pick 'n' mix

This isn't really my idea. The phrase is stolen from M. John Harrison, but it's been buzzing in my head for a day or two, after Gabe Chouinard made
this post.

Imagine literature as a candy store. In the candy store are a series of pick 'n' mix stands. Each stand represents a genre and is appropriately labelled. There's the Mystery stand, next to it is the Romance stand, there's Fantasy, etc, etc.

Now, at each stand is a wide variety of candy. Each candy represents a particular convention of the genre. So at the fantasy stand, there's candy representing elves, dragons, simple-minded farmboys, big swords, and possibly maybe even some candy you might want to eat.

It's the same at the Mystery stand. There's a big tray of belgium super-sleuthes, ex-cons turned PIs, and so and so forth.

Now, here's the big secret: you can take your candy from any stand in the store. You can if you want, it's up to you. But you shouldn't feel constrained.

Because that's what genres have a tendecy to become: constraints. They shackle the writer. And the worst thing is: people don't even see it. They include magic in their fantasy novels because... well, because it's fantasy. Genre conventions are included mindlessly, because that's the genre. But fantasy doesn't need magic - just read the Viriconium stories. I'm not saying it shouldn't be included, but when it is, it should be for a good reason. (A great example of this is K. J. Bishop's master The Etched City).

Genre conventions are the starting point, the launchpad. They should inspire creativity. The Dogme movement in cinema is a wonderful example. In literature, the OuLiPo model is also exciting, though it frequently limits itself to simple word games. Limits should inspire the writer to find new ways to work around them, to express what he/she is trying to express in new and exciting ways. Instead they become... well... conventions.

I think the strength of the pick 'n' mix model is that it emphasizes the arbitrariness of the ruleset. And, by exposing that arbitrary nature, it encourages the writer to move beyond it. Instead take the candy you like from any stand in the store. Create your own... well not entire genre, but sub-genre. Just like Paul Jessup did with Post-Industrial Fantasy. Here he manages to create something that's close to what genre should be: a do-it-yourself, pick-n-mix, home-brewed creation that inspire rather than constrains. You may not like Post-Industrial Fantasy, it may contain no elements you like, but that should simply prompt to create your own sub-genre. Hell, create ten, and only ever write one story for each sub-genre. But take control of genre.

Don't be genre's bitch.


arts and crafts

So the other day I came across this: Which science fiction writer are you?

Which is awesome in itself but one of it’s questions got me to thinking. It was: “Do you consider what you do to be art?” And I thought, “Hell yeah.” But then the potential answers were making a distinction between the art of writing and the craft of writing, and I wasn’t sure. So I took a peek in the dictionary.

1 : skill acquired by experience, study, or observation
2 a : a branch of learning: (1) : one of the humanities (2) plural :
3 : an occupation requiring knowledge or skill
4 a : the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced b (1) :
FINE ARTS (2) : one of the fine arts (3) : a graphic art
5 a archaic : a skillful plan b : the quality or state of being artful
6 : decorative or illustrative elements in printed matter

1 : skill in planning, making, or executing :
2 a : an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill b plural : articles made by craftspeople
3 : skill in deceiving to gain an end
4 : the members of a trade or trade association
5 plural usually craft a : a boat especially of small size b :

What’s more: one of the synonyms given for ‘art’ was ‘craft,’ and the only synonym listed for ‘craft’ was ‘art’

So, the argument for writing as art as based purely on Merriam-webster definitions (this is sounding like a worse and worse idea the more I type):
The most relevant descriptions here are:
1 : skill acquired by experience, study, or observation
3 : an occupation requiring knowledge or skill
4 a : the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects;
Writing, at least good writing, certainly requires experience, study and observation. I do not subscribe to the idea that some people can write, and some people can’t. Anyone, can do pretty much anything if they put enough time and effort in. (The problem is, what is enough?). Definition 3 is pretty much saying the same thing, except it defines it as an occupation. There are people out there lucky enough to make enough money for writing to be an occupation, but they are few and far between.
I really like definition 4. That seems to come very close to what I think of as writing except for the final two words: “aesthetic objects.” This is pretty obviously Merriam-webster’s attempt to be a catch-all for what we all mean when we say the “arts” but it strikes me as a loaded phrase, and I’m going to credit the dictionary’s writers with the intelligence to have known that because they seem like very smart people to me. Aesthetic, to me, implies beauty but also a sort of uselessness. Aesthetic objects don’t seem very functional to me. They are there to be looked at and wondered over, but little else. And I don’t want my writing to just be that. I want it to have a function: to make people think about the world they live in.

