Friday, December 21, 2007

A Genre Must Evolve?

I hear it often from writers and editors. A genre has to evolve. I have to ask why?

First, evolution is a poor analogy for literature. The folks I’ve seen using it seem to imply that: 1) change is the natural state of both living things and literature, and that 2) living things and literature both get better as they change. Neither of these statements is true where biological evolution is concerned. Many species of crocodiles have remained virtually unchanged for 65 million years, or more. Some turtles haven't changed since the Triassic, 200+ million years ago. Living things don't change unless there is a need, as when there is a dramatic shift in their environments. Also, evolution does not imply progress. Living things don't get "better" in any global sense as they evolve. A species adapts to an environment and may be better suited for that environment than its ancestors, but if the environment changes all those great adaptations are no longer helpful. They may actually become a hindrance.

Even if evolution were a reasonable analogy for literature, I still wouldn't understand why it is taken as a given that things must change. Why must they? I knew and respected the writer and very fine editor Karl Edward Wagner, but he once wrote, in speaking of heroic fantasy and how it must “evolve,” that: “It doesn't matter how well such stories are written; it doesn't even matter that the author may be a far better writer than Howard or Tolkien..." This seems, to me, to be nonsense. It certainly does matter to the readers.

Now, I imagine most writers would tire of churning out story after story about Chayne the Barbarian, and that most editors would get to the point of hating to see another Chayne story cross their desk. That's fine. But a young reader just doesn't have the same history. When they pick up that first fantasy novel it matters very much what they get. They don't care if the ideas are new evolutions in the field. Everything is new to them. They do care if the story makes sense to them, if it touches their hearts and imaginations. And they do care whether or not the writer is good, even if their tastes aren't sophisticated (sometimes you can read "Jaded"). In my case, this same attitude extends easily into adulthood. Personally, if there is anyone out there who can write about wandering barbarian warriors better than Howard, then I want desperately to read them. If someone can do interplanetary adventure better than Burroughs then I will trade in my collection of "new idea" books in a blink to get hold of some.

Finally, I’d also like to know what we do if a writer's best strengths lie exactly in those areas that have been mined before. Should he or she have to write something different merely because the basic concept has been done before? The rest of the world doesn't work this way. Nobody spends their time developing five-legged chairs just because three- and four-legged ones have already "been done."

I’m not advocating that literature should remain constantly static. There is nothing wrong with change either. But change doesn’t have to eliminate that which was good that went before. Here, the way evolution really works might be a good analogy. Evolution often occurs when one group splits off from another and evolves in isolation into a new species. This does not cause all members of the original population to suddenly drop dead. In fact, the new species and the old are likely to coexist for thousands if not millions of years. Why can’t we, then, have both traditional westerns and new wave westerns? Why can’t we have traditional romances and paranormal ones? Why can’t we have new writers writing traditional heroic fantasy stories while others experiment with new approaches? Why must we have change for change’s sake? What do you think?


Danny Tagalog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danny Tagalog said...

I agree, change for change's sake isn't always for the best in literature, art or whatever.

Quick message to wish you and your lovely wife a Happy New Year. Won't be posting regularly until Spring, but after then I'll have time to do so, and finally sample some of your books:)

Happy Festive Season:)

DT (off back to his motherland for a few weeks).

steve on the slow train said...

Charles, I'm wondering whether the publishing industry isn't giving us a Catch-22 situation. First, it wants to pigeonhole writing into various genres. But it also wants writers to be original and break the bounds of genre. You can't win.

I suspect that the one reason the 25 publishers rejected Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" is that it didn't fit nicely into a genre. But I see your point that there's nothing wrong with writing new stories under old convention. For example,the fact that Sherlock Holmes still sells well suggests that there's still a market for the classic detective story.

Rick said...

Hello Charles!

To be absolutely blunt, I love your blog. The intelligence of your postings, make it well worth the read, and pretty much eliminates my thinking that blogs are more social networks than serious writings.

However, I do have a few points to make about your thesis.

First, I agree with you that literature does not have to evolve.

However, your discussion does not deal with the writer's equivalent to the environment, which of course would be the marketplace. Your example of the crocodile and the turtle might help me explain the point. The environmental changes that occured in the habitat where these two species have existed has not require the adapt or die scenario that you discuss. Those same habitats spelled the death of thousands of species that could not exist in such environs. So, if the species can co-exist within the environmental changes, then they will survive. If not, they either adapt or die.

