The Literary Line

A discussion over on Catherynne Valente’s livejournal has me thinking about what distinguishes literary fiction with genre (i.e. speculative) elements from genre fiction as such.

People approach this in a lot of different ways, of course. There’s value in saying, if it has a genre element — ghosts, vampires, time-travel — then it’s genre, and enough with all this waffling. (Margaret Atwood, I’m looking at you.) Otherwise this notion of “speculation” loses all real meaning. There’s also value in saying the real line lies in shelving: it’s all about what publisher will pick you up, what audience they think they can market you to. That, more than the actual content of your book, determines which camp you belong in. This ends up being a fairly accurate descriptor of how society creates the divide, after all.

But I do think there is something within the stories that separates Is Genre from Contains Genre. Some people say it has to do with the centrality of the genre conceit: if you could pull out that thread and still have a coherent story fabric, what you have isn’t really science fiction or fantasy. This almost but not quite hits the mark I’m looking at, and I can give a good example of how.

I mostly enjoyed the movie Stranger Than Fiction. If you haven’t seen it, this is a story about a man who suddenly starts hearing a woman’s voice narrating everything he’s doing in his life. He comes to discover that the woman in question is a writer, and what she’s writing is a novel about his life — a novel in which he’s going to die.

This is not just genre but as central as you get. Pull out that thread, and you have no story left at all. But in the end, I felt dissatisfied with the film, and my dissatisfaction grew directly out of the fact that I wanted it to be a genre story, and I don’t think it was.

What made it not genre, for me, was its utter lack of interest in the cause of its own conceit. Why had this strange connection happened? Did the writer’s imagination create that man, summon him into reality, or did she somehow tap into the life of a pre-existing individual? Did her work control or merely reflect him? Stranger Than Fiction doesn’t care. What it cares about is the moral question of that connection: once the writer discovers her character exists outside of her head, what will she choose to do with her story? She insists the death she has planned for him — a meaningless, random demise; I think he’s supposed to be knocked down by a bus — is a powerful ending, the one the story has to have. Which I found to be an interesting nod toward the conventions of literary fiction in general, the notion that an ending where somebody dies is somehow more meaningful than one where the person lives.

The moral question is an engaging one, certainly. But it wasn’t enough for me. I want not only to think about the ethical ramifications of our fascination with watching characters suffer and die, but also the metaphysics of how a writer might be confronted with her own protagonist. Otherwise — in strange contravention of mainstream opinion — the story feels shallow to me. Its own world feels like a painted backdrop, rather than a reality.

Which brings me around to the division I like best, where narrative content is concerned: genres as conversations. Stranger Than Fiction is talking to litfic, not specfic. It’s debating this whole notion that telling a story about some schlub who wanders through his life and then gets knocked over by a bus is inherently better than telling a story about that schlub living, which is very much a litfic kind of issue. If it were a genre story, the conversation would address the matter of causation. Is her typewriter magical? Is that man some kind of tulpa, called into existence by the power of her thought? Is this some intervention on God’s part, or a weird experiment conducted by aliens? The moral relationship between author and character could still figure into it, but the manner of that figuring would be shaped by the cause.

It isn’t that a genre story absolutely has to explore the causes of its own science fictional or fantastical elements. Not every narrative needs to be about its own foundations. But Stranger Than Fiction‘s complete disinterest in its own fantasy was a clear signal, at least to me, that its conversational partners are not mine. This is also what annoys sf/f readers when a litfic writer decides to write a book with (say) time travel in it: in most cases it’s painfully obvious that the writer is ignorant of the long-standing conversation on that subject. As a result, you get novels where the author seems to think they’re the first person to discover the grandfather paradox or branching realities or whatever, and their community celebrates it as this awesome new thing, while the specfic community yawns at the sight of Yet More Old Hat.

