Bits and pieces

Lately I’ve had a collection of minor thoughts, but nothing major.  I figured I’d throw them all together and have a grab-bag post.  Here we go!

Fables: Blood of Heroes:  My beloved local library did, in fact, have the tie-in novel I was unsure about reading.  Adventure, ho!  I requested it, and it arrived surprisingly quickly.  I read it even more quickly.  It’s a fun little light read, and certainly better than the tie-in novels I’ve read previously.  I’m not really surprised by that – like I said, I really like other works I’ve read by this author – but considering my earlier experiences, I’m still glad.  I tend to refer to books like this one as cotton candy reads.  They’re tasty, but not big on substance.  The game world the story is set in is generally fairly light-hearted, though, so that makes sense.  And for the record, I don’t mean cotton candy as an insult.  I read a lot of cotton candy, and so do most other people who are big readers, because often I (and other people) just want some fun entertainment.  

One of the things I like about this book in particular is that it has eight different heroes, each formed on a different stereotype (or archetype, if you like).  The book deliberately plays on the stereotypes for humor.  None of the characters is really developed past their archetype, but since the book seems to be winking at the reader, it works.  Cliches that might otherwise grate become endearing.  For me, it was like watching ghosts of other players going on their own adventure through a game I knew.  There’s a singular pleasure in watching someone else enjoy something, and I felt a little of that in this book.

Devil in the Wires: I finally finished one of the books I’d stopped in the middle of.  I am disappointed.  Like I said, I really liked the concept for this one.  It involves the various gods humans have worshipped over the millennia actually existing (in a Lovecraftian unknowable mind-breaking monster kind of way) and gaining power or sustenance or something from human worship (or human pain, or…).  Except now, human beings have found a way to trap these gods and extract the power from them.  Instead of burning coal for electricity, we burn gods.  

Cool idea, right?  Having finally finished it, though, I’ve figured out why it was such a slog for the longest time: first, I wasn’t interested in any of the characters.  It’s not even that I didn’t like them; I’ve said before that I can dislike a character and still find them interesting and want to see how their story develops.  But these didn’t interest me, to the point where I consistently confused two of them (the main character’s boss, who was on another continent, and the suspicious cop).  I thought it was just the writing style, which runs to gritty, that made them seem colorless, but even at the climax I didn’t much care about any of them.  And second, there’s a stretch in the middle where not much is happening.  Maybe there would be, if I cared about the characters.  But as it was, it dragged.  Which is disappointing, because I really wanted to like this book.  Another anecdotal data point: characters are a Big Deal when it comes to the quality and enjoyability of a book.

The Casual Vacancy: I actually read this months ago.  A friend of mine (who is now and again mentioned on this blog, namelessly) suggested that, since we often have excellent conversations about books, we should read a book together, record our conversation about it, and put it up here.  The Casual Vacancy was the book we decided on.  He’s taking a while to read it, though, so since I don’t know if or when that conversation will happen, I figured I’d toss up a few thoughts on here.

The Casual Vacancy was really painful to read at first.  It highlights the pettiness in human beings, the venial selfishness present even in positive actions, in a way that makes it impossible not to recognize those same traits in oneself.  Or at least, it did for me.  I started it immediately after finishing Grace of Kings, too, which only exacerbated the effect.  But over the course of the book, it gradually begins to feel humanizing rather than caustic.  Everyone is small and everyone screws up (often), but I found myself wishing for them to do better, rather than condemning them.  

This also made me wonder about Barry Fairbrother, the character whose death kicks off the plot of the book.  He’s simultaneously present and absent throughout the story, a looming gap whom all of the characters know but the reader does not.  At least, the characters know his public face – which is what makes me curious.  One of the things the book emphasizes constantly is the difference between people’s public faces and their private thoughts and feelings.  So I have to wonder, what lies inside Barry Fairbrother’s public face?  I have no way of knowing.

The Spell of the Sensuous: This one I actually haven’t finished reading yet, but a friend of mine recommended it to me and said she’d like to see me review it.  I was excited!  And I adored the opening.  It’s beautiful.  What I’ve read since then reads like a strangely harmonious combination of poetry, dissertation, and travelogue.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.


