Stages of Readers: A Manifesto

Last night I went to see a high school performance of a play that I have now seen three times, A Servant of Two Masters. This is not a major play like Cats, and I hadn’t sought it out, but coincidence or what have you led me to seeing this same play multiple times. The first time was at a community theater in Alameda, California, enough years ago that I didn’t remember having seen it until the events in the play the second time were too familiar to be dismissed. The second performance was last year on a school trip (you bet I volunteered ;)) to Ashland, Oregon to see a portion of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that is ongoing there. And the third, as I mentioned, was a local high school.

These venues are all radically different from each other as far as resources and the wages paid to the actors among other aspects, but with this particular play, these differences were made largely insignificant. This play has an over-story about budget cuts, having to make do, and reusing previous play’s props, that made it a perfect fit for a low-budget production while depending heavily on the skills of the actors. The differences between the venues, then, were not as marked as one might suppose.

At this point, you’re wondering what my point is. Where am I going with all this?

A Servant of Two Masters is a Commedia. It is a series of tropes put together in a loose framework within which the actors are supposed to improvise to bring the play, and the comedy, to life. As such, much like two writers telling a story with the same overall plot, the results had strong elements of individuality. This wasn’t about perfect reproduction as much as innovation and interpretation.

I know I meant to write up something about World Fantasy 2009, but I’ve been scrambling to catch up with my goals, and haven’t put my thoughts down into words in any but the most general sense. Here, though, is a bit from that experience:

One of the common themes in the panels I attended was concern about mimicry, about subgenres becoming worn out, overdone. I was actually present for the creation of one of those things that is talked about in fandom for years to come when, in a panel on invention versus tradition, John Kessel and Richard A. Lupoff declared: no more horse and castle fantasy. It should come as no surprise that this declaration provoked strong feelings among writers and readers. It also became a much-echoed comment for the rest of the convention, sometimes in heartfelt agreement, sometimes in mockery.

Though this was a “historic” event, I’ve heard the same comment being made about romances, vampires, werewolves, dragons, unicorns…the list goes on. I’m sure you’ve heard ones that I haven’t, because there’s always someone who has had their fill.

How does this tie into Servant of Two Masters? Well, as I was watching this third performance so close in time to the second, and seeing the influence of the Ashland troupe (this high school also does a trip there) in some of the interpretations, I experienced a bit of overlay that pulled me into a more analytical mood at times. I had become the Kessel and Lupoff of this situation, having seen the play enough to experience this one through not just this group of actors’ interpretation, but through two others. I could anticipate events and so, though they were enacted in a unique manner, they failed to provoke the surprised laugh even when they earned an appreciative one.

Something is lost in repetition, whether or not that repetition is a solid effort. Familiarity can indeed breed contempt.

That said, I pride myself on being able to see many sides of an issue. It may make me less decisive, since with belief in a “right” answer comes quick decisions, but it also exposes me to a broader framework, and more interesting elements to explore.

When I recognized what I was doing, I forced myself to step back, to experience the play as one who had never seen it. Sure, I could not do that completely, but I succeed well enough to come to this realization: I had stumbled into the heart of the “no more/not enough” conflict.

To someone who has been reading genre fiction their whole long lives, facing yet another interpretation of the traditional tropes (after all there are only so many plots) is a chore. The work, no matter how original, if true to those tropes will be oppressed by the baggage of hundreds of other takes on that same tale. The “oh, wow” moment is tainted by the overall predictability, not because the plot is written in a predictable manner, but because there are only so many paths a plot can take, and after a while, long-time readers have seen them all. Instead of the wonderment of “what will happen next,” you end up with “which direction will this author go in,” with the added layer of, “will this author manage it better than the last one I read.”

While that long-term reader is disgusted, tired out, and longing for something that washes all those “horse and castle” novels away, the reader who came late to the genre is still in the interim phase. Reading along, they may sense (as I did at Ashland) something familiar or comfortable in the tale while at the same time the paths have not been carved so deep that the joy and excitement in seeing just how the two deviate is lost. The same can be true on waiting a few years and rereading an old favorite. You might see aspects you failed to notice in the first read because of that very familiarity. What is different, or newly discovered, is unique to you and therefore special.

For the long-term reader, though, rereading favorites has the same weakness as plots that have been widely used. The story is so well known that whole passages are quotable without slipping up, as I can, to this day, quote whole sections of The Hobbit despite not having read (or listened on audio) to it for more years than I want to count. When it gets that familiar, any deviation feels off or wrong. Innovation gains a taint of destruction rather than the “oh, cool” of discovery as it would have when plot is still mostly fresh.

And then we come to the third category of reader, similar to the very first time I saw the play. It doesn’t matter that this plot has been widely written. It doesn’t matter that there exists readers who are so sick of it they would rather read outside of the genre than face another version of the tale. To the newcomer, this interpretation is the only one that exists. Every moment is pure delight whether a startled laugh or a desperate need to read faster to find out what will happen when you turn the page. These readers were not around when the first of that trope was published. These readers do not come to the novel with the weight of history and interpretation after interpretation holding them down. They are virgin minds dependent on the skill of this particular author to bring a world to life that is unique, strange, and compelling. If that one author succeeds, the odds rise that these readers will go and seek out more such books, become avarice readers, destined to someday achieve the status of those who put hand to brow and beg, “no more.”

But without that new incarnation, the “horse and castle” fantasy placed on the library’s “Newly Acquired” or the bookstore’s “New Releases” shelf, these readers will remain unaware the genre even exists. Maybe they’ll come to dismiss reading as they get older, consider anything beyond the news and industry magazines as something for children. Maybe they’ll never find something that captures their imagination enough to make the step from Dick and Jane into fiction that absorbs them and compels them to find more.

