Archive for July, 2009

The Popularity of "More of the Same"

The fact that I was once an economic market research analyst still plagues me, because it’s become clear that I ask questions about writing that probably are better left unasked, at least in public forums. But then, when I was an economic analyst I also asked those questions, and they were part of the reason why I didn’t remain an employed analyst. As the most junior economist in the company, you don’t question the vice-president of marketing’s brand-new and very expensive product, no matter how bad an idea it is, or express doubt about fancy economic models, not if you want to keep your job, no matter how correct posterity proves you — because if you do, you won’t be working at most companies long enough to experience that posterity. I wasn’t the first economic type to learn this first hand, and I was far from the last. More than a few analysts and economists did in fact question the long-term effects of derivatives, and most of those who questioned were not exactly rewarded. A few were fortunate enough to be ignored; the rest fared worse.

With that as background, I’m going to observe that the vast majority of the very most commercially successful authors write “more of the same.” By this I mean, for example, that while the events in subsequent books may change, the feel and structure of each “new” book tends to mirror closely the feel of previous books. I’m not saying that all authors do this by any means, just that a large percentage of those who sell millions of copies of their books. This practice, from what I can tell, emerged first in the mystery/thriller field, followed closely in what I’d call the “high glamour” type novel by writers such as Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, and others, but now it seems to be everywhere.

Some authors [or their agents] are so sensitive to the commercial aspects of the “more of the same” that the author uses a different pen name when writing something even slightly different, so that Nora Roberts also writes as J.D. Robb, and by noting that she is writing as J.D. Robb, she gets to cash in on her fame as Nora Roberts while announcing to readers that the J.D. Robb books are a different “more of the same.” In F&SF, Dave Wolverton became David Farland to write fantasy, and perhaps to also make clear that he wasn’t writing Star Wars books about Princess Leia, Jedi apprentices, and the like.

Who knows? Maybe I should have adopted a pen name, say Exton Land, for all my fantasies when I started writing them and saved the L.E. Modesitt, Jr., moniker for my science fiction. But then, which name would I have used for the “Ghosts of Columbia” books? And The Hammer of Darkness really isn’t either. By strict logic, then, to maximize commercial success, I shouldn’t have written any of those… or even The Lord-Protector’s Daughter, because it has a “different” feel.

And in some ways, I may be in the worst of both worlds, because the Recluce books have enough of a similar feel that I’m often criticized for being formulaic there, but I’m clearly not formulaic enough to replicate the success of Harry Potter or The Wheel of Time, etc.

At the same time, when I do something different, such as in Archform:Beauty or Haze, those readers who were expecting a faster book, such as Flash or The Parafaith War, feel that I haven’t met their expectations.

Then again, at least I’m not totally captive to “more of the same.” That would be almost as bad as having been successful as an industrial economist.

The Opening of Communications Technology and the Shrinking of Perspective

Over the past few years, there’s been a great deal of enthusiasm about the internet and how it’s likely to revolutionize the world, and almost all of the commentators express optimism.

The Economist recently reported a study on the effect of the internet, and the conclusion of the study was that the extent and range of contacts of internet users had become more limited, both geographically and culturally, with the growth of internet usage. This certainly parallels the growth of “niche” interest sites and the “Facebook” effect, where like gathers to like.

In effect, if these trends continue, and if the study is correct, and the authors caution that it is only preliminary and a proxy for a far wider and more detailed effort, the internet is creating a voluntary form of self-segregation. What’s rather amusing, in a macabre way, is that when Huxley, in Brave New World, postulated the segregation of society by ability and by the programming of inclination, the government was the evil overlord pressing this societal division upon the population as a means of indirect and effective repression and social control. Now it appears that a significant percentage of internet users are effectively doing the same thing enthusiastically and voluntarily.

A similar trend is also occurring as a result of the proliferation of satellite and cable television, where programming is broken into a multiplicity of “viewpoint-orientations,” to the point that viewers can even select the slant and orientation of the news they receive. This is having a growing impact as the numbers and percentages of Americans who read newspapers continue to decline.

At the same time, we’ve seen a growing polarization in the American political system, combined with a disturbing trend in the government away from political and practical compromise and toward increasingly strident ideological “purity,” along with the growth and vehemence of “public” and other interest groups.

