Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

A few personal notes and the genre/ignorance thing

It is one thing, I find, to have confidence that your friends are sensible people with some resources at their disposal (i.e. a car and gas money) for getting themselves and their dogs out of the New Orleans area. It is quite another to actually hear from them that they are safe in northern Alabama. I had been cheerfully explaining to the world at large that they were most likely fine, but I still let out a long, shaky breath.

I'm feeling better than I was Sunday or Monday, but this is still not up to the admittedly low standards of last week yet. One of my best aunties is firmly convinced that the solution is for me to drink more. "I said that, too!" said my mom. "She didn't mean 'stay hydrated,' Ma," I said. In fact, what my aunt said was, "You're lucky they have good red wine now. In my day all they had was that David Morgan stuff, and that was not at all nice." (Yes, she does mean Mogen David.) Failing red wine or port, she seems to think a nice dark beer would help me immensely. I'm already dizzy enough without any help right now, so we have not implemented this treatment. I hesitate to call another auntie, lest she up the recommended dosage to vodka tonics.

Ahhhh, relatives.

In Sunday's comments, dd_b hit on part of what I've been meaning to say about Michael Crichton for weeks now: "Don't assume your audience is ignorant of the source material you're working from." In fact, I would just say, "Don't rely on your audience's ignorance." And here's where the comparison to scalzi comes into play.

Scalzi has talked about writing gateway drugs SF (not to be confused with Gateway SF, but Scalzi is hard to confuse with Pohl no matter how hard you squint). He doesn't assume that his reader has run into the tropes and trappings before. He explains how they're getting into space, doesn't just make a single reference and hope the reader has already hit the four pages of exposition somewhere else. People who know how it goes can sing along on the choruses -- it's not painful exposition -- but it's there.

In Timeline -- which I started reading because my grandpa wanted me to, and I'm going to make him read Doomsday Book or at least To Say Nothing of the Dog -- Michael Crichton assumes that the reader has never heard of quantum computing. Assumes that he can just say that no one ever thought of it between Feynman and his brilliant character. Assumes that his reader doesn't live in a world where you can't swing a cat by the tail without thumping into someone who's babbling about quantum computing again. And the difference between not assuming your readers know and assuming they don't comes into sharp relief. Crichton spent at least the first 75 pages of that book (I didn't read further) holding our hands and patting us on the shoulder, saying, "There, there, dears, it's weird but it's not that weird. Don't trouble yourself. Be calm. Everything else is normal in every regard." Which made me want to fling the book across the room (only I was reading in the car, so that would have been a bad idea). Which made me put it down permanently. Which made me strongly suspect that, time travel or not, this was not SF. If genre is a big set of conversations, scalzi is showing the newcomer that the drinks are in the bathtub and explaining the joke X is telling about Y. Michael Crichton is standing outside with his hands over his ears, shouting, "Nothing to see here! No party whatsoever! And it certainly wouldn't be interesting if there was!"

No more Crichton for me.

I was thinking about assuming your readers don't know something when one of my actual friends on the friendslist mentioned a rejection he got, telling him his story was pointless and derivative of an author he'd never even heard of. Now, because of my faith in the f'list, I'm assuming that the editor in question simply didn't appreciate the genuine ways in which the story was unique and point-ful, and further that my friend has read a good deal in the genre and is not neglecting his research. So the following is not directed at him, just triggered by his comment.

I think it's entirely possible to read as derivative of something you've never heard of. I also think that for the reader, that state is indistinguishable from actually being derivative of whatever-it-is. I don't care if you've never read a word of Joe Haldeman -- I will still roll my eyes and mutter, "Forever War ripoff" if your book reads that way to me. It is not my job as the reader to avoid reading things if you, the writer, want to write similar things later. It is my job as the writer to make sure I've poked around when I'm starting a novel, asking people who know more or different corners of the genre than I do, "Hey, what's out there with Finnish myths in it? What's been done with early computing? Who's doing spy books?"

The reader -- the editor and the agent are just specialized versions of the reader in this regard -- will have gotten there first. You can guarantee (especially in this genre) that someone will know about what you're trying to talk about. If you read what's out there, you know how to avoid looking derivative. That may mean that you turn backflips in your synopsis and your first few chapters to show that you know someone else has dealt with this theme but you're doing it differently. It may mean that you have to toss out something you really liked because it was just too similar in a book full of similarities. It may mean that you make a small, clear homage where you're playing with themes someone else has used more famously. But you can't assume the reader won't know, so you have to know, too. Because we don't work in a field that relies on ignorance, and thank God for that.
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