Just a little note today. Not really tied into work—though that keeps progressing as normal—but more just a thought that’s been on my mind over the last few days.
There’s a lot of back-and-forth out there over the debate between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction. Go find a writing or reading forum online, hang out there long enough, and you’ll see the topic come up. And there will be lots of back and forth on it, with one side usually gaining the upper-hand simply by virtue of the make-up of the board you’re on.
Point is, this is a debate that’s gone on for a long time, and one that is still at the forefront of reading and writing both. Sands, it’s part of the whole debate over the Hugos, since the sides are divided over what makes “good” fiction. One holds that it has to be “literary” and that the “genre fiction” the other suggests can’t possibly be good because it’s “genre” (and that is, for some, the end of the “discussion”).
Now, if you ask people what “literary” or “genre fiction” means, you’re going to get a plethora of responses, again based on what camp you approach, so with that in mind let’s set a little bit of context for my commentary today: I am specifically talking in response to the concept that “literary” fiction is the “intelligent and thought-provoking” fiction. The fiction that asks the tough questions or inspires moral philosophy … and on the other hand, genre fiction is just straight-entertainment fiction with no extra redeemable value, especially compared to literary work.
This might seem harsh, but this is actually pretty much exactly how you’ll see some people explain it. So, where am I taking issue?
Actually, not where you would expect. Granted, I could write a whole thing on how genre fiction can (and does) approach the tough questions, demands intelligent thought and reason, and present ideas (and when it comes down to it, most who disagree are either cherry picking their examples or of the mindset of “that doesn’t support the message and ideas I want,” which doesn’t help). I could talk about that, pull examples, etc. But I won’t. Not at this point.
No, instead, I’m going to tackle a different point. The idea that “literary” fiction is automatically intelligent and thought-provoking. Because this isn’t accurate. No, more accurate would be that it’s fiction that thinks it’s intelligent or thought provoking, written by someone who thinks they’re presenting something much more “intellectual” than it actually is. When it really isn’t … but they’re too “smart” to do the research to know otherwise.
Case in point: I read this year a whole collection of “literary” works; I was given several collections of award-winning ones for a birthday. And again and again I was shocked by not just the lack of research and basic common sense on display, but by even the lack of basic knowledge of things like “science” that these literary works displayed. One story, for example, was trying to present itself as a critique of society. It did so by setting itself “after the end.” The government had collapsed, and people were losing all their technology. The message of the story was “Technology has removed us from nature” alongside “technology has given us violence, and that makes it bad.”
Yeah, fairly psuedo-intellectual. Or wanting to be, anyway.
Still, it could have been a decent story (and mind you, this was a story that had won awards), if not for some hilariously bad basic science that permeated the story.
For instance, the main character explains that computers and everything have all stopped working in the last six or so years since the government fell, and now only one remains working in the small town they have. No one can charge anything anymore, and everyone’s just dumped their tech.
Why? Because the copper wires rusted.
Pause for a moment, if you will, and think about that one. Or, if you don’t know the answer to the question, Google whether or not copper rusts.
It doesn’t. Which should have been obvious to the writer. But no, they went on and on about how copper rusting was what did in all the electronics once no one could buy new ones.
And it got worse. Again, this is a piece of award-winning literary fiction. The book went into detail about how people were surviving in their new “agricultural” society by returning to farming and hunting practices. Except … holy cow, as someone who grew up on a freaking farm, it couldn’t have been more ill-put if the author had talked about onions growing on trees.
It was awful. Factual errors everywhere. At one point, a main character talks about wanting to go hunting, but waiting until the next day because if they get their prey (moose, I believe), they have to kill it early in the day or they’ll be forced to leave all the meat behind at the end of the day when they come back, as they won’t have enough time to butcher it. They also comment that they’re down a man, so they won’t be able to carry all the meat back anyway, since there’s snow.
Sleds, people! Wooden sledges! We had this figured out five-thousand+ years ago!
And this is where I run into issues with a lot of “literary” fiction. When it’s set in contemporary times and doesn’t step outside of the little box the author lives in, it’s usually not bad (though maybe a little melodramatic). But for a style of literature that’s often touted as the “intelligent” form of such … it’s not. Basic facts (like copper and its inability to rust) are wrong. The story goes outside the box the author knows (which apparently in some cases is a very small box indeed) and then things just go off the rails. No research is apparent anywhere, the basics are all sideways … and this is the “intelligent” writing that’s supposed to make you think.
