Good books don't have to be hard

Discussion in 'Fantasy / Horror' started by phil_geo, Sep 2, 2009.

  1. phil_geo

    phil_geo Rat Thing

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    The WSJ did a great article this weekend on falling book sales and the reason people don't like "true literature." He discusses the Modernist movement (Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner) and while he acknowledges their contributions, he wonders why we can't have good writing and a plot, too.

    Surprisingly to me (that a critic noticed this), he mentions that there is currently a place great writing is being combined with great plot, and it's fantasy and science fiction.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574377163804387216.html
     
  2. Rob B

    Rob B \m/ BEER \m/ Staff Member

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    and the author of the article is Lev Grossman, who recently published The Magicians - reviewed by me here and discussed here in the forum.

    Aside from that, Grossman writes for Time's Nerdworld blog and does "get it."

    The article is pretty good as is most of the stuff about which he writes.
     
  3. Psylent

    Psylent Registered User

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    Good article. I enjoyed his tracing of the history and influences of modernism. One thing I will object to is his blaming of falling book sales on "difficult" novels. "Literary" works have been ghettoized for a long time. It makes me very amused to see people seeking approval from the literati when in terms of sales and readers the group you most want approval from is romance readers, followed by mystery readers. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton are adult writers and they love plot (and people love them). The abandonment of adult fiction for YA isn't a matter of people seeking out plot so much as YA being hot--meaning publishers want to publish books as YA. Stephenie Meyers didn't intend Twilight to be YA, its where her publisher decided to place it because they thought it would sell best there. A lot of books that previously would have been published as adult fiction are being published as YA and unsurprisingly the readership is following them. I have no doubt that if Terry Brooks and David Eddings had been published today they would have been YA.
     
  4. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    Well actually, it's not considered a good article by many in the field. In fact, it's created another controversy, along with the slagging given to genre fiction in Scotland, although most are trying not to be too hard on Grossman, because they know that he meant well, even though he doesn't get it at all, in my view, I'm afraid. The best response for me so far has come from Jeff Vandermeer: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/08/30/evil-monkey-on-you-like-us-you-really-like-us/

    But you can get a rundown of others' thoughts in the SFF blogosphere through SFSignal: http://www.sfsignal.com/
     
  5. Fruitonica

    Fruitonica Registered User

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    A good article, I enjoyed the small history lesson because I'm fairly ignorant on the whole topic, but I have to agree with Vandermeer that it makes some unnecessary generalisations to create defined sides which can oppose each other.
     
  6. phil_geo

    phil_geo Rat Thing

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    He misread the article, seemingly on purpose. He chastizes Grossman for "inferring not only that Stephenie Meyer is a good writer..." when he says nothing of the sort. Grossman states the fact that her books are popular, and asks why. He also points out the exact behavior of Vandemeer, who dismisses it as crap and refuses to ask why it sells.

    Later, Vandermeer claims Grossman only likes easy authors who are "not too surreal", etc., ignoring the list of authors that Grossman gives, which includes Gaiman et. al.

    Vandermeer's rant just sounds like sour grapes. He's no Stephanie Meyer in sales, but he has always consoled himself by thinking his writing was so good people can't like it. When Grossman shattered that myth, he had to hit back.
     
  7. Bond

    Bond Registered User

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    Grossman makes points I've made similarly before. Modernists introduced a dogma that many cannot see past. I will take popular romantic 19th century reading over early 20th century modernist reading most any time. The language is richer and carefree. Sometimes the purple prose and grandiloquence becomes excessive but there is a vitality in them that is not enervated by the exacting rules and formalisms brought by the modernists.

    Quite right. Most of the so-called "critics" of today do little but regurgitate the modernist dogma. They do not actually critique. They dismiss Harry Potter without even bothering to figure out why it is superior to many of the books they prize and hold in esteem. They do not ask "Why?" Not surprising really when you realize that underneath the patina of erudition they attempt to cultivate, they are incapable of original thought.
     
  8. JunkMonkey

    JunkMonkey Registered User

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    I think he means 'implying'.
     
  9. Davis Ashura

    Davis Ashura Would be writer? Sure.

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    Are Vandermeer's books that self-congratulatory regarding his supposed witticisms and wisdom? Is this 'evil monkey' something that's recurrent on his blog, or simply a poorly-constructed strawman-creating device? I think Grossman's question of 'why' are these authors popular is a very important one. It's a shame Vandermeer chose to ignore that and instead wrote a mocking little rant that truly said nothing but "they really like me, and I don't like that".
     
