In-Genre Fiction is Dull Outside of It

In an interesting blog post about Pulp writing (such as that of Edgar Rice Borroughs or Robert E Howard) and Japanese Light Novels, Cheah Kai Wai quoted a bit of description from a popular JLN and said about it:

This is from the first chapter Goblin Slayer, a famous dark fantasy series about the eponymous adventurer obsessed with conducting goblin genocide. The text is compact and easy to read, but it is all tell and no show. Phrases like ‘took her breath away’ and ‘taken aback’ lack power, because the sparse descriptions lack emotive power. The sentence ‘No one would tolerate the existence of armed toughs if they were not managed carefully’ feels aimed at the reader instead of being an organic component of the story.

This excerpt is simply a straightforward report of sights and peoples and business functions, revealing nothing substantial about Priestess, the people around her, the town or the rest of the setting.

(The blog post has the quote that this is a comment about, but the particular accuracy is not my point so I’m omitting it for the sake of brevity and hope that you will trust the description is accurate for the sake of argument.)

The thing I’m wondering about is whether the particular example and Japanese Light Novels in general might be suffering not from being poorly written, but from being what I’m going to call genre-referential. (This is something of an extension of ideas I talked about in my earlier post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) What I mean by this is that some stories rely on referencing ideas and patterns established in other stories—generally progenitors in their genre. This sort of referencing makes for great economy of writing, but it also lightens the reading burden for readers who are very familiar with the genre and know what you’re talking about so much that explicit description actually becomes boring.

(As a side note, this can actually make it difficult for people who started with later works in a genre to fully enjoy the original works which defined the genre—since they had nothing to reference and readers were unfamiliar with the genre, they described it in detail which, to a reader already familiar with the genre, is just unnecessary and therefore slow and over-wrought.)

I’ll give an example. Suppose a story started out like this:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

No one would mistake this for the beginning of a masterpiece, but at the same time, despite the fact that I have given approximately no description of—well, anything—I suspect that most readers who are at least 30 years old (in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2018) will still have a fairly vivid idea of what just happened. They will know:

  1. There is an empire run by a ruthless and evil emperor who
  2. dominates the solar system or possibly the entire galaxy
  3. squashing the freedom of all people through it.
  4. The empire has some sort of elite units of soldiers issued full-body armor complete with head-encasing helmets. Basically, storm trooper from Star Wars before we found out that they can’t hit anything.
  5. Ian and Duke are at least somewhat friends, but probably not intimately so
  6. Ian is impetuous and cynical
  7. Duke is idealistic and optimistic

The list goes on; people who have seen a lot of space opera know quite a lot about these characters and the setting. As I said before, this is obviously not the start of a masterpiece, but it could easily be a lot of fun. But imagine what someone who’s never read any space opera would make of this. Really, if you can stretch your imagination that far, not very much. There are a few blanks established to be filled in later, but the only description of the characters given is the single word “kid” which might erroneously suggest that Duke was, in fact, a child.

Now, consider how much is changed and what a person familiar with space opera now knows if I add just two words:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian Tolo said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke Landwalker replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

Now you know that this is a parody of Star Wars, but a reasonably subtle parody of Star Wars, not a Mad Magazine style over-the-top parody. More like a toned-down Mel Brooks parody.

But suppose that those weren’t the characters last names. Consider how a few extra lines can signal that this is going in a very different direction than Star Wars:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

“True,” Duke said. “But the Dakat is with us. We can’t fail.”

Ian sighed and stared down at his feet, thinking. Then he stretched out his hand, said the words “Dakat Zadum” and an imperial laster-rifle materialized under his hand. Grabbing it before it fell in a long-practiced motion, Ian put it in the empty holster on his armor. He looked up at Ian.

“You’re right,” he said, without enthusiasm.

With the same formula, Ian made a blaster to go with his armor.

“You know I am,” he said. “Now let’s go.”

The fan of space opera is put on notice that while it has some thematic similarities to Star Wars, this is by no means a mere rip-off of star wars. Granted, there are space wizards, but here we have two teammates who are space wizards; there isn’t a master and an apprentice. Though it taps into a similar setting—including high technology versus magic—it’s a very different cast of characters. And the space magic is very different, too. One of the curious questions is whether or not the space wizards will have a magnetically contained plasma torch (*cough* light saber *cough*) or any similar weapon. In fact, there are a whole host of questions in the back of the mind of the studied fan of space opera:

How are the space wizards arranged. Are they independent? Is there a guild? Is there an organization in place to dominate the space wizards since magic is dangerous? What are the limits to the magic? How common is magic? They have lasers which seem to be used as guns, how high is the technology? Obviously if they have high technology too magic can’t be that common, so what is the relationship between the technology users and the magic users?

