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Thursday, August 10, 2006

In Which I Am Constitutionally Incapable Of Ever Shutting Up About This "Slipstream" Business

The anthology "Feeling Very Strange", which I am in (twice! Me and Bruce Sterling are the only ones who have both a story in it and a part of the excerpted rambling blog debate. Sweet! Did I mention, me and Bruce Sterling? Huh? Did I mention that? Did I?), is out. My contributor's copy arrived. It is awesome.

To celebrate I went to Jeff Ford's blog and ranted on and on about slipstream after everyone else had already moved on. :-)

Can we revive the Infernokrusher joke movement now?

(updated in response to tongue-lashing from Matt)

Posted by benrosen at August 10, 2006 12:55 PM | Up to blog

Inasmuch as I am not a slipstream author (nor an author of any type, so much as a chanseur), I may have no say in the issue, but I take Infernokrusher deadly serious, and I try to apply its precepts to my songwriting, although I doubtless fail.

But anyway, Infernokrusher is no joke!

Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 10, 2006 03:04 PM

Yes it is. If you don't get the joke, you're not serious enough.

Posted by: David Moles at August 11, 2006 01:55 AM

Ben: I put links from the front of the journal to your recent posts. I found your comments very interesting and I think others will too. Hope you are doing well.

Posted by: jeff ford at August 11, 2006 10:04 AM

I still want to launch the Infernokrusher apparel line. Track jackets, anyone?

Posted by: Alan DeNiro at August 11, 2006 11:49 AM

Ben - sorry about any "lashing" aspect of my post (although I assure you I used my fingers to type it, not my tongue at all...) - it was meant humorously.

That said, I approve of the amendment of the word "joke" to "movement" :)


Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 11, 2006 12:57 PM

Interesting conversation over there at Jeff Ford's place. It clarified in my mind what various people mean by the term "slipstream." I will post my comments here however.

One thing, which seems facile and obvious as I articulate it, is that different stories have different effects on different people. For instance, "Biographical Discourse" doesn't seem slipstream to you, the author, but apparently did to the editors of Feeling Very Strange. For what it's worth, I wouldn't call "Biographical Discourse" slipstream either.

But here are a couple of examples of works that did leave me feeling slipstreamy, and I don't know that they would have that effect on other people.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for instance. When I came out of the theater having seen that back in 87 or 88 whenever it came out, I had a distinct feeling of otherness - I specifically remember feeling surprised at the lack of cartoon tumbleweeds rolling across the sidewalk. Colors were weirdly vivid (possibly an effect of the lighting in the parking lot - it was dark out), and so forth. This was also prior to my druggie period, so don't go blaming The Pot :)

Or The Matrix? The first one, anyway, flipped the switch in my head (originally flipped probably by Phil Dick way back when - the first time I remember having said switch flipped was upon reading the Phil Dick story in which the guy's walking around and comes to realize that it's a set being maintained by aliens as an experiment in which the guy (let's call him "Guy" since this is the last time I'll mention him) is the subject - and made more easily flippable by the liberal application of chemicals) that causes me to question my assumptions about reality. But it did so effectively, which is to say that it created the slipstream feeling *in me* without being what (I think) most of you high-falutin' theory-positin' literary-critiquin' types would call a slipstream story. I think.

So I think that Ellen saying that "Lieserl" didn't create the slipstreamy feeling in her (although I can't imagine that it would not create said feeling in *me*...) is just as legitimate as you saying that it did create the slipstreamy feeling in you, or Kessel saying that "Biographical Discourse" creates it in him.

An issue for the governing panel of the Infernokrusher Literary Society, Terrorist Jihad, and Knitting Circle would be to determine a more objective definition of Infernokrusher than "produces an effect," whatever that effect may be, because effects are subjective by nature to that which they affect. Like "irrealist" and "deconstructionist" and "interstitial," I can see as being noun-like, whereas "slipstream" seems more adjectivy...

*Quits while he is if not ahead at the very least still in the race*


Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 11, 2006 02:07 PM

It's an excellent point, Matt. But one of the clever things I think K&K do in that introductory essay, and which reconciled me somewhat to the term "slipstream", is to classify it as an effect rather than a genre.