  10. Davis Ashura

    Davis Ashura Would be writer? Sure.

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    Well, Vandermeer used "inferring". Don't see much difference in the word choice in that setting.
     
  11. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    I don't agree, Phil. I don't agree with Vandermeer about Stephanie Meyer, either, but it was part of him being funny, not jealous. (Yes, he's used evil monkey before.) What I do agree with is his talking about tribalism, how it's not an effective way of looking at literature or SFF and never has been, how genre and literary (as defined by Modernists in Grossman's musings,) are not different animals, how SFF has plenty of stuff that is just like the Modernists as defined by Grossman. (But Neil Gaiman is not a surrealist. He has plots. He is a dreamy lyricist though.)

    But not all SFF is about plot, and not all SFF is easy, or suspense or romance, for that matter. Grossman makes the mistake of -- since literary critics have tried to turn genre into a uniform "type" of story -- going along with that idea and saying that the genre "type" should now also be considered literary again, even more so because it is popular. Grossman also tries to claim that the Modernists invented and were the uniform total for a while of perceived literary fiction, which is not true. And for the purposes of his comparison, he goes along with the hoary fictional myth that "literary" fiction is seldom popular and genre "commercial" fiction almost always is.

    He's trying to do a good thing and say that genre fiction is literary, but he's going about it in the wrong way because he's trying to present genre fiction -- particularly SFF -- as a stylistic and uniform movement. And genre fiction isn't that at all. Genre stories are completely varied in their style, tone, structure, etc. And yes, they are varied within the category market. And it is this that prominent members of the community, not just Vandermeer, are responding to. That and the idea that books with plot are "easy" -- which Grossman objects to as a synonym for trash, but still will be read by others as "trash."

    Grossman has now responded to these comments at PW's Genreville blog, and very well, I thought. http://www.publishersweekly.com/blog/400000640/post/1310048531.html He has acknowledged that in trying to do the comparison, he simplified things and in the wrong way. But while he understands that the division of things into two boxes isn't so clear-cut, he still thinks it's kind of there. I have to disagree with his response #7, which implies that the Modernists never wrote genre, which is not correct, that genre fiction was never considered literary by critics and academia in the 20th century, which is not correct, etc. He's still trying to make it all simplistic, and that hurts us.

    But it's okay, Ursula LeGuin will forgive him for where he's tried to place her work in the universe. She forgives everyone, if sometimes gently skewering them and rolling her eyes. Everybody understands that Grossman is a good guy (well except perhaps for some rabid fans who sound like they were rude,) and that he's trying to get more respect for category market fiction, for books with action in them. He's a critic, an advocate, an ally. He just went about it wrong, because like so many, he tried to put everything in one bucket. (And because like so many, he's proposing that the term literary has nothing to do with the business of fiction publishing, but with people's perceptions of style, plot and structure. As Vandermeer points out, perceptions of tribalism have a lot more to do with how books are characterized, rather than what's in them.)
     
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2009
  12. Bond

    Bond Registered User

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    Modernist dogma is still the same as it was when it first came on to the scene. It has not evolved. It excludes and is intolerant. On the other hand I see some SF writers bending over backwards trying to conform to modernist sensibilities. That is the difference.
     
  13. JunkMonkey

    JunkMonkey Registered User

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    I meant Vandermeer was wrong not the poster I quoted.

    From Vandermeer's article:
    If Grossman is inferring something all well and good, but Grossman does not say that anywhere in his piece. What he does, in Vandermeer's opinion, is imply that he thinks Stephenie Meyer is a good writer. Totally different things.

    Imply: to express indirectly <'his silence implied consent'>

    Infer: to derive as a conclusion from facts or premises <'I inferred from his silence that he consented'.>


    Incidentally, Vandermeer told me to **** off when I pointed this out. Nice one. Somewhere around here there is a thread about what would make you stop reading an author. Telling potential readers to **** off when they have the temerity to point out that you got something wrong is high my list.
     
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2009
  14. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    You can screech that Vandermeer is not sufficiently polite all you like and not buy his books if you like; it doesn't change that he has an excellent point, in my opinion. What he's talking about -- dropping imaginary tribalism on both the general fiction and SFF fan sides-- works. It works with Clarke, Gaiman, Lethem, Chabon, etc. Grossman wrongly presents this as a new movement in fiction, rather than simply a jettisoning of false beliefs and perceptions about fiction, past and present.