Somehow, all this open communication doesn’t seem to be opening people’s viewpoints or their understanding of others, but rather allowing them greater choice in avoiding dealing with — and even attacking — the diversity in society and the world. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

"Reality" and Literary Quality in Mainstream and Genre Fiction

One of the canards about genre fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, is that it’s not “real” or realistic. But what, exactly, is “real” or “reality?” Is the definition of “real” a setting or set of experiences that the reader would experience in the normal course of his or her life? Is a “real” protagonist one who is similar to most people?

Even in mainstream fiction, the most memorable characters are anything but normal. Let’s face it, there’s nothing dramatic about the life of an honest, hard-working machinist, accountant, salesman, or retail clerk who does a good job and has a solid family life… and, consequently, no one writes that kind of story, except perhaps most rarely as a dystopia. Most readers only want to read about these people when they’re faced with a great challenge or disaster and when they can surmount it, and by definition that makes the characters less “normal.” Readers generally don’t like to read about average people who fail; they do like to read about the failures of the “superior” people or the golden boys or girls. And just what percentage of readers actually live in multimillion dollar houses or penthouses or drive Bentleys or the equivalent? That kind of life-style is as removed from most readers, if not more so, than the backdrop of most fantasy or science fiction.

One of the great advantages of science fiction and fantasy is that it can explore what happens to more “average” or “normal” people when they’re faced with extraordinary circumstances. That’s certainly not all F&SF does, nor should it be, but what all too many of the American “literary” types fail to recognize is that a great amount of what is considered literary or mainstream verges on either the pedestrian or the English-speaking equivalent of watered-down “magic realism.”

After the issue of “realism” comes the question of how one defines “literary.” Compared to F&SF, exactly what is more “literary” about a psychiatrist who falls in love with his patient [Tender is the Night], dysfunctional Southern families [Faulkner], the idiocy of modern upscale New Yorkers [Bright Lights, Big City], or any number of other “mainstream” books?

When one asks the question of American literary theorists, and I have, the immediate response is something along the lines of, “It’s the writing.” I don’t have any problem with that answer. It’s a good answer. The problem with it is that they don’t apply the same criterion to F&SF. Rather than look at the genre — any genre, in fact — and pick out the outstanding examples, as they do with their own “genre,” and mainstream fiction is indeed a genre, they dismiss what they call “genre” writers as a whole because of the stereotypes, rather than examining and accepting the best of the genre. Yet they’d be outraged if someone applied the stereotype of “parochial” or “limited” to mainstream fiction.

Interestingly enough, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy — which awards the Nobel Prize for literature — just last year issued what amounted to that sort of dismissal of American mainstream fiction, essentially calling it parochial and narcissistically self-referential. Since then, I haven’t seen a word of response or refutation from American literary types, but perhaps that’s because all the refutations are just being circulated within the American “literary” community.

Maybe I’m just as parochial in looking at F&SF, but I see a considerable range of literary styles, themes, and approaches within the field, and intriguingly enough, I also see more and more “mainstream” writers “borrowing” [if not outright stealing] themes and approaches. That does tend to suggest that, even while some of the very same writers who have insisted that they don’t write SF are doing the borrowing, that some of the artificial “genre” barriers are weakening.

Of course, the remaining problem is that the book publishing and selling industry really loves those genre labels as a marketing tool… and so do some readers… but that’s another issue that I’ve addressed before and probably will again. In the meantime, we need to realize that F&SF is far from “an ineluctably minor genre,” as one too self-important, if noted, writer put it, but a vital component of literature [yes, literature]. Eventually, everyone else will, too, at least those who can actually think.

Romances and F&SF

Last week, a reader made the comment that “Most literature professors would dismiss Mr. Modesitt’s novels with the same contempt he probably reserves for Harlequin romances.” While I can’t argue with his evaluation of “most literature professors,” even though I spent several years teaching literature at the undergraduate level, I can and do dispute the assessment of my views on romances, Harlequin or otherwise. Having survived the adolescence and maturing of six daughters, who now tend to prefer F&SF, I have seen more than a handful of romances around the house over the years. I’ve even read a few of them, and I’m no stranger to including romance in at least some of my books.

