The Comments to last week’s WW wandered (as well they should) onto the subject of why so many early twentieth century artistic works – in which literature, music, and visual arts were all included – became so stylized as to be enjoyed by a limited group, often, but not always, made up of those who were specialists in that particular field.
This contributed to a split between popular culture and “unpopular” Culture that remains to the current day—although, as heteromeles noted, very amusingly, some of the techniques of Culture have been borrowed by pop culture to very interesting effect.
This got me thinking about which side of the division I come down on – at least in regard to SF/F, a field in which I both write and read.
As a long-time reader of SF/F, there are certain books I read which – while not bad in and of themselves – simply stick too close to formula to provide me with much pleasure. Therefore, if they have any weaknesses at all, those weaknesses stick out, leaving me feeling worse about the book than I might have if the same weaknesses had appeared in a less formulaic piece.
Basically, I don’t much care for a novel where I can inform Jim, as I have from time to time: “Okay. Here’s what’s going to happen, in this order.” I really dislike books where characters seem churned off a template – something that happens all too often when a writer is either trying to catch hold of a trend or writing his/her variation on some story he or she loved deeply.
Formulaic settings, especially those that use elements drawn from some other work – whether Tolkien or the latest video game or some movie – also annoy me, especially since the further from the source material the work gets, the less reasonable the combinations.
Does this mean I love innovative works? No, not automatically, especially if I can “see” the author doing a variation on the Joycean “look at me” that I mentioned in last week’s piece. Literary special effects don’t impress me unless they serve the story. Otherwise, they’re just as much of a yawn – and frequently more annoying – than formulaic fiction.
The annoying factor in innovative works was well-illustrated by the New Wave SF/F “movement” some decades ago. Since Alan and I discussed this in a Tangent back in 2013, I won’t repeat myself. I’ll just add that please don’t expect to impress me by inventing a new word or pronoun or inverted narrative style or using weird fonts. Been there, done that, rode that pony. Innovation is when these things serve the story, rather than the story being a Christmas tree on which FX lights have been strung.
When I started reading SF/F, there were a lot of magazines serving the genre – and this was way down from a couple decades earlier. Now there are hardly any, yet SF/F has never been more in the popular eye. My personal opinion is that the magazines began to serve not the wider readership but the narrower one that nominated for awards. In doing so, they lost the audience who wanted a good, ripping yarn. They might have won the battle of getting some SF/F recognized as Literature, but they lost their readership. A Pyrrhic victory, indeed.
Yet is formulaic completely horrible? Is new and innovative completely great?
I really don’t think the question is so simple. Formulaic fiction is most often attractive to those new to the genre. There was a series a few years back – I won’t name the titles, since I haven’t read the series in full myself – that sold amazingly well, despite the fact that just about every element in the books was transparently cut and pasted from popular movies and books of the previous decade. A young cousin of mine was in love with these books but, when we talked about them, he admitted he’d never read any Fantasy before, so what was derivative in the extreme to me, was new and fresh to him.
As an aside, I’ll note that there seems to be a serious glut of retold fairytales out there – in prose, graphic novels, on television, and even in “fashion dolls.” So clearly the audience for the familiar story is alive and well.
I can take pleasure in a book that has elements of formula, if the author does something fresh within the formula. The easiest way to grab me is with a character or set of characters I get attached to. Next comes an innovative setting. Both will keep me going through some variation of “Character discovers he/she is the Powerful One everyone has been Waiting to Save the World.”
I’ll admit, probably because writing is my craft, innovative storytelling techniques that serve the story excite me a lot. A couple years ago, a friend suggested I try YA author A.S. King. I did. Her Please Ignore Vera Dietz blew me away. I’ll admit, while I told Jim I liked it, I didn’t press him to read it, because I wasn’t sure he’d like the style.
Recently, I read A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future and was, again, impressed by how the narrative tricks served the story. But reading her books isn’t easy – and not just because (at least in these two examples) her main characters begin depressive. I couldn’t sit and read a string of her novels in a row, any more than I’d down a bunch of cups of espresso in one sitting – at least not if I expected to sleep without my head buzzing in circles.
So, which side do I come down on? Probably slightly in favor of innovation. There’s a reason I don’t read Romance novels. A variation on the same story doesn’t interest me. However, I’ll take a good story with not a single bell or whistle over a dull story slumming in fancy prose.
Which way does the balance between the two tilt for you?