All this is my opinion of course, but I’ve been every one of those readers, and am currently a mix of them right now. Three years ago, I dismissed urban fantasy as something I couldn’t really connect with because it was promoted as a mix between thriller and mystery, two of my least favorite genres (though oddly I like pretty much all the ones personally recommended to me ;)). Then an online friend sold her first novel. In support, I bought and read it, despite the urban fantasy label. Now? I’d guess at least a third if not more of my recent purchases fall under the urban fantasy subgenre. I’ve read enough to start seeing the patterns that shape them, but not enough to tire of those patterns. I’m smack dab in the middle of “oh cool, what a neat direction to take that aspect.” If I’m lucky, it’ll be a long while before I’m sunk into the “already seen that too many times.” There’s other subgenres that I rarely read; genres like romance that I read for the comfortable familiarity of relationship issues that, through hard work, are solvable; and still more kinds of stories I’m just discovering.

It’s easy to look at the world through our eyes alone and interpret everything as if we share the same worldview as all other people. I only hope that editors, agents, writers, and readers strive for an open mind and remember that where they are is not necessarily where all readers are. That the need to keep the reading pool lively means providing those gateway novels, gateway short stories, and the simpler tales that spark the imagination more than deep, complicated thought. We may bemoan the decline of “what if,” but it’s our jobs, whether through writing, acquiring, or recommending, to keep the “what if” alive.

I see hope in the proliferation of “back to the basics” ezines that focus on adventure, sword and sorcery, and other pure fun stories that drew us in when we were first discovering science fiction and fantasy. I see the old standards focused more on literary tropes (odd considering the somewhat divisive attitude that rises when discussing genre fiction and literary works) and “make you think” type stories over pure, rollicking fun. I’m just as much an offender as anyone. A full half if not more of my writing explores philosophical questions, but if we don’t put out the lighter works, who will be reading the mature thinking ones in 10, 20, 60 years to come? I can tell you which of my stories my children loved enough to remember years later. What they choose to read now (largely shared world gaming novels like Forgotten Realms), seems to support my theory and contention.

I’ve gone on long enough, but I hope I’ve given something to think about, something to consider as publishing itself shudders under the weight of ages, because if there is one goal for all of us involved in creating and providing fiction for the future, it should be to capture those new readers who don’t look at a dragon and cringe. I’m happy to say my most recent sale is a step in that direction, a play on the changeling trope. If you’re curious, you can read it at Aurora Wolf: When the Shoe Won’t Fit

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6 Responses to Stages of Readers: A Manifesto

  1. Erin says:

    Um, so can I get some examples of “horses and castles” fantasy? I know Jim Butcher calls his Codex Valera series “swords and horses” fantasy — is that the same thing? Would Tigana be included in this category? GRR Martin? I have to honestly say that I’ve never heard the description before.

    And since my work tends more to the fun end of the spectrum than the “make you think” end, I’m counting on at least one agent and some editors liking that sort of thing. But no matter what people may say at any con or on any particular blog, all you have to do is walk into a bookstore to see that the whole spectrum is still selling.

  2. MarFisk says:

    Well, it wasn’t my description, but how it was taken to mean was anything with European Medieval elements. It’s the same kind of comment that Tolkien did it first and everything else is a knock off.

    Personally, I hope to achieve both, make you think and fun. Don’t know whether I’ve succeeded in either, but time will tell.

    There does seem to be a revival in process, and so maybe that’s pushing the “anti” comments all the harder. It’s also more of a trend I’ve noticed in the short fiction markets. On the other hand, a lot of that style fiction is being pushed into the YA category unless it is explicit i nature.

  3. Deirdre says:

    Ah, your entry puts me in mind of Xanth. The age at which you start, the speed at which you read, and the time it takes you to become part of the “no more” crowd determines how many of the books you get through before you just can’t read them anymore.

    …and all of those would fall into horses and castles. As would all the Camelot stories, the Lady Knight series, The Warlock In Spite of Himself, Magic Kingdom for Sale, I could go on…I’d just have to look at my bookshelf to do so 😛

  4. MarFisk says:

    Yup. Those are definitely “horse and castle” ones, but written at the height of the genre’s interim phase when it was “oh cool” about extreme punishment or the crossover novel between SF and fantasy. Does that shelf of yours contain any recently published ones? Or have you reached your “no more” and don’t acquire them any longer? My mind is drawing a blank, and my recent purchases were more steampunk or urban fantasy when they weren’t romance or paranormal romance. The fantasy I have purchased recently doesn’t, in my mind at least, fall into “horse and castle” as much as sociological SF with magic ;).

  5. Erin says:

    Well, the final volume (book 6) of the Codex Alera was just released 2 days ago, so I’d say that counts as recently published.

    Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, etc.) also are recent. As are the Mistborn books by Brandon Sanderson.

    Oh, and there’s Mercedes Lackey’s October Release — Gwynhwyfar: The White Spirit.

    Overall, though, no, there’s not a lot coming out right now. Which might worry me, as Sundered Sword definitely falls into that category (it was inspired by lots of bits and pieces in Umbria), but I choose instead to think that just means it’ll stand out better on the new release rack, rather than being “more of the same.”

  6. MarFisk says:

    I’ve yet to read any of those, but I will say the complaint came not because of a lack but a significant number of them. The judges for the World Fantasy awards made a similar comment when talking about the categories they looked at. However, they didn’t dismiss that stack as they did the paranormal romances though. Their issue with those was that because of the underlying formula of reader expectation, the differences between the books was not significant enough to have one really stand out.

    Honestly, though there’s a lot of griping, especially among the long time readers, there’s also still demand.

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