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The Three Types of Speculative Fiction

A few posts – and an alarmingly long time – ago, I wrote extensively on the value of Fantasy and how it is connected to (and as valuable as) its sibling-genres. Today I want to expand on that by discussing the three types of speculative fiction. No, not Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy. You see, one of the most common arguments about Fantasy – a reason people mistake it as inferior – is that people generally assume that Fantasy only comes in one flavour and therefore that any socio-politically heavy Fantasy must not “really” be Fantasy. This, however, is a false syllogism.

A what? A false syllogism is a type of logical failure wherein two premises are put forth but the conclusion drawn from putting them together is not valid. For instance: My cat does not chase mice. Cats stereotypically chase mice. Therefore, my cat is a dog.

People who think Fantasy can only be adventures and that they are all Tolkien rip-offs do the same thing. They say: “This high quality Fantasy is socio-political. I believe in the stereotype that all Fantasy is childish romance-heavy, fireball casting garbage about defeating the Evil Overlord and riding unicorns. Therefore, this is ‘really’ Sci-Fi.” Sure, they probably do this sub-consciously, but it’s still what happens.

Incidentally, I don’t have a cat. There used to be a cat, but she only chased string, ribbons, and laser beams. But I digress.

It is extremely silly (and illogical) of people to assume that Fantasy only comes in adventure!flavour, when Sci-Fi (the genre these people tend to prefer) is viewed as having three basic forms: Gadget, Adventure, and Social. These terms, and the idea of dividing Sci-Fi this way, come from acclaimed author Isaac Asimov. In his 1953 article “Social Science Fiction”, which was published in Modern Science Fiction, he declared that all Sci-Fi plots are ultimately one of three types:

Gadget Science Fiction: In which the story is focused on the invention and how it works. In this form the main character would, for example, invent a car and then give a lecture on how the car works.

Adventure Science Fiction: In which the story is action focused and the invention – the science – is a prompt. In this case the protagonist invents a car, only for the bad guys to steal it and force the hero to go on a high speed chase to save the day.

Social Science Fiction: In which the invention neither ignites nor ends the plot, but influences it and considers the ramifications of a world in which such a thing existed. In this case the protagonist invents a car, tries to get mass production funded, people start being able to live further from work because the commute is easier – causing class distinctions to blur – someone gets run over, and most people get stuck in traffic.

 

But this division is not only apparent in Sci-Fi. Its sibling-genres also can be divided up in this way. Indeed, with the blurring genres of Science-Fantasy and New Weird involved, is worthwhile to divide speculative fiction up in this way.  Of course, as Gadget is a Sci-Fi focused term it will need to be replaced, and I have chosen Phenomenon to fill its role as the equivalent of a gadget in fantasy and horror is usually not something the humans have invented or even understand (indeed, it is usually something which cannot be understood). In this case the divisions within the genres would be as follows:

Phenomenon Horror: In which the story is focused on the fact that something terrifying (natural or supernatural) is happening and the protagonist tries to figure out what and why. Whether or not they succeed in this is dependent of whether nothing or knowledge would be scarier.  For example, items start moving in the house and the protagonist tries to figure out if they’re being haunted, stalked, or just forgetful.

Adventure Horror: In which the details of the terrifying occurrence are irrelevant, and the hero is running and fighting for their life because it wants to kill them (or worse). For example, items start moving in the house and shortly thereafter the ghost/serial killer starts chasing the suspiciously buxom leading lady through the house.

Social Horror: In which the focus of the plot is not that something terrifying is happening, but how people cope with this. Such horror tends to be slower moving and lends itself to the psychological. (True dystopias fall into this category.) For example, items start moving in the house and the protagonist suffers from the mind games something/someone/they themselves unwittingly are playing with them while trying to hold their family together and struggling to convince the world that they aren’t insane.

Phenomenon Fantasy: In which something which is not explicable by our universe’s laws of physics (Newtonian, Quantum, etc) happens and the protagonist either tries to cope with it or explain it. If they attempt to explain by the physics of our universe they will, necessarily, fail, but if magic is a type of branch of physics in that universe they may be able to explain it in those terms. Nevertheless, something beyond our physics happens and is difficult, if not impossible, to explain. For example, the protagonist discovers that ice fairies have reappeared and tries to figure out why and how. They fail, or possibly succeed, but cannot truly grasp how it all works, even as they are both awed and terrified by the ice fairies.