So let’s turn to crafts:
Here I like:
2 a : an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill
3 : skill in deceiving to gain an end
Especially number 3, as that ties into my whole “fiction is lying” thing that I’m on at the moment. That aside, the emphasis here seems much more on producing a functional object. Maybe, in tone, it looks down on the role of the artist a bit more, but like I said above I like the idea that what I’m producing is functional. But at the same time, I do want my work go beyond that as well, to have at least some aesthetic qualities

So here goes the whole awkward tie-in to yesterday’s ideas about escapism…

It strikes me that aestheticism is tied to escapism, while functionality is tied to the idea of social commentary. Like I said yesterday, writing cannot escape being either, it’s a question of emphasis. So the writer is both artist and artisan. How much he is of one or the other is up to him or her.

Personally, like usual, I’m going to try to aim somewhere in the middle.


the escape plan

I love fantasy fiction. That much should be clear. And whenever this subject comes up with my parents, sooner or later one of my parents will mention that it's "not about real people."

No fiction is about real people. Not even historical fiction. It uses their names, and maybe even events from their lives, but it's still fiction. Every piece of fiction, in every genre, and even "literature" that has transcended genre by the acclimation of academicians, is a lie. Hopefully, a carefully constructed, entertaining lie, but a lie all the same.

Non-speculative fiction, or "realistic" fiction, has pulled off a fantastic con job. It has convinced people (or at the very least my parents) that because it looks real, and it sounds real, and it even feels real, that it is real. But it's not. And it's certainly not about real people.

What I'm angling towards here is the subject of escapism. Another complaint often made about speculative fiction is that it's escapist, that by not writing about the real world, then we're escaping it. This is part of the con job pulled by "realistic" fiction.

"It's set in the real world, how can it be escaping it!" cries the shamelessly stereotyped adversary I just invented. Well, foolish fictional being, it can be escapist if it has nothing to do with the lives that we live. Just because it's set in the real world doesn't mean that it's necessarily engaged in meaningful cultural and/or political debate. It can be about the real world without making any meaningful comment about it.

(I use the word 'meaningful' here because, in the end, everything is culturally and politically influenced, and makes some comment about society, but it can do it to a greater or lesser extent and I am talking about the books that do it to the lesser extent).

The Da Vinci Code I am looking, vindictively, at you.

I would argue that escapism has nothing to with whether a book is mired in genre, or if it genre-less. Rather, it is to do with the author's intent.

Now, I also realize that to many the author is dead, and that in no way is a bad thing. We each have to make of a text what we can, and we're going to do it whether an author wants us to or not. All an author can do is try to direct a reader's thinking in one particular direction or another. And some author's do that more and some author's do it less, regardless of whether their fiction is set in a realistic world or not. (I've dropped the quotes, I think I've made my point).

However (and I do love to use that word), as I stated above, all fiction is a lie. And because of that all fiction is to a certain extent escapist. And while realistic fiction may have pulled a con job, a lot of speculative fiction has been written that's escapist in the extreme. And you know why? Because people want escapism. I know I do. That's why we buy fiction rather than non-fiction. (Yes, I know we buy both...)

The trick, I think, is in the mix. If it's fiction, its escapist. Don't worry about it, just go with it. But don't let that be the be all and end all. If we are to dedicate a good portion of our time to writing fiction, it seems that the only responsible thing to do is to use that medium to comment, at least somewhat, on the world around us, to be politically and culturally involved. To try to make a difference that lasts beyond the back cover.

And speculative fiction is in a position to do this better than most realistic fiction.

No, I'm serious. Because it is detached from the specifics of the quotidian, speculative fiction can look at the big picture in a way that realistic fiction can't. It can invert problems, turn them around, make us look at them in new ways. It's loose, and fast, and can ask the "what if?" questions that expand the horizons of our thinking. Realistic fiction can't do that.

With speculative fiction we can have our cake and eat it. And it's better cake than that served up by realistic fiction too. It may take a while to get used to the taste, but once you do, you'll love it.