And so on. There are tons of questions which pop up unbidden because they’ve been brought up by a whole host of previous books and movies answering these things in different ways. But none of these questions are likely to occur to a reader who knows nothing about space opera. While the imagination of the fan of space opera may be flooded by memories of his favorite—and not so favorite—space opera stories, the one who knows nothing about space opera has none of this occupying his attention. So we have two radically different experiences:

For the fan of space opera, we have an economy of language, giving him hints as to what sort of space opera this is, letting him imagine all sorts of possibilities as his mind races to figure out the universe being described.

For the one who knows nothing about space opera, we have a scene in which two people who are not described in any way—except that one regards the other as being younger—talk about how some armor is uncomfortable and partially useful, say some words and guns appear, and (may) be ready to go somewhere to do something.

Now, another criticism which Cheah Kai Wai leveled against the light novel he cited was that it told everything rather than showing it. But consider the above dialog recast into pure exposition:

Ian removed the imperial shock-trooper helmet he had been wearing. He had only been wearing it for a few minutes and he already had a headache. Granted, it was laser-proof but there are a lot of ways to die and no armor can protect you from all of them. Duke, younger and with every bit of of the optimism and idealism that comes would youth, hashed this out with Ian for a bit before Duke pulled out his trump card and pointed out that the Dakat was with them.

There was no arguing the point. The Dakat was with them, so whatever risks they were taking, they could succeed. Wearily, Ian acknowledged the fact by using Dakat magic to materialize a laser rifle and put it in the holster of his armor. Duke smiled, likewise made his own, and they were ready.

Now, this is obviously less energetic than the original, but for someone who loves space opera, I would argue that it is not disqualifyingly so. The lover of a genre is generally in the position of having already read all of the best stuff, and the mediocre stuff is at least evocative of the best the genre has to offer. The lover of space opera is, by this uninspired bit of exposition, at least promised shiny armor, laser rifles, an evil empire, and space wizards. Neither the paint on the wall—long since dried—nor his shoes offer any of these things. And on the plus side, the lover of space opera is not wearied by ornate world-building, most of which he can guess anyway. The writer at least skips to the parts he can’t guess.

To someone who is not a lover of space opera, however, this is profoundly disqualifying. It gives no background, no orientation, no idea of what’s to come, and very little happens in it.

All of this brings us to one of the fundamental problems for writers: figuring out who your reader is. The fundamental problem (which the above quickly written examples are only meant to sketch) is that the same work is radically different when read by someone who lives and breathes a genre than it is when it’s the first dipping of the reader’s toe into the genre. Or even when he’s not yet up to his ankle in it.

Now, I’m not trying to claim that Cheah Kai Wai is wrong in his characterization of Japanese Light Novels. I haven’t read them and it would be absurd to speak with any certainty about them in any case. And I’m not trying to argue with Mr. Rawle Nyanzi’s (low) opinion of Japanese Light Novels either. Both men have obviously read more of these novels than I have (since I’ve read about 3 paragraphs of them so far) and for all I know are experts in the genre. But if they are not experts in the genre, it is interesting that their cogent criticisms may in part come from being outsiders looking in on genre-referential fiction. And since no one is an expert in all genres, we will all have this problem with genre-referential fiction in some genres.

And as writers, there is the problem that genre-referential fiction has a smaller potential base of readers, but we know that they read way more stories in the genre than general readers do.

(There is another problem which comes from what one is looking for in fiction. This post is already very long, so to sketch the problem: when I was young, I craved adventure stories of people becoming heroes. Now that I have three young children and every day is an adventure where I am sometimes literally saving someone’s life—though by  intensely mundane activities like shutting a door at the top of a staircase so the two year old doesn’t fall down, or making sure that the five year old doesn’t microwave a fork and burn our house down—I find that I crave stories about calm, security, and wisdom far more than those of adventure and heroism. It stands to reason, then, that Japanese teenagers on the train home from cram school might crave something different from either. It’s possible, for example, that vivid description would be too much for their over-saturated brains.)

2 thoughts on “In-Genre Fiction is Dull Outside of It

  1. Mary

    Ah, the life of trade-offs.

    I was wrestling with not just genre tropes, but age-old ones. How much of a unicorn can you explain without making the experienced fantasy reader have his eyes glaze over?

    It was the crit-group readers who objected to a line in The Maze, the Manor, and the Unicorn because he did not know that unicorns have a thing about virgins that got me.

    Tried to slither it in a little more explicitly, but not enough that a reader who’s as familiar with that as the main character would find it a lecture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mary

      Whoops. Awkward typo: It was only one reader. If it had been multiple ones, I might have fallen back and regrouped, because if a bunch of readers mind, you’ve almost certainly got SOMETHING wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

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