    Grossman's mistake was to agree that the imaginary culture war could be real (presumably to get those invested in the idea to listen,) and agree that there are two tribes, but that both tribes should be seen as good, and that the one tribe was now using the attributes of both tribes for a revolution of real goodness. He based the definition of the tribes on issues of style and structure -- how the books are written rather than content, and declared the Modernist ideal to be the main sum of "literary" in non-genre general fiction in the 20th century, which was not the case. He leaves out the difficulties of people's perceptions of category SFF versus general fiction SFF, and marketing and packaging of both, both from fans and non-fans.

    He also accepts as fact for the purposes of his essay: 1) the mythical idea that the genre tribe is universally popular, "fun," and is popular because it is a uniform movement that uses uniform style and structure, in this case plot, by which he doesn't actually mean plot, but a type of plotting; and 2) the mythical idea that "literary" fiction is universally not so popular, or so popular anymore, because it is a movement with uniform style and structure. (#2 is actually a still fairly effective marketing ploy in fiction publishing for selling "literary" fiction.)

    "Literary" is not a sub-genre or genre of fiction. It is not one clearly defined movement with a clearly defined, monotone style and structure. Literary is complicated. Literary on one level involves marketing and the way books are sold and placed in stores and in the bookstore, and people's (often mistaken) perceptions of that. It involves the culture of social classes, (which includes racial issues,) which up to the 1970's dominated Western fiction publishing and still lingers, and how that effects perceptions. It is also about subjective evaluations of language use, style, theme, structure, plot, etc. on which there is no agreement. Which is why some genre writers are literature professors, and many genre works -- some published in the category markets when they developed in the latter half of the 20th century and others published in general fiction in the 20th century and before and after -- are studied as literature in universities and high schools and were thirty years ago. There are scholars who specialize in LeGuin. Literary isn't a box in which only one style or focus is allowed; literary is an ocean and we argue with each other about the drops of water.

    But we invent imaginary dividers, boxes, tribes, because that's tidier and you know where you stand then. Which is why Margaret Atwood, when she writes a science fiction novel, doesn't think she's writing a science fiction novel. She believes that science fiction is a movement, with particular requirements as to style, content and structure that its readers demand, and since she doesn't have what she believes to be the required aspects of that imaginary movement, her book can't be science fiction. This is a woman who hosted the televised tribute to Stephen King as a literary award recipient, as a major man of letters, mind you. She's not hostile, she just doesn't think she belongs to the science fiction tribe for her SF books. Which then requires LeGuin to roll her eyes, forgive her, gently correct her, and give her a nice review of her new SF novel.

    But it's not just the other "tribe" that does this. There are numerous SFF fans and critics who are convinced that genre is a uniform movement, a style, a sensibility that dominates the field -- and mistakenly believe that this is a main factor in how SFF imprints pick most or all of their titles. They ignore the wide range of styles and structures that I'm always going on about -- and this is part of the point that Vandermeer was making. There are other fans who think SFF works published in general fiction can't be part of the tribe, can't be "genre" because they don't necessarily have the "right" style and weren't published in the category market and the author didn't show up at a convention yet, and this is also what Vandermeer is talking about.

    Grossman proposed in his piece that the cultural wars be ended because they were unfair and all the tribes are good. He also insulted past SFF writers as non-entities in the 20th century, which was not the case, and the rest of them by saying they were the fun, simplistic books sold in supermarket racks, which is again an imaginary and simplistic division. He's saying that the cultural wars were imaginary and real at the same time. He had the right idea and good intentions; he just went about it the wrong way.

    But that's okay. Because while jettisoning the notion of a culture war and tribes works best to get rid of the myths once and for all, it does also work with some people to pretend that there is a new "movement" in "genre" fiction, particularly "genre" SFF, that should now be seen as literary, as good. Come on over and check it out is never a totally bad message, especially when it's delivered by an esteemed Time Magazine critic who's just written a fantasy novel that he is happily selling to both general fiction and category market crowds. It's a lot better than the imaginary not-SFF SFF fiction idea we've been sighing under for so long.

    So he gets his lashes with a wet noodle from the "tribe," he did his mea culpa, and maybe next time, he tries it again without the tribal nonsense. Or not, he's a free guy. But sorry, while category SFF is a community, it's not a tribe and it's not a movement.
     