Second, books hardly exist in isolation. They require a readership. As I said, the marketplace, both the readership and the intermediaries (the publishing houses or POD's or web vehicles) comprise the environment where books struggle to exist. As that market environment changes, whether you take the position that it is controlled by corporate conglomerates or by reader's appetities or even by both, books will either fare well or die.

Just as with the case of the species imperative to procreate and survive, writers want to be published and read. That is, continuing the example, our imperative.

Provided there is a readership for the literary equivalents of the crocodiles and turtles you mentioned, then such genres and books et al will survive. But if publishers cease to publish such works or readers cease to clarmor for such works, then those writers and their works will either perish or adapt.

And it is worth remembering that the competition for reader's attention is increasing. The immediacy of movies, video games, and their electronic minions run at a faster pace and are much hotter experiences than cooler media such as books. These factors among others drive the changing environment that authors struggle to survive in and effectively alter the very nature of what we write.

So, again, do genres have to evolve? The answer is perhaps that they only need evolve if they wish to survive. In fact, the history of genres is clearly one of evolution. Certainly today's mysteries are a far cry from Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Such genre pieces as that would never see unless adapted (as in movies or evolved re-incarnations). A publisher friend once told me, "If Lovecraft submitted his stories to me today, I would reject them tomorrow." A telling comment against the writings of the man who originated the Mythos.

Again, I admire the depth of thought and perspectives you bring to your topics and will stop by again if you don't mind.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Gosh you always have such interesting posts! I like change, but I do think that you must have the traditional stuff to fall back on. Are you saying that it must evolve entirely out of it's original form? I wouldn't think so. And even if it did, eventually we would end up cycling back to the original stuff and making the old new again.

Anyway, wishing you and your family a wonderful holiday season!

Lisa said...

What an interesting question. You've focused in on the fantasy genre but I thought about it in terms of contemporary or literary fiction and in those genres, I'd say it absolutely had to evolve or die. Very few readers today have the time or the patience to deal with a Joyce or a Faulkner. This type of literature does reflect a very obvious evolution from those writers through the post-modernists to today's literature -- which is generally very easy to read and much more fast moving than its predecessors to say nothing of the fact that it always reflects the cultural mores of its time. In fantasy, I'm not sure why it would need to change a lot because you're not necessarily reflecting anything about our contemporary world. Hmm.

Charles Gramlich said...

Danny, you have a happy holiday season as well. See you later.

Steve, I think a lot of the problem comes from the publishing industry and their idea of what will sell as opposed to what the reader wants to read. And the publishing industry is driven in part by editors who set themselves up as arbitraters of what is good and bad.

Vwriter, thanks for visiting. Great argument. One thing I'd debate with you concerns the marketplace. I don't think the marketplace in publishing is only driven by the readers. (see my commentary to Steve.) I think a lot of what lives or dies can be determined by the opinions of the publishers (and their editors), and those opinions do not necessarily correspond with the reading public. Plus, they want blockbusters instead of making less profit on more middle level authors.

Ello, I think, exactly, that it might very well cycle back to it's orginal, or near original form, which means that for some publishers or editors to deliberately push it to "evolve" is actualy very much an "anti-evolutionary" concept.

Lisa, I'll have to think more about whether the genre makes a big difference. Good point about literary fiction, but I'm not absolutely sure I can agree until I've given it some more thought. We've evolved away from Faulkner and Joyce (which is a good thing in my opinion), but at least in Joyce's case you might make the argument he was an aberration to begin with, what in biology is called an "outlier." I was also thinking more along the lines of change in "subject matter" than prose style. Prose style certainly changes as language changes, so that is some good food for thought.

Everyone, good discussion.

eric1313 said...

Wow, everyone has this one covered!

That is a terrible statement to make, that a genre must evolve. Why? So we can try to fit in if we don't? If we don't fit in, so much better for the writing. Genres are created around new writing, not the other way around. We create the genres, expand their boundaries, push the envelopes, explode the expectations (when all is going well). There's nothing wrong with genre writing itself, but we shouldn't wait for somebody to create one for us. That's what writing is for, to carve our own niche.

Angie said...

My reaction here is yes and no. Yes, a genre has to evolve (or lets just say "change," since you're right about the definition of "evolution" and it doesn't necessarily apply here) to meet the tastes and preferences of its readers, and to move away from themes or gimmicks the larger mass of readers has grown tired of. But no, in the absence of such a change in reader tastes, a genre doesn't have to change just to be changing. And there are always going to be disagreements among readers about what's good or what's passe or what they've had enough of. There need to be new kinds of stories to satisfy the readers who hop from fad to fad, but there also need to be old style stories for the readers who settle in and are comfortable with a favorite kind of book for decades.

