Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "Further Notes Towards A Genre Slapfight"

I take the "slipstream" definition, like all questions of genre boundaries, as fundamentally about marketing -- from which point of view I think it's pretty reasonable. (Apart from the relatively recent historical development of many literary markets growing acclimated to the likes of George Saunders and Victor Pelevin, but again, relatively recent.)

As for "tabloid weird": the Turkey City Lexicon is a lexicon, not a rulebook. No good workshopper would complain about a successful Faust/Sasquatch story.

Finally, quit ducking out of reading slush. :)

Posted by David Moles at November 8, 2007 02:15 PM

Possibly I should read slush for a lexicon-as-rulebook-refuting anthology called "The Ones Who Walked Away From Turkey City". Every story has to evince several of the frowned-on features.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 8, 2007 02:28 PM

Or you could just start a magazine called Niche Market.

Posted by David Moles at November 8, 2007 03:31 PM

Are you implying that I should sully my noble editing by attending to actual readers?

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 8, 2007 03:49 PM

München Oktoberfest of our real 2007 is chock full of Wiccan robotics engineers of Turkish ancestry.

I have nothing to add but my admiration for a turn of phrase.

Posted by Dan Percival at November 8, 2007 06:23 PM

It's really more of an S-curve switchbacking mountain road of phrase.

Posted by Jackie M. at November 8, 2007 07:14 PM

I enjoyed reading this entry, and yet I can't help feeling that the real issue here is that the Turkey City lexicon entries are shorthand, and that you're reading them as complete descriptions. (Which is essentially what David said about it being a lexicon, but bear with me.) (I should note that to some extent the following is a Devil's Advocate position, because I don't actually agree with everything in the Turkey City lexicon--I don't even understand some of it.)

Take the Slipstream entry. (Although I should note that that's one of the Turkey City entries that I have the biggest disagreement with.) I've seen stories of the sort that I think that entry was meant to describe: stories where the author wanted to be writing literary fiction, but couldn't sell what they'd written to literary markets (or didn't know how to, or just didn't want to bother), and so tried to sell it (or workshop it) as sf. I think the unspoken emphasis here is meant to be on the story being a bad story. That said, the stories that leap most strongly to my mind on reading that description are the Sterling stories that (as I've noted elsewhere) I read as mainstream literary metafiction, but that were published in Asimov's and that sf readers smugly pointed to as the amazing kind of thing that can only be produced in sf (because they were unaware that literary fiction had been doing that kind of thing for decades). I think this ties in with your previous entry: do things like surrealism and fourth-wall-breaking automatically qualify a story as sf? Various people disagree on that question; I suspect the Slipstream entry was written by someone who would say no, aimed at people who would say yes. But I'm just guessing.

Similarly, I agree with you that Howard didn't express himself very well in the Tabloid Weird entry--as written, I would expect that entry to reject some of my favorite Waldrop stories--but I suspect that I recognize the kind of story he was talking about. It's not actually that different basic worldviews don't or can't mix well in a story; it's really that a lot of writers mix worldviews badly. The key phrase in that entry, to my mind, is "an internal consistency of sorts"--if the writer can make the escaped mutant and the tunnel to Hell feel like part of the same universe, that's great (and I love me some good science fantasy), but most often the author doesn't or can't do the necessary work to knit the disparate worldviews into a coherent whole.

All of which is really to say that I think the impulse toward making this sort of list derives, as you noted in that excellent lancing-boils metaphor, primarily from seeing a lot of bad stories of a given type, but is sometimes overstated as condemning all stories of that type.

I should note that, although I'm obviously not immune to the use of mockery in such a list, such lists can have purposes beyond venting steam. In particular, I've been impressed at how quickly story types that we put on the SH list vanish from the slushpile. It may not be cause and effect; it may just be that things go in waves, and/or that we happen to add something the list around the time that authors stop writing it anyway. But we do see a lot fewer of those story types than we used to.