  15. PeterWilliam

    PeterWilliam Omnibus Prime

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    None of my business jumping in here, but wanted this, as a peripheral record, to show that Vandermeer apologized and JunkMonkey seemed fine with it. Just a mix up.
     
  16. JunkMonkey

    JunkMonkey Registered User

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    He's back on my shopping list. :) I'll hold my hand up too. I expressed myself badly in the first place.

    I suspect a lot of genre labelling and subdividing of labels ('Post-apocalyptic Feminist Steampunk' anyone?) is to do with people wanting to know exactly what they are going to read before they read it. How many times have you seen posts hereabouts saying: 'I have just read X by Y, anyone recommend something similar?' or 'I want good suggestions of action-driven galactic space operas preferably with someone called Linda in it'? Why else do movie trailers give away just about every plot point of the film they are selling? And why else do people buy endless numbers of badly written novels set in universes they know and love from the telly? (I'm guilty of this too. I have a shelf full of Babylon 5 novels. I have barely got past the first chapter of some of them before giving up.) It's sad, true, and perfectly understandable but people want to be safe.

    The genre divisions are totally artificial and ultimately pointless - though marketing departments would disagree. Someone once said to me Nineteen Eighty-Four couldn't be SF because it was "too good"! Therefore, the argument went it must be 'literature'. Nineteen Eighty-Four is SF and literature. It's a good book and when it comes down to it there are really only two types of books. Good books and bad ones. Time will sort them out.

    Fifty + years ago people were safe with cop shows and crime books and westerns and cowboy books. Most of them are long forgotten - though the 10% that wasn't crud still survives and is watched and read by new generations. Same thing is going to happen with SF. Fifty years from now mass popular culture will be comfy in some other little niche (maybe, as yet, uninvented). Fifty years from now most of the books we hold dear today will be forgotten - and so too will all the criticism.



    And à propos of nothing above, here, just because I'm too lazy to find anywhere else to post it, are Neal Gaiman's bookshelves.
     
    Last edited: Sep 4, 2009
  17. Amaunette

    Amaunette Vicious Attack Bunny

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    I'd like to point out a logical flaw in Grossman's original article (and highlighted by Liviu's comment to Grossman's response to his critics) that it is certainly possible that readers' tastes have changed since Dickens, Tolstoy, et al were popular (pre-Modernist). One major change seems to be anti-intellectualism. I think before the Modernists, it was seen to be a positive trait to be reading at a high level. Reading meant educating yourself and improving your condition. But now being seen reading a book at all is a negative trait, and if you're going to read, it's probably best if it's something most people can understand and feel interested in with very little intellectual commitment. I'm not making the argument rather well, partially because I'm completely guessing here, but I think anti-intellectualism has made it easier for people to eschew reading "literary" fiction and to feel okay with the idea of reading low quality supermarket paperbacks (I'm thinking of James Patterson's stuff here, to give an example). Personally I think Meyer's Twilight books are somewhere a little above Patterson-level, but then again I haven't actually read them.

    Also let's keep in mind that watching television wasn't exactly an entertainment choice back in the day. Now books have to compete with a much wider form of more easily accessible entertainment. It seems perfectly reasonable that the general aptitude for intellectual commitment in reading has been lowered over time. It may have nothing to do with books having plot or not having plot at all.

    To sum it up, I'm just wondering if maybe people actually have gotten stupider over time, or at least less interested in developing or appearing as an intellectual by reading literary fiction, thus the relative change in the popularity of literary versus popular books over time.
     
  18. phil_geo

    phil_geo Rat Thing

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    Man, talk about putting words into a guy's mouth. All of the criticisms of Grossman's article I have read so far ignore the stuff he does say, and dwell on the stuff he didn't say.

    First of all, he never even uses the word 'tribes', and that's all the critics seem to talk about. What does it even mean? By inventing terms and then accusing Grossman of using them, you can pretty much assign any crime you want to him.

    Second, he never mentions SF writers from the past - how did he say they are both non-entities AND simplistic? Just because he says some great sci-fi and fantasy is being written now, from THAT you get that he is insulting all past sci-fi authors? Holy crap. Talk about a strawman.

    I would much rather people discuss what Grossman actually said, or even didn't cover, but not what they infer he said by what he didn't say about a term he didn't use when not discussing a certain time period!
     
  19. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

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    I usually go with camels in it, but the Linda bit is good.