Adventure Fantasy: In which something which is not explicable by our universe’s laws of physics is either accepted as a normal part of the surroundings or the instigator for the action, but essentially is a prop for the plot. For example, the protagonist discovers that ice fairies have reappeared and must use their new fire magic to defeat the dark lord of ice, save the world and win the crown.

Social Fantasy: In which something which is not explicable by our universe’s laws of physics exists or comes into existence in the world and the protagonist has to live with the effects. For example, ice fairies reappear and start altering the weather systems – causing food shortages, mass migrations of refugees, and political refugee crises.

 

And this? This is why it’s so painful to see people stereotype all Fantasy as Adventure Fantasy. Social and Phenomenon Fantasies exist too, guys. They’re beautiful and terrifying and marvellous in their own right, if only you give them the chance. The same is true of Horror. Some of the best – most deeply and truly terrifying – Horror comes not from running away from the monster, but in sitting at home, too scared to turn around, and wondering if it’s right behind you. Is that it’s breath you feel? Surely it’s just the fan. Surely. That prickling sensation is definitely not something …right?

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Posted by on November 7, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Is Bloody Hard to Pull Off

This is getting out of hand. I’ve discussed why it’s not okay to try to deny a story is fantasy because you don’t think fantasy can be quality in part one, why fantasy doesn’t deserve scorn in part two, and what fantasy actually is in part three …of a post which was only supposed to have one part. Now I’m going to talk about why Fantasy is actually – contrary to popular belief – the HARDEST genre to write.

The notion that motor-cars are more “alive” than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more “real” than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. – Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

In fiction, what is real is what can be made to seem real. An unbelievably portrayed car, for instance, can make it impossible for a reader to accept the fiction as real, and a believably portrayed dragon can hold that belief even though it is less easily accepted and more rigorously scrutinised. We accept what we view as the reality around us as being real. We believe in it. We do not believe in things which we have learned, through our experiences and lack thereof, do not exist in our reality. All fiction hinges on the ability to make the reader put what they know of reality to the side for the moment – to Suspend their Disbelief. In order to do this, in order for the reader to be able to accept this, it must seem to function as reality. Not the same as reality, but as if it were reality. All fiction must be realistic in order to be (temporarily) believed. All fiction must be (temporarily) believed in order to be enjoyed. The more out-of-normal-reality things you pile upon the reader, the harder it is for them to believe in what you are showing them. The author is an illusionist and the reader is far more willing to accept a coin pulled from behind the ear (obviously a sleight of hand) than sawing a woman in half without killing her (…something to do with mirrors, I think). By default, then, the more out-of-reality elements a work, or genre, contains, the more difficult it becomes to suspend disbelief and, subsequently, the more challenging the genre is to write.

Think of it this way:

To create Suspension of Disbelief in Drama, Crime, and other totally real world other than invented characters fiction (such as “literary fiction”), the only illusion the author must successfully make is that of the main characters existence. The only thing the audience needs to be made to believe – to suspend their disbelief on – is that these people could exist.

To create Suspension of Disbelief in Sci-Fi, the author only needs to create two illusions: that the scientific extrapolation (gadgets, alien life existing, etc) they are making could be true and that these people could exist.

To create Suspension of Disbelief in Horror, only three illusions have to be maintained: that these people exist, that this phenomenon exists/could happen, and that it’s fucking terrifying.

To create Suspension of Disbelief in Fantasy, however, the illusion of reality that the author must create (without which disbelief cannot be suspended and on which all successful storytelling hinges) is of pretty much EVERYTHING. This is because the story must, at once, both present the normal laws of physics as existent, and show a force, as real, which is in direct contradiction to them – i.e. magic, the supernatural, whatever. It is also because, most of the time, Fantasy is either not set in our world – necessitating that the audience suspend disbelief on an entire out-of-reality world, complete with its own laws of physics – or asks us to believe that we’re all stupid enough to somehow miss magic in our own reality.