There's also the issue of scarce resources, though, and editors trying to predict what readers will want two years down the road, and they only have a limited number of publishing slots in their schedule. In the case of heroic fantasy, Howard is already there. So long as Howard is in print, the books which are arguably the best in heroic wandering-barbarian fantasy are available to any new reader who might come along. Anyone else who wants to write heroic fantasy has to compete with Howard, and convince an editor that they're at least that good. And establishing their own voice in the subgenre means a writer has to come up with something like Howard, but with something new and different and memorable. That right there is going to drive a certain amount of change.

In the case of epic quest-fantasy, there are enough readers to support a host of Tolkien imitators, despite a certain amount of sneering from the sidelines. There are enough readers who want more of this kind of story that Tolkien isn't enough, and so that kind of fantasy has flourished, and grown and changed and spawned new subgenres with their own star writers. I'm not a Conan fan so I don't know how many readers there are in that end of the genre, or how many writers similar to Howard they support. I'm guessing, though, that the editors don't think there are all that many. Whether they're right or not is another issue, but for now someone who wants to write like Howard apparently has an uphill battle to convince an editor that they're worth taking a chance on.

Then there's the "rip-off" aspect, which also drives change. How often have you seen or heard a comment about a new book or a new writer, where someone's snarking, "Oh, it's just another Tolkien rip-off," or "Eh, it's just a Conan clone." I know I've heard comments like that over and over, for as long as I've been paying attention to commentary about fantasy writing. Clearly the message here is that it's not enough to keep doing what the old masters did, pretty much the way they did it. One might think that someone who loves that kind of book would be delighted to find more books similar to the classics, but the rip-off comments suggest that's not the case, at least for a certain number of readers who are eager to spread their views around. There might well be a lot of readers out there who would love to read about Vonan the Wanderer, but they're not speaking up loudly enough to drown out the people dissing poor Vonan and his writer.

At the same time, I agree with you that the marketing people (and those who listen to them) don't always get it right. Mrs. Fields took her cookie recipe to one company after another, only to be told over and over that it was a great recipe but that no one would want to buy it "because Americans like crunchy cookies." No one at the time stopped to think that 1) it's easy to say that Americans bought billions of crunchy cookies when that was pretty much all that was available, or 2) fig newtons had been selling well for decades despite their lack of crunch. Marketing rules and restrictions are often self-fulfilling, since people can only buy what's out there, and something the marketers don't think will sell won't be offered at all.

It seems that a lot of the marketing wisdom is developed in isolation from the larger mass of consumers, and ideas that might sound good, and might even test well in focus groups, aren't necessarily going to work on the general public, or be the best choice. If what readers really want just isn't out there, or if there's a limited number of books actually by Robert E. Howard and the people who like them already have them and aren't buying new ones, then it's easy for the publishers to say that no one's buying heroic fantasy anymore. [wry smile]

And the idea that someone can be a better writer than Howard or Tolkien but still be unmarketable is ridiculous. The excellently written stories will always find a readership, whether they create their own genre or subgenre, or just exist as outliers to an existing genre. Different people will always have different ideas of just what "good writing" is, but there are enough people who think Howard was a pretty good writer that someone who's as good as he was or even better really shouldn't have a problem getting published.

Or at least, wouldn't have a problem selling. Getting published might be another issue. :/


Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

You're preaching to the choir on this one! I'm a Taurus and we do not change ever. (think Jim Jones, Freud, James Brown . . . ha!) On a serious note, I don't really think evolution is necessary. Why not have those who want to evolve do it and leave the rest of us alone? People worry too much about being original and creative instead of being good and writing things that people want to read.

virtual nexus said...

...Seems to me the issue evolution of genre or not is part of the much bigger issue of the narrowing of culture gap Lisa alluded to in her comment. ie, generational groups have less in common with each other in an increasingly shorter space of time - and the dominant interest 'form' then shapes or influences the world of books.

Bernita said...

If we could have a definition of just wotinhell they mean when they throw out 'evolve" it might be easier.
Basically, I agree with you, Charles.

Steve Malley said...

I think evolution's natural and, to a certain extent, unavoidable. It's a cycle of innovation, imitation and stagnation that's as old as creation myth.