Who’s involved in the conversation? Which writers and works is a story responding to, agreeing with, counteracting, poking fun at? It isn’t just a litfic/specfic divide; I suspect, for example, that you can use the same principle to sort urban fantasy from paranormal romance. And it’s probably a rare story indeed that can talk with equal facility to more than one community at a time, however much the basic content of the narrative may look like a hybrid of two worlds.

For me, that’s where the line really lies. Sometimes it’s useful to say “if it contains genre, it is genre,” and sometimes it’s useful to look at where a work is shelved, but ultimately, it comes down to the conversation.

0 Responses to “The Literary Line”

  1. sartorias

    To my eye, sometimes these discussions can get a tad too self-serving–providing a fine opportunity for the speaker and the speaker’s friends to point at one another and say “literary here”–but that is only when genre is compared detrimentally.

    There are conventions (patterns) in all human endeavor, including fiction, or so it seems to me. A great deal of what is touted as literary fiction (The Lovely Bones) might very well be seen as potboiler in ten, twenty years, when its conventions have passed out of fashion.

    Literature evolves the conventions, and it also offers insight, even if in the form of question. Literature can be read at any age over a lifetime–and any generation. If something is literary to twenty-somethings but overwrought trickery to the generation older (or reinventing the wheel, only with more tattoos) then chances are it’s probably not “literature” in the sense of enduring fiction that will communicate down the centuries.

    • Marie Brennan

      I was trying to stay away from the value-judgment end of the question, since it can so easily turn into bashing — but yes, I use the term “litfic” to indicate a particular set of conventions that are currently deemed literary, but whose staying power is open to question. In my opinion, we can’t do more than guess at what books will be considered worthwhile in the long run.

      • sartorias


        The discussion becomes interesting to me when people discuss possibly whys certain conventions are embraced by this or that group, and others rejected.

  2. green_knight

    I’m with you on the ‘a spaceship does not make it science fiction’ (and a ghost etc doesn’t make it fantasy) argument. For me, the core lies in ‘what-if’. What would it mean if a person wrote the life of another? There’s got to be a way for this to happen (magic is fine, but it needs to be plausible and consistent), and I want to see the consequences explored: will the writer deny that it’s real? How wiill the character rebel? And last but not least, I want to see the written character be a protagonist: to fight the destiny that has been forced upon him, to use everything they have – from direct appeals to acting out-of-character – to change his destiny. What happens if the character stages a sit-in? How much free will does he have? There are a hundred and one fascinating questions, and I need to see them explored. If he simply acts by authorial fiat, because that fits the message of the book, then, in my opinion, that’s not genre.

    And the writer in me has to ask: what happens in revision? If she plotnoodles with a friend and tries out several interpretations of a scene? If she gets blocked and cannot write on? The concept of the writing as continually flowing, and immediately final is just so unrealistic I find it hard to accept. Or is he living the final printed book, in which case the author is powerless *to* change anything, and all his entreaties come to nothing… or _can_ she literally stop the presses? Slghtly different what-if, completely different stories. Either of them could work (and could be great fun) – but without working out the implications of that cool idea that was thrown into the room, the story itself cannot develop fully. It remains a metaphor for life. Or for religion.

    • houseboatonstyx

      Well, he might suggest that she type that he wins the lottery, then he will split it with her. Just as random as the bus.

    • Marie Brennan

      “What if” is specfic’s arch-conversation.

      • green_knight

        Yep. And if it’s missing, for me the contract between reader and writer is broken. My suspension of disbelief doesn’t work for ‘we’ll pretend this perfectly logical consequence won’t happen because I don’t want to engage with it.’

        I like the idea of ‘conversation’ as a way of looking at genre.

  3. mrissa

    I like people who try to figure things out.

    I like them as characters. I like them as authors.

    Sometimes a genre-literary novel with speculative conceit can work for me if the things people are trying to figure out are different from the things they would be trying to figure out if it was genre-speculative. But incurious books, like incurious people, do not much interest me.