Because of my own contempt for those literary types, whether professors or writers, who sniff down their noses at all forms of “genre” fiction, I’m not about to do the same to romances… or thrillers, or mysteries. I do allow myself some disgust at splatter-punk, and the pornography of violence and/or human plumbing, otherwise known as ultra-graphic sex, but that doesn’t mean some of it might not be technically well-written. Snobbery and blanket exclusion under the guise of “excellence” or “literary value” is just another form of bias, usually on the part of people who haven’t bothered to look deeply into genres or forms.

While more than a few “sophisticates” and others dismiss romances as formulaic, that’s just a cop-out. Just about every novel ever published is formulaic. If novels weren’t, they’d be unreadable. The only “formulaic” question about a work of fiction is which formula it follows.

Romances happen to have some redeeming features, features often lacking in mainstream “literary” fiction, such as a belief in love and romance, and optimistic endings, and often retribution of some sort for evil. There’s often a theme of self-improvement as well. Are these “realistic” in our world today? No, unhappily, they’re probably not, but paraphrasing one of the grumpy old uncles in Secondhand Lions, there are some things, which may not even be true, that people are better off for believing in, such as love, honor, duty… And if romances get readers to believe in the value of such traits, they’re doing a lot more for the readers and society than “realistic” novels about the greed on Wall Street or the narcissism of the wealthy or the depths of violence and degradation among the drug and criminal cultures.

From a practical point of view as an author, I also can’t help but note that romances are the largest selling category of fiction by a wide-selling margin. Nothing else comes close. As in every other form of writing, there are exceedingly well written and even “literary quality” romances, and there are abysmal examples of fiction, but as Theodore Sturgeon said decades ago, “ninety percent of everything written is crap.” That includes F&SF, romances, and even, or especially, mainstream “literary” fiction.

So… no, I don’t dismiss romances. Far from it. And I just write my romances as part of my science fiction and fantasy.

The Death of Newspapers

Newspapers are dying. The drum-beat goes on. Some readers are worried; others think their time has already passed. Yet another major city is threatened with the loss of all newspapers. Another newspaper cuts staff and sections to the bone. Book reviews are cut; business news is shortened; advertising revenues are plummeting.

In the meantime, I keep reading my local newspaper and the major daily paper in the state, and I notice things. The local paper trumpets its awards, and it has won a great number. So why does scarcely a day go by without a misspelled headline? In fact, the lead headline last Saturday read: “Mountain of Dept Faces US.” If this is an award-winning local daily paper, I shudder to think about those that aren’t. And why are all the “national” and “state” stories a day behind the large state newspaper? Why do all the major local scandals never make the local paper, but appear in the state paper?

As for the major paper, it’s scarcely much better. Almost never does the weather section appear without errors. On Sunday, the weather temperatures predicted for the next two days — by town statewide — were listed as Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, the next two days were Monday and Tuesday. The lead headline the other day began “An State Issue…” Oh?

In both papers, syntax and grammar errors appear regularly, yet I can remember when it was rare to find these kinds of errors in newspapers, as opposed to being so common that any issue offers plenty of examples. These problems don’t even take into account the quality of reporting and the choice of stories. The lieutenant governor of the state — soon to become governor — appeared at a national meeting of governors and made comments that indicated that he knew nothing about the global warming issue — right after listening to [or at least sitting through] a speech on the issue by Dr. Stephen Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy… and the only story that appeared was days later in a political commentary story. One Utah author won a Newberry medal, and while it merited a TV news story, it never appeared in the paper, while a story about an author who wrote a novel about a platonic affair between a married Mormon woman and a British actor was a feature article. Unhappily, what I’ve seen here in Utah seems also to be happening in other locales, if perhaps not so egregiously.

Might a certain lack of quality have something to do with the decline of newpapers… or is it that the decline of advertising revenue means that newspapers are both understaffed and with fewer and fewer true professionals? Either way, it’s a sad situation.

Characterization and Other Thoughts

My latest novel — Haze — has been out for about a month now, and sales are respectable, but not outstanding, and that’s not surprising, because Haze is a science fiction novel, and my fantasy novels have always sold better than my SF. Interestingly enough, though, in general, the major review sources, particularly those published outside the genre, have been far more favorable to my SF than to the fantasy.

Characterization is key to the success of most books, and one of the things I’ve observed over the years is the wide variation in reader and reviewer assessments of my ability to characterize — even when they’re talking about the same book;

For example, in looking at reviews of my novel Flash, I found the following from three different sources:

“…nonstop action, which, however, never sidelines good world-building and characterization…”

“…the relationships are wooden.”