Now, a lot of fantasy doesn’t put in the sort of grounding effort of realism that, say, George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien do and, thus, their fantastical elements cannot be believed (all suspension of disbelief is used up elsewhere). Nevertheless, for fantasy to work suspension of disbelief must be applied to the very way the universe works, as well as to the characters existence and so forth. Fantasy isn’t the “easy” genre. Fantasy is the HARDEST. The illusionist who saws a woman in half in a glass box has far harder time of it than the one using an opaque box. Fantasy is that transparent box – the impossibilities of the world are in full view, whereas what Sci-Fi and Drama need to suspend disbelief on is carefully covered with the firm, real, opaque box of the Known and Possible.

And, coming full circle to what started this series of posts in the first place, THAT is why it is not right to try to deny that high quality Fantasy – like A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones – isn’t “really” Fantasy because it’s good.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Has Its Own Worth

Welcome to Fantasy IS Fantastic, part three. Better known as what happens when you yammer on too long about what you want to say, instead of saying it, or why part two should never be allowed to take steroids.

Okay, so last time I talked about how and why fantasy is disparaged by fans of other genres and society in general – and I failed to get around to what I actually intended to talk about. To avoid a similar mishap this time, I shall get straight on to the two issues which need to be discussed. To save you having to go back and check what I said last time, I will quote myself: “This disparagement of fantasy comes from two basic errors. The first is the fallacy that because fantasy can include things which could not be in reality that anything goes – and therefore that it is the “easy” genre. The second is a fundamental failure to understand what fantasy actually is.”
Huh. Pretentious much? Well, I never claimed to be perfect. In fact, in hindsight I now realise that I should have listed those two fallacies in the order they would have to be discussed rather than the order which sounded best. Oh well.

 What is fantasy? There is a common misconception that fantasy is about dragons and medievalism and magic, although not all fantasy has those aspects and not all stories with those aspects are fantasy. Likewise, science fiction is not merely space tits and death rays fiction, nor is horror merely jump scares and vampires. This is how they are commonly viewed, due to a typical error of assuming the thing is the same as what is often used to wrap it, but it is highly inaccurate. At its core, each genre pulls at a different emotional or psychological (or even physical) aspect of the reader. In most non-speculative genres it is very easy to see this:

  • The core of Erotica is arousal.
  • The core of Romance is attraction.
  • The core of Comedy is humour.
  • The core of Mystery is puzzlement (and the solving of puzzles).
  • The core of Adventure is curiosity.
  • The core of Action is aggression.
  • The core of Historical Fiction is nostalgia.
  • The core of Tragedy is grief.
  • The core of Drama is grief (this is because drama and tragedy were – to the Ancient Athenians responsible for their invention – the same thing; there was no differentiation in genre between the possibility of terrible things happening and their actually having happened).

These make sense. After all, to use the most straight forward example, no one reads Erotica for puzzlement (save, perhaps, baffled teenage Asexuals trying to understand why everyone their age has suddenly gone insane).

However, if you try to apply this to Speculative Fiction while only looking at the trappings of it, is simply doesn’t work.

  • The core of Science Fiction is NOT spaceships.
  • The core of Fantasy is NOT wizards.
  • The core of Horror is NOT things going bump in the night.

So what is?

We often talk about Hard and Soft, or Technical and Social, Science Fiction – an idea started by Isaac Asimov in his 1953 article “Social Science Fiction” (in Modern Science Fiction) when he suggested that all Science Fiction plots fell into one of three categories: Gadget (“Look, I’ve invented a car: this is how it works”), Adventure (“Oh no, the bad guys stole my newly invented car, we must rescue it!”), and Social (“Some idiot invented cars, now we’re all stuck in traffic”). But those are distinctions within the genre, not the core of the genre itself. Nevertheless, it does illustrate quite well what the core of Sci-Fic actually is. Every plot type, you see, hinges on scientific knowledge being extrapolated into something new.

The core of Science Fiction is comprehension. It is knowledge – both current (science fiction being based on current scientific fact) and future (what possible advances in knowledge can be theorised from current scientific fact)

  • The core of Science Fiction is THE KNOWABLE.
  • The core of Horror is, of course, THE FRIGHTENING.
  • The core of Fantasy is THE UNKNOWABLE.