    I think this is why I do so well with mysteries and historicals, because I think in the former the characters are inherently trying to figure something out (this may be why genre-mystery is pretty good for me and genre-thriller is hit or miss), and in the latter it looks from here as though the author inherently is, and in both cases there can be cases where they do both.

    I also think that if I could get people to categorize romances this way I might get a category of romance I could really love. Because if I got pointed at romances that were about people who were actively trying to figure out how to build a life together, or something like that, that’d do much better for me than the blundering around kind I’ve mostly read/seen.

    • Marie Brennan

      I would even go so far as to say Stranger Than Fiction worked for me, so long as I turned off genre brain while watching it. But yes, I like people to be figuring stuff out, and there was a decided lack of it in that story (and its ilk).

      Some recent exploration through romance has built up a solid list in my head of what a romance needs to do in order to make me like it, but I’m afraid the things I’m looking for mostly aren’t what romance does.

      • mrissa

        What Stranger Than Fiction mostly did for me was the same thing Evita did: frustrate me mightily. Before those movies I did not think that Will Ferrell and Madonna had interesting talents they were spending most of their time wasting, and now I do.

    • green_knight

      I like people who try to figure things out.

      Word. And I am a person who likes to discover new stuff. When I pick up a book I want to be intrigued. I don’t want to know where the book will go 10K in, minor details nonwithstanding.

  4. akashiver

    Thinking it over, I guess I have to agree with you: lit-fic tends to be far less interested in the mechanics of the conceit than most genre works. I guess my caveat would be that genre fiction itself has a continuum: hard SF and certain Golden Age stories tend to be much more interested in mechanics than other SF works are, and litfic’s attitude towards mechanics is similar (I think) to that of fairy tales and fairy tale-ish fantasies: the emphasis isn’t on the biolgy of magic frogs or how/why a magic frog can exist, it’s on what happens to characters after discovering there’s a magic frog in the garden.

    • london_setterby

      I don’t know if it necessarily comes down to biology and, say, engineering, though, does it? Fantasy stories can invest a lot of time in examining how (and why) their world works, too, just in a different way–for example, why magic works the way it does, how the rest of the world functions (or doesn’t) given that magic is there, and so on. Sabriel by Garth Nix springs immediately to mind, and so does “The Woman and the Mountain” which was published a few weeks ago in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Actually, the Harry Potter series does a great job of explaining how and why fantasy coincides with reality, now I think of it.

      But I don’t know, I’d be curious to hear what other people think about about this.

      • akashiver

        I wasn’t thinking of Harry Potterish or Tolkienesque fantasy (most of which does have elaborate worldbuilding) but about fairy tales and fairy tale-ish fantasies. Mind you, Angela Carter et al fall on the lit-fic end of the spectrum anyway.

        • Marie Brennan

          I would agree there’s something of a blurring in the realm of fairy-tale fiction (retellings or similar things); I also think this is where the whole interstitial thing falls. But even then, sometimes you can point to a particular story and identify which authors and works it’s trying to talk back to.

        • merlinpole

          Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter was published as SF by an SF imprint, before she was getting literary acclaim, I think.

    • houseboatonstyx

      Hm. Kafka’s unexplained cockroach and Ballard’s unexplained disasters (well, the stories aren’t about people trying to explain them) feel like litfic.

      Same with _Charlotte’s Web_; something magic is happening but the kids don’t seem to care how or why or try to do anything else with the power: litfic. In contrast, _Half Magic_ and Edgar’s other early books are all about figuring out what and why and coping: genre.

      I’d put classic fairy tales in genre, although one mark is that no one is surprised when animals talk or whatever — though often surprised by what the animal says. The human characters are surprised about other things and cope with other things, quite actively, even though they live in a world where talking animals are normal. Hm, maybe the problem is when the talking frog is neither normal nor examined.

      • Marie Brennan

        Classic fairy tales are a different thing entirely. They predate all of our notions of “fantasy” and “realism” and so on, at least as applied to literature; they are the thing certain kinds of fiction are reacting to, rather than a reaction themselves.