“…tells of the close relationships between deVrai and his sister’s family…”

One of the reader reviews of Haze includes the following phrases… “agent/assassin has no depth… we learn Haze is honest/open…” Except that neither is the case. The protagonist, Keir Roget, reveals little emotionally in an overt sense, because he is aware that he lives in a world where every motion, every indication of feeling, is observed. There are many subtle indications of character and motivation, but few that are grand and overt, not if Roget wishes to survive. As for the planet Haze… this “open” society conceals a considerable amount, some of it rather enormous in scope, implication, and eventual consequences, through its apparent openness. In fact, what is “open,” both in Roget and in all the cultures depicted, is a misrepresentation because what is obvious overshadows what is not readily apparent.

From observations such as these, it seems fairly clear to me that people have a very different idea of what characterization is. My own belief is that any character reveals who he or she is through acts, words, and self-observations (which may be accurate or self-deluding, if not both). The issue of acts would seem to be self-evident, but it’s not, for several reasons. First, what a character does not do may be as revealing as what he does, but many readers key on acts, rather than on the omission of acts. Second, small acts may be more revealing than “large” acts. Third, the consistency of acts — or the lack thereof — also reveals character. The same three aspects also apply to what is said, or not said. In addition, character can be revealed by how others speak of and to them and how others interact with them… or fail to do so.

What this leads me to believe is that when I see a series of reviews, and different reviewers either praise or trash “characterization” in the same book, it’s often likely that those who are negative about a writer’s ability to characterize are either unwilling or unable to look at anything other than large acts and obvious statements. In addition, a significant percentage of such negative reader reviews tend to contain factual and technical errors, including citing the incorrect names of characters, suggesting a rapid and superficial reading. These factors suggest that obvious and broad-brush characterization is necessary to reach the widest possible audience. That doesn’t do much for nuance and subtlety, not that they’re exactly a priority for more than a few readers.

Everyone’s an Expert

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, particularly about individual likes and dislikes. But not all opinions are of equal value. A doctor’s opinion about medical matters is far more likely to be correct than that of someone with a limited or no medical background. An environmental scientist’s views on global warming, by the same token, are far more likely to be correct than those of medical profession. The opinions of a professional singer with advanced studies and a professional career about music are more likely to be correct than that of someone with no formal musical training. Likewise, the collective and peer-reviewed views of the professionals in any given field are almost always going to be more accurate than those of non-professionals in those fields. This is one of the principal reasons why doctors, engineers, pilots, and many other professionals are licensed and regulated… because we don’t want unqualified people handling life and death measures, regardless of their personal convictions and opinions.

Now… we all have opinions, particularly in areas such as politics, music, theatre, art, the weather, as to what we like… and that’s fine. What’s not so fine is the ever-growing assumption that all opinions are of equal value, or that “likes” equate to validity or correctness. All opinions are not of equal value, and whether one likes something or believes it to be so does not translate automatically into excellence or validity. Add to that the assumption, particularly by “educated” individuals, that one’s opinions and beliefs outside one’s field or fields of expertise are equally valid or superior to the professionals in another field, and a society risks sewing the seeds of its own collapse, particularly in cases involving elected officials, such as Congress, who too often defer to popular opinion or their own unfounded biases.

And yet, no one seems to see it. The doctor who can see so clearly how the “everyone is wonderful” philosophy undermines medical excellence cheerfully and vociferously disputes years of research by thousands of climate scientists because he cannot believe what they report, yet he’d be outraged if those climate experts disputed key aspects of his medical practice. The engineer who understands the importance of accuracy and perfection in structure would be furious if a group of professional musicians pointed out non-existent weaknesses in his engineering, but sees nothing wrong with making blatant and incorrect assessments about professional musicians and singers. And of course, all the readers who make the thousands and thousands of misguided and incorrect statements about books — largely because they don’t like what the author did, rather than because the book was technically bad [not that there aren’t many, many, technically bad books, but those aren’t generally the ones these “reader reviewers” pan] — would be outraged if people made the same petty comments about their work.