(And now I have to equivocate and remind everyone that the SH list is not actually a list of bad stories per se, despite what I said above; our list's emphasis is a little different from Turkey City's, in that we focus on (perceived) frequency/quantity of stories of a given type, rather than on quality per se. Although there are things we see a lot--like fairytale retellings--that we don't put on the list because we do still occasionally buy them.)

As for your final paragraph, I think the problem isn't so much that the newbies are trying to grope toward new and different (and right) ways of telling stories; I think the problem is that newbies (and grizzled oldtimers as well) often reinvent story types and approaches that they think are new (but that lots of others have thought were new when they came up with them), and do so badly. And the people who've seen twenty-three previous bad attempts at the same kind of story, all presented as brilliant new ideas that nobody's ever had before, eventually start to lose patience.

(Thanks for the Kipling link! I don't think I'd seen the full poem before; it's rather different from what I expected. ...I think Kipling must have pronounced "outre" very differently from how my dictionary and I pronounce it.)

Posted by Jed Hartman at November 10, 2007 07:22 PM

Okay, but when you say

wanted to be writing literary fiction [...] and [...] tried to sell it (or workshop it) as sf.


do things like surrealism and fourth-wall-breaking automatically qualify a story as sf? ... I suspect the Slipstream entry was written by someone who would say no

Where did you get the "as SF" part? The section of the Lexicon in question purports to be "common workshop types". How exactly do you workshop a story "as SF"? I wouldn't be at all critical if my imagined Damon was saying "hey, you should try Zoetrope and Fence for this one" -- as opposed to pointing imperiously at the door. It's the whiff of genre-ethnic-cleansing that has me annoyed.

I don't think that breaking the fourth wall, or surrealism, makes a story SF. But nor do I have any idea where the not-SF-ness and the undeniably snide tone (you don't think the bit about postmodernist criticism is meant as a serious suggestion, do you -- however well it in fact worked for Tales from Neveryon?) go together...

Similarly, while I accept that it's a Lexicon and not a rulebook, presumably the point of the Lexicon is, if you will, as a set of anti-patterns. You can write a very bad alien invasion story -- indeed, almost all are bad -- yet "alien invasion" does not make the list as a category. The point of Waldrop's mini-essay there is to define what about Tabloid Weird stories is bad, not just to mention a category which, incidentally, is sometimes bad. He says "Sasquatch crypto-zoology and Christian folk superstition simply don't mix well" -- note the just simply.

And in fact, the only use of the Turkey City Lexicon which I have actually observed in the field is to dismiss a particular story because (and simply because) it suffers from one of the items on the list.... and while this can be a convenient shorthand, it is perilously close to rulebookery.

I do not mean to imply, in that last paragraph, that all the newbies are groping toward new forms. Indeed, in that groping they are far more likely to reinvent the wheel. The problem is that the frustrations of those who have seen too many wheels reinvented, and grown snide about it, are among the stabilizing forces of quasi-formulaic genre homogeneity.

The problem is not criticizing a flawed story. The problem is that these kind of categorical criticisms -- "distinguish between a rational, Newtonian-Einsteinian, cause-and- effect universe and an irrational, supernatural, fantastic universe!" -- these instances of "don't even go there, it never works" -- are an easy out for critiquers to avoid addressing the technical hurdles that would have to be overcome for it to work.

Some of y'all have, elsewhere, been railing against "merely competent", tame, workaday writing, writing that offends no one's ear, takes no chances, is comfortably salable and achieves nothing important. I believe such dicta -- even in catalog rather than rulebook form -- are one important source of it.

(And I would distinguish between the SH list, which is a market list about what things you want to buy, and a list intended for workshopping. Every editor is welcome to draw genre borders for inclusion, not to mention to have their own peculiar itches, peeves, and fetishes, it's part of what gives magazines etc. distinctive characters. When that editor sits down to critique in a workshop, though, I would expect her to take a different view, trying to get each story to be what *it* should be, even if that's something they would never buy in a million years).

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 10, 2007 08:03 PM

Where did you get the "as SF" part?