And that is why I spent so much time, last time, talking about how the arrogance of humans – in their belief that they will one day understand everything in the universe – results in distain for fantasy.

Now, this might sound totally crazy, given how strongly how strongly fantasy is tied to magic, but answer me this: what is magic? Not; what kind of magic are you playing with? What is magic? Magic is a term for things that exist but which science cannot explain. Not “hasn’t explained yet”: cannot explain. Science is a system of making sense of the universe which doesn’t work on magic. And this is precisely the point. Magic is the most common term for this, but it doesn’t have to be “magic” to be the incomprehensible-unknowable that is present in all fantasy (because it is, in fact, the core of fantasy). Magic is, also, easily confused with the knowable – even though it is not actually comprehensible. This is because people often conflate coping with something (learning to do spells, for example) with the ability to understand something (there is not a single work of fantasy out there which can explain why magic can break the laws of physics which otherwise govern the universe it is in – and no work which did give and explanation could truly be fantasy). A way of coping and the ability to recognise a specific phenomenon is NOT the same as being able to understand it.

To illustrate: In Science Fiction the characters come across, or create, a phenomenon and proceed to understand it. In Horror the characters come across a phenomenon and proceed to be scared shitless by it. In Fantasy the characters come across a phenomenon and fail to understand it, forcing them to accept and cope with its status as incomprehensible. Now, this does not need to be overt – both because the presence of the unknowable, or incomprehensible, will inevitably subtly touch upon itself in the background of coping with it, and because the incomprehensible lends itself to themes such as good versus evil (the paradox of right and wrong) and the question of death.

Fantasy is a liminal genre. But the threshold upon which it stands is that between what can be comprehended and what cannot. Sci-Fi, on the other hand, stands on the threshold of what is currently understood and what is going to be understood. This is why all Sci-Fi stories which end with the “some things man’s not meant to know” cliché fall flat. The audience is not reading or watching Sci-Fi to experience coping with the unknowable. They are reading or watching Sci-Fi to cope with what is known and the process of coming to know more. Fantasy is the genre readers and viewers go to when they want to cope with, or experience others coping with, that which cannot be explained or comprehended. Horror is about being scared by either the known or the unknown.

Or, to put it in simpler – yet far more laden – terms: Science Fiction is about the expansion of the Self, whereas Fantasy is about coping with the Archetypal Other. WAIT! Don’t panic. I’m not going to start quoting Sartre at you. Instead I will direct your attention to the fact that, after variations on “Dark Lord”, variations on “the Other/s” is one of the most common and recognisable terms for big bads in fantasy.

The importance of Fantasy as a means for coping with the incomprehensible and unknowable cannot be understated. The Archetypal Other can be incomprehensibly huge – when the Other is not our universe or other than life (cosmic horrors, existential dread as related to the question of death, etc) – and it can be painfully close to home; not only in Us vs Them and the Othering of those we reject socially, but also in that we can never truly understand another person. Other people, other races, other species, phenomena which follow other rules than the norm of the universe, other states of being or not being; these are all things which ultimately we can never truly comprehend – which frightens us – and which, at the same time, we dread because our nagging doubts make us wonder if we could become like that or might already be that way. Ultimately, we fear the Archetypal Other because we fear that we may become something which we are incapable of understanding. And that’s why Fantasy is so important. Because without Fantasy as a coping method, all we have is fear – Horror.

This key difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, between knowledge and the impossibility of knowledge, is best expressed by considering the third major genre in the umbrella of Speculative Fiction and why, perhaps subconsciously, it has been placed with the other two. This is because fear is a reaction to both the known and the unknown and thus Horror cannot exist without one of the other two. Thus Horror, roughly speaking, comes in two forms: that dealing with real or soon-to-be real dangers and fears, like serial killers wielding Jigsaws and Aliens, and that dealing with incomprehensible or inexplicable dangers and fears, such as the House of Leaves, Stephen King’s IT, and most things written by H.P. Lovecraft. Or, in other words, the two main forms of Horror are that which falls under the genre of realistic extrapolation (Sci-Fi) and that which falls under the genre of trying to cope with the incomprehensible (Fantasy). Fantasy is looking at Eldritch things humans cannot comprehend (like magic: laws of physics which do not follow physics and appear to be utterly lawless) and finding it within oneself to see beauty as well as Cosmic Horror.

