What is ‘Artistic Purity’?

Art is weird.

Entire University faculties are dedicated to the multitudinous ways that art is weird. Probably the weirdest thing about art is the sheer, impractical unreality of it. If I write a story, I am essentially lying to you (particularly since I’m a fantasy author). The things I write about, in most cases, never actually happened and would probably never be able to. Not only is that OK, in this instance, that’s actually the point. People who like to read will actively go through multiple people’s lies and choose their favourite liars, and wait anxiously for these people to produce more lies for them. Continue reading

YA and Splitting Genres

Once upon a time, books were written for either children or adults. And mostly this was fine, and some of the children’s books were better suited to teenage readers and that was OK, and some of the teenage readers who liked reading a lot turned to the adult books for their reading material, and mostly the system sort of worked itself out.

Then a series known as the Harry Potter series was published, and 90% of the reading world sort of lost the plot. As these books were released, it became clear that there was another type of reader that the publishing industry had not accounted for, Soon, a new label appeared on bookshelves in stores. “Young Adult”.

That, of course, is grossly oversimplified. Harry Potter wasn’t written in a vacuum, though it was the right thing at the right time to trigger a change. Before Harry Potter, that demographic was reading books like The Belgariad, by David Eddings (a parody I didn’t realise was a parody until much later in life, similar to how many people read Gulliver’s Travels at a young age without realising it’s satirical). But those books were still very clearly modelled on books for adults, that happened to be accessible to teen readers, rather than books aimed specifically at teenagers.

I actually couldn’t tell you how old I was when I started reading Harry Potter. I know I got the book in 1997, soon after its release, because a friend of my mother’s had said her kids enjoyed it. However, at the time I was perhaps a bit young, because I read the first 20 pages and didn’t like it enough to continue. Later, once it started to become very popular, my mother convinced me to try it again and thus began my introduction to what may well have been my first ever fandom. Of course, whether this was when the story really became popular or whether it was just that myself and my peers just matured into the target demographic, I couldn’t tell you.

I can, however, say that it was four years later, in 2001, when other big-name YA titles started to be released. Artemis Fowl was released in 2001, so was the first book in The Bartimaeus Trilogy, and Eragon. The year before, the first Deltora Quest book was published. All fantasy or speculative fiction books, and all of them aimed at the same group of readers: teenagers (and some preteens) who had read Harry Potter and were looking for something else to read between books. We needed a name for the genre. So we called it YA.

Now, the early Harry Potter books, and some others in the genre at that time, were probably closer to what is now labelled, at least by publishers, as middle-grade fiction. That is, for young teens and pre-teens, where YA these days generally means for audiences of 15 to 18 years, depending on whom you ask. YA seems to have aged with the Harry Potter series a bit, and after the series was finished, it started to diversify. First, there was Twilight, which was also fantasy, but then The Hunger Games hit shelves, and suddenly YA was dystopian science fiction, and then The Fault in Our Stars spread the genre into straight-up fiction. Clearly, the genre is no longer “Harry Potter fans looking for more books to read”. The question now is whether it’s time to redefine or split the genre again.

Back when the genre was following on from the Harry Potter trend, it was basically all speculative fiction, and mostly fantasy at that. So, splitting it up into different ‘genres’ really didn’t matter. Twilight came and went and spawned a subgenre (teen paranormal romance), but that really didn’t disturb the YA monolith, even though there have been a few tropes working their way between the groups. But mostly the paranormal romance genre kept to itself. It really hasn’t been until the advent of The Fault in Our Stars (and many other books in its niche, both before and after) that the idea of splitting the genre became a serious consideration, at least for me.

For a long time, I’ve heard this argument: YA isn’t a genre, it’s a demographic! It doesn’t tell you anything about the book content! It shouldn’t be the label for the genre! We should split this demographic up by genre just like the adult fiction section, for clarity!

This is fundamentally missing the point of genres in the first place, and to some extent, of language itself. See, most people would get a very clear idea of what sort of story I’m talking about if I said I read a YA novel last weekend. It’s probably dystopian science-fiction or fantasy, or otherwise in a bleak setting. The main character is between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, and is probably female. There is probably a male Love Interest, and their romance is probably in some way Rebellious in their culture. The main character’s goal is, in one way or another, to destabilise or alter the fabric of society to right some systemic injustice. The themes of the story are probably something to do with corruption and unfair distribution of power, the injustice of treating groups of people like a lesser or separate species, and how passion (not necessarily romantic) overcomes obstacles.

