GUEST POST: Serious writing must mirror both reality and imagination

Will Ellwood asks the simple question, can serious writing succeed without facing both the real…and the fantastic? Follow Will on Twitter @fragmad

Discovering your voice as a writer is more complex problem than is often acknowledged. This is not a problem of simple replicable craft that can be taught in a classroom, but is instead an aesthetic question which must be reflected on alone. One question that all writers have to face in this prcess is how we write about both about the real world of our experience, and the fantastic world of our imagination.

Our answer to this question will affect not only our voice as a writer, but also how we think about narrative in all its many forms and how we understand the world we live in. Each writer’s answer to this question is the mirror that they will use to observe both the objective reality they live in and their internal subjective imagination.

One source of inspiration for writers trying to find this mirror are the hundreds of very different art manifestos that have been written since the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto in 1909. Somewhere in this house I have a book published by Penguin with 100 artists’ manifestos in it. Personally I have sympathy with several different manifestos, including the Stuckist writing manifesto, “The Cappuccino Writer and the idiocy of contemporary writing,” and the first Imagist manifesto. But the manifesto that really gets me excited is Rudy Rucker‘s Transrealist Manifesto.

The Transrealist manifesto was first published in the Bulletin of Science Fiction Writers of America, #83, Winter, 1983 and it adopts the confrontational tone expected of all manifestos. In the essay, Rudy Rucker describes Transrealist fiction as fiction that takes people, places, events and problems from the author’s life and reassembles these components into new fictional narratives. Unlike classical realist fiction, it encourages the use of science fiction and fantasy tropes to exaggerate and satirise the issues the author is exploring.

According to Rudy Rucker, the name comes from cover of the British edition of Philip K. Dick‘s “A Scanner Darkly” which called the novel a “transcendental autobiography”.

It is my belief that Transrealism provides a way to observe the world that allows writers to write fiction that affects me more than the juvenile cartoons contained in most science fiction and fantasy, good or bad, currently do. In Rudy’s A Writing Toolkit, he provides the original Transrealist manifesto along with a commentary of his recent thoughts on the subject. In this commentary he provides a list of features from his first ideas about Transrealism.

  • Use the SF tropes to express deep psychic archetypes.
  • Include a main character similar to yourself. Don’t glorify the character by making him or her unrealistically powerful (not a general in the space navy, e. g.) or well-balanced.
  • Base your other characters on real people you know, or on combinations of them. Avoid stock characters.
  • Don’t lay too much stress on plotting the book in advance; let the interactions of the characters, the thought experiments and the power chords generate the action.
  • Adopt a populist, anti-authoritarian political stance.

It is important to remember when faced with such a list that your version of Transrealism will not be Rucker’s. While manifestos tend to read like strict prescriptions, the value they provide only comes when they are meditated on and modified to taste. For example, from the moment I read the Transrealist Manifesto I disagreed with the requirement to avoid writing detailed outlines for stories. I do write outlines, but I write them and revise them as prototype versions of the final story.

Rudy Rucker’s own opinions on Transrealism have changed over the last thirty years. He no longer considers it a fundamental necessity for him to base all the characters on his friends and family members. (They got tired of it.) Even after dropping some parts of his original version of Transrealism Rudy Rucker still describes the idea of Transreal SF as being: “…the notion of basing SF on real ideas and real emotions that I personally have, and using immediate reality-based perceptions.”

This blending of autobiographical real life with the strange is what SF’s literary crowd should aim for. There will always be a place for mass-market escapism and genre sausages; its purpose is to entertain and distract the reader from the everyday mundane. But that comforting distraction is nearly always reactionary, avoiding the horrible and mundane is avoiding what makes us human. Transrealism offers a readers a glimpses of deeper truths. I would suggest there is more ways to write truthful SF than just Transrealism, there are many different shapes of mirror each with their own reflective properties. Where these other approaches are similar to Transrealism is they are all attempting to answer the fundamental question that all serious writers must face: “How do I write about the world I experience and the world I imagine?” I just happen to be an advocate for the Transrealist agenda.

So, how do you write about the world you experience and the world you imagine?

Rudy Rucker’s latest novel Jim and the Flims is available from Night Shade books.

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Definition: Genre Sausage

Meat ready for sausage making in Hungary
Image via Wikipedia

Will Ellwood provides a perfect and succinct definition of ‘genre sausage’. Maybe we need some European Union legislation forcing publishers of such sausage to reveal exactly what percentage of original imagination is in every book?

