New website is under construction.

Mar 7, 2009

Speculative Literary Fiction

I enjoyed this essay on Beyond the Runis of Elechan -- which is also a really cool name for a blog. (For the full article, see here.)

The objections to Romance are stronger than mine -- I love a good Love Story, and will accept it for its own sake -- but I agree with this:
I want to read about a much broader spectrum of humanity with a much broader spectrum of experiences and interpersonal relationships. While I have a romantic streak, I want to read about same sex partnerships, people exploring their sexuality, about belonging with a group, close friendships, family bonds, siblings, choosing one's tribe... the whole gamut, please. Make me understand what makes people tick. Offer me alternatives.

... I value most highly the books that, on re-reading, I will discover more depth to. This admittedly places me less at the 'adventure' and more on the 'literary' end of the spectrum...

So why not just read straight literary fiction? Speculative fiction can offer a different kind of richness than a story set in the world we know. Just as we can know fictional characters with an intimacy we claim with most real people, in speculative fiction we can know other cultures in a way we are often unable to know our own.
Speculative fiction means I don't know the cultural assumptions people operate under; I don't know which way, figuratively speaking, they will look first before crossing the street, I don't know which insults they will be able to forgive and how easily, which persons and what actions trigger their 'enemy' reflex, how easy or hard it will be for them to change their standard mode of thinking or what that mode *is.* And in the reading, I am engaging with my own preconceptions and biases, comparing my reaction to the events I read on the page and the characters to the protagonist's; questioning, querying, I also do not know the circumstances under which they live their lives - I am literally walking in their shoes, seeing their world through different eyes - and I do not know what the technology (or magic) can and cannot do, so I am constantly discovering new things about my own world, too. (Never mind all the cool stuff that I would never have thought of that actually happened in our own world, only I wasn't aware of it.)

The trend now, even in fantasy (particularly urban fantasy / paranormal romance) is toward shorter books than the doorstops of yore. Unfortunately, a book which has both character depth and complex world building requires a certain expanse.

Also, plots which do these things - that have reversals and characters making bad choices and suffering the consequences and bouncing back from them and learning - are not ultra-short plots, which is one reason why I object to 90K books - not that you cannot write a great story in 90K, but my opinion is that a short novel (65-90K) is a different beast from the kind of novel I like to read and write, which hovers around 120K, or rather, in the 100-140K range. (And some stories are complex and interwoven enough to need more. This does not mean that they are bloated. More on bloateware in another post.)

Amen. The trend toward slender volumes has given my wip bulimia.

With all of this, I concur. Where I disagree is that this writer does not want to see,"The underlying myth is that one person - if he is brave enough and true to himself etc - can change the world, can make things right, or make things better, that there's a noticable difference of the world before him and after him..."

This is, of course, the heart of a fairy tale. True, every now and then, I think, "Wouldn't it be cool to see a story about a baker and a blacksmith who just remained so throughout the story and never turned out to be a king or wizard in disguise at all?" But every time I read such a book -- there are a few -- I find it profoundly dissatisfying after all. It doesn't capture the fairy tale. I think literary fiction, by the way, when it works, does the inverse, and makes an absolutely ordinary story as significant as the Odyssey or the Fall from the Garden. After all, why can't an ordinary person, if he is brave enough and true to himself, change the world, make things right and make things better?

The criticisms of the typical Save The World plot are perfectly valid. It is too easy for drama to become dullness. If the only choice is save the world or not, obviously the hero will save the world, and does any reader ever doubt the hero will succeed? The real questions are always deeper.

What is the real name of your real enemy? (The Wizard of Earthsea) What is the price of saving the world? (The Lord of the Rings) What does it even mean to save the world? (Heroes)


Michelle D. Argyle said...

I have never liked speculative fiction as much as "real life" fiction. I am just grounded that way and often look longingly at those who can write about different worlds and make characters that are more real than the ones set in the real world. Takes more talent than what I've got, I guess.

This is a great post. Thank you for sharing those quotes. I'm slowly branching into reading more speculative fiction. It is a fun journey!

Tara Maya said...

It's a matter of taste, not talent. My reading journey is probably the inverse of yours. I mostly read genre fiction and only lately have come to enjoy "real life" fiction. I'm still far from being able to write it, however.

Traci said...

Very interesting post! Lots to ponder.

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

What a great post - it is always interesting to consider what we expect to get from various genres.

Anonymous said...

Hey Tara. : )

I wasn't sure where to post this, but I *love* your blog -- not just your great writing, but the whole atmosphere -- your blog theme is beautiful.

I just added you to my blogroll, and look forward to reading more. : )


Tara Maya said...

Em, how sweet of you! I enjoyed your poem by the way.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Tara. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

: )

I'm loving your blog. Anywhere I can see one of your fairies? I love fairies, too.