        Ditto Kafka, I suppose.

  5. coraa

    I liked The Time Traveler’s Wife, but reading it didn’t feel like reading a genre fantasy/science fiction time travel story. I don’t know why; it wasn’t that the setup was unrigorous (she set ‘rules’ for her time travel and followed them, for sure, up to and including the fact that fillings in teeth couldn’t time travel and so he had to pull out teeth that became decayed). And the speculative element was absolutely vital: no time travel, no story. It just didn’t… feel… the same.

    I know others who do think that it’s distinctly genre sff, and that the marketing as litfic is purely a sales mechanic. And I can’t tell them they’re wrong; I can’t even explain why that feels wrong to me. It just does.

    Maybe it’s that the tropes are far more those of female-oriented litfic than sff, even though the central element is speculative. I don’t know, though; mostly it’s just that I read it and it doesn’t feel genre to me, and trying to pin down why is like trying to nail jello to a tree.

    • Marie Brennan

      I haven’t read it, so I can’t say, but this:

      Maybe it’s that the tropes are far more those of female-oriented litfic than sff

      sounds to me like the “conversation” idea in different terms.

    • green_knight

      I read it too many years ago to say _why_ it didn’t read as SF, but if my memory doesn’t betray me, it just accepted the time travel and never explored the wider implications of it.

      • dr_whom

        Wider than what? I mean, at least on the surface, the entire premise is that the book is an exploration of what the implications of time travel would be on romance—a description which at least sounds exactly like one of the canonical tropes of SF; the archetype of an SF concept is to take the question ‘What would the implications of [SF-type phenomenon] be on [aspect of society]?’ and use that as a metaphor for exploring the way that aspect of society works in real life. The ability of SF to use fantastical story events to comment on real life is what’s always trotted out as one of the key virtues of SF. Moreover, the time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife is handwaved in a sciency-sounding way (‘It’s a neurological disorder’), rather than just accepted without (quasi-)explanation the way the scenario of Stranger than Fiction or of, say, Groundhog Day is.

        The fact that The Time Traveler’s Wife seems to punch all of the SF tickets—SF-type phenomenon, treated in-story as scientifically intelligible; exploring its implications on society; using that exploration to comment on real life—and still doesn’t feel quite like SF is a really interesting question. I feel like the “conversation” idea is probably at least partially right, but then I don’t really know how to diagnose what “conversation” a particular work is participating in.

        • green_knight

          I don’t think that a handful of individuals qualify as ‘society’, and I don’t think it tells us anything about relationships (that people are willing to put up with a lot and that relationships have a lot of flexibility.

          handwaved in a sciency-sounding way (‘It’s a neurological disorder’)

          So why did it hit *this* person. Does it run in families? How many sufferers worldwide? And while I’m happy for handwaving science or magic, that just sounded stupid to me – a personal disorder cannot change the laws of physics.

          No, for me it was a gimmick designed to write the relationship between two people, with little regard for implications and little desire to take the idea just that step further.

          • dynix

            it was a genetic disorder (in that his daughter had it too)

            The thing is that the romance was more important than *everything* else in the book. For example halfway through the book he gets a doctor and reveals his condition, and in the future his daughter is living in, the condition is known and has a name. The reaction to this in the story world (people can time travel!!) was almost nothing, and the couple were just left to get on with their romance. Which simply would not happen in *this* world, or a story world that did not place exploring the romance and relationship above exploring the world.

            I think for me its the fact that things are taken for granted or glossed over in the interests of the story in a way that jars with the reality being presented (look, a world just like our world, oh except people dont want to explore time travel in detail or why writers are writing their lives, but JUST LIKE OUR WORLD otherwise).

            Timetravellers wife was interesting – it does, as people have mentioned, hit a lot of the scifi/fantasy buttons. But it ignores the world it creates in the same way that Stranger Than Fiction does, and does so in a way that doesnt respect that world.