“We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp.” – Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

But this, precisely, is what Fantasy allows us to do. We no longer view magical creatures as a terrifyingly incomprehensible reality, as our ancestors did, but we still find the archetypal Other frightening and difficult to perceive as something which is not terrifying. This is also, perhaps, why Fantasy lends itself so strongly to the notion of Good Vs Evil. This notion allows for both the fear of the Other and the acceptance that some things cannot be understood to be expressed. And that’s a hell of a lot for one genre to (inherently) have to handle. There is no easy way to handle Fantasy because the core of the genre is our deepest unease.

But this is, once again, getting a bit long and I don’t want to rush my last point. So I’ll see, or not see depending on how you liked this, you next time in the (hopefully) final part four: Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Is Bloody Difficult to Pull Off.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Fantasy IS Fantastic, Thanks, And Needs No “Secretly Sci-Fi” Justification

I’ve been thinking for a while about how better to explain what I talked about (the difference between meaning and interpretation and why saying “the author meant” is not acceptable when the author has said otherwise) in the Death of the Author post without causing myself further blood pressure problems. It occurred to me that I had a very good example of how the Death of the Author has come to be misused in the rant on the worth of fantasy which I had been planning to do for a while.

What example? Well, there are an alarming number of Game of Thrones fan theorists (and even some of the actors!) who said that ASOIAF/GoT isn’t “really” fantasy and that it is really historical fiction/drama/sci-fi because it’s good quality and fantasy can’t be good. This is despite the fact (actual fact, not supposition) of what the author describes it as, what the publishers identified it as, and the fact that it contains fucking MAGIC.

Certain theorists even went so far, in pushing their “GoT is REALLY sci-fi” theory, to say that because GRRM wrote a lot of sci-fi before GoT must be sci-fi. The fallacious logic in that reasoning seems to have been that writers are only capable of writing in one genre and anything that disproves that must secretly be that genre anyway.

Here’s some actual proof that such reasoning and Fantasy-denial is absurd:

“Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true? … We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La. … They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.”

That’s a quote from George R.R. Martin. It’s from an essay of his called On Fantasy and it can be found on his website.

Now, if I was too daft to understand the difference between meaning and interpretation I might say that this is proof that what these people really mean is that they are too cowardly to admit that they may have been wrong to dismiss fantasy as “not quality” in the past and that they are therefore desperately clinging to the idea that it “can’t really be fantasy” in order to avoid admitting, even just to themselves, that they were wrong.

But unlike far too many literary critics, English teachers and fan theorists, I DO understand the difference between meaning and interpretation (and understand what the word proof actually means). So instead I will say: dear people who insist that A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones cannot be fantasy because it’s good; all you are doing is making it sound like you once looked down on fantasy and are now too pathetically afraid to admit that you might have to change your opinion.

See the difference? I’m not telling you what you meant. I’m telling you what it seems like you may have meant. And that’s how does all of this ties into what I was saying last time about the misuse of the Death of the Author and why it needs to stop. It’s not okay that they’re saying (because they don’t like fantasy) the fantasy book is in fact a [insert genre of choice]. It’s not. It can also be interpreted as [other genre] but it is still a fantasy. The only fact about a book’s genre comes from which genre the author and publishers place it within. Everything else (from fan theorists, actors, literary critics, and English teachers) is interpretation, not fact, and should not be presented in the language of facts (“is” “meant/meaning” “really meant/is”, etc).

Here: have a comparison. If you go out cloud gazing you will see clouds. That is a fact. They are clouds. There is nothing to debate on that and no ‘one true theory’ to prove. They’re clouds. The beauty of cloud gazing is that you can look up at those clouds and ALSO see ships and castles, dragons and ice cream cones. But your interpretation of that cloud as an ice cream cone does not make it an ice cream cone instead of a cloud. It’s still a fucking cloud. Your friend might see a chainsaw wielding clown instead of an ice cream cone. Neither of you is right and neither of you is wrong. Each of you has a valid interpretation – because all interpretations are valid ways of looking at something – but no matter how valid your way of looking at the cloud (as an ice cream cone or otherwise) is, that does not make the cloud any less a cloud. Nor does it actually turn the cloud into an ice cream cone.