And an effect is *inevitably* subjective. The self-alienation effect I want to (perhaps perversely) call "slipstream" is no more subjective than horror or humor.

A work is a work of humor if it aims for humor. If you didn't find Catch-22 funny, that doesn't mean it is not humor. Whether or not you found Night of the Living Dead scary, that still makes it horror.

To the extent that Matrix is aping Dick, it is dimly attempting to be messing-with-reality in a kinda slipstreamy way. I write that very grudgingly. Possibly that example is enough to make me abandon my whole argument. Roger Rabbit I can accept much more easily.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 11, 2006 02:21 PM

Ok, but that puts an awful big onus on the author/reader relationship. Given "A work is a work of humor if it aims for humor," who has to make the leap of deciding what a work "aims for?" Obviously, you're still alive, so I can have this conversation with you and say, "so you wouldn't say "BD" is slipstream? Groovy."
PKD, however, can not answer the question "Did you mean for "Story About Guy" to be slipstream?" (Obviously I can't remember the name of the story - it might have been the novel The Zap Gun, but I think it was a short story.) Or perhaps a better example of this would be The 3rd Policeman by Flann OBrien (you may mark off for spelling as appropriate...). It could be read as slipstreamy or it could be jokey in the sense that you say the Little Magic Shop is jokey. Given his other similar work (At Swim Two Birds), I would tend to suggest that it was meant slipstreamily, but I don't actually know.

Another example: 6 Characters in Search of an Author. I read this as a comedy, but the fact that the first showing of said play in France sparked riots can be said to indicate that it was not taken lightly. It's evident from stuff about Pirandello I've read that he at least intended it to be funny, if not "a comedy" per se. But I think it effectively makes the case that you can't expect an audience (or reader in the case of "BD" for example) to make the leap from "feelings the audience gets" to "feelings the artist intends."

I guess my point is that you're trying to have it both ways. You're saying "classify it as an effect rather than a genre," but you're treating it as a genre when you talk about Night of the Living Dead being horror, regardless of the effect that it has on me. IF NotLD is horror, it is horror to the extent that horror is a genre. If NotLD is funny to me, it is having the subjective effect on me of being funny, not of being horrible. I think when you talk about the effect the author intends, you're talking about genre (which is nouny to use my previous post's infantilized terminology), and when you talk about the effect the work has on the audience, you're talking about something subjective, or adjectivy, which is where I see the word "slipstream" being relegated.

Not that having a jargon for discussing a subjective effect isn't useful, just that I think it's not a useful way of describing a "movement" or a "genre." It's like you can call the sky blue, but that doesn't say much about what the air consists of.


Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 11, 2006 03:31 PM

So just to be clear:

1. I think slipstream is a crappy idea for a genre.

2. I think slipstream is a lousy but tolerable name for a keen effect, analogous to humor or horror, which needs a name.

3. It will thus forever be subjective. No one can say "this definitively produces the slipstream effect" any more than "this is definitively funny".

4. As a "fact about the work", it's forever subjective.

5. As a fact about the *history* of the work --
if we want to dig into the circumstances of its composition, learn what tradition it stands in, etc -- we can talk about the author and what they intended. This can be useful, as biography, or also if you're a writer and you want to understand how the effect was achieved.

6. If we want to get all lit critty, we can say screw the author, and try and talk about what the *work*, as distinct from the author, intends. What "readings it affords". On some level this is very dodgy: we are either making a sekrit guess about what the author "really" intended (in her celestial overmind) or we are claiming a "space of allowable readings" we can imagine -- i.e. saying "anyone who reads too differently from me is a doofus." Dodgy or not, this way of talking is common and can be useful.

So I can say "I didn't find Matrix slipstreamy" - a personal account. I can say "the directors of Matrix intended it as slipstream" -- a biographical claim. I can say "in my reading, the Matrix intends to be slipstream", i.e. I can imagine most people would read it that way -- a lit-critty guess about a set of reading experiences.

I can't say "look! the Matrix has the following elements; QED, it is slipstream."