That’s pretty specific, honestly. And at the moment (or, equally likely, the moment a few months ago when I last had a grasp on what was happening in the genre; I’m not discounting the possibility that the genre has now moved on without me), the trendy sections of the YA genre look much like that. That’s hardly “YA is a demographic that could contain anything!”

This is because YA has become jargon, and jargon is a funny thing. If I say to an accountant, “that table is a liability”, it would mean something very different than if I said it to a carpenter. The accountant, if they had reason to believe I was using their jargon, would assume I meant that I owed someone money for the table. The carpenter would probably assume I meant the table was broken or defective in a way likely to injure someone, and thus I would like the table fixed or replaced.

YA is the term for the genre now, because when we first came up with the term, it meant “for Harry Potter readers”, but you can’t use that as a genre title, and given the sheer number of people reading Harry Potter, “it’s everyone between these ages” was probably the only meaningful demographic label it was possible to give. But now the genre isn’t tied up with Harry Potter anymore, the name is a jargon term for a genre of literature that now means something different to the literal translation of the words.

The only reason we’d be looking into splitting the genre up would be if YA has become a useless term – if the category is now too broad. For all that I just described a typical YA novel of the mid-2010s, that really doesn’t describe nearly half the books on the shelf. For all that The Fault In Our Stars has a bleakness to it that wouldn’t be out of place in dystopian fiction, there’s a huge gulf of difference between it and Divergent. Skulduggery Pleasant, though in the YA genre, bears little to no resemblance to The Hunger Games.

The question is: Is the genre a restriction for either readers or writers? That is, would a reader get overwhelmed or confused by the variety on a YA bookshelf, and find it difficult to locate a book they wanted. In this case, this is particularly pertinent, since the readers of the genre aren’t assumed to be the ones buying the books themselves, like in adult fiction. The YA bookshelf doesn’t actually cater to the fifteen-year-old who devours books, has strong opinions on Four versus Gus, and knows how to recognise a particular subgenre from the cover art. That fifteen-year-old will sort themselves out just fine. The YA bookshelf has to cater to the middle-aged relative who walks in looking for a birthday present for that fifteen-year-old, who just knows they’ve seen the kid walking around with Maze Runner and Divergent, and still wants to find something that kid will like. Too much variety on the shelves will definitely be a problem for that relative.

On the other side of the equation, are writers going to find it difficult to find a “market” for books if the YA genre becomes too broad. YA trends, after all,  will still happen, and if the numbers say that YA readers like The Hunger Games, would a series like The Belgariad get overlooked by publishers as “not marketable in this environment”? Would those publishers be right?

For now, I would say that the YA genre is fine as it is. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts splitting up soon. It’s only getting more diverse, and this will become a problem in the future.

Me, I’m starting the betting pool on where we draw the divisions.

The Horror Genre

Folks, we really need to start talking about the horror genre.

That is, if it even is a genre anymore.

Horror is sort of the forgotten middle child of the speculative fiction supergenre these days. Fantasy is going stronger than ever, especially now that special effects have developed enough that we can see more fantasy on screens both big and little without modern audiences failing to suspend disbelief at the streamers-and-cardboard special effects (something something perception of special effects over time goes in another blog post – it’s a longer topic than I have time for here). Science fiction is also going strong, with a lot of blockbuster movies (even the ones that don’t involve superhero origin stories) using sci-fi elements as plot points. In particular, the near-future, one-invention-changes-everything sci-fi plot of, say, In Time (2011).

But what’s the horror genre doing, at least in the mainstream?

Let me put it this way – in many stories that show a character travelling to the future, they will make a joke about a long-running franchise being up to some ridiculous number of movies. Usually, at least in the media I consume, those references are either to Rocky or a horror movie.

A lot of people these days think of horror as one really good movie (or a few really good movies, in the case of properties like Dracula werewolves), followed by a string of increasingly desperate sequels watering down the original premise until the monster has either undergone so much power creep, or has been beaten so many times that it’s no longer threatening.

