Directions in SF - style over content?
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Author:  John Dodds [ Wed Apr 25, 2007 12:27 pm ]
Post subject:  Directions in SF - style over content?

I've always loved science fiction, and Interzone is my mag of choice. But lately, particularly in short stories, I start to wonder about why short stories can be so challenging at times. What I mean is this: sometimes I feel that a lot of science fiction (short stories in particular) try to be stylish or just weird, and somehow try to hide the fact that, like chocolate easter egs, they're hollow inside.

For example, Jason's Stoddart's Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark left me with ambivalent feelings. It took me two attempts at reading it to actually get to the end. First reading, half way through, I was completely baffled as to what was going on. Second attempt, reading V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y I think I got it and felt I generally enjoyed the story. But I did wonder if it really needed to be quite so strange and obtuse. And I also wondered if, really, anything much had gone on in it, other than the convential tropes of meeting alien life form, fighting it, and winning with one character sacrificing himself to achieve this result. Or maybe it's just me.

On the other hand, Paul Meloy's Islington Crocodiles, was a cracking good read. Deeply weird in its own way. But weird in a way I could get my head around. Mind you, I don't think it was a science fiction story - if Black Static was out it probably belongs there.

I've no gripe with having to concentrate on fiction, but I wonder if some sf tries to be "poetic" and just fails badly at it. Or obscurely boffinish and needs a degree in quantum physics to understand. I'd be interested to read views on the subject.

Author:  Tony [ Wed Apr 25, 2007 1:15 pm ]
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Well, SF really is a H-U-G-E field, nowadays, so it's expecting too much of any reader (or group of fans) that everything will be likeable or acceptable.

I've read many dozens of stories in genre fiction magazines and books that I would not consider 'SF' at all, and I'm sure that sort of thing is true for many readers.

Author:  SFMurphy [ Fri Apr 27, 2007 7:55 pm ]
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I've not read Jason's story, so it would be unfair for me to comment on it.

But I've got to admit as far as my personal reading tastes go, my standards are as follows.

I read fiction, especially science fiction, to be entertained and to get away from my "mundane" life for awhile. I don't mind be challenged with interesting ideas (so long as it isn't the same old political argument I've heard in Grad School seventy times over) nor do I mind being made to think.

That said, I prefer to run my brain in Midwest Blue Collar (some snobs would translate that as either "Redneck" or "Joe Sixpack") mode when reading fiction.

The moment I feel my Grad School brain snap on, I immediately start losing interest. The exception to this rule is usually in terms of hard science and/or historical/moral issues.

But if I have to decipher the prose, slow down and actually start hammering away at it in order to understand it, then invariably I throw the publication across the room if it is a book that I bought, or stop reading the story and turn to another one in any given magazine.

Don't get me wrong. I like a slick turn of phrase. I like a good narrative voice. I enjoy being surprised by the language ever so often, but I feel these surprises should be accessible enough that you don't need a PhD in English Mechanics to understand it.

And if it seems like science fiction is concentrating more on "style" as opposed to the Meat of the Field, well, I think a lot of writers are terrified of offending the Ranks of the Permanently Offended and the Perpetually Victimized. Rather than touch on something unorthodox to the General Reading Community in our Genre, they'll play with the language instead.

I think the other thing, especially among American SF Writers, is that some in our genre crave acceptance by the Serious Literary Community (I guess SF isn't serious because we deal with ramifications of technology, the future, social change, and so on).

But that is just my opinion.

S. F. Murphy
Trapped in the Show Me State where he says, "Show Me The Exit."

Author:  Jetse [ Sat Apr 28, 2007 9:15 pm ]
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I wrote a long and -- supposedly -- thoughtful post about this, only to have lost it because I didn't post it in time. So now I'm going to write it in a word file first, and then copy & paste it.


I'm not happy with these time limits on writing a post: fine for slamming down quick thoughts, but once you want to do it in a careful manner and take your time, you're screwed. Timed out.

Hate it.

And I miss the 'last day'/'last week' features of the previous board. Oh well.

Author:  Jetse [ Sat Apr 28, 2007 10:19 pm ]
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Coming back to John Dodds’s original post, the following:

On the matter of style and substance is SF, I have a personal opinion on that in general (which is not necessarily that of Interzone), and one on “Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark” in particular (on which I’ll get to in the next post).

Roughly speaking, there seems to be a notion that complexity in both (style and substance) is – or should be – mutually exclusive (I’m exaggerating to make a point). So complex SFnal ideas and extrapolations should be told in ‘clear’, ‘transparent’, or ‘straightforward’ prose, while stylistic exuberance in literature is only be allowed if the underlying substance is something that is well-known (if not necessarily well-understood), like love, death, and the weather.