Well, it makes me think, all right. Just not in the way the author expects. I’m not nodding and thinking “excellent point” or “that’s so insightful.” Not when basic science or facts of life are completely wrong.
Which, in my opinion, really lowers the value of “intellectual” quite a bit.
What’s sad about this is I could see myself enjoying more “literary” works. The writing is more tell, sure, and more purple, but sometimes that’s pretty good purple. Sometimes there’s some neat ideas buried in there.
But my issue is that they are buried in there. It’s like “literary” writers can’t be bothered to do the most basic of research. And that pushes me away. Back towards genre fiction, where, despite not being the “intelligent” fiction choice, the science is real, the facts are usually real (or pretty close), and even when I’m reading about fantasy kingdom of some kind, said kingdom is actually laid out like a real government and civilization would be. As opposed to the “literary” version, which comes off feeling like Disney-mythology in comparison.
It just keeps pushing me away. Especially with all the battles over how “literary” fiction is the “superior” fiction, or the more intelligent, or the more meaningful, etc. I just can’t take a story seriously that can’t grasp basic parts of life, like how a car works. Or a TV. Or science.
Genre fiction breaks these all the time, but at least it explains it. You want copper to corrode? There’s probably a story in genre fiction for that … but it’ll have the explanation be nanites. Not just “That’s science?” with no research done.
So, at the end of the day, each and every time I pick up a “literary” work, I find myself being pushed away. I can’t trust an author to offer societal ideas, concepts, or messages when they can’t get the basics of how a phone works correct, after all. To me, that just smacks of someone who thinks they’re smart, and wants to be smart, perhaps even wants everyone to look at them and see how smart they are … but is unquestionably demonstrating with their work that they’re not nearly as intelligent as they think they are.
The only people they will impress will be the others who are just as in the dark as they are.
Copper doesn’t rust, people. If you want to write “intellectual” fiction, do the blasted research.
Until then, you’ll keep pushing people away.
39 thoughts on “You Just Keep Pushing Me Away …”
You know this may explain some of the “cultural appropriation is bad” thing we’ve seen recently. If you’re proud of your culture and some literary morons come along and make a total pigs ear of describing it because it isn’t their culture then you might mistake the problem as the cultural appropriation rather than a writer who can’t do research
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Overwatch had this exact problem a few months ago. They released a bunch of custom skins and were hit with “Cultural Appropriation!” outcries from a bunch of people. Someone did some digging and found that in most of the cases, it was just a bunch of “socially minded” people who had nothing to do with said culture being offended “on behalf of” the culture, but in one case, there actually was a bit of clashback from said culture … and it wasn’t because Blizzard had used it, just that they had poorly. They’d lumped several different Native American tribal styles together in one skin, and that was all they were complaining about. It wasn’t even that Blizzard had made use of their culture (after all, the character was
Native American IIRCEgyptian—I didn’t recall correctly), but that they’d mixed styles from opposing histories.
That was it. Not “Don’t use this, it’s ours” but “Hey, use it properly.”
That was all they had to do.
No matter what creative field you’re in, always do the research. There are no excuses.
I was watching a Bettany Hughes history video about ancient Rome the other day and she showed a mural painting on a wall that depicted an Egyptian god with a dog’s head on a Roman body dressed in Roman attire. I guess we got our tradition of “Cultural Appropriation” from the Romans.
The character wasn’t Native American, she was Egyptian. (Her name is Pharah.) But yes, the backlash was from the improper use, not just the fact that it was used at all.
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Whoop! Turns out I did not recall correctly! Adjusted!
I’m so old I remember when we were supposed to learn from other cultures.
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“Why? Because the copper wires rusted.”
Without knowing the book in question, my immediate thought was “who said that?” Is the fact that the wires rusted given as a trustworthy authorial voice, or an unreliable narrator, or directly voiced by someone who’s grown up in this declining technological age and doesn’t have google to refer to?
It was given by the authorial voice, then backed up by all the characters, including the supposed “engineer” of the group.