Note that the very first complete sentence of the Turkey City Lexicon, at least as hosted on, is: "This manual is intended to focus on the special needs of the science fiction workshop." That's a scope marker. I don't think you'd find the Adam and Eve story, the Cozy Catastrophe, the Jar of Tang, the Just-Like Fallacy, the Motherhood Statement, the Shaggy God Story, or the Steam Grommet Factory as common (too-common) story types in a mainstream workshop, and you'd undoubtedly find others.

And in fact, the only use of the Turkey City Lexicon which I have actually observed in the field is to dismiss a particular story because (and simply because) it suffers from one of the items on the list.

What an unfortunate choice of fellow workshoppers you must have been saddled with! You have my sympathies.

Some of y'all have, elsewhere, been railing against "merely competent", tame, workaday writing, writing that offends no one's ear, takes no chances, is comfortably salable and achieves nothing important. I believe such dicta -- even in catalog rather than rulebook form -- are one important source of it.

I don't. I believe their influence, if any, pales in comparison to the influence of actually published mediocre stories. In my experience of workshopping mediocre stories, it's been a rare one that wouldn't be improved by the application of one or, rather more likely, many of the TCL's rules of thumb.

(That removing badness from a story is not sufficient to make it good should go without saying, although in practice it doesn't.)

I know we've disagreed on this before, but I have myself, to date, not once seen a promising story squashed through being workshopped into mediocrity, and I think your fears of the TCL's categorical rules being used to destroy stories of promise are wildly exaggerating the danger they pose, while at the same time ignoring the possibility of their real utility.

And, let's face it -- how many of the writers in our peer group do you know who don't take a Thou Shalt Not rule as a challenge?

Posted by David Moles at November 12, 2007 11:14 AM

It did not escape my attention that the TCL is intended for an SF workshop. Nonetheless, were we to find in its pages an entry entitled "The Mystery Story", detailing what a mystery story is, in rather derisive terms, it would lead one nonetheless to the conclusion that there was a bit overzealous policing of genre borders going on; and the defense "but they of course don't mean good mystery stories!" would not do a great deal to counter this.

I am not arguing that the TCL is not useful. On the contrary, I agree with this

In my experience of workshopping mediocre stories, it's been a rare one that wouldn't be improved by the application of one or, rather more likely, many of the TCL's rules of thumb.


However, I think that it is not only the case that "removing badness from a story is not sufficient to make it good"; in fact, I think the techniques required to make a bad story competent, to make a competent story good, and to make a good story great, all differ in kind as well as degree, to the extent that some tactics learned for each level must be unlearned at the next.

My argument that the TCL poses a danger does not ignore, but rather is based on its real utility. If it wasn't an extremely sophisticated, time-tested, and efficacious method of turning bad stories into competent and then good ones -- and supporting even the development of great stories of particular varieties -- it would not be nearly so likely to become ensconced as The Way To Do Things and lead to a competent homogeneity.

The taking of Thou Shalt Nots as a challenge is naturally a great redemptive virtue, and I expect great things of it. But what exactly do you mean when you say "our peer group"? I certainly know a lot of writers who feel glumly coerced by "show don't tell"...

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 12, 2007 11:43 AM

Also, does it seem like I'm anti-TCL? Because I'm not. I do not wish to abolish it. If I teach at Clarion I will send my students off to read it.

My feelings about it are similar to my feelings on the book Design Patterns. It certainly revolutionized my understanding of OO theory and practice. But for years afterwards, I kept running into people who had turned all their static utility classes into Singletons, whether or not they needed the overhead, because, you know "it's a pattern..."

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 12, 2007 11:47 AM

I think the techniques required to make a bad story competent, to make a competent story good, and to make a good story great, all differ in kind as well as degree, to the extent that some tactics learned for each level must be unlearned at the next.

There's a difference between unlearning something, and learning that the thing doesn't apply in all cases -- or learning something new that, some of the time, supersedes the first thing. It hasn't been my experience that I've actually had to unlearn anything.