That's a *virtue*, because genre definitions that are based on content checklists, rather than on subjective reader experience, are *stupid*.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 11, 2006 03:51 PM

Sweet! You win the Inferno prize. Please krush it at your leisure.

I have in addition things to say about the following:

1) You're right that slipstream is a lousy term for that effect. Slipstream actually refers to an effect of fluid dynamics. What does that have to do with cognitive dissonance (allowing me a one-time-only dispensation for the use of the phrase "cognitive dissonance" to sum up the subjective effect sometimes generated in some readers by some of the stories included in the anthology Feeling Very Strange and occasionally other places, taxes and tags not included, your mileage may vary)? Nothing.

Infernokrusher also has nothing to do with cognitive dissonance, but in a good way
A) in that it's a funny word, and
B) in that the word itself causes cognitive dissonance and is therefore meta.

II. Your spelling of sekrit is exceedingly silly.

C - The fact that you call "genre definitions that are based on content checklists" *stupid* seems out of character. Would you please return the Ben I thought I knew? I agree with this one of course.

That said, I also would suggest that MOST genre definitions in circulation popularly ARE based on content checklists. Are you calling millions of Barnes & Noble shoppers *stupid*?


Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 11, 2006 05:02 PM

1. I think slipstream is a crappy idea for a genre.

2. I think slipstream is a lousy but tolerable name for a keen effect, analogous to humor or horror, which needs a name.

I think slipstream is perfectly acceptable name for a cool aerodynamic effect.

Posted by: Jackie M. at August 11, 2006 06:26 PM

Just posted some wildly incoherent thoughts on my blog. Will pick up the anthology at Diversicon.


Posted by: Alan DeNiro at August 11, 2006 06:56 PM

Infernokrusher also has nothing to do with cognitive dissonance

Infernokrusher has everything to do with cognitive dissonance.

Posted by: David Moles at August 12, 2006 01:36 AM

All things are true.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 12, 2006 08:56 PM

It may be a crappy idea for a genre, but my sense from hearing you prattle on about slipstream/inferno crusher (for what? the past three years now?) is that it IS commonly used as a term to describe a heretofore indescribable genre and that you have managed to associate and identify yourself and your work with it.

Since you are, as you say, constitutionally unable to stop going on and on about it, I would suggest you stop calling it crappy and see if you can't upgrade it into something less dada/dali than inferno krusher.

Or more dada/dali than inferno crusher.


Posted by: Jamey at August 22, 2006 09:05 AM

Hmm. I misspoke. It's a crappy name. The genre kicks ass.

What I would really like to be associated with is "irrealist fantastic literature". Although I would also like to be associated with "straight-up SF". I think my writing is about 50-50.

It's because the body of literature in question -- genre, subgenre, or collision of genres -- matters to me that I keep grousing about the term.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 22, 2006 11:33 AM


Posted by: David Moles at August 24, 2006 01:24 AM

I'm unclear, David. Are you proposing a name for the genre or the effect?

Either way, it's a great name.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 24, 2006 04:01 PM

I'm complaining about the term "irrealist fantastic literature".

Posted by: David Moles at August 25, 2006 06:24 AM

What's wrong with it?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 25, 2006 06:54 PM

It's wordy, lacks rhythm, lacks punch; and if it's not actually redundant you're going to have to spend quite some time explaining why not -- explaining to people the difference between "irrealist" and "fantastic", or possibly (though this is not something that should actually be hard, and I suggest it only because of the godawful "all literature is fantasy" direction taken by that SF/fantasy debate a few months back) between "fantastic" and "literature".

To the extent that there is a difference between "irrealist" and "fantastic" (and, even taking these as descriptive adjectives rather than separable categories, I can imagine one -- for instance, Murakami or Pelevin: irrealist; Powers or DeLint: fantastic -- although I wouldn't suggest my imagined difference should be canonical), "irrealist fantastic" seems not to suggest that which is irrealist yet also fantastic, or that which is fantastic but also irrealist, but simply to bolt irrealism and fantasy together into an arbitrary larger category. Much as one might, say, study the history of science and Byzantine art.