This was six years after the fall of the government too, so there wasn’t anyone older than six who hadn’t been around for it. The main character was in their thirties, IIRC.
it’s part of the whole debate over the Hugos, since the sides are divided over what makes “good” fiction. One holds that it has to be “literary” and that the “genre fiction” the other suggests can’t possibly be good because it’s “genre”
This demonstrates a lack of nuanced understanding about the issue. The Hugos are all about genre and could never be anything else, because it’s a genre award. Nor is anyone in the genre claiming that genre isn’t good — that claim comes mainly from the snobs of lit-fic, the kind of people who wouldn’t notice that copper doesn’t rust.
The primary issue surrounding the current Hugo kerfluffle is whether or not “formula SF” should be considered Hugo-worthy. And nobody is saying there’s anything wrong with formula, either — most of us read and enjoy formula works in both SF and fantasy. But some people think that’s enough, and some people want work that has more than just formula to recommend it; we want stories that do more than tread the same well-worked ground. Which, yes, sometimes means including elements that could be described as “literary”, but doesn’t have to. What it does have to do is give us new and interesting ideas to think about.
The whole kerfluffle about the Hugo is that stories as bad as the above example, or worse, are given the award because of what the person believes far more than if it was an actually good quality book. When it was pointed out that a “Fan chosen” award was taken over by a certain clique, said clique would block any books outside a certain mindset to win the award, said clique screamed loudly that it was not. So efforts to bring the award back into the fans’ hands were made, and the clique then demonstrated their lie, and the point proven when they rather burned the awards down than allow any books suggested by “the wrong people” to be allowed to be considered. You might want something outside the “formula” but what the clique are demanding is even more formulaic than a standard Space Opera. Its all make-upium, box ticking, hold the right messaging, stuff with horrible writing. Literary implies intelligence, and it all is exactly the opposite. I’ve read stuff that is very make-upium with somewhat questionable science, that was a decent story. None of those were what I would say was “Award Winning”, and they are better than the stuff getting awards. They are at least readable. Unreadable Pap isn’t “literary” just because it holds certain views and sends a particular message.
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Another thing I notice about these, even with a couple of editors and several people reading the manuscript prior to publication, is that they are often loaded with typos, misspellings, and grammar mistakes. Sometimes the same error is repeated multiple times during the story. I always wonder why nobody caught them! Apparently nobody on the team went to school.
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“…copper rusted…” a provably absurd contention. You are much too nice. CRAP written by someone without an iota of knowledge or common sense. Whatever type of writing, however defined, this would make my hair stand on end and confirm to me that most millennials are STUPID.
Sleds, people! Wooden sledges! We had this figured out five-thousand+ years ago!
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Where is the information we have lost in raw data?
The worse problem is when the reader assumes the author has done the research and that the book is therefore a road map.
Thank you, Sarah, for expressing a frustration I have experienced for decades. As a youngster I grew up wanting to enjoy SF movies and TV shows like my friends, but “the stupid was just too loud.” Later my tastes turned to reading SF fiction and found the same problem. The gems are hard to find but well worth it.
Glad you enjoyed my rambling thoughts on the matter.
This “living inside the bubble” syndrome you describe – because that’s what it is – extends far beyond so-called “literary” fiction; nearly everyone in “the arts” suffers from it. Can’t remember which one it was, but a couple years ago there was a much promoted new TV series that sounded interesting, so I DVRed the pilot episode.
In the first 10 minutes there were two technical errors anyone who attended junior high before liberals made schools worthless would know were not just wrong but egregiously so, right up there with “copper rusting”
Such has become endemic in all aspects of modern media, to the point that it’s not worth the time to separate the wheat from the chaff – if one forthrightly applies Michael Crichton’s Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, it’s all chaff.
My sentiments are much like yours, but I must add that enormously popular genre fiction can display the same failings, with the author not knowing what he’s writing about. As a writer, I’ve tried to read a few mega-sellers to discover their secret. Two I quickly gave up in disgust after stumbling over dreadful errors much like those you describe.
Interestingly, in both the author’s error was projecting from what he knew into an area where he was utterly clueless.
1. In one, the author, after bringing a boat to a dock and tying off, has his character drop an anchor, which in that context is useless. I suspect he was thinking of an anchor as being like the parking brake on a car.