But maybe I'm not as far along the sequence as I like to think. (Though, actually, for that matter, I'm not sure I believe it's a chronological sequence, as rhetorically convenient as it might be to think so.)

And I'm still not convinced that the TCL (and similar conventional wisdom) has anything to do with homogeneous mediocrity, if only because so much what irritates me, personally, about the current state of writing in the field (based, I admit, on tarring a lot of the field with only a few brushes -- I feel an overextended metaphor of the "fascist octopus"/"swan song" variety coming on, involving straw men and tar babies) can be easily indexed to entries in the TCL.* I find "Pushbutton Words", "False Humanity", "Wiring Diagram Fiction" and "Second-Order Idiot Plot" all far too common, for instance.**

I don't know. Maybe we should stop arguing about the TCL and/or workshopping and/or learning to write, and just talk about genre boundaries, since that seems to be what you're really complaining about.

...Although talking about genre boundaries is one of a class of things that these days has me wanting to give up on the field altogether, so maybe I should step out of it and let you talk about it with Ted and Jed. ("Let's you and him fight!")


* The stuff that doesn't fall under the rubric of the TCL can mostly be summed up as "too many straight white middle class men."

** Though rarely all together. PW is more common in fantasy, FH/WDF more common in science fiction -- two straw men, two tar brushes. The TCL's kind of short on problems endemic to fantasy but not to science fiction, actually. Somewhere there must be an alternate-history TCL that covers those, produced by the Minneapolis Scribblies instead of the Turkey City people.

Posted by David Moles at November 12, 2007 02:36 PM

I sort of thought the discussion was refreshingly free of trying to define genre borders, thus far.

I accept your correction to the term "unlearn". I meant unlearn as a reflex, not as a truth or technique.

You are plenty far along any such notional (not necessarily chronological) sequence.

I think there are two distinct complaints: homogenous mediocrity, of the kind you describe, for which the TCL is a useful remedy; and homogenous competence without meaningful risks, which is what I thought Meghan et al were complaining about.

I don't think the TCL itself is a major source of homogenous competence without meaningful risks -- not in the sense that if the TCL had never come to be, HCWMR would have been avoided. I think that some of the entries in the TCL -- the ones I was making fun of -- were symptomatic of an attitude that produces HCWMR.

But I do admit that at this point I'm wondering if I'm just arguing this out of some male-socialized compulsion to have the last word, so perhaps we should move on to greener pastures.

(Note that TCL actually does address some instances of "too many straight white middle class men", eg in The Cozy Catastrophe)

Much more interesting than genre boundaries is your specific list of what annoys you -- a specificity which was missing for me from the recent wave of "no to mere competence" cri de coeur postings, so that I was left thinking I probably heartily agreed, but suspecting that not everyone was talking about the same thing....

(...a specificity which, let me hasten to add, is much easier with the help of the TCL, used as an actual lexicon rather than a rulebook (which is how I like to see Design Patterns used, too))

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 12, 2007 04:52 PM

I should add: I don't think I'm annoyed by the same things you are, because I'm not generally annoyed by bad fiction. A good third of the stories in an average digest SF rag issue are simply bad or uninteresting, and you can see the PWs and FHs and WDFs coming a mile away. These do not annoy me, because I just stop reading.

Another third of those rags, the third I am annoyed by, have promise and competence and do everything right by the standards of the TCL, as far as I can tell, so that I actually read them, and think about them, spending time to glean what they might contain... and I am left hanging, because there wasn't really that much there there.

I guess there are also stories that have verve and brilliance in places, but are marred by flaws that maybe do find place in the TCL, and the authors in question maybe really did know better but couldn't help themselves. An example might be The Other Wind, the last Earthsea book, in which I feel like Le Guin's essayist political brain overruled her novelist brain at a certain point and made things too tidy (compared to Tehanu, say, which is wild and brilliant all the way through).