In short, it's wishy-washy. At least as wishy-washy as slipstream, and harder to say.

Posted by: David Moles at August 26, 2006 02:41 AM

I'll give you that it's long winded, but I'm not proposing an alternate catchphrase to rally around and turn into a marketing category - we have "infernokrusher" for that, which doesn't explain what it means, but is a hell of a cool word.

I'd argue that "irrealist" and "fantastic" are orthogonal axes, the first dealing with style, on a superficial level, and epistemological orientation on a more fundamental level, the second with content:

               Irrealist                Realist
              | Metamorphosis           Perdido St 
              | The Hortak                Station
 Fantastic    | Lieserl                 Dune
              | The Fantasticks       Pride & 
 Naturalistic | The Waves              Prejudice
              |                       The Jungle

Consider it as the subtitle of an anthology, not the title or the label of the shelf the anthology is found on. "Infernokrusher: Irrealist Tales of the Fantastic"

These are axes, not binary distinctions: "The Lord of the Rings", with its tone of epic fairy tale, is somewhat less realist than fantasy told more straightforward limited-third-person narration with a contemporary feel, e.g. the Thomas Covenant books, while the symbolic name "Covenant" nudges those books slightly farther from realism than if his name was Thomas Gorbachinsky, just as Dickens, with his telling, whimsical names, is a little less realist than Austen.

Maybe "realism" isn't the best term for this axis. Got a better one?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 26, 2006 11:05 AM

but I'm not proposing an alternate catchphrase to rally around and turn into a marketing category

Then nobody's likely to "associate" you with it, are they? :)

There's nothing wrong with your names for your axes per se, but I'm not convinced there's anything particularly right about the axes themselves. It's a big multidimensional space, and this basis doesn't look particularly more meaningful than a lot of others I've seen and/or could think of.

Posted by: David Moles at August 28, 2006 04:21 AM

Matt wrote:

"Slipstream actually refers to an effect of fluid dynamics. What does that have to do with cognitive dissonance[...]? Nothing."

Well, the term was presumably coined to stand in contrast to "mainstream"; the idea being, as I always understood it, that "slipstream" works hover around the edges of the mainstream.

But that brings us back again to the term "slipstream" being used to conflate/describe a variety of different things, even in the original Sterling essay; if my understanding of the term's background is right, the term didn't really come from the "makes you feel strange" definition.

Which may be why the term itself doesn't have much to do with cognitive dissonance per se, which leads to meta-cognitive dissonance, or maybe cognitive meta-dissonance.

Posted by: Jed at August 28, 2006 07:51 PM

I quite like the appropriation of the term "irreal" for the stuff that Ben's using it to describe. Mainly because I've grown increasingly dissatisfied with calling it "fantasy." By my definitions, it *is* fantasy, but that's mainly because my definition of "fantasy" is an extremely broad one. When I'm setting "fantasy" in opposition to "science fiction," as I do in some contexts, I find both labels dissatisfying for some kinds of work.

I often use the term "surreal" to refer to works by Barthelme, Vukcevich, Kafka, et alia, but I've long suspected that that's not a technically accurate use of the term. I think "irreal" immediately gives the kind of connotation I'm looking for.

Ben, I like your idea of irrealism and fantasticality as two axes (although I think I agree with David that they're just two among multiple such axes). But (nitpick) I'd be inclined to focus more on epistemological orientation (good term) and less on style in distinguishing "irrealist" from "realist" (I might even pull style out into an axis of its own); also, (another nitpick) I think the epistemological orientation that you're calling "realist" is something I'm more used to calling "naturalistic." (But it's quite possible that I misuse the term "naturalistic.") Or maybe "verisimilitudinistic." :) ...If it weren't for the negative connotations, I would suggest replacing your "naturalistic" label with "mundane."