2. In another, the author has his hero jump into his private jet and head for Europe. No flight plan. No checking the weather. Nothing. In this case, I suspect the author saw flying across an ocean as little different from driving an SUV to the mall.
Laziness? Perhaps. Sloppiness? Certainly. But what was there about these particular authors that led to their successes despite those failings? One reason, I suspect, is that they understand, consciously or not, where their readers illusions and misinformation lie. The two mistakes I’ve described above make perfect sense if you’re not only writing for readers who know nothing about boats or planes but people who have no desire to do so. They want genre fiction that doesn’t upset their view of the world.
I’ve noted other traits of bestsellers. A James Patterson (and him only) book I attempted was dreadfully written with dialogue I could illustrate this way:
“I’m going to chop off your head,” said Bill angrily.
Yeah, the “angrily” is more than a little redundant and yet line after line was like that. Every remark had to come with commentary. I found that so tiresome, I gave up after a few pages. But keep in mind that many readers don’t want to figure anything out for themselves. They want every emotion expressed unmistakably. Whether the author was lazy or not, his readers certainly are.
I’ve thought about expanding those insights and others into a book with the subtitle of “How to Write Badly and Get Rich.” The real secret to creating a bestseller, I would claim, is writing badly in particular sorts of ways. The reason is that the avid, three-book-a-week reader that drives those huge sales is not a typical person. They’re little involved in life, so they know nothing about a host of activities. If they boated, flew, farmed or hunted, they’d be turned off by the errors you and I have noted. But because they don’t do those things, they have lots of time to read and drive bestseller lists. They not only want to live vicariously, they want to live a fake vicarious life.
Ah, but I will never write that book. I simply can’t force myself to do the necessary research.
–Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride
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Ah, Tom Swifties. At least Patterson didn’t write it: “I’m going to chop off your head, said Tom cuttingly.”
True. I’m not at all holding that Sci-Fi and Fantasy don’t make similar mistakes of their own (tanning operation at the city center, anyone?) … but rather pointing out that this issue, in my experience occurs far more frequently, and with far less esoteric stuff, in material that aims to be “literary.”
Every genre has mistakes. My rambling thoughts here were more based on my experience in finding that “literary” fiction fully commits to this far more often, and is more likely to make their errors about completely banal things that should be everyday knowledge.
I think it was a piece of ‘non-literary fiction’ a couple of decades ago that got it mostly right, “Stupid is as stupid does.”
Not to be pedantic folks, but every effing metal forms oxides, which is what a rust is. Just few have the enthusiasm for it that iron has. Copper forms four oxides (Cu2O, CuO, CuO2, and Cu2O3), which is what I found when I googled it. By the way none of which would cause a computer to fail, usually. Many of the “chips” (ICs, CPUs, GPUs, etc) on a motherboard use copper as a conductor in their construction. Through repeated heating/cooling cycles faults can appear and those faults can oxidize, but this is not what usually causes a component to fail. Usually the copper “wire” has broken and the electrons can no longer “flow”. The writer of the unmentioned discussed story in the article probably doesn’t know the difference between an oxide and their own ass and seems to be a real maroon. Those characters would die in the first winter. My suspension of belief would not suspend for this author.
My thoughts on literary v genre fiction is that most stories are unreadable – I’m one of those 90/10 people – 90% of everything is crap. I define fiction into the readable and unreadable, then sub-categorize them from there. My go to popcorn fiction is SciFi. But I try to read almost everything. I have failed to enjoy the fantasy/magic genre, for instance I tried to read GRRRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and was looking for an ice pick to stab my eyes out after the third page rather than endure the tedium.
As far as the Hugo kerfuffle goes I find it just another example of the Burge dictum:
1. Identify a respected institution
2. Kill it.
3. Gut it.
4. Wear its carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect.
Hugo winners used to command my attention, they no longer do.
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Yeah, copper corrodes, and possibly small wires may corrode enough to be less conductive, but, if the premise of this story was remotely correct, my 8 year old Laptop wouldn’t work any longer, and my house, built in 1949, with original 1949 wires run in a few places (not much longer), would have stopped distributing power to the garage and the upstairs rooms. Or maybe they think the Gov’t is needed to enforce laws of Physics? One of 0bama’s first appointees was told something she wanted done was “Against the laws of Physics” and she said “What laws are these? We hold both houses and we can get them changed!”