Innovation: A new monster, sorta based on Eastern European folktales and fraught with Freudian fright appears. Dracula takes the world by storm.

Imitation: For a loooooonnnnng time, vampires wear tuxedos and skulk about castles. In fact, most of them *are* Dracula, done again and again.

Stagnation: the fright factor wears off, and Dracula chases Abbot & Costello, is a doddering grandpa on a 60's comedy show and appears on cereal boxes as Count Chocula.

Which state leads to...

Innovation: Anne Rice creates a vampire like no one's ever seen. Philosophical and homoerotic, The blood and killing and stuff are kind of beside the point. Lestat and Louis take the world by storm.

And we all watched the ten thousand knockoffs appear. They examined their consciences, fought ghosts and demons, had sex with humans (A LOT) and solved crimes on the night shift.

Until a couple or so years ago, vampires quit selling. Editors said, "No more vampires. They ain't readin' vampires now." Agents said, "Please, not so much with the vampires, unless they're *really* fresh and original!"

Did The Historian change anything? I don't know.

Travis Cody said...

When I first read Tolkien, I wanted more of the same kind of story. And that's what I went searching for. Most of the time I found it.

But sometimes I found things that were slightly different. I enjoyed those. I enjoyed fewer of the things that were radically different.

If the market calls for something new, then writers may certainly capitalize on that. But I agree that a possible new market doesn't necessarily eliminate the old market. Nor do I think it is necessary to change what is being done if it is successful and wanted.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

Boy, anything I would have said has pretty much been covered, so, all of the above. It's tough out there. I know I have readers who LOVE my stories, but I can't seem to find an editor willing to BUY those stories. So I think there is a definite gap between readers and editors.

And it does seem to be a Catch 22 when it seems editors are clammoring for "something new" but seem to be publishing a lot of the same old same old. *shrug*

I don't know.

For now, I'm going to hide from that question for the next week or so. I just dropped by to wish you and your family a very merry holiday and happy new year.

Charles Gramlich said...

eric1313, Love the images on your blogs. I linked in today. Good point about writers creating the genres. Unfortunately, the publishers then tend to straitjacket the genres too much. Although some of this comes from readers as well.

Angie, good points all. The scarcity of resources is very important. I do think good writers will get published today because of the internet, but will they be able to make any money and support their efforts so they can write more? That's a bigger question.

Michelle, I agree. We could have both, and I--for one--love to see a writer take an older theme and really knock it out of the park. I like a little bit of everything, I guess.

Julie, yes, the culture as a whole is becoming more fragmented in special interests because of the growth of the internet. That's not necessarily bad, but it makes a lot of work for writers trying to find those niche markets, which the big publishers don't care much for.

Charles Gramlich said...

Again, I took two posts to answer everyone's comments, so if you're not here you're in the ones above.

Bernita, I find that folks don't have much of an idea how biological evolution really works, which makes it difficult to use as a metaphor.

Steve Malley, I don't mind that kind of change at all, and got involved one time pretty heavily in the revisionism of the vampire. Though I don't write many vampire things now. I still think, though, that someone might be able to do something wonderful with a more traditional vampire, and many folks might like to read it.

Travis, that's very much what I'm thinking of in a nutshell. I sometimes like to read radically new stuff, but sometimes I want a story that is similar (but not exactly the same) as one I've enjoyed before.

Editors are not "just" readers. They, in a way, make policy. I suppose this has both pro and con elements to it.

Donnetta said...

Well said, Charles, and I totally agree. I want to write my children's book--but I keep running into this idea that it isn't "like" the newer children's literature. Yet something keeps nagging at me that some child somewhere would like to read MY story, written a tad differently than the new formulas. Heck, maybe I'm crazy. I can't operate an iphone either.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Charles. I've been thinking stuff like this for ages, but I've never been able to write it down in a clear way that other people could understand. Thank you. I feel this way about art, too.

SzélsőFa said...

There are some artists who make strange, unprecedented actions and call themselves artists. I disagree.
A good story, a good style should stay; and should not be changed just for the sake of change.

Merry Christmas to you all!

JR's Thumbprints said...

I sometimes think it's the editors who need to evolve, or at least take a risk on certain stories, even if it borders the genre they're working with.

Shauna Roberts said...

This post certainly touched a nerve with a lot of people! I agree with you, Charles. I've liked the same sorts of books and movies since I was a child, and it annoys me that they cycle in and out of popularity.