            (Also the death in Stranger Than Fiction was supposed to be meaningful in that he saves a kid on a bike and thus gets knocked over by the bus, and there *was* a bit of soul searching on the writers part about how many people she must have killed. But its all just very quickly accepted.)

          • Marie Brennan

            I’d forgotten the soul-searching bit, but that just reinforces my point: has she killed other people? I don’t recall the narrative ever really asking whether this was a one-off thing, or whether this had been true all along, with every story she’s written. And is it just her? Those would be among the first things I’d want answers to, and the story just . . . cruises past them.

          • Anonymous

            Yes. Was very frustrating. Especially since there were other things about the film I liked a lot – the chaps ‘interface’ especially, whch gets a lot of time in the Making Of video.

        • Marie Brennan

          I feel like the “conversation” idea is probably at least partially right, but then I don’t really know how to diagnose what “conversation” a particular work is participating in.

          If you’re looking for a clear-cut guideline, then no, this isn’t it. In fuzzy terms, though, I diagnose it by looking at what questions, tropes, narrative conventions, etc are being deployed. To use my original case: Stranger than Fiction focused on the whole “schlub protagonist dies at the end” motif, which is much more characteristic of literary fiction than fantasy (which, given the story’s central conceit, would be the other obvious candidate). So if you had to imagine which author the film’s writer was talking to, it’s more likely to be Annie Proulx than Ursula LeGuin.

  6. moonandserpent

    This is something that has been on my mind lately (I *hate* writing fiction…) and while I think there are vast exceptions to the guidelines you lay out I do think you’re onto something.

    If nothing else, you actually isolate why I tend to dislike a lot of genre fiction, and that’s because I *like* just being able to toss the weird and fantastic out and just fly with it. I’m generally not worried about the “why” of the setting, just the story being told.

    So, for example, the central conceit of “Stranger than Fiction” didn’t bother me any more than I was bothered when Gregor Sansa’s origin story didn’t make the cut. (“Bitten by a depressed radioactive cockroach!”)

    Likewise, unless it is particularly relevant to the plot, I don’t care why magic works in a setting, at what point the timeline diverged or how many many hours it took to harness the baby star at the heart of your space-drive. Sometimes these things are in fact part of the plot and useful details, and sometimes they’re distractions.

    I also *really* like things that start in media res, though.

    But that is probably the most useful distinction for lit differentials other than marketing stuff that I’ve ever run into.

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, but I’m not saying genre always has to get down and explain the nuts and bolts, either. I can think of plenty of fantasy novels I love that don’t actually tell you the why of the magic. But they’ll explore it, which is what Stranger than Fiction didn’t do. It didn’t just fly with it; it practically ignored it.

      If my brain were less mushified, I would be able to provide more examples of stories that do the same kind of thing, and maybe that would make what I’m trying to say a little bit clearer. But, well, mush.

    • green_knight

      The past doesn’t bother me. I can suspend my disbelief for it, I _expect_ to suspend my disbelief for it, and I don’t need meticulous explanations, on the contrary, they can be counterproductive.

      The present and future, on the other hand, need to be consistent and well-explored. What does it *mean* that someone can turn into a giant cockroach? Do other people in the world wake up in that state? How will society adapt, and how quickly does it have to? Is there a way for him to turn back? What if the Prime Minister had turned into a cockroach, and might that yet happen? I mean, it’s a big event for the individual to turn into a giant roach; but what are the implications for the wider world? If it’s only ever one person affected, they don’t find out why, and there’s no danger for anyone else nor even a hint of curiosity whether other people are affected, then the book, for me, lacks a vital dimension.

      • m_stiefvater

        My crit partner, pointed me to this conversation (which is fascinating, especially as I’m pretty sure my novels fall more happily on the side of Time Traveler’s Wife and Stranger than Fiction.

        And I have to say vehemently that no, I don’t agree with this:

        The present and future, on the other hand, need to be consistent and well-explored.

