Thursday, January 13, 2011

The voices in my head demand an audience

I've been reading literary fiction lately (as opposed to "genre"), which has given me an appreciation for an aspect of writing I have heretofore more or less ignored: voice.

I suppose one way of looking at this is that the main reason I didn't read literary fiction up until now is that I must have been picking up lit-fic books with bad voices; whereas genre stories can survive with utterly unimaginative voices because they have so much wacky stuff - aliens, deathrays, sorceress witches, etc. - to fill them up, "literature" has really got nothing on speculative fiction without beautiful prose. But the last two books I read - "The Origin of Species" by Nino Ricci and "Combat Camera" by A. J. Somerset - were both literary and narrated in really awesome voices. I was concomitantly unable to put either book down for very long, so enamoured was I with their voices. In short, they were written really, really well.

say it: lit-ra-cha!
Unfortunately, I think this is going to make it a lot harder to read stuff, generally speaking. I spent the last six or so months trying to "catch up" on my knowledge of genre, as though immersing myself in its mysteries would give me an edge in producing my own speculative fiction. But what I'm realizing now, when I pick up a book or a magazine to browse its contents, is that a lot of genre is poorly written - its lacklustre literary quality, in effect, "bought off" by its magical/scientific glitz and glam.

Not that all literary fiction is good, either. In the last week, while searching for the next book to read, I've been trashing a lot of those, too. But I've suddenly reached a new point in my reading, I think; a point where the writing, and not just the story, must draw me in to a novel or short.

Obviously, this has ended up affecting my writing, too. It's sort of freed me up, in one sense, to tell stories that are stories primarily in the telling (and not in the happening). But it's also challenging me, since now, when I re-read something I've produced, I'm a lot more critical of the style and substance of the prose - in addition to my internal criticism of the plot.

Still, this inner turmoil has made me productive. I've written three short stories in four days - albeit only 7,000 words in total, but three whole stories nonetheless.

I ought to paradigm-shift more often.



  1. Well, yeah, that's the trade-off. The eternal struggle of Good vs. Awesome.

    I usually salve my conscience by occasionally churning out some Magical Realism, where you're allowed to have semicolons.

    ;that aren't used to mark comments in cool SF code, that is.

  2. Hahaha.

    Yeah I use semicolons like they're about to be removed from English grammar entirely - all too frequently, that's to say.

  3. Ehh, you can never really get caught up on the genre. Congratulations on selling to Brain Harvest, by the way, that is totally legit. They have rejected me many, many times.

  4. Interesting points, but I think there are more "literary" writers in the sf&f genre than you might think. Tolkien immediately comes to mind, as does Ursula K. Le Guin and Robert Charles Wilson. Cherryh is also an excellent writer, though sometimes it can be a little hard to get into her books.

  5. @rahkan: Thanks, Rahul!

    @onelowerlight: Although I haven't read any of those writers (Tolkien included, strangely-of-fately), I definitely agree with you that there are a lot of great writers who write science fiction and fantasy. My main contention is that the quality of a genre work is more easily obfuscated by cool-stuff and cool-stuff-happening. To compare the last three genres books I read: China Miéville writes with voice, digresses, and explores the nitty-gritty of both his world-building and his language. Conversely, Ian Tregillis (Bitter Seeds) and Cherie Priest (Dreadnought) write great stories, but in voices that are flat, unemotional, and psychically unrevealing. Still, I was truly able to enjoy their books, because they were filled with cool-stuff and cool-stuff-happening; whereas a poorly written "literary" or "mainstream" book has absolutely zero purchase on my interest.

  6. You've hit on a major bit of contention in the world of literature--that of "literary" versus "genre," which many argue must be mutually exclusive. Those who claim to be literary can be particularly stuffy about the debate, and I always roll my eyes when I read something I consider to be scifi that the author *might* bend so far as to call "speculative" but would never call "scifi" (Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro spring immediately to mind.) I mostly want what I read to have elements of both, and I think they strengthen each other. Connie Willis, my favorite scifi author, is quite literary and also AWESOME! I hope this helps you become a better writer overall, and remember to tell anyone who gets stuffy about it to get stuffed.

  7. Eileen,

    Just to clarify, I'm using the terms "literary" or "mainstream" exclusively to denote the kind of fiction that deals only with truly extant things, and not to make any kind of value judgment. I agree completely that the use of the word "literary" is, in general, annoying; and I actually find it even more annoying that the genre fiction industry has in many cases tried to appropriate the value judgments around the term. Beneath Ceaseless Skies, for example, publishes "literary adventure fantasy," but they could just as well say they publish "adventure fantasy" and we should never be able to tell the difference.

    I brought this up specifically to address the fact that science fiction and fantasy authors can survive and even be very successful without having particularly interesting writing styles or "voices;" "Ender's Game," by Orson Scott Card, for example, is written in a very pedestrian style, and yet it is an incredibly interesting book - because it deals with really interesting concepts and worldbuilding. "Literary" or "mainstream" fiction, conversely, is only interesting (to me) if it is written well - i.e. has interesting prose, diction, metre, digressions, observations, and all the fun stuff that goes in to good writing - because it deals with the "real world" which I get enough of in, well, the real world. In other words, when it comes to "literary" fiction, it is the WRITING that interests me; genre can survive on poor writing because, frequently, it is the CONCEPTS that interest me.

    To re-iterate: no value judgments, and no OUTRIGHT denigration of genre OR literary fiction. China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer are two of my favourite authors and both have amazing written voices. I was here mainly ruminating on the fact that I am finding it more and more difficult to enjoy genre fiction exclusively for its concepts; it needs to have a beautiful voice, also.

  8. Eileen,

    This may have been unclear, but I think the only difference between "literary" and "genre" fiction as it applies to me personally is that genre has until now been able to enthuse me without good writing - in other words, I might read fantasy or science fiction exclusively for its concepts or worldbuilding, despite its lacklustre writing. "Ender's Game," for example, was "well" written but entirely pedestrian. I enjoyed it primarily because it was composed of fantastic concepts.

    And that's not to denigrate Ender's Game or Orson Scott Card (... or is it Scott Orson Card? I always forget). It's very well written. It's not written in an INTERESTING voice QUA voice, but it plays off its strength - space battles - better than any other space-battle book I've ever read.

    "Literary" fiction, on the other hand, is ONLY able to draw me if it is well written - because the minutiae of daily life is something I experience daily without reading books! I expect the ratio of "well-written" "genre" to "literature" is identical; there is a lot of bad mainstream fiction out there, and a lot of poorly-written SF&F. However, it used to be that I would read SF&F more readily because I wanted to experience the battlecruisers, aliens, sorcerers, and all that. Now, I'm at a point where just "cool ideas" is not enough to satisfy me; I have enough cool ideas on my own and not enough time to write them all. I'd rather read something where the writing itself challenges me - like Jeff VanderMeer's "Shriek: An Afterword"!

    Hope that clears things up. I certainly don't think the word "literary" has only value other than to provide categorical clarification.

  9. Oh, and, one more thing: an admission. I write a lot of pedestrian fiction myself!