The problem is that, in a society that has become almost totally consumer-oriented, such opinions guide politics and public policy. Education is no longer based on what works, but upon making students and parents feel good and upon the widely held opinion that “anyone can be anything he or she wants to be” [which is almost never true, rhetoric to the contrary]. Government has become more and more widely based on the opinion that someone else should pay for the programs, despite years of recommendations by economists and other professionals that a nation cannot continue to expand government programs without increasing taxation or cutting other programs. Even within fields such as the investment banking and securities business, executives with no expertise in complex financial systems, such as derivatives, thought they were experts and made decisions based on the popularity of short-term profits… leading to the resulting disaster.

Entertainment has become based more and more on strict popularity — what the majority wants — and factors such as the skill or performers, the excellence of scripts or music, have almost entirely vanished, although everyone cites excellence as the basis for their views, and that “excellence” is based on what they like, usually superficial appearance and/or crudity, and seldom are such likes based on an in-depth and studied expertise in the field. The same is true in athletics. Never in our history have there ever been so many Monday morning quarterbacks, and almost none of them have any experience on the professional level in the sports they criticize.

Everyone’s an expert, and fewer and fewer Americans are listening to those who truly are the experts — and yet they wonder why the problems are multiplying?

The "Popularity" Problem in F&SF

A while ago, I was talking to my editor, and I mentioned a book that he had edited for a new author — one for which I’d offered a blurb. My editor sighed, and informed me that he wouldn’t be able to publish another book by the writer, although the first book had received a considerable number of favorable comments and reviews, because it hadn’t sold well enough for the publisher to risk a second book. At present, this is scarcely news to any author in the field, because the same thing is happening all over publishing. Sales of a majority of established published authors are down, and while they’re not down enough to hurt the really big names, the decline tends to affect newer and less established authors much more. And it makes sense, unfortunately.

In a time when readers, along with everyone else, are watching their purchases more carefully, fewer are going to risk their entertainment dollars on an author they don’t know, unless someone they know personally and trust recommends that author. But… with new authors very few, if any, readers know the author — unless the publishing house pours a ton of money into publicity, and that is happening less and less.

Now, in this time of economic downturn, this is relatively self-evident. What isn’t quite so evident is that it’s merely the continuation of an on-going trend. At a time when blockbuster sales — such as the Twilight books, the Wheel of Time, Nora Roberts, etc. — are dwarfing best-seller numbers of previous decades, the sales numbers of mid-list and low best-selling authors at major publishing houses tend to be flattening, if not declining, especially mass-market sales, although there are some exceptions. These exceptions are always cited as contrary examples, of course, rather than the anomalies that they are.

The reaction of many authors is to aim for that “popular” audience, to the point that F&SF aficionados can cite example after example of imitation, subtle or blatant, and that the media and series tie-in section of the F&SF section at many chain stories is almost as large as the “regular” section.

One reaction in the F&SF field has been the growth of small presses, some of which stretch the definition of “small,” but these presses are limited in what they can do, although they often publish novels of high quality. This has had another off-shoot, as well, in that it appears a number of “professional” and “semi-professional” F&SF reviewers tend to concentrate on such works, almost as if assuming that most of what is published by a large publisher is “merely commercial,” and seldom worthy of comment.

Writers who have the ability to write excellent books are placed in an unenviable position, because books which tend to be technically outstanding usually have lower sales. As one of the responders to this blog has pointed out, outstanding books also get fewer and “less favorable” reader reviews, and those reduce sales. Since most professionals do write in hopes of making a living, there is a not-so-subtle and continuing pressure to “write popular,” even if an editor never says a thing to a writer.

More than a few readers have pointed out that these trends could very well lead to more self-publishing, more web publishing, and more electronic alternatives to getting stories and novels out. It probably will, but it won’t solve the “popularity” problem, because for those stories and novels to reach more readers requires word about them to reach readers, and successful “word-passing” on the web requires the support of widely-read and popular websites. Thus… the web-publishing option merely transports the popularity problem from one form of publishing to another — and does so without nearly the same degree of quality control as is exercised by the old-line print publishing business. This shift also results, in most cases, to a reduction in the income of writers, along with the problem that readers are left having to spend far more time sifting through web and other less conventional forums to find books they like that fall outside “popular” parameters. Again… there are exceptions, such as Baen’s Universe magazine, but they’re few indeed.

In the end, it all boils down to the fact that readers, as a whole, get what they’re willing to pay for, and if most readers flock to the “popular,” before long, that will represent most of what’s available — and that will be the case whether the source is “conventional” publishing or the web.