The area I'm having the most trouble getting my head around is the quadrant you labeled as irrealist naturalistic; I'm hindered further by not being familiar with either The Fantasticks (except superficially) or The Waves. So can you provide an example that I'm familiar with? :)

This is probably a big tangent, but while I'm here I'll ask anyway: another category that I'm unhappy labeling as either "science fiction" or "fantasy" is superhero stories. Even the ones that don't contain explicit magic per se don't have what you're calling the realist epistemological orientation; comic-book science doesn't match real-world science, and generally isn't even internally consistent. On the other hand, as with irrealist works, I feel like I'm calling superhero stuff "fantasy" only by default, for lack of a better term; it doesn't *feel* like fantasy to me, even by my broad definition. (Which is mostly to say, it doesn't use the protocols and conventions of fantasy, even if you include modern urban fantasy and magical realism in your definition of fantasy, as I do.) So, any suggestions for a name for the superhero-story genre/approach?

(It's funny: for magical realism per se, I'm always a little perplexed when I see people writing -- as they often do -- that it's obviously not fantasy. It seems to me to very obviously fit my definition of fantasy; magical stuff happens! But even though the distance between, say, Garcia Marquez and Barthelme in story space may not be all that far, it's far enough to cross my personal line between obviously-fantasy and fantasy-only-by-default.)

Posted by: Jed at August 28, 2006 08:26 PM

One last unrelated thing: Matt, what's a "chanseur"? Babelfish translates it as "chansor," but that's not in my dictionaries either.

...Oh, wait, OneLook suggests "chasseur" as a correction. Is that the term you meant?


Posted by: Jed at August 28, 2006 08:31 PM

magical stuff happens!

Content-based definitions bad.

Posted by: David Moles at August 29, 2006 12:49 AM

(Okay, let me expand on that a little: How is it useful to place The Chronicles of Amber and One Hundred Years of Solitude in the same category? Particularly when that category excludes both Lord of Light and, as best as I can recall, Love in the Time of Cholera?)

Posted by: David Moles at August 29, 2006 01:02 AM

Hey Jed

My slipstream != cognitive dissonance comment referred to the fact that fluid dynamics (the field for which the term slipstream was coined) has nothing to do with cognitive dissonance (the effect for which the word slipstream is used in literature), therefore slipstream was as arbitrary a word to use to describe that effect as any other arbitrary word, such as infernoqrusher. I still like David's suggestion of "wishy-washy," myself.

Also, before David or anyone else says "Matt, David wasn't proposing a name, he was talking about something else," I'm kidding. I was kidding then, and I'm kidding now. Comedy happens around me a lot. Unfortunately, I'm usually the only one who thinks it's funny...

As for chanseur, I made that word up. It's based on the French word chanseuse, which is the feminine form of "one who sings." Chanseur would be the masculine form following French word-construction logic.

I may of course be A) spelling any or all of my French words wrong and B) making all this Frenchy crap up. My French is unbelievably rusty, and was unbelievably bad even when I last practiced it almost 20 years ago now.


Posted by: Matt Hulan at August 29, 2006 01:42 PM

Wishy-washy was Meghan's description, originally, of what was wrong with "slipstream".

Posted by: David Moles at August 29, 2006 04:07 PM

Um, irrealist naturalistic. I'm thinking of things like, say, "this will be a story of some people who live in a house, as narrated by their couch. It's clear that it's just a convention -- the couch never *does* anything uncouchlike, it's just given a point of view, and the story is told through it. Thus, the *experience* of the story is radically different from the way we usually experience it, but if you think about it you can easily translate the events narrated into those we know"

Sounds like a bad idea for a story, and maybe it's not even what we should put in that box. Maybe another example is Crying of Lot 49. It's sort of a secret history; it might be true, there's nothing overtly fantastic. But it's absurd, zany; we aren't meant to wonder how likely a secret postal service is, but rather to be enticed into a delicious cognitive dissonance. Like The Specialist's Hat, Crying of Lot 49 made my own actual world feel temporarily unreal, unmoored - without any ghosts or transformations or anything.

I'm not attached to these axes as the best way to describe all literature. They are, sort of, how I tend to think of my range, though. Most everything I write is fantastic; but how irreal it is varies from "profoundly so" (The Orange, Red Leather Tassels) to "not at all" (Start the Clock, Embracing-the-New) to "right in the middle" (Biographical Notes).