The great white sharks of the reading world

I just read a piece here about Scribd’s attempt at a Kindle-Unlimited-style subscription service for books and how Scribd’s lack of data, and possibly math and just plain attention, led to the service’s semi-downfall.  The article is interesting and fun – while I’m rather prone to philosophy, the nuts and bolts of the book business always intrigues* me.  However, it intrigues me in part because it’s not something I know much about, so I can’t really contribute to that discussion.

Instead, I want to talk about a line that stuck out to me, partly because it was funny and partly because it surprised me (and partly because I had to go look up some of the stuff in it): “Romance readers are the Great White Sharks of the reading world. They are the 80 in the 80/20 rule. They are the power in a power law.”

Okay, let’s be honest, comparing bookworms to great white sharks is just funny.  Thank you for that, Carolyn Jewel.  Also, it might just be that before I hit up Wikipedia I had no idea what the 80/20 rule and power law were, but something in that second part of the line (and possibly a primer from the great white shark comment) give me this sense of some immense, powerful force lurking out there, unbeknownst to most.  Maybe it’s less romantic if you know more about economics and what have you, but to me it’s a pretty cool image.  And even without the mystery of lurking in the darkness, you still get the sense of raw force, which is powerful.

And I’m going to stop geeking out over the craftsmanship of it and move on.  (Look, I’m an English nerd, you have to expect that kind of thing.**)

The author of the piece (Carolyn Jewel) says that the typical romance reader will go through four to five books a week, hence the shark comparison.  From what she says, Scribd wound up cutting nearly all the romance books from their service because people were reading them too much and costing Scribd too much money.  That surprised me.  I mean, there’s no particular reason I think romance readers wouldn’t read that much, I just didn’t know they did.  It made me curious – why is that?  I don’t really know any big romance readers (that I’m aware of), so I don’t know anyone I could ask.

Anyway, the voracity of romance readers apparently surprised Scribd, too.  Jewel suggests that it’s because they just weren’t paying attention – that since romance readers are primarily women, Scribd effectively dismissed the genre as being “for girls” rather than “real books” and didn’t put much more thought into it.  She never suggests they did it deliberately, which makes sense; many instances of prejudice aren’t deliberate.  People just don’t think about some group of people, and then something gets messed up.  (See: face-tracking software can’t see black people.)  It’s too bad Scribd handled it by wiping out their romance selection, though.  It may have been the only way to save their budget, and if so it’s understandable, but that’s a lot of disappointed readers.

But going back to Jewel’s theory on why it became a problem to begin with: I was happy to see someone else propose that some books are looked down on because of their readers.  It’s not as if I thought no one else had ever come up with the idea, but I hadn’t ever heard someone else say it.  On the other hand, I’ve already said I have my own prejudices when it comes to romance, and I have the nagging feeling that my surprise at how many books romance readers go through is the product of that.  Problematic.  Well, another day, another lesson.  I learned some interesting things, enjoyed a well-written line, and broadened my horizons a little.  Not bad for a few minutes’ reading.

* Intrigue?  “Nuts and bolts” is technically a compound subject and should thus take a plural verb, but on the other hand it’s also an idiom and thus weird.  Hm.  I mean, the obvious solution would be to just use a different expression, but where’s the fun in that?

** On a related note, the book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish is fantastic, and if you are also an English nerd, you should absolutely read it.  Hm, maybe I should re-read it…

Thoughts on “genre fiction”

Here is a thing that bothers me: why does quote-unquote “genre” fiction get a bad rap?  It’s not just among literature snobs (I’m sure such dastardly people exist, though even as an English major I’m not sure I’ve met any); even in the general population, people seem to turn up their noses at genre fiction.  Unless, of course, it’s genre fiction they personally read, in which case they feel the need to defend it.

This bothers me for a couple reasons.  One is that I like some genre fiction, and I don’t want to feel as if I ought to be ashamed or embarrassed somehow or as if I have to defend my hobbies.  Plus, I don’t like having irrational prejudices in my head.  And they are in my head – whenever romance novels come up I cringe mentally.  Then I feel bad and tell myself not to think that way, because it’s unfair and wrong.  I don’t like doing either of those mental dances.

And I shouldn’t have to do these mental dances because treating broad categories of stories as second-class citizens in the book world is nonsensical.  For one thing, what constitutes “genre fiction” has been historically changeable.  Two centuries ago, gothic novels were the rubbish that rotted minds, but today Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is celebrated.  Three centuries ago, all novels were suspect, clearly a degrading influence on morals.  Needless to say, we’ve tossed that idea and aren’t looking back.  If ideas about what constitutes good or bad genres changes that much over time, it’s probably not the genres that are actually the problem.