Nonetheless I would rather read a work of brilliance or even genius which is marred by even moments of base incompetence, than a flawlessly competent and well-written book which has filed off all of its oomph. (This is why I voted for Perdido Street Station for the Hugo that American Gods won, despite the fact that the former is unreadable in places and the latter goes down smooth as milk).

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 12, 2007 05:01 PM

maybe I should step out of it and let you talk about it with Ted and Jed. ("Let's you and him fight!")

When I was composing my most recent comment to the last thread, I was thinking, "All these references to 'speculative elements' will sound like nails on a chalkboard to David." Sorry about that; it just seemed like the most convenient phrase.

Posted by Ted at November 13, 2007 03:33 AM


Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 13, 2007 12:01 PM

Although he rarely thought about it, in his mansion high on a cliff above the Pacific, surrounded, as he was, by these diminutive but unquestionably lovely human nubiles, Sasquatch kind of regretted selling his soul to the Devil.

That is all.


Posted by Matt Hulan at November 13, 2007 01:09 PM

Although it was actually Meghan who first referred to "speculative elements" in her comment.

Posted by Ted at November 14, 2007 07:12 AM

Hey, check it out: the same Torque Control post that links here also links to Paul Kincaid's latest column, in which he makes an argument not dissimilar from the one made in the "Tabloid Weird" lexicon entry.

Posted by Ted at November 19, 2007 05:28 AM

That's just because he's reading Mainspring wrong.

(Badly wrong, actually. I mean, you want to talk about literalizing the metaphor of a watch implying a watchmaker...)

Posted by David Moles at November 19, 2007 11:05 AM

The thing is, I would accept the "Tabloid Weird" argument much more easily if Waldrop framed it, as Kincaid seems to at times, in explicitly polemical terms:

But putting God at the head of a universe that is, in all other respects, purely science fictional is a category error of the most egregious and troubling kind. Let us try to maintain the secular and rational tradition that has been the defining characteristic of science fiction for the last 500 years.

Kincaid makes no compelling argument that Lake's God-driven clockwork universe is unbelievable, inconsistent, or disrupts his suspension of disbelief. His problem is, explicitly with a universe which the competent man cannot solve by reason -- a universe which we cannot, ultimately, puzzle out by our own grit and smarts. And his problem with such a universe is not that it is inconceivable -- he does not necessarily seem to find Mainspring an uncompelling fictional portrayal of such a universe -- but that he does not want it to be so.

I don't have any intellectual problem with an argument that says: "do not dilute your SF with religious or folkloric or magical elements, because SF as rationalist literature, by vividly portraying a universe in which man can in principle triumph by reason, is one of our most potent weapons in the fight against religion, and to blur it with fantasy is to reduce its polemical effectiveness."

I mean, I'm not for this use of SF, but I find the argument perfectly coherent and have no trouble taking it seriously.

"You cannot write a good story mixing cryptozoology and demonology" is a very different statement depending on whether "good" is meant aesthetically or ethically.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 19, 2007 11:12 AM

David, can you say more about the way you think Paul is reading Mainspring wrong? Are you saying that literalizing the metaphor that a watch implies a watchmaker is intrinsically SFnal?

Posted by Ted at November 19, 2007 07:13 PM

Also: Ben, I personally think Paul Kincaid makes a reasonable argument that Mainspring's God-driven clockwork universe is inconsistent.

At one level, you could say that the appearance of an omnipotent God is not inconsistent with anything, for the same reason that God is an unfalsifiable hypothesis; no amount of evidence can rule out the possibility of God making an appearance. But would you say that an appearance by God is consistent with the universe of every SF or fantasy novel? If not, would you say that your objection was based on ethical grounds rather than aesthetic?

The idea of a mechanistic universe is often used in explicit opposition to the idea of a theistic universe. If one interprets Mainspring's premise of a literal clockwork universe to be mechanistic, then I think it's fair to say that a God who is actively intervening in events seems inconsistent with that.