(I’m overstating the case, here, for argument’s sake!)

Now I say: screw that. And I think the wider world has thrown away those limitations decades and decades ago. So why should SF (self-)limit itself? I don’t see that.

Nick Mamatas puts it, more eloquently, like this in a post on his LJ, of which I’ll quote:

Explications of story, especially in SF, are hampered by a series of unworkable metaphors, like Asimov's "pane glass" metaphor: write as clearly and plainly as possible to show the world on the other side of the window. But there is NO story on the other side of the window, there is nothing of a story that exists outside of its text (and related texts, traditions, historical or other references made in the text), etc. Style and story are thus not two different things. "Clear and plain" is as much a contrivance - a series of choices informed by a tradition that IS the story - as any other kind of writing. There are some excellent stories that work due to this choice, but there is nothing inherent in this choice that makes it superior to any other choice. Too many writers consider "clear and plain" some kind of default. It is not.

(After which he goes to explain that the April Clarkesworld Magazine story he selected – “The First Female President” – does have a clear and plain style, because it works for that particular story.)

Now, to be absolutely clear: there is room for every kind of SF (and fantasy) story in Interzone: as long as the editorial team thinks it *works*. As Tony said: the field is huge.

Personally, I don’t see why a story can’t have both: complex concepts *and* superb prose. Substantial ideas brought forward with stylistic wit. Erudition hand in hand with exuberance. Bring it on.

And not because SF should crave acceptance in literary circles, but simply because it should not limit itself, in *any* direction.

As the cliché goes: shouldn’t SF ‘boldly go where no-one has gone before’? In that light, I fail to see why total freedom in substance is OK, but total freedom in style is not. To me that sounds a bit like saying you’re allowed to dream about anything you want, as long as it’s in blue. Or that you can sing about anything you want, as long as it’s in a ¾ rhythm.

Of course, in the end, it has to work: style without substance is empty, while substance without style is a lecture (and creative minds can create the exception to both of these ‘rules’, anyway). There is a whole world (nay, Universe) outside of these, and I have always thought that SF was *the* literature to explore all these myriad possibilities. I still think so.

And that’s why, in my personal opinion (this is solely a titre personnel), there will always be room for stories in IZ that try to push boundaries, that play around with style and substance, alongside more traditional ones. So there will be stories that need second (or third) readings like the afore-mentioned “Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark”, or “The Whenever at the City’s Heart”; alongside more straightforward (but most definitely not inferior) stories like “Islington Crocodiles” and “The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter”. And lots and lots in between.

Author:  Paul Raven [ Sat Apr 28, 2007 10:33 pm ]
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I'm right with you on that issue, Jetse. Though it has to be said that stylistic excess is off-putting for some readers in the same way that clearly written hard science is to others. But as you say, the golden rule is "if it works".

I love Mamatas' LJ, I've learned more through reading there than possibly anywhere else. Smart guy, honest and bullsh*t free.

Author:  Hoing [ Sat Apr 28, 2007 11:46 pm ]
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Well, I've been down this road before, but I'll admit again that I am one of those writers who craves acceptance by the literary side as well as the genre folks. But I want it on my terms. I like writing sf and fantasy, but I also love literary fiction. I get annoyed by the literary people who turn up their noses at the mere mention of genre fiction; but I'm just as put off by the genre people who whine about literary fiction. Both sides rail against the other. If the literati affect a snobbishness, genre adherents feed into that with what seems like a massive inferiority complex. I wish it didn't have to be that way. I don't want separate but equal camps, I want one camp in which stories are judged not by their type by solely by their merit.

For my part, I write what I want to write. Call me self-indulgent, but I just won't slant my writing to suit anybody's tastes other than my own. (Oddly enough, the only time I have ever written a story with a specific market in mind was a piece for Interzone--and that, ironically, was one of only two stories of mine that the IZ editors have ever rejected.)

Regarding the above discussion, like many people, I prefer style and substance. I can't even read the "Old Masters" of sf anymore because I find their prose nauseatingly pedestrian (not to mention their characters). Big ideas without exciting prose to match is simply a bore to me. If I had to lean in any direction, I would take beautiful prose that illuminates a small human truth over routine prose with the so-called big idea.

But hey, that's just me. Other may (and do) disagree ... :D

Author:  SFMurphy [ Sun Apr 29, 2007 12:43 am ]
Post subject: 

Oh, I see no reason why there can't be room for a more stylistically heavy story in the genre. I do not even see a reason why you can't have them in the magazines. That wasn't the point I was getting at.

I was getting at two points.

Firstly, what I like personally as both a Reader and as a Writer. On both fronts, I prefer the "pane glass" that Nick mentions.