Not only that, “genre” books can and do ascend to literary canon.  Brave New World is a dystopian science fiction story and Pride and Prejudice is a romance, but few people would deny either their place in the canon.  Instead, when genre fiction is elevated to literary status, its essential icky genre-ness tends to get elided.  People don’t discuss it in those terms, as if somehow it can’t really be genre fiction – because it’s good.  Of course, that’s patently absurd, and infuriating to boot.

So why do these ideas persist?  I’ve run across a couple of explanations, but they seem to agree that genre fiction at least partly deserves its bad reputation.  The most common is that there are just more bad writers and bad writing in genre fiction.  Aspiring authors believe that they can turn out formulaic, poorly-written stories and still profit.  This strikes me as possible, but unfair and incomplete.  First of all, becoming a published author is difficult, so anyone who actually makes it there really wants to do it and is probably writing stories that they really want to write.  It’s unfair to suggest they’re simply lazy and look for the easiest road.  And second of all, formulaic, poorly-written stories that still profit are hardly limited to genre fiction.  Any story can be formulaic and poorly-written.

It is possible that there are more bad writers and bad writing in genre fiction.  It’s not as if I can do a scientific survey to determine it for certain.  But if there are, there are also other possible explanations for it than writers believing they can get away with it.  For example, it could be a self-perpetuating cycle in which people who read a lot of bad genre writing absorb those standards and go on to create bad genre writing because those are the exemplars they encountered.  However, this doesn’t explain how genre writing would have become bad to begin with.  There are possible explanations for that, too, but finding explanations is a rabbit hole that just keeps going.  I’m not convinced that genre fiction does get its trashy reputation because it’s actually worse than anything else, and if I’m going to go down a rabbit hole, I’d rather ask why it gets that reputation if it doesn’t deserve it.

So I will.  Why does genre fiction have a reputation for being bad if it hasn’t actually earned it?  I think one possible contributing factor is that, like I said earlier, the best examples of genre fiction tend to get lifted out of their genre and claimed by the canon.  Because of that, it seems likely genres aren’t judged by the full range of quality they’re capable of.  They’re judged by the middle-of-the-road examples and the bad examples, which would skew the overall perception of quality unfairly downward.

Wuthering Heights is an interesting contrast to the phenomenon of ascended genre fiction and a potentially illustrative example.  Emily Bronte published it under a male pseudonym in the 1800s.  It was hailed as a great book when it came out, and critics said it was a story about the nature of evil.  When the fact that the author was female became publicly known, however, they backpedaled and called it a romance story.  The book experienced something like the reverse of uplifted genre fiction: it was demoted from the highest echelons of literature (at the time) because a woman wrote it.

So maybe some genres get undeserved bad reputations because they’re associated with marginalized populations.  (A well-known circumstance for some aspects of culture.  See: rap music.)  That’s a plausible explanation for why romance and urban fiction are looked down on.  Romance is strongly associated with women and urban fiction with racial minorities, particularly blacks.  It’s not as obviously a good explanation for why speculative fiction like science fiction or fantasy is belittled.  On the other hand, sci-fi and fantasy are primarily associated with geeks, who, while certainly not marginalized to the extent of other groups, have traditionally been viewed as low-prestige.*  Also, it seems like genres that aren’t closely associated with marginalized groups are less likely to be undervalued.  For example, mystery and historical fiction don’t provoke the same negative reactions that romance does.

Obviously, none of this is a complete explanation.  It’s a few pieces of the puzzle.  Still, I think it’s important to consider alternate reasons why “genre” fiction is so consistently belittled – especially because I don’t think it ought to be.

* General scorn for geeks does seem to have been decreasing lately, though I can’t be sure about long-term trends – I haven’t been around long enough to (intelligently) observe them unfold, and I’m not a sociologist or a historian.  If it is decreasing, though, one would expect to see science fiction and fantasy stories becoming more widely accepted.  That seems to have been happening, too, but again, I can’t tell for sure.  It’d be interesting to know whether they have or not.  Among other things, it would provide a more concrete data point for the theory that sci-fi and fantasy have been scorned by association, and by extension, whether that might have happened to other genres, as well.