    And Amaunette thinks people may be anti-intellectual, etc. (More people read fiction today than did in the Modernists time when there was a lot more disparity on literacy, education, etc.) Both of you are sort of proposing that, again, people may have a uniform view, motive -- you're trying to build a neat little box. But, as we know, some people don't read fiction. Some people read fiction but have very narrow preferences. Some people graze along a wider scale. And many people -- the core book buyers -- buy tons of books of all different kinds and have shelves like Gaiman's. Let's embrace the spectrum. :)

    There is a movement happening, for decades really but more rapidly in the past 15 years. It's not about writing or style but about perception. It's not organized or cohesive or uniform. It's just that a lot of people are dumping the scripts or partly dumping the scripts of tribes as movements, culture wars, genres as philosophies of writing, literary versus commercial/genre, and other such stuff. This is happening for a variety of factors, from generational, to changes in media, to changes in how books are sold, fiction publishers putting out everything from Pulitzer Prize winners to merchandising tie-in novels, academia, the Internet, marketing techniques, etc.

    Grossman is an excellent example of what's going on. He's an established critic with Time for fiction. He reviews SFF and loves it. He wrote a fantasy novel and went to WorldCon. That's why he's an effective advocate because he challenges and thus can change perceptions. What's effective is challenging the script, and in particular the notion of trying to paint things and authors that don't fit the script as abnormal exceptions. When someone says: "That doesn't count," others say: "Yes, it does."

    When Michael Chabon gets asked by an interviewer: these works of yours aren't the way genre writing is supposed to be or transcend genre, so they don't really count as genre, right? he answered, "Yes, they do," and went to SFF conventions.

    When Margaret Atwood says that her speculative novels aren't science fiction because the stuff in them could theoretically happen today and therefore they don't count as SF as they don't fit the SF style/needs, Ursula LeGuin says yes they do, but I'll try not to upset you.

    When someone says that Novel X doesn't have this or does have that, and that's not what literary fiction does, so Novel X doesn't count as literary, you say, yes it does.

    This works because it says that the script isn't fact and isn't accurate and the exception to the script cannot be dismissed as an abnormality loophole. By challenging the script as not fact, you get discussion about the fiction as fiction, as opposed to dogma labelling.

    If you don't counter, but allow or even suggest the loophole, it doesn't work as well because it allows the script to stand as fact and books to be dismissed. So if someone says genre is trash, and you agree that most of genre is trash, except for this book you like -- which is an abnormality -- you just confirm the script of genre=trash, and the book you like, which you made an exception, doesn't count as genre. Or, the person, having had the script confirmed by you about genre fiction, dismisses your assessment of the book you like as erroneous, and perceives it as genre trash despite your belief that it's not. Either way, genre=trash is allowed to stand as the way the world works, even though it's an imaginary idea.

    Grossman, again, tried to do both -- challenge the script and and agree with it as the definition of terms about writing. Which for a lot of the SFF community meant that he was reinforcing the script against genre SFF, not challenging it, and they perceived him as being condescending, or unintentionally condescending. But again, his piece may have done some good with non-fans since it was in the Wall Street Journal and because of who he is and that he is now also a fantasy writer. That requires they see him as odd -- an abnormality to the script -- or as normal -- a perception change. The likelihood because of his standing as a critic is that some of them will start to see it as normal.

    It's an interesting thing watching the shifts happen. (Ready to give up your script about tie-in novels, Junk Monkey?)
     
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2009
  20. Bond

    Bond Registered User

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    First, many SF books are more intellectual than Modernist books.

    Second, I doubt people are anti-intellectual as much as they are put off by pretension.

    Third, if we are to look at it from a simple cause and effect viewpoint excluding all other external variables it can be said the pre-Modernists gave rise to the Modernists and the Modernists have in turn given rise to the current situation. If the Modernists were something to aspire to give credit to the pre-Modernists. If the current situation leaves things to be desired blame falls on the Modernists.

    Personally speaking I am a reader because I ended up reading pre-Modernist authors before Modernist authors. I dislike most of the well-known Modernist authors and their arid antiseptic language full of pregnant meaning and self-conscious existential preoccupations leading nowhere. If all books were like that I'd drop reading altogether.

    To me the view that people have just gotten stupider with time is a sad lazy excuse, a fig leaf to cover up the calcification in literary criticism. Might as well say the earth is flat.
     
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2009