        This is not always true; it depends on whose story you’re telling and how micro or macro your focus is. If you are in close first or third person and your story focuses on one life or a handful of characters and how this is dealt with, then no, we don’t need to hear about it. The author should know the more pertinent things, even if they aren’t there on the page, but no, we don’t need to know how it affects the rest of the world. If we’re reading a book about a boy with leukemia, do we need to know the implications of that on global scale, that 44,000 Americans will be diagnosed with it this year, and how they live and how this affects society? I would argue no, that’s not pertinent. So how is it different with time-traveling or werewolfism (which is the weapon of choice in my latest)?

        The fact of the matter is that humans have a tendency to trivialize and normalize everything, and rapid, major changes alter society far less than they ought to. Right now we’re in the middle of a major climate change, and it’s a five minute spot on the news every so often. People are genetically altering goats in Canada so that their milk is actually spiderweb silk. One in four Americans will come down with some kind of cancer in their lifetimes. Thirty thousand people will kill themselves next year. All of these things are huge, newsworthy, life changing . . . and in reality, we shape them into a normal worldview if we even bother to think about them. There might be the few that explored Henry in the Time Traveler’s Wife to see what the military and deeper aspects of random time-travel would be, but in a world where many people had this disorder (not knowing at first the others existed), there’s just as likely a chance that some other time traveler would be the one who went in for life long study. And that would be a different story.

        So I have to say that I like Marie’s explanation of genre vs. non-genre very much, though I don’t think my audience is literary, rather non-genre commercial/ mainstream readers. I think, in non-genre novels with speculative elements, the big question will always be: how does this affect these few people in particular, versus how does this affect this world?

        • green_knight

          If we’re reading a book about a boy with leukemia, do we need to know the implications of that on global scale

          (I was away for a week, but didn’t want to let the thread die)

          Leukemia is a part of the real world. If I want to learn more, I can look it up on the Internet. I can find out all those explanations- how it affects other people, its impact on society, how likely it is that I or my friends will encounter it, whether and how it can be cured – from third parties.

          That’s not speculative fiction, it’s a personal story. If you give me something that does not exist outside your head, I’m adrift in the world, I need to take your word for everything. If you then stick too deeply inside a couple of characters’ heads and tell me only what it means for _them_ it can still make for a gripping story, but it will be lacking several dimensions.

          Consider, for instance, the story of someone dieing a slow and painful death from an incurable disease. That’s a tragedy. It’s a different story if a cure exists, _but_ it’s expensive and he can’t afford it.And another if he refuses to plunge his family in debt for a doubtful chance to survive a couple of years. And another if he doesn’t know about it. And another if he refuses to consider treatment for religious reasons. And…

          In a novel set in the real world, I can supply the context. In speculative fiction, the writer needs to. This is, I think where we’re back at the protocolls thing.

          The other is – and I think this *is* a convention, too – that if the only thing that changes at the end of a book is the personal lives of a couple of people, I’ll feel that I’ve wasted my time reading it. I want that sense of change, of inevitability, of ripples moving out into the world. Purely internal and interpersonal stories don’t work for me at all (although they work for other readers) – one thing I want to see at the end of a book is the feeling that the characters can’t go back, that not just they, but their world has inevitably changed.

          • m_stiefvater

            If I want to learn more, I can look it up on the Internet. I can find out all those explanations- how it affects other people, its impact on society, how likely it is that I or my friends will encounter it, whether and how it can be cured – from third parties.

            Ah, see, but I don’t think this is a viable argument for fiction. A novel should stand on its own. Not saying that you won’t have to rely on outside knowledge to create context – that’s inevitable — but readers shouldn’t have to go research to get fuller context for the novel. It should be like a Happy Meal. Everything self-contained in a devoted package. Whether or not you bring a Snickers bar along is your own deal. You can, but you don’t have to.