Posted by Ted at November 20, 2007 10:05 AM

Ted, I haven't read the book. I would probably be annoyed by a book which constructs a universe in which it seems that reason can unravel everything, invests us in the main character's quest to solve her problems by figuring out its rules, and then pops a personalized, interventionist, arbitrary God onstage at the last minute to change the plot by whim.

(I'd also probably be annoyed by SF which was all about the consequences of a God-centered universe but then, in the last chapter, revealed that the supposed God was really, get this, a very clever computer built by aliens!!!!... like, imagine if at the end of "Hell is the absence of God" or "Out of the Silent Planet" the whole God thing would turn out to be a setup or a misunderstanding -- it would probably diminish those stories.)

(Though either of these twists could also be conceivably done well enough to convince me.)

I haven't read Mindspring, but Kincaid says that from page one, we know he's on a quest from God, that God keeps showing up to drop tablets with instructions, etc. etc. It's hard for me not to imagine this in a semi-comic Vonnegutian mode, but it could also be clever done straight. But I don't see how, if God is in the book from the beginning, it can be a deus ex machina in the traditional sense.

I can imagine reading a book which proposes from the beginning a God-centered mechanistic universe and plays by its own rules all the way through, and at the end nonetheless thinking that, on esthetic grounds, I would rather have had the book exclude God and be about the mechanism. But Kincaid's summary didn't convince me that this was such a book.

But I don't see anything esthetically wrong in principle with the combination of a mechanistic and a God-centric universe. In fact I'd say probably most good theistic SF involves some kind of "mechanism" in the sense of some kind of limitation of God's omnipotence. If you are going to have God (or a god) -- or even His or Her indisputable agents -- onstage as a character, you have to limit divine power somehow, or else you have an onstage character with no interesting choices to speak of.

C.S. Lewis's SF is full of radical limits on divine power, so much so that Christ's appearance on earth, rather than being seen as the predestined center of history around which the script of the cosmos was written, is seen as a desperate gambit by an embattled God, a risky foray into territory totally controlled by His enemy, the fallen archon. Once you have God undertaking risky gambits, you are clearly a long way from monism, and therefore you clearly have a partially mechanistic universe with its own rules which even God must obey.

If you want a really monistic/pantheistic universe with a wholly omnipotent God in fiction, I think you necessarily end up with God as setting rather than God as character... though I'd be interested to hear counterexamples.

(And I would also argue that the God of the Bible is in fact a sharply limited God in the most natural reading of the text).

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at November 20, 2007 01:15 PM

Kincaid uses a fantasy novel written specifically to play with the idea of an interventionist God in a mechanistic universe (as I understand it; don't know what Jay would say) as an argument that science fiction novels shouldn't have God in them. It's a fundamentally nonsensical argument. He might as well use "Hell is the Absence of God" as an argument that science fiction stories should have God in them.

I haven't read Mainspring, just talked to Jay about it once upon a time, and read a couple of reviews. The raw substance of Kincaid's criticism -- which I take to be that it's poorly plotted -- could well be spot on. But he's a long way from proving that this flaw is a necessary consequence of the book being about what it's about, and I don't get the impression he's even clearly seeing what the book is about -- more that he's just complaining that Jay didn't write a different book.

Posted by David Moles at November 20, 2007 02:03 PM

I haven't read Mainspring either, and I suspect we're rapidly approaching the limit of how much we can discuss it without having read it. I can certainly understand the argument that it's unabashedly a fantasy novel and to approach it as an SF novel is to set oneself up for disappointment. All I can say is that we often hear a lot about a book before reading the first page. I remember the first thing I heard about Mainspring (from Jay himself, I believe) was that it was set in a solar system made of gears and rails, and that created certain expectations in me. If Jay had described it as a novel about a man sent on a quest by an angel, I would have envisioned something different. I readily acknowledge that this may say more about me than it does about the description.

Posted by Ted at November 21, 2007 12:59 AM

I did suggest on Jay's LJ that he come over here and straighten us out. :)

Posted by David Moles at November 21, 2007 11:06 AM

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