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If there’s snow, the moose meat will freeze overnight unless the bears / wolves get it first. Cheers –
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Are you sure it wasn’t all that carbon dioxide that caused the copper to rust. . . . . . 😉
I learned long ago that it’s the writer’s ideology, not his talents or adherence to facts, that determines the quality of his work among literary critics. During the Vietnam era, any grade-school dropout who could mumble “F*ck the war” was considered an intellectual in the right circles.
It’s not a recent development. Ayn Rand makes the point very clearly — and entertainingly — in “The Fountainhead.”
Copper will oxidize. Where the writer of the book gets it wrong is once copper has a coat of oxidation the oxidation stops.
Facts, schmacts. Next thing, you will tell me is Chromium actually corrodes and it is clear.
Like anyone would believe that.
Yep, it’s called patina and is why older copper sheathed roofs have that lovely green color.
It’s also a bit toxic which is why copper utensils have a different metal plated on their surface.
The other ridiculous premise is that it is impossible to make copper wire and computers without govt.
Or electricity, which, as everyone knows, is dispensed through wall sockets which spontaneously generate it to meet present needs.
Most litfic is written by a small subset of people who attended the ‘right’ schools. got the ‘right’ major/s, and then landed the ‘right’ agents, who naturally look for people with the ‘right’ credentials. They then get fairly decent advances, usually with film rights as part of the package, and are promptly placed somewhere on the bestseller lists. Of course the ‘right’ people read them, and the whole incestuous ouroborous starts again.
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Well… The copper problem was also present in Atlas Shrugged, in which copper wires broke and could not be replaced or repaired.
Having finally read Atlas Shrugged I found suspension of disbelief nearly impossible given the bad science and societal misinformation. Rearden metal? Sure. Static motors harnessing limitless atmospheric electricity? I can buy that; sort of Zero Point energy-ish. But farmers who can’t fix their combines with duct tape and bailing wire? Whole towns going from prosperous to starving in the space of a few years and don’t fall back to blacksmithing and animal husbandry? And all this without a nuclear winter or some other world-altering force? For me that was a constant nag bringing me back to, ‘this book has some interesting ideas, but as fiction it’s pretty lame.’
I may not be able to manufacture an integrated circuit, but as Max pointed out building a sledge is a skill not lost to many/most of us. For a writer to claim society would fall from technology to living in caves and gathering berries in six (or however many) years is laughable not ‘literary’.
Maybe “literary ” in this sense means the same as “smug”. Lots of smug folks don’t know much of anything, particularly the actual humanities that they claim to have studied in college. They always look down their nose at things they don’t understand, like science, engineering, business, etc. Because those benighted fools just spend their time doing things, not thinking the kind of elevated literary thoughts that earn one a lifetime of smugness.
Coming to this discussion more than a year late (and a dollar short), but enjoyed your post and its premise.
Except I’m indie, and write literary fiction (though little of it is SF), and do unbelievable amounts of research for the stupidest tiny things (suspension of disbelief is fragile), and have the odd PhD in Nuclear Engr. as backup. Glad Uncle Lars mentioned the lovely copper patina. We used various oxides on aluminum, for example, to make a non-conducting outer layer on aluminum plasma probes way back when I was in grad school.
I wish we didn’t all get tarred with the same brush, Sturgeon’s Law or not. Some of us actually care, and do the work, and agonize over the language as well (as long as it doesn’t stop the story dead in its tracks via navel-gazing).
Wish we had it easier finding readers! Amazon has granted the big publishers almost exclusive rights to ‘literary’ (see the Author Earnings reports), and people who read genre are often unforgiving if you go over their preferred length and complexity.
Will figure it out eventually.
Sorry to stain you with that brush. Glad to hear someone out there is focusing on getting the research done right.
Therre’s always someone swimming against the current. I find research exhausting and exhilarating – and then I come back down to Earth with the caveat: only what absolutely needs to go in the story is allowed to.
I like the way research automatically affects my word choices, the way I tell that bit of story, even such things as what metaphors I might use (assuming I really need a metaphor). ‘No info dumps’ is my mantra, so sometimes there is so little left I wonder why I bothered, but you HAVE to get the details right. And you can only do that by doing the work.