If I have to be associated with a marketing label, I'm fine with "spec fic" or "SF" or "weird fiction"; or, sometimes, "surrealist fiction" or even "postmodernism". Like Jed, I'm happier with "irreal" than surreal, because I think it's broader, but I don't expect to find it at the top of a bookshelf any time soon.

I don't think I'm entirely succumbing to the lure of content-based definitions; the fantastic, here, is a reader taste. Both the fantastic and the irreal provoke a taste: the taste for being swept away from the ordinary. The fantastic is centered on events, the irreal on the context in which, and means by which, events are understood. Maybe?

David, I'd love to hear your positive proposal. Should we distinguish between the mode of "Five Irrational Histories" and that of "Fetch"? How? Is that not the most important distinction to be made, or not the one you find useful in your own practice? Then what is?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 29, 2006 11:47 PM

My last two comments on content-based definitions were largely aimed at Jed.

I haven't found any distinctions particularly useful in my own practice, except possibly between stories that are easy to write and stories that are difficult to write, or between stories that I take seriously and stories I don't. And, actually, I didn't take any of this to be aimed at writerly practice when the discussion first started. So I don't really have any positive proposals to make, because I guess I don't really understand what the purpose of the exercise is.

Posted by: David Moles at August 30, 2006 01:02 AM

David: Sorry to be especially dense, but the thing that keeps confusing me about your "effect-based, not content-based definitions" is, well, what if two readers feel two completely different effects after reading the same story? If Alan DeNiro feels very "slipstream-y" after reading Saunders' "Sea Oak," but I just feel sort of sad in a tear-jerky, chicken-soup-for-the-soul kind of way, how do am I supposed to classify the effect?

(Also, I don't find "slipstream" to be particularly wishy-washy -- to me the word invokes, for example, bullets fired in quick succession from a machine gun encountering less air resistance when following in one anothers' paths. Sorry. I think that's yet another example of a perception which is completely dependent on the reader...)

Posted by: Jackie M. at August 30, 2006 10:08 AM

Since I just got through picking a fight with J.M. over a Miyazaki short, I think I'm now contractually obligated to agree with her on the next topic. Which is lucky, because I do: content-based classification is what helps me know that a particular friend will get pulled out of a story and stop enjoying it when something fantastic happens or that another will be annoyed when a story is resolved with a technological solution. Just f'rexes.

Lord of Light and the Amber books definitely get separated in my content-based system, although not by much, becuase the "technology" in L/L is, shall we say, Clarkeian: neo-platonic rather than phenomenological. I haven't read the Marquez, so I can't particularly speak to that, but why should it be a problem that an author writes some books that are fantastic, some not?

And: of all the stories in Link's Stranger Things Happen, "The Specialist's Hat" was the least interesting to me and caused a feeling less of "very strange" than "tedious" (not to say that "interesting story" and "slipstream" should be conflated. 'Cuz that would be dumb).

Posted by: Dan Percival at August 30, 2006 11:59 AM

(Argh... just realized that I implied that I didn't like Stranger Things Happen as a whole. Which would not be true. I'm quite fond of most of those stories for the very reasons that slipstreamers seem to go for. Why isn't the cannonical slipstream story "The Girl Detective" or "Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water" or "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" or "Shoe and Marriage"? Just, again, f'rexes.)

Posted by: Dan Percival at August 30, 2006 12:07 PM

Maybe this seems specious or sophistic, but in saying "content-based classification is what helps me know that a particular friend will get pulled out of a story and stop enjoying it when something fantastic happens or that another will be annoyed when a story is resolved with a technological solution", you are actually speaking about an effect-based definition. You care what effect the story has on your friend. You are just assuming that your friends like or dislike "things that can't happen" or "technology in fiction" as such.

I don't know about your friends, but this doesnt seem like a useful way to parse them to me.

South Park is fantasy: consider the Devil and his intimate relationship with Saddam Hussein, and the resurrections of Kenny. Toni Morrison's Beloved is fantasy. It has a ghost.