            And I would argue that Leukemia is not any different than werewolfism, fictionally. The rules of how it works may be commonly known to some people — maybe even to many people– but it’s still specialized knowledge — which means that you as the writer will have to package all the context the reader will need for emotional engagement in the Happy Meal that is your novel. (though probably not very Happy if it includes Leukemia).

            So, yes, sloppy worldbuilding = bad. However, sparse worldbuilding to save room for character development, depending on the genre/ reader/ writer . . . not necessarily bad. I have readers that send me questions asking what side characters do in their spare time, or what my main character’s middle name is, since I only give his middle initial (yes, I’m serious, this happens a lot). The answer is: even if I do know the answer to these things, you don’t need to know. Authors are like painters. You can paint a photorealistic image that gives everything the same importance, or you can do like the real artists and draw the readers’ focus to the elements of your choosing, stylizing the rest or letting it be clouded with darkness or one midtone value.

            Also, this:

            The other is – and I think this *is* a convention, too – that if the only thing that changes at the end of a book is the personal lives of a couple of people, I’ll feel that I’ve wasted my time reading it.

            pretty much guarantees we’re going to disagree, forever. *grin* Because to me, this is what matters first and foremost. I don’t read to get immersed in a world. I read to get immersed in a protagonist’s life, and miss them when I close the covers of the book.

        • Marie Brennan

          This is not always true; it depends on whose story you’re telling and how micro or macro your focus is. If you are in close first or third person and your story focuses on one life or a handful of characters and how this is dealt with, then no, we don’t need to hear about it. The author should know the more pertinent things, even if they aren’t there on the page, but no, we don’t need to know how it affects the rest of the world.

          I’ve been chewing on this for a while, and I feel like I should be able to argue my point on a broader scale, but I don’t really have enough data to do that properly. So instead I’m going to go back to Stranger than Fiction.

          I didn’t need that story to be macro in its exploration. It felt to me, though, like it declined to even do the micro exploration in the way a spec-fic story would have done: even if it was just about those two characters, with nobody else in the entire story, I still would have expected one or both of them to question the cause. Because it’s very important to the issue of whether the writer has killed other people. Or whether she really does have the power to decide whether this one man lives or dies — is she crafting his fate, or just transcribing it? That’s where it felt inconsistent to me, as someone operating from genre protocols; I simply can’t believe that someone would fail to explore those questions.

          And so I think there are ways in which a story can be limited in its focus and still have rigor in its exploration. But that rigor is more of a genre concern.

          • m_stiefvater

            See, for me, STRANGER THAN FICTION still follows the rules because it wasn’t Emma Thompson’s story. It was Will Ferrell’s character’s story (yes, I have totally forgotten all names, this is terrible). Did it matter to HIS fate and HIS arc whether or not Emma had the power to kill kingdoms? I don’t think so.

          • Marie Brennan

            I would think it would matter to him how the link between them came about.

          • m_stiefvater

            I suppose . .. my husband’s a type 1 diabetic, and it’s a weird case with no family history, so there has been some rumination about how it came about — but mostly, in real life, I think other people ruminate while those involve just try to cope.

  7. janni

    The notion that it’s about what conversation (conversations?) you’re part of is an interesting one, and is making sense to me.

    I think there can be something of a continuum as to how much the fantastical elements are explored and remarked on. I’ve noticed that readers have a huge range of preferences as to how much they want the conceit of a story explored, from wanting meticulous detail to wanting nothing at all, with many people falling somewhere in between. It’s one of the reasons, I’m beginning to suspect, that no book can be for everyone …

  8. janni

    I wonder if there’s some way to untangle the question of the difference between YA and adult books using the notion of what the conversation is, too.

    • Marie Brennan

      Dunno. I’d be inclined to say no, because to me YA isn’t a genre; it’s a category fuzzily defined by an intersection of the age of its characters and its intended readership. (Some books about kids being not really YA-ish, and some YA books being read by adults.) So sure, it’s a conversation with its readership, but a YA book about a girl whose father gets divorced and a YA book about fighting aliens in space don’t seem to be saying much to each other, if you follow my meaning.