Secondly, not everyone has been to university or enjoys pounding through dense prose. I have always felt one duty of those who do write, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, regardless of genre, to write as clearly and understandably as possible. We have a duty to transmit the knowledge and insights we've picked up to those who don't have the same time and luxury.

And I find I grow aggravated with the heavy listings of the genre towards style monkeyism. Because the Crowd is running in that direction, a Writer feels a distinct sense of gravity pulling them in a direction they may not want to go.

I, personally, prefer to write in the clear. I really do not think that I am personally capable of writing in any other fashion, not so much do to any intellectual deficit on my part, but more due to the fact that I prefer to be understood without any reservations or hesistations.

I really do not want my Readers puzzling over some funny twist of the scribblings I may have engineered when they could be puzzling over the issues of character choices within the story.

Besides, no one really wants a midwesterner to write like a midwesterner. I'm expected to write like someone from Martha's Vineyard. They are none to kind to them turns of the phrase like puttering with the pen and muttering with the mind.

S. F. Murphy
Trapped in the Show Me State where he says, "Show Me the Exit."

Author:  Hoing [ Sun Apr 29, 2007 1:53 am ]
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Hi, Steven:

If it makes you feel better, I, too, am a Midwesterner. In fact, I'm right on top of you, in Iowa, about a six-hour drive northeast of Kansas City on I-35 and then Highway 20.

By style, I don't mean dense prose; I mean beautiful prose. I mean lovely and evocative turns of phrases. This can be accomplished with the simplest of language and a minimum of adjectives.

And I disagree that writing in a Midwestern dialect is verbotten--I think it's got a beauty all its own. If your narrator is from the Midwest, then he not only can write in a Midwestern dialogue--he must! Many people who don't read much literary fiction have a view of it as this lofty, stuffy, nineteenth-century prose. It's not. I've read (and, ahem, written) several stories that use a Midwestern dialect. I find that the literary types not only don't disdain this kind of language, they find it fascinating. It adds a real depth of character and sense of place to a story. And hey, even if you think of the literati as high-society New York types, I promise you that they view stories with Midwestern settings and/or dialect as exotic as something from the dark side of the moon, and more interesting.

In sum, stylish does not equal dense. Simple prose can be very powerful and beautiful. It's dull prose I dislike--but of course, dullness, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Author:  SFMurphy [ Sun Apr 29, 2007 2:26 am ]
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Hoing, it is a beautiful state, Iowa is. I've been there a couple of times. Fort Dodge, and a couple of other places (the names are slipping from my swiss cheese of a memory). Keokuk is one but I can't seem to recall if it is on the Mississippi or not.

Frustrating thing about the Midwest, especially if you happen to live in Kansas City (there is a mistake I deeply and continuously regret concerning where I landed after I left the Army) is that it takes forever to get anywhere else.

Hmm, to the meat of your post.

Beautiful prose. Well, one Reader's beauty is another Reader's density. That is the beauty of storytelling in general. It is perhaps the most intimate act two human beings can engage in short of sexual intercourse. As such, each brings their own quirks and views to any given story. I tend to be a notoriously impatient Reader myself and I am easily bored (which made life a misery for my mother when I was a kid). Other Readers will react differently.

Or to trot out the cliche, it is all in the eye of the beholder.

I like a nice turn of style ever so often. To me it is like a bit of a treat when a Writer surprises me with a bit of interesting text. But I like only a little bit. Yawning Superstar Destroyer Paragraphs worth of it does not appeal to me. I do not think it appeals to other Readers either and I sometimes suspect that declining SF readerships may be tied directly to this issue. But I don't have any more hard evidence that handing the stylistic type stories to some of my friends to see how far they get.

Umm, most of them don't get too far.

I don't want to get into a discussion of American Serious Literature per se. All I will say is that more often than not, I find what I encounter, regardless of any issues pertaining to style, accessibility, or voice, do not generate any resonance in me as a Reader. Ever so often, I'll stumble across a gem like <i>The Horse Whisperer</i> and <I>Things they Carried</i>.

But just as often, some well meaning friend will hand me something like <i>Orxy and Crake</i> by Margaret Atwood and I find I have the most virulently negative reaction in every sense.

A Creative Writing teacher who is my mentor of sorts, once asked why I don't try to write something other than science fiction. I used to give her some answer or other until just this last week when I finally figured out what it was.

I need the veneer of science fiction to make my subject matter "unreal" to me. It gives me just enough distance to work with my material and it doesn't hurt that I've always been a science fiction fan.

Conversely, with regard to Serious Literature, I find it is often too real and revolves around the Very Things I want to Escape From, as a Writer, Reader and a Person in general terms.

When you are surrounded by the things you want to get away from, you don't want to read about more of it in someone's story. And when I have a taste for something "real" I read history book.