I suspect it's not just sales figures driving proclamations about "readers don't want this anymore." I think editors get bored (they read 1000 times as many vampire books as the rest of us, many of them bad or rehashes) and want something new.

The "dead" genres come back into fashion as a new generation of editors comes onto the scene for whom these books are fresh and new.

Meanwhile, the small presses and epublishers stay alive by taking chances and publishing out-of-the-genre-box books as well as the kind of books that the big publishers claim readers don't want.

Charles Gramlich said...

Donnetta, thanks. It would be great to have room for both the old and the new.

Jack, I figured it might be this way for art. I imagine sometimes folks like us will be called dinosaurs. But hey, the dinosaurs lived a lot longer than the "primates" have so far.

Szelsofa,yes, change for the sake of change is not productive. I don't think.

JR, you're right in some cases. The gatekeepers are locking the gates against what many of us would like to read.

Angie said...

Charles -- I do think good writers will get published today because of the internet, but will they be able to make any money and support their efforts so they can write more?

Or will they even find an audience? [nod] I don't know how many e-publishers are taking heroic fantasy, sticking with that example, but I haven't run across many offering it so my guess is not many. And even the e-publishers, most of them, have a pretty limited audience -- and that's just considering erotic romance, which is arguably the most popular genre in e-publishing right now. So someone writing shadows of Conan is going to have an even harder time finding a place, and that place will have an even smaller audience.

If money isn't an issue, one can always just post one's own stories online. Depending on what sorts of special interest groups there are for that genre, where new stories can be publicized, one can probably find readers. But it still won't be all that many, compared to the audience a print book will get at Borders or Amazon.

It's true that the internet gives everyone the opportunity to publish -- as in, making available to the public -- their writing. Whether readers will find and read any given story is a completely different issue, though. While it's great that e-publishers open up smaller niche markets the NY publishers won't touch (at least until some of the larger e-publishers, like Ellora's Cave, show them that there is money to be made), it's still not the same order of magnitude, in either money or audience, that one can get from a more traditional publisher.

The whole marketing thing is something we still need to work on, in the e-publishing end of the industry.


Middle Ditch said...

Erm ... What can I say? Not much. The only thing that I know is, the easier the read, the harder it was to write.

Happy Christmas Charles. See you next year.

Erik Donald France said...

There's room for everybody. If people are still making movies about Beowulf, they can also make experimental clips, too.

The conventions of genre are kind of fun and challenging. A blues song has the same form but can sound like a Led Zeppelin song or a Leadbelly song. And depends on the mood at the time . . . I guess :->

Leigh Russell said...

Happy Christmas and Happy New Year

Leigh Russell said...

ps will be back to read all this when I have time - busy writing at the moment but this looks interesting!

Lucas Pederson said...

I agree, though, does this evolution stretch as far as cross genres? Like the mingling of horror and science fiction, or horror with a dash of romance, or a crime story involving a unicorn? I have to wonder. Is this cross genre stuff a form of evolution?

eric1313 said...

Right, the publisher and editors often feel a need to pigeon hole us. Genres are marketing categories as much as a label for us.

And thanks for the word about the images. I try to find all the best ones I can. I love the technology. Most of my pics come from here:

Astronomy picture of the day. Free domain. An invaluable resource for stock pics as well as details.

And thanks for the link. I'll link you up too.

Pythia3 said...

Merry Christmas, Charles. I always enjoy the thoughtful comments you leave around the blogspot.
I also really like the articles you post. The subject matter is always interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking. As well, the posts are very well written and expressed.
This one has evoked a great debate and brought forth worthy debate opponents. I'll have to come back after the busy holiday season and give it a closer read.
Just wanted to wish you and your family a happy holiday.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, yes, good points. The primary reason that I'd like to make money from my writing is because it would give me the freedom to write more. As long as I'm making some money I can avoid teaching in the summers and still survive. But if I have to give my stuff away then it becomes impossible for me to maintain my writing because it would come at the expense of those who depend on me.

Middle-ditch, I agree with you. It takes effort to make something readable. There's a quote about that, "I'm sorry to have written such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one."

Erik, yes, the variety of creativity in the human race should be celebrated. New stuff, older themes, experimental.

Leigh, I know the feeling. Have a happy holiday season.

Lucas, I think it is an example of "evolution" in the genres and I like it a lot myself. It's a good way to keep the tried and true
elements while mixing them with something else.

Eric1313, thanks for the link, to my blog and for the images. I'll check it out.

Lindy, thanks for reading. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you as well. Enjoy.