The horror genre is possibly the least forgiving genre for sequels. Once the first installation comes out, the audience already knows what the monster looks like and what the “rules” are, but for horror, concealing those rules (and often, though not always, concealing the monster itself) is the bread and butter of the genre. Hence, something needs to change. He’s back but now he’s invisible. It’s not dead, but now it’s angry and doesn’t behave like it used to. Unfortunately, there are only so many changes you can make before you break suspension of disbelief. Add that to the problems already plaguing sequels – needing to untie the nice, neat bows the ending of the first wrapped everything up with, having to do something new with the premise without deviating too far from the original, and just plain running out of things to say on the topic – and horror sequels have a terrible, but not unearned, reputation.

Then, the rest of what comes out in the horror genre is either actual or borderline self-parody (think Cabin in the Woods, the Whedonest horror movie I think it was possible for even Joss Whedon himself to make)

But it’s not like we just up and stopped making horror fiction. We very rarely just up and stop writing a particular kind of story, much less an entire genre. But somewhere along the line we sort of ran out of new material for the genre as it was.

Nowadays, horror is sort of relegated to a series of elements present in urban fantasy and soft science fiction. When was the last time you saw a Horror section in a bookstore? It’s held out more in movies and TV shows, but really the last bastion of the horror genre is in video games, though there it’s diluted as well. For every Amnesia: The Dark Descent, there’s a Silent Hill sequel (remember, we talked about sequels). The sin of horror games is a different one, though – it’s the FPS mindset that gives the character too many guns for the horror to feel threatening. I’m reminded of Bioshock – at first, when your entire arsenal is a heavy wrench, a sharp shock of electricity (which only really buys you time), and a pistol and a tommy gun (that keep running out of bullets), encountering a Splicer is a terrifying thing, because you don’t have enough resources to waste them without cause, but you also don’t want to get within hitting range. Leave aside entirely encountering a Big Daddy, which can deplete most of your resources in the space of a fairly short battle, and can prove very deadly if you happen to accidentally anger one unprepared. But by the end of the game, you have about twelve weapons to choose from, you’ve stocked up enough ammo to take down most things, and enough money to replenish your ammo whenever you start running low, and you’ve been constantly boosting your health and mana bars until you can take a Big Daddy to the face and usually come out on top. Sure, the game is still compelling, but it’s not really scary or threatening anymore.

I think it’s a bit of a shame that it’s becoming so difficult to find pure horror in the mainstream anymore, if only because horror is such an interesting genre for looking at what makes people most uncomfortable, and it’s always very tied to the context it was made in. Speculative fiction has always seemed to me to be something like society’s dipstick – science fiction tells us what we think of progress and the future, fantasy tells us what we think of society’s unspoken rules and restrictions, and horror tells us what makes us uncomfortable. There’s overlap, of course, and they mix together very, very well. Horror, in fact, mixes so well into both that it’s a great support for both sides. Horror in fantasy shows the dark side of the rules and restrictions that the fantasy novel explores. Horror in science fiction shows the places where progress either can’t or shouldn’t go. Horror is the foil to both of those genres at once. But the uncomfortable is worth exploring on its own, for its own benefit, not just as a counterpoint to another argument.

But then again, I’m never one to say that a genre trend is permanent. Who knows – maybe the horror genre is up for resurrection next (and no, I don’t count vampire romance as horror). We’re going to need to find some new monsters to do it, or at the very least a different angle. We’re going to need to make some new clichés, definitely. My money is on video games innovating first, because we’re finally learning how to play with the different medium, and video games do really lend themselves to intensifying horror. But however we do it, horror is due for a revival, and when it does happen, it’s going to be amazing.

 

Genre Definition

No, I’m not even going to try and come up with the definition myself.  Better people than me have tried and failed.

Again, I’m going to kick this off with an anecdote.  I was at a friend’s place the other day, helping him unpack books onto a bookshelf.  I noticed that this friend had an old writing manual, one of the ones that could be given to middle-primary-school children or early high school children.  I read through this, out of curiosity.  I will read pretty much anything that professes to tell me how to write better, but when I say it like that, I wonder why.