Just my two cents.

As for the Midwestern dialect, I don't know. It sure doesn't seem to fly in the American Markets and those that do usually seem to take a very negative and stereotypical view of folks in the Midwest.

Umm, I write that last realizing that here in about twelve days, someone might call me a hypocrite but I don't think I am.

S. F. Murphy

Author:  Hoing [ Sun Apr 29, 2007 3:46 am ]
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Hey, Steven:

I had an uncle who used to live in North Kansas City, and I have some very fond memories of the city. But then, I've never lived there, just visited.

Anyway, you're right, it's all "eye of the beholder" stuff. I don't much care for Margaret Atwood, either, not because her prose is bad, but because her science fiction is bad. (Not that she'll admit to it being science fiction anyway!) She writes as if she's invented something new, when in fact her ideas were cliches in sf 50 years ago.

Regarding science fiction, I go the other way than you do. The only use I have for sf or fantasy--or any other kind of literature, for that matter--is to explore human themes. I like escapism as much as the next person, but for me, stories that simply entertain are forgotten the moment I'm done reading them, regardless how much I may have enjoyed them at the time. It's the stories that make me think, that illustrate real human (and I mean only human) truths that resonate with me. I like dramatic, powerful works. As I said on the old TTA website, I absolutely could not care less about aliens or spaceships or many of the other conventions of science fiction. I will use them if they're necessary for the story I want to tell, but I'm all about people, and people's problems, idiosyncracies, and foibles.

But that's just a philosophical difference over what we like, and that's okay. There's no right or wrong in that regard, only our individual preferences. I still think we're talking at cross purposes on style, though. I don't like dense prose, either. (Of course, that depends upon how you define "dense.") If somebody spends paragraphs describing in excruciating scientific detail the inner workings of an ion flux capacitor, I'll stop reading right there. Some people like that sort of thing. I don't. I dislike wordiness, something that spends two pages saying what could be said in a sentence. (I confess that I'm sometimes guilty of this, which is why I incessantly revise my work.) And I especially hate purple prose--you know, long strings of adjectives preceding each noun.

In short, I want to read prose that makes me say, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!" I want an honest-to-goodness voice in a story, as if not only a real person, but a particular real person, had written it, not generic prose that could have been written by anybody.

I am hesitant to generalize about what appeals to readers. As our discussion proves, readers have different tastes. I don't assume what all readers will like; rather, I assume that some readers will like my work (and others, of course, won't). That's really all a writer can do.

As stated previously, I write what I want to write, and what I want to write is the kind of thing I like to read. It's the editors who make the decision about what to publish, and that, to a great extent, depends on what they think will sell magazines. Believe me, if people were not reading a certain kind of story, then editors would not be buying and publishing them.

Take care.

BTW, my first name is Dave.

Author:  SFMurphy [ Sun Apr 29, 2007 4:15 pm ]
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Hey Dave,

North Kansas City (which is a seperate governmental entity with a population of 4K) isn't a bad place to live if you absolutely find that you have to live in the Metropolitan Kansas City Area. There is a lot to be said for it. Good police and fire protection (courtesy of Harah's Casino funds), paved roads and sidewalks (unlike the rest of KC), a first class public fitness center and a very good library. Macken Park can't be beat and there is always the Army Surplus shop on 32nd Street.

If I end up staying in the area, NKC is one of two choices. Housing is affordable and modest.

On the SF stuff, I think you'll find we're closer than you might think. On that note, I'll let my upcoming story speak for me. I think in many ways, it expresses my views more clearly.

Not just on writing in general, but on what I think you can use the genre for.

BTW, are you getting copies of IZ in your neck of the woods? I'd make a road trip up there just to get IZ 209 and IZ 210. I can't seem to ensure that I'll be able to get extra copies here in my area to save my life.

S. F. Murphy
Trapped in the Show Me State where he says, "Show Me the Wet Bar."

Author:  Hoing [ Sun Apr 29, 2007 8:53 pm ]
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Hi, Steven:

I don't know of any retailer who sells IZ in Iowa. Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City used to sell an occasional copy, but I don't think they do any more.

I have a subscription. I also get a contributor's copy of any issue I have a story in (as will you). When I want extra copies, and I always do, I just buy them directly from Andy at IZ. I have my subscription copy of 209, but 210 hasn't mailed out yet. Is your story going to be in 210? I'll look forward to reading it!


Author:  SFMurphy [ Sun Apr 29, 2007 11:20 pm ]
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Yeah, I'll be in 210. :)

Buying them from Andy sounds like the most workable plan. I'll get in touch with him about that.

S. F. Murphy
Trapped in the Show Me State where he says, "Show Me the Exit."

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