Surface Deep (writing)

Perhaps it’s unfair to say this, but most people live their lives entirely on the surface.  One of the places that is most self-evident to me (as a novelologist) is in fiction. Specifically, the expectations of genre.  Those expectations tend to make sense in a broader context. If I’m enjoying an action-adventure story, I expect action and / or adventure. If I partake in a horror story, I should be horrified in some way. And so on. But the catch is that even within genres, there are more subtle strokes to be explored.

As a fantasy & science fiction writer, I love exploring the endless possibilities of the genre. Yet there’s little doubt that much of the audience is less interested in exploration than meeting expectations. It’s why when something is successful, we always end up with a hundred clones of that thing. Hunger Games did not begin the YA dystopian genre, but it sure as heck gave it a swift kick in the pants. Science fiction existed before Star Wars, but Star Wars helped to make it a very mainstream thing. There’s nothing wrong with giving the audience what it wants, especially if you manage to do so while staying true to the story you want to tell, but the audience can also be too narrow in those expectations at time. Especially when they only superficially apply. It’s the soft prejudice of genre, and I consider it probably my greatest obstacle as a writer in finding an audience.

I’m not suggesting my stories are radical departures from the expected. No, for the most part, I stick to genre conventions, but there’s always some subversion or something unexpected in there that a lot of people miss. Not because I’m subtle, but because it simply isn’t something they can see through their genre blindness.

The Automatic Detective is NOT a dystopian novel. It is simply a story set in an imperfect future (alternate past technically) that mirrors certain conventions of retro sci fi and retro noir. Empire City has its problems, but it isn’t meant to be a corrupt and irredeemable system. Mack Megaton is not the lone “good bot” in a city brimming with evil. And if you expect Empire’s founders to have some sinister agenda, then you’ll be disappointed.

The Automatic Detective is a bit of a mystery too, but it’s not a mystery the reader can really solve. What’s amusing there is that this isn’t really a departure from much of classic detective fiction. Sam Spade isn’t a particularly bright guy. But he’s tough and he’s persistent, and he sticks around long enough to get to the bottom of things. Mack is very much in Spade’s shadow. He is a tough guy in a tie who keeps going forward until he too breaks the case.

And then there’s Mack himself. Because he’s a robot, most people seem to think this is a Pinocchio story, where a robot learns to be human. Several times in the story, Mack refutes that idea with his own narration. He’s not interested in being human. He sees nothing particularly special about humans. He is a robot, and he is happy to be one. Sure, he’s a thinking, feeling machine, but he doesn’t view these emotions as intrinsically human things. Instead, they’re just part of his functions.

In all the above examples, it’s the genre conventions that sometimes confuse people. If you describe the premise of the story to someone, they will likely make all the above assumptions. And that’s normal. The problem is that once they make those assumptions, they are usually looking for confirmation of them. While a lot of people like The Automatic Detective, many others are confused by it or disappointed it veers from what they assume a “good” genre story must possess.

The same is true for Divine Misfortune, a novel about modern day gods that isn’t about faith or magic or the power of belief. Instead, it’s about responsibility, obligation, and the eternal quest for our happiness that just happens to star a raccoon god and Quetzalcoatl. And Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, which is easily shoved into YA Women’s fiction simply by virtue of featuring a young woman as its primary protagonist. And Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain, whose admittedly ridiculous title makes most people assume it is nothing more than a goofy story.

It’s not just my own books. There are plenty of stories that easily shuffled into simple categories. Kung Fu Panda is a silly kids movie. Pacific Rim is a Transformers knock off. And on and on it goes. Not all criticism of these stories is built on false expectations, but it does create interesting problems for criticism.  Many people dismissed Pacific Rim as trying to hard to create a story when it should’ve just been a “fun, giant robot movie”. And just as many found it to be too light and silly by virtue of being “a giant robot movie”.

That’s the meta-narrative of our culture and our own expectations. We can never separate ourselves completely from these influences. Nor should we always have to. I find Man of Steel to be both a bad movie in terms of story and an exceptionally bad movie in terms of my expectations of the Superman character. Others might not feel the same for many reasons, and the discussion is worth having. Especially when we acknowledge our own innate biases and assumptions. I’m open to the idea that Superman, as a character who has existed for decades, is open to multiple interpretation. I might not agree, but it is a valid argument. I’m less open to the idea that the story’s structure makes a lick of sense or that any character behaves in a rational or interesting way, but, hey, I could be wrong.

I get that, for most people, especially people who aren’t storytellers, such ideas are going to be lower on the totem pole of enjoyment. Many went to see Man of Steel to finally watch Superman punch the hell out of people. And the destruction was a visceral thrill, not meant to be taken seriously. It’s “only a superhero movie”, right? From that perspective, I can see where someone is coming from. I don’t agree, but I get it.

But when someone dismisses a criticism, any criticism, with that sort of off-hand diminishing, I get a little peeved. Whether it’s personal (“Martinez writes fluff.”) or distant (“It’s just a kaiju story.”) it feels as if the justification comes first. I know that by virtue of what I write, not everyone will like it. But it’s much nicer if they dislike it for the content and not for the expectations they had before ever opening the book.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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One Comment

  1. JB Sanders
    Posted January 22, 2015 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    As for your analysis of Man of Steel, I see that a lot of movies that want to divorce themselves as much as possible from the source material, thinking they can make it better, and for the most part, they can’t. Same goes for all the prequels out there, I thought Prometheus was an absolute mess.

    Of course they will have their supporters and fans, but you can’t make people think, or analyze plots, characterization, or story lines, when all they want to do is see big monsters, big fights, and big destruction, consequences be damned. It’s like the old punch line, the operation was a success, but the patient died.

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