      • janni

        I’ve actually been coming to think YA is a genre, though I’m still working out why. I know that sometimes what I’m looking for is a good YA read, and don’t much care if its mainstream or fantasy, while at other times I’m looking for a good fantasy read, and don’t much care if its YA or adult. There’s some sort of commonality among (many, not all, as with any genre) YA books that sometimes makes that what I’m itching for, rather than the fantastical elements.

        Still thinking about this, but I know that I hear a lot that YA isn’t really a genre, and I’m less and less convinced … but I’m also not entirely sure what defines the genre it is.

        • Marie Brennan

          Then your approach to YA is very different from mine. My interest in YA is an interest in YA fantasy; I’m probably marginally more interested in mainstream books aimed at teens than I am in mainstream books aimed at adults, simply because the YA end isn’t dominated by the same kinds of concerns as the adult end — but I’m still not that interested.

          • janni

            Interesting … one could argue, I suppose that there are really two conversations going on that intersect over in YA fantasy or that a book could be part of more than one conversation.

            Come to think of it, this might explain how different it feels to talk about YA in the adult SF/fantasy and the YA/children’s community — one is looking toward adult SF/fantasy, and the other is looking toward mainstream YA much of the time.

            I feel like (though I’d have to think on concrete examples in both directions), YA fantasy looks almost as much toward Judy Blume as to Tolkien, and that it’s in dialogue with Laurie Halse Anderson and Ellen Wittlinger as much as with Ursula Le Guin or Mercedes Lackey. Interesting.

          • Marie Brennan

            Quite possible. I don’t feel well-read enough in that area to say for myself. It might, though, give the lie to my statement elsewhere that it’s a rare book which manages to engage successfully with two different conversations (e.g. romance and fantasy) at once.

          • janni

            Thinking about it, I think if this is what’s going on in YA fantasy, some books do look more strongly one way or the other, for sure.

            Now I’m thinking of Wings, a book which is about fairies needed to protect their sacred land, in which the main (fairy) character, who lives in our world, discovers she’s hit adolescence by literally blossoming. (Because fairies in this world are–literally–plants and grow flowers.) Which would probably make both Tolkien and Blume groan a little, but which does seem to bring together both their concerns. 🙂

        • m_stiefvater

          I . . . think I actually agree with you, Janni. I used to argue that YA is just a shelving conceit, but I’m coming more and more to think that that’s not true, with the exception of some outliers. Not just because again and again people have said “SHIVER doesn’t feel YA to me. It feels like adult that appeals to YA.”

          Whether or not it does doesn’t matter — but the fact that many, many people think that there is a coherent YA feel DOES.

          • janni

            And if it really is about the conversations, I’m realizing it can be both, too … if it has YA and adult “feel” (still trying to figure out what that is–right now I just know it exists :-)) to it, then maybe it really is part of both genres.

            (Adult readers seem oddly eager, sometimes, to take the YA they like best and work out why it isn’t “really” YA, don’t they? As if adult appeal somehow excludes the book being a true YA, as well … or as if there’s a reluctance to admit the YA “genre” could hold things that adults enjoy, too … or something.)

          • m_stiefvater

            Yeah, they do seem very eager to point out they aren’t gleeful about reading about teens, although they have no problem saying that they love an adult movie with a teen protag (Ferris Bueller).

  9. houseboatonstyx

    In Tolkien’s LOTR no one questions how magical elements can exist; they’re just part of the world. But the protagonists are definitely trying to figure out how a particular magic item works or what a particular magic user is up to, in a healthy objective world.

    So to me it feels like genre, not litfic. It may be Tolkien’s large scale fairy tale, or Faerie tale.

    • Marie Brennan

      All other considerations aside, I’d call Tolkien as profoundly genre as one gets simply because his work is the centerpiece of the epic fantasy conversation. 🙂

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