The first few chapters were actually excellent.  It was really quite straightforward in how it said to write about things, and actually gave concrete advice that sounded sensible, even talking about rhythm and voice (though not using that jargon, obviously).  So, that was good. But then it got to the ‘genres’ section.

It talked about four things a ‘realistic’ story needs: A character that sounds real, a setting that develops and informs the characters, a plot that presents real challenges to the character/s, and an ending that feels satisfying.  They kept the last two the same for fantasy, and then they they make me cringe.

The question of setting, I feel they got absolutely right for fantasy: It still needs to inform the characters, and it still needs to be internally consistent.  They captured that.  Perfect.  But character?  They changed character from “a person who feels real” to “a person who has have fabulous powers” (both quotations paraphrased; my quote-remembering skills are still AWOL from essays this term).  OK, OK, so there was a bit in ‘setting’ about how the setting needed to explain the character’s powers so it felt like it could happen.  Totally not my problem with this sentence.

See, I would have argued that nothing needed to change about any of those four things.  Not just for fantasy, but for any genre.   You always need a character who could feel real, a setting that they feel like a part of, a plot that has actual stakes involved, and a satisfying ending.  None of those things are optional for any book (save avant-garde literary fiction, but then you’re reading the book for neither plot nor character, so it doesn’t matter).  What gives?

On one hand, they probably just came up with these rules and had to try and fit them around the genres; it’s not a book that anyone was ever supposed to think particularly hard about.  So, with that firmly in mind, let’s go ahead and think particularly hard about this.

The way I see it, there are two explanations for this inability to make those rules change believably for different genres.  The first is one that anyone who looks down on romance fiction, or who joins the endless arguments about whether a book is fantasy or science fiction, will hate me for, and that is that the genres only differ in ‘window dressing’, essentially.  Therefore, a book about a fantasy protagonist trying to find the man who killed his father and thus save the kingdom is not substantially different from a mystery protagonist trying to find the serial killer and thus save the innocents of the city.  Definitely, a lot of different elements from genres find homes in other genres, and that’s pretty much accepted – sci-fi/fantasy elements in horror, for example (or vice versa).  They don’t feel out of place at all, and can create some pretty cool books.  This theory is also substantiated in the ‘only seven plots’ theory, and the Monomyth (seriously, go look those up; they’re excellent concepts to think about).  So yeah, you could argue that window dressing is what separates the genres, and at the core, they’re all the same.

But … well, something does feel intrinsically wrong about lumping all genre fiction in together like that.  If they’re so similar, why do crime fiction readers often dislike fantasy and science fiction, even though some of the harder science fiction is probably no more unrealistic than the forensic science portrayed in CSI, NCIS, or any other crime thriller show?  Why do fantasy and science fiction readers end up fighting so often, and feel that they have totally different genres?  I’ve heard the ‘only seven plots’ thing used to explain why it’s actually not that bad to be cliche in fantasy – after all, there are only seven plots, we’ve used them all by now!  How can you be truly original when everything has been done before?  That, as a reader, made me want to hit them.

The thing that’s noticeable about those ‘only X plots’ or ‘only X conflicts’ explanations is that they’re incredibly simplistic.  Man versus man.  Man versus Self.  Sure, the story of a woman confronting the man who (to use my above example) killed her father is going to be incredibly different from the story of the woman who confronts her father because of the career path he forced her into.  But they’re still the same category of those two stories.

So, what exactly is the difference between fantasy and any other genres?  After all, a huge question in the fantasy genre is ‘does it have to have magic?’ (The protagonist certainly doesn’t; thus the earlier definition from the writing book is kind of awful already).  Would a fantasy novel still be a fantasy novel if it were about an alternate universe without magic, but with a different political system and different culture?  It’s not historical fiction.  It could be commercial fiction, but does it have to be?
That’s a question for another time.  That’s the really deep stuff.  More relevant is: Does fantasy need to have [X fantasy trapping]?  Wizards?  No, not really.  Dragons?  Nope, plenty of fantasy without dragons.  Castles and a feudal system?  No, that’s not necessary, either.  It’s really hard to find trappings that are ‘necessary’ to a fantasy novel.  Plus, the closer you get to urban fantasy, the more fantasy can overlap with sci-fi, until you get a sort of sliding scale effect.  Sure the works at the far ends are distinct, but what about the stuff in the middle?