And this, I think, is something which gets forgotten all too often – by fan theorists who can’t bring themselves to admit that fantasy can be quality literature, by English teachers and literary critics who cannot accept that they should be saying “it can be interpreted as” rather than “it is” …all of these people who are seeking to find “the truth” about a book or “prove” their theory about what something “meant”. (Note: meant is an intention word: if you are saying the book meant something you are saying that the author meant something. Do not put words in people’s mouths. It’s rude and insulting.) In other words: these people are treating art as if it is science. It’s not. There is no “one true interpretation” of a work. There is no prize for figuring out the “truth” about what something “means”.  There is what the artist meant (their intentions) and what other people see in it. There is just the one cloud and people imagining ice cream cones and castles in it. But those ice cream cones and castles are under no obligation to actually be there. Art isn’t science. Science is the realm of single correct answers and definite truths. Art is the realm of one creator’s meaning (“Look, a cloud!”) and all the ways the audience can say “that cloud looks like an ice cream to me”.

That IS the beauty and glory of art.

 

(This is getting a bit too long for me to say everything else I want to say, so tune in at some point in the – hopefully – near future for Fantasy Is Fantastic, Thanks, part two.)

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2016 in On Writing

 

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What is Quality?

I suppose I need to apologise again for disappearing for so long. I seem to be doing little else but that on this blog of late. But now that the helping with someone moving house situation is over, I ought to have a bit more time for this. This post is more of a thought-piece than an opinion-piece.

 

Most people who want to be writers seek to be either successful (in finance and fame) writers or writers known for making quality writing. The word literature used to hold a connotation of being high-quality writing, as opposed to all other “lesser” writing, but now it just is pretty much synonymous with fiction and is applied to anything moderately successful. According to dictionaries, quality is many things, but the definition of it which is applicable to writing is “character with respect to fineness or excellence” – and that’s character as in “the aggregate features and traits that form the individual nature of a person or thing”, not as in “fictional person the author puts through hell for the readers’ amusement”. But the thing is: that’s a completely useless definition.

So what actually makes quality writing? Well, obviously not success because (this is the go to example, given the sheer amount of criticism it has received) Twilight and also the majority of the miszpellld fanfiction ob deh internetz!!!1! which get frighteningly large amounts of positive reviews in comparison to the well-crafted and properly spelled, in character fanfics. It’s also not a question, despite what many “serious” writers of tedious real-world-setting dramas may think, of genre because – while I am going on hearsay rather than personal experience here because I’ve never been inclined to read those genres (I haven’t read Twilight either, despite how often I take jabs at it) – there are plenty of quality romance and erotic works out there. They might not have the most philosophical of content, but if seriously questioning ethics, the universe and everything is the key to defining quality then no one’s written anything but trash since Kierkegaard. (Show of hands: who managed to not fall asleep while reading Kierkegaard? Has anyone here actually read Kierkegaard? Did you think, the first time you heard it, that Captain Kirk was guarding something?)

It could be argued that having deep characters or a lot of world building is what’s required for a work to be quality, but many of the great names in Science Fiction basically had cardboard tour-guide characters to show off their cool science ideas for chapter after chapter of math and baffling terminology, while world building is just as unfair a point in definition as genre as world building is the foundation of Speculative Fiction but mostly unnecessary in, say, real world drama or crime novels. Even grammar and spelling being used accurately is not a brilliant gage of quality, although the better the grammar and spelling the more likely a work is to be good quality, because grammar and spelling change over time (you may have been taught in school that starting a sentence with “And” is wrong, but many of the major quality authors out there who have begins with “And” sentences in their works – like George R. R. Martin, who is held up almost universally as an example of quality writing, the way Twilight is almost universally regarded as being very poorly written). Grammar and spelling is certainly a factor, but it isn’t the complete definition.