Fiction produced for any genre written using the mechanically reclaimed ideas blasted from the carcasses of other stories and shoved inside a fatty skin of glossy marketing. As it is sold on the basis of quantity and low cost rather than overall quality and satisfaction, genre sausage is generally high in calories but low in overall nutritional . Fine when eaten occasionally as part of a healthy and varied diet with regular exercise, but can lead to significant health problems if eaten in excessive quantities. Genre sausage can often be spotted by the cover copy advertising the book as the next X or from the citation of the one positive review from Publishers Weekly. Endorsements from friends of the author are also common sight on the packet of sausages.

Genre sausages rarely uses organic ingredients and instead relies on intensive factory farming methods to produce the required quantities of unrefined fiction. Not for vegetarians, vegans or people concerned about the environment.

I may well be making use of ‘genre sausage’ on panels at the Alt.Fiction festival starting tomorrow at Derby QUAD. Come along and join in the argument!

Samuel Delany on creativity

The sad truth is, there’s very little that’s creative in creativity. The vast majority is submission – submission to the laws of grammar, to the possibilities of rhetoric, to the grammar of narrative, to narrative’s various and possible restructurings. In a society that privileges individuality, self-reliance, and mastery, submission is a frightening thing.

Samuel Delany

Can we have better pulp fiction please?

A Song of Ice and Fire
Image by f_r_e via Flickr

So. I’m trying to get an Advance Reading Copy of A Dance With Dragons, because everyone is excited about it and Vandermeer has one and I feel left out. So far, no luck, although I’m told I’m on the list as soon as any arrive in the UK. Which is cool.

So why are so many people so excited about A Dance With Dragons? BECAUSE GEORGE R R MARTIN IS A MASTER OF PULP…that’s why. Yes, having your own HBO mini-series helps. But that would never have happened if the books weren’t hot shit in the first place. Which they are. And it also helps that GRRM is writing in to a pulp field with almost no competition at the moment.

Let’s place GRRM in context. First, he isn’t Tolkien. Lord of the Rings exists on a whole other level, a work of modern mythopoeia so important that Tolkien had to invent the term himself. Our modern age needs myths, and Tolkien’s is one of the few truly great ones. Neither is A Song of Ice and Fire (I wonder how long before the rename the whole saga A Game of Thrones?) in any way a great work of literature. His books have been called Shakespearean. Beyond the fact that lots of people die, they aren’t. GRRM isn’t even attempting to dissect human behaviour as Shakespeare did. And that is a good thing.

Because what GRRM is doing is producing absolutely masterful pulp fiction. Stories where every character leaps fully formed from the page in all their archetypal glory. Where the plot careens forward through murder, revenge, war, incest, more murder, more revenge and on and on and on without apparent end. And it’s GREAT. Pulp fiction, done well, is an absolute joy. MORE I say MORE, MORE, MORE.

George R R Martin is a master of pulp fiction, a mastery achieved over decades as a Hugo award winning SF novelist then a jobbing Hollywood screenwriter. And that mastery shows when you compare GRRM’s writing to almost any other writer attempting to make pulp fiction within the SF & Fantasy genres. Publishers are flooding the market with pulp fiction across every sub-genre of fantastic literature, but there are very few, if any, writers who can match GRRM. And most fall far, far short of the mark. Wooden characters, incompetent plots, plodding and overwritten prose. Not only are most of the authors too inexperienced to have any mastery of the tools of pulp fiction, they’re being corralled into churning out a book a year or even more. The results are an undending flood of mediocre or worse fiction that fails even at its pulp aspirations.

So come on publishers. Can we value our pulp fiction more please? Give authors time to master the tools on small projects before throwing them in to multi-volume sagas, and wait the time it takes even GRRM to produce a great work of pulp fiction.

Genre needs to stop applauding crap, and respect its best writers

Sarah Crown has started a fascinating discussion on the resurgence of fabulism in literary fiction over on The Guardian book blog, brought on by Tea Obreht’s surprise win in the Orange prize.

I didn’t need to read the comments to know there would be at least half a dozen from irate members of fantasy fandom, complaining that we in the world of genre have been writing such novels for rather a long time. And of course it’s a valid point. There are writers within genre producing amazing examples of fabulism of exactly the kind highlighted as emerging within Lit.Fic by the article. One or two are tremendously famous, like Neil Gaiman. Many more are less known but equally good – John Crowley, Kelly Link, Nalo Hopkinson, Elizabeth Hand – to give just a few examples.