If you know someone loved Beloved, that that's their favorite book, which movie would you suggest they rent: "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut"? Or "The Color Purple"? The former is fantasy, the latter is not.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 30, 2006 12:08 PM

Ah, I see where you're going with that. I do think that content is still one of the best *negative* filters, but I agree that it's not always a good *positive* one.

I also agree overall that genre is an effect-based classification (see my remark on "expectation management") -- but in the absence of perfect brain models in software, isn't content near the top of our (long) list of heuristics for guessing effect without, you know, reading the whole book? Again, it's most useful for ruling books out than ruling them in, but if I know that someone hates stories with supernatural elements, I'd hesitate to recommend Beloved even if they loved Sula.

Posted by: Dan Percival at August 30, 2006 12:29 PM

Dan, I would say that that kind of content-based definition is a useful negative filter, as you say -- although, I suspect, not much more useful (if at all) than a filter based on commercial marketing category. On Zelazny and Marquez, there's certainly nothing wrong with an author writing different kinds of books, but -- well, what Ben said. If someone liked "Love in the Time of Cholera", recommending "Lord of Light" over "100 Years of Solitude" just because in the former nothing happens that's supposed to be impossible is probably not helpful. (Again: Why are we doing this? If we knew why, we might know what categories make sense.)

Jackie, I would say if two readers feel completely different effects, then it's a different kind of story for each reader. My fundamental gripe about most of these genre discussions is that at some point people always start talking as if these were fundamental attributes that books have, rather than ways in which people perceive books. Is the vacuum empty, or is it a hot photon soup? Well, I don't know, are you in an accelerating reference frame?

Posted by: David Moles at August 30, 2006 01:38 PM

Mind you, I don't actually have anything against an effect-based classification -- though if I'm now contractually obligated to side with Dan, I could probably swing something -- I just don't know how the classification is supposed to work when a bunch of people with nominally similar tastes all read the same story and experience completely different levels of "cognitive dissonance." Or alienation. Or lingering discomfort with reality. What then?

Posted by: Jackie M. at August 30, 2006 01:38 PM

Oops, sorry David, cross-posted.

Posted by: Jackie M. at August 30, 2006 01:42 PM

So I'm confused: you're not arguing that "effect on the reader" should be used to classify a work into a particular genre/sub-genre? (But it should be used to make recommendations? But aren't recommendations based on classification?) And you don't believe that fantastic content is a fundamental property of a work?

What about trope usage and writing style? _A Hundred Years of Solitude_ has a very "literary" writing style, and uses tropes which are familiar to "mimetic" readers -- just like _Love in the Time of Cholera_. Which means that it reads very differently from the "genre" equivalents... which means that it produces a different effect on "mainstream/mimetic" readers... which is presumably why it gets shelved in the "mainstream/mimetic" section.

Posted by: Jackie M. at August 30, 2006 02:14 PM

I think that most works have similar effects on most readers of nominally similar tastes most of the time, although I don't think it goes much farther than "I think you might like this." I think marketing categories are fairly useful and subgenres, considered as clusters of similar books (that is, books which mostly have mostly similar effects on most people) within marketing categories, are useful to the extent that such clusters are easily described and commonly held to have more or less the same members.

(But if we talk too much about comparability of effects we're going to get into qualia, and you really don't want me to go there....)

I don't believe that "fantastic content" is a fundamental property of a work, because I don't believe that "fantastic content" is very well defined. To the extend that it is well-defined, it might be a fundamental property of a work, but it's way, way down the list of useful ways to describe a work and/or make recommendations.

Trope usage and writing style, yes, I think, contribute significantly to the effect a work has. The difference between "hard SF" and "everything else", just to pick an example, has much more to do with trope usage and writing style than it has to do with scientific accuracy.

Posted by: David Moles at August 30, 2006 03:28 PM

I pretty much like everything that has dragons in it, no matter how badly written and cliched it is. I may skim it, I may never read it again, but if it's got a dragon on the cover, I have to give myself a stern talking to not to automatically buy it. 'Cause, y'know, it has dragons in it.

So that's my new division -- books that either have dragons in, or don't.

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at August 30, 2006 09:47 PM
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