Often quality is associated with clever language use and choosing the best word, but not every work needs to be packed with juxtaposed antithesis and anaphora (ten points if you know which famous piece of literature opens with that particular pair of techniques) and other extravagantly named techniques or gratuitous amounts of exceedingly sophisticated terminology and units of language in order to facilitate that dubious and non-corporeal status of fineness and excellence. In fact, trying too hard to be clever with language and choosy with word use can, like in that last sentence, actually damage the quality and readers’ ability to comprehend what the hell the writer is trying to say. Likewise, it would be tempting to say that quality is about not using clichés, but what counts as cliché changes with time – in an almost cyclic fashion, akin to how water droplets become part of the giant masses called oceans, then rise to become clouds, rain down on everyone to make them miserable and the plants very happy, and then steadily grows in strength as it goes from stream to river and eventually back into the oceans. But, more importantly, clichés become so ubiquitous because when they are used well they don’t come across as trite (unless you’re stubbornly determined to find something wrong with everything or are suffering from some form of Mary-Sue Paranoia because the idea that female characters can be just as vivid, special, and powerful as the typical main male character without being “badly written” or “unrealistic” because the idea that women are people and capable of being competent scares you – in which case I’d like to suggest you try the perfectly cliché cliff to the left of the stage for you to go clichély jump off). To use my go-to example of good writing: A Song of Ice and Fire contains many things which could be considered cliché – the mad boy king who is a sadist, the heroic bastard, the purple-eyed princess with the pet magical beasts, and the ten million prophecies – but Martin makes them work. The mad boy king is from a far more violent society than we are and so less likely to view what he does as wrong or repulsive, while also essentially being a stupid teenage boy on a power-high, the heroic bastard has to live with the actual social ramifications and restrictions of being a bastard in that sort of society and is by no means viewed as a hero by everyone, the princess avoids being a Mary-Sue (despite having many of the traits often associated with them) because they are played out in ways that makes sense (the eyes are a racial trait, the pet magical beasts are far more beast than pet, being a princess only gets her assassination attempts, etc) and the ten million prophecies are both suitably confusing and free from any guarantees of accuracy or genuine fortune-telling.

I could burble for hours about how excellent his choice of words is (although I, who has repeatedly read entire dictionaries for fun, do keep a dictionary tab open on my computer when I read ASOIAF for when I run into the occasion rare or no longer used word like niello). I could talk about how he’s genuinely built a complete world and all the literary techniques I spotted while reading. I could talk about how deep and well developed his characters are and how he manages to give the readers all the pertinent information without breaking from the third person limited. But while all of those things are factors in what makes a work quality, I think Martin’s magnum opus is a good example of what makes something quality for a very different reason.

The story is king. Not the characters, no matter how much the author might like one better than another. Not the whims of the readers (trying to please readers is an almost universal guarantee that the quality of a work will fall), not the rules grammar and spelling, not what is or isn’t cliché, not the conventions of the genre, not any meaning or message carried within the work, not clever literary and rhetoric techniques, not even what the author might prefer to happen. The STORY is king.

Obviously, correctly used grammar and spelling, well chosen words and techniques, deep characters, significant world building, realism, the ability to dig the bones of a concept out of a dead cliché and make them work again, are all important factors in what makes Martin’s writing such an excellent example of, well, literary excellence, but it is the fact that the story is treated as the most important factor – that which everything else is part of and bends to, rather than which is part of or bent to some other factor – that makes quality.

Quality can never be defined clearly by one factor or another, because it is about how everything works together for the story. Quality is about how everything makes logical sense based on the rules of reality as presented in that story, about how everything that is (not just that happens) has consequences and causes, about how everything remains consistent to itself and coheres with the rest of the reality the story creates. Quality is about choosing to have, or not have, rhetoric techniques and this word or that based on how it works for the story rather than how fancy, plain, accurate, or cliché it may or may not be. Quality is about knowing your grammar and spelling so well that you can know how and when to deviate from it if the story so requires. Quality is about exploring or not exploring the depths of a character based on what the story needs.

At least, that’s my best guess. Quality is one of those annoyingly non-corporeal things which cannot be measured easily and just about everyone has a different opinion on what makes a work quality. What do you think?

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in On Writing

 

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