My theory of genre is this:  You read a genre because it hits certain emotional buttons.  For example, fantasy generates a sense of wonder and sweeping scale, whereas science fiction creates the sense of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’.  Exceptions are probably findable, I’ve not given this a whole lot of thought, but that’s what strikes me at first.  Romance taps straight into wish-fulfilment, the need to put yourself into the heroine’s footsteps and fall in love with a perfect man (I don’t read a lot of romance, so this might be wrong/inaccurate).

Genre is not about what you do with the characters and plot.  It’s about the emotions you strike and the particular wish you fulfill within the story.  And that is why those four rules apply to all fiction, but also completely fail to describe what makes a genre different from any other.

So, valiant effort, I say, but missing some very crucial things to make that writer’s manual accurate.

Rant about Preferences

Someone said something very strange to me the other day.

This was an acquaintance, someone I’d only met that day, at the event we were both attending.  We had gotten onto the topic of my English-student-dom, and so, it seemed inevitably, we began to make our way towards the topic of literature.  I mentioned some of the books I’ve been reading for my degree, and they mentioned the Great Gatsby, since the movie’s been all over the place lately.

Here’s the kicker.  I don’t particularly like the Great Gatsby.  I dislike it because I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters, so the pathos in the ending was entirely lost on me.  I can entirely understand why other people do like it; it is certainly written with some skill, and if the character thing weren’t a problem, I’d probably adore it.

The look I got when I explained this was incredulous.  “But you’re an English student!  And it’s a classic!”

What?

Just because I’m an English student means I have to like every book that is considered ‘classic literature’?  Well, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for Herman Melville, Percy Shelley and Jane Austen, then.

I hate this perception that Classics are somehow beyond criticism.  Sure, they’ve stood the test of time, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect and everyone will like them.  Not liking the Classics means you ‘just don’t get them’. Actually, I get this double with Jane Austen, apparently the idea that a female English student can be entirely ambivalent towards Austen is just unthinkable.  Just like being a fantasy buff who doesn’t particularly enjoy Lord of the Rings is some form of sacrilege.

Here’s the problem, as I see it.  For some people, there is no difference between enjoying a novel and appreciating it.  For instance, it is perfectly possible to appreciate the way, say, Catcher in the Rye is written, how the character is developed, and the way the story is put together, while simultaneously not actually enjoying the book because Holden Caulfield is whiny and insufferable.  I never fail to be impressed with the time Tolkien spent on his world and languages and all the background for his world, and of course it had a huge effect on the fantasy genre, you can’t ignore that.  It’s just that I find the characters flat, and the descriptions of the world get in the way of the plot, for me.

Plus, it’s just kind of silly to say that the Classics are beyond criticism.  That’s not a thing that happens to books.  Yes, they’re all influential, and they are usually very skilfully written, but they’re just books.  I mean, come on.  We can criticise modern science fiction, but not War of the Worlds?  Forget that – we can criticise fantasy today, but not some of the surviving greats of Gothic literature?  Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s always right.  We don’t apply that to people, how can we possibly expect it to apply to books?

I blame school.  I blame school for a lot of things of this nature, that and Hollywood.  We see so many examples of ‘bookish’ characters knowing all of these highbrow literary references, and we’re told in school that it doesn’t matter what you think of the book, all that matters is what meaning you draw from it.  That’s true to an extent – you don’t need to like a book to appreciate it, but it results in this odd disconnect where, if you’re a bookish type, you’re supposed to read books exclusively from the canon of Classics, because they “make you smarter” or something.  And if you have an opinion on the quality, then you’re arguing with something that survived through generations, and so many people thought was amazing, so you must be wrong.  Try to tell someone they should like Twilight because “so many other people do, they can’t all be wrong”, and see how many times you get punched in the throat.

In the end, I only said “Well, can’t be perfect.  I love my degree, but not always the books” and left it at that.  I don’t regret not ranting at them; they were a perfectly pleasant person and there was no reason to start an argument.  This is what blogs are for.