(I’m looking through my copy of Conjunction 39: The New Wave Fabulists as I write. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a starting point to understanding fantasy and fabulism.)

Sturgeons Law predicts that 70% (or 80% or 90%, depending on the version) of everything is crap. It’s a law that stands for all kinds of writing, Lit.Fic, SF or otherwise. And genre produces its measure of crap, no doubt. Some of that crap is just bad writing by bad writers. Some of it is writing that does one thing well – explores a niffty scientific concept or creates a cool new monster – but fails in most other ways as fiction.

And some of that crap is very popular. Some of the crappest books in genre are some of the most popular. They may well be fun crap, or effectively escapist crap, or crap branded with the latest sci-fi franchise, but they are still crap. Crap sells.

But if genre wants to gain the respect it deserves in the world at large, we need to get better at telling the world who our best and brightest are. We need our major awards like the Hugo’s and Nebula’s to really reflect the best writing, not just the most popular writers. We need more reviews and criticism that talk seriously about our best books. And most of all we need to vote with our feet. The next time you’re browsing the Sci-Fi section, skip volume 33 of whatever entertaining saga you happen to be reading and pick up something less crap instead.

Because genre is not a cohesive entity. It’s a few million fans of the weird and speculative and the writers we love. But if we want the best of those writers to get the respect they deserve then we, each of us as individuals, need to make that happen.

What are reviews for ?

I’ve been reviewing books for a few years now. I wrote occasional reviews right from the outset of this blog, and then not long afterwards began reviewing from the (much missed) The Fix. And my regular articles for The Guardian often hide a few book reviews.

So I’ve been enjoying a brief exchange of views about the nature of reviewing between @gavreads @paulgrahamraven @nialharrison and @cherylmorgan and probably a few others by now, started by Gavreads proclamation “The point of reviews: should you spend your money on this book – yes or no? The rest is just filler.”

Needless to say I disagree. I believe the job of a reviewer is to open up the meaning of a book for readers. I want a review to cut to the heart of a book, reveal what it’s really about and show how it works. And I want a review to put the book in its context and tell me the authors influences and the dialogues the books is part of. Saying whether a book is good or bad or ‘worth buying’ is probably the least interesting thing a review can do in my opinion.

But I might be wrong, it has been known to happen. What do you want from a review? Do they help shape your thinking about the books you read? Or do you just want a indication of where to spend your next £8.99?

Alt.Fiction 2011

Alt.Fiction has a special place in my heart, as the one and only SF convention I have been to every year for its entire five year history. I’ve even written about it for the GU book blog. This year I’ll be on a number of panels about various aspects of SF writing. I’ll be hoping to start a few good arguments in the panels, and have a good chat with lots of friends in the bar. I hope you’ll be among them.

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Alt.Fiction Festival 2011
25th-26th June
QUAD, Market Place, Derby
Saturday 25th June, 10am – Midnight
Sunday 26th June, 10am – 5pm

Weekend pass £45
Saturday pass £30
Sunday pass £20

Alt.Fiction marks its fifth year with a fantastic weekend for readers and writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Bringing together some of the UK’s leading talent in the genre, Alt.Fiction presents a two-day programme of readings, panels, workshops, film, podcasts and much more, giving you the chance to hear from your favourite authors, find out more about the world of publishing and learn more about the writing process.

This year’s Guests of Honour are bestselling science fiction author Alastair Reynolds and acclaimed comic book writer and novelist Dan Abnett. They will joined by speakers Tony Ballantyne, Keith Brooke, Mark Chadbourn, Paul Cornell, Peter Crowther, Stephen Deas, Paul Finch, John Jarrold, Graham Joyce, Juliet McKenna, Graham McNeill, Mark Morris, Adam Nevill, Mark Charan Newton, Sarah Pinborough, Robert Shearman, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Ian Whates, Conrad Williams, Chris Wooding and many more.

Alt.Fiction is truly a weekend not to be missed for book lovers and writers alike.

Contact the QUAD Box Office on 01332 290 606 or visit www.derbyquad.co.uk/altfiction

Visit altfiction.co.uk to find out about Alt.Fiction’s year-long programme of events.