.

    "Again, there are no rules. There are things that work and things that don't work. And which is which will depend entirely on the reader."

    We base rules on what works. And like the whims of what works and what doesn't, rules change. Right now, there are rules on what is acceptable use of POV and what is not.

    "(Incidentally, not even language rules are laid down in stone. For example, in British English using "they" to refer to a non-gender-specific singular is considered grammatically correct.)"

    I'm not sure where you got that from. Our language and many other languages have very strict, specific rules on how the use the language. The difference is that we don't necessarily follow all of them on a day to day basis. Regardless, there are countless places where it is written on how to form sentences properly, what is proper grammar, etc. The thing about language is that it changes with time. We have seen that obviously if we go back and look at literature way back when.

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  13. Right now, there are rules on what is acceptable use of POV and what is not.

    I'd sooner say: right now there are forms of POV that are considered more acceptable than others. After all, not every story is written in tightly-coupled limited third person POV, and not every story has to be. How acceptable these forms are depends on who's buying the story.

    I'm not sure where you got that from. Our language and many other languages have very strict, specific rules on how the use the language.

    Well, no. For example, the strict rule is that singular pronouns refer to individual subjects and objects, and plural pronouns refer to multiple subjects and objects - "the author submitted his story to the magazine". But here in the UK, if we don't know the gender of the author, we can use, "the author submitted their story to the magazine".

    Besides, people break rules of language every day in conversation- "I ain't doing that", "What you doing?", "How about them apples?", and so on...

    :-)

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  14. I did a whole article on the unrealistic fantasy bit. It really gets my back up.

    As do people who think they can use stupid POV things etc.

    Great post, as usual.

    I should comment on here more ... instead of just when I disagree with you. :p

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  15. "I'd sooner say: right now there are forms of POV that are considered more acceptable than others. After all, not every story is written in tightly-coupled limited third person POV, and not every story has to be. How acceptable these forms are depends on who's buying the story."

    No, there are many types of third-person and first person. I wasn't arguing that. I'm arguing that there are things you don't do with POV regardless of the form. Randomly changing POV in the middle of paragraphs or in the middle of the scene, jumping back and forth, breaks every standard rule of POV there is. Alternately, it doesn't work. That's what I'm arguing here. Violating POV detracts from the story, from the characters, and from the writing itself. That's what I'm addressing.

    Breaking the rules of language in speech is a lot different than in literature. First, most people aren't even fluent in English, even if they speak the language as a primary language, especially Americans (I'm a Yank). How we change language in speech differs from how the language itself is set up though.
    But if you look at a book like Strunk & White, you get an idea of the general rules of the language, and especially the important ones. You wouldn't write a prose sentence like follows "He done did himself good in that there happy time" unless that is the way the character talks (in first person). I don't even know what the heck I just wrote there. Rules are generally flexible, obviously, especially in language, but there is a limit to how much flexibility the language has.

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  16. No, there are many types of third-person and first person. I wasn't arguing that. I'm arguing that there are things you don't do with POV regardless of the form.

    Ha. Now, this I agree with. But when people start talking about POV "rules" in such a way that they seem to be saying that tightly-coupled limited third-person is the only "right" form of POV... well, I go and fetch my soapbox :-)

    First, most people aren't even fluent in English, even if they speak the language as a primary language...

    I think that's a bit harsh :-) Many people might not know what a subjunctive is, but they probably use it. I'd also be wary of Strunk & White and the like - they're prescriptive grammarians. And not everyone follows their prescriptions.

    Here in the UK, we get a lot of US fiction and very little of it is actually "translated" into British English. Which means that as a reader I'm familiar with the differences between the two forms of English. In many respects, British English is the freer of the two - it's certainly evolved at a faster rate than American English - and many of these rules have already been so weakened they're all but gone over here.

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