The Elements of Fiction and the Unreality of Publishing

30 March 2003

The publishing industry isn't exactly rational in how it operates. Neither, for that matter, is the "reading public," nor the various awards systems. Each emphasizes a different element of a work of fiction (we'll leave nonfiction out for the moment, because it's even less rational).

In alphabetical order, those elements are:

  • Character
  • Completion (whether a given book is a complete work or part of a larger work)
  • Effect (the desired emotional effect on the reader)
  • Environment (the physical, social, and temporal setting, together with the central "idea")
  • Plot
  • Theme

This is not the place to go into deep theoretical discussion of whether these are exactly the elements of fiction or not. For example, some writers separate the central "idea" from the remainder of the environment; others combine plot and theme; others ignore completion as an element of fiction. None of that is relevant to the point here.

So, then, how does the publishing industry treat these elements? Or, more to the point, how do the elements contribute to the categorization of fiction by the publishing industry? With only a couple of exceptions, surprisingly enough, the critical element for publishers is environment. This is reflected both in imprint acquisitions and in the sales system. "Science fiction" and "fantasy" are obvious, as are "mainstream," "gothic," "historical," and most other categories. Even "mystery" fits in here, because the central idea and social setting that distinguish a "mystery" from the "mainstream" are far more consistent than any difference in plot or theme.

The major exceptions to this categorization scheme are "horror," "romance," and "suspense," which are distinguished from other fiction by their intended effect. Note that effect is the only element that is defined in terms of authorial intent. This explains why these three "categories" are not really categories at all, but descriptions of subcategories: "historical romance," "political thriller" ("suspense" plus "mystery" or "mainstream"), and "supernatural horror" are just obvious examples. (This partly explains why categorizing fiction as "horror" has been so unsuccessful—it's both wildly inaccurate and mixes too much incompatible material.)

In contrast to the way that publishers treat works of fiction, the end users (the actual readers, not "store buyers" or bookclub coordinators) of fiction focus on much more than environment in determining a choice. Keep in mind that, for all of the power that reviewers think they have, only a minority of fiction is purchased after reading a review of the book, let alone based upon that review's specific recommendations. (That some of this is due to the abyssmal quality of most reviews, many of which are nothing more than sixth-grade book reports not as good as the kids' recommendations on Reading Rainbow, is beside the point for the moment.)

In a bookstore, fiction is arranged by author's last name within each category. Science fiction and fantasy are usually mixed, and properly so (the correct name is "speculative fiction," but that's an argument for another time… and yes, I would have said that, and did say that in public, before I ever began representing Mr. Ellison). The various kinds of "romance" are often mixed, but occasionally mixed in with mainstream, too, if the author has a big enough name. And so on.

After the tabula rasa reader arrives at the right section of the store, what will he or she look for? Let's assume that his/her "favorite" authors have not put out new books of late. Publishers like to think that the pretty picture and metallic inks on the covers attract readers, but this is unlikely (particularly as so few books are "faced" to show them off). About all that the average reader has to go on is the flap (casebound) or back cover (paperback) copy—which almost always concentrates on plot. Sure, some of the main characters will be named, and enough of the environment will be named (although seldom described) to ground the book in the publishing category. Readers use the plot for three reasons:

  • It's possible to describe a plot structure (see Thicken Plot Soup) in the limited space allowed, but virtually impossible to describe theme or character in that space
  • The people who are writing the copy seldom have any serious training in how to analyze and evaluate a work of fiction; instead, they focus on marketing buzzwords and concepts
  • It's all the reader is given

This is not a recipe for success, is it? Publishers use one independent variable, and readers use another. But wait… there's more. (And I think it will answer your objections more thoroughly than I could in e-mail, Stephen.

The third independent variable in this equation goes toward ultimate evaluation of the book: the quality and memorability of characterization. As Ursula Le Guin said thirty years ago or so,

A quite good simple test to detect the presence or absence of Mrs. Brown in a work of fiction is this: A month or so after reading the book, can you remember her name? It's silly, but it works pretty well. For instance, almost anybody who reads Pride and Prejudice will remember the names Elizabeth and Darcy, probably for very much longer than a month. But anyone who has read one of Mr. Norman Mailer's works of fiction need not apologize if he can't remember a single name from it—except one, of course: Norman Mailer. Because Mr. Mailer's books are not about Mrs. Brown, they're about Mr. Mailer. He is a marvelous writer, but not a novelist. … the first use I want to make of it on science fiction is an acid test, and I admit I failed it. I could remember only two of the three main characters' names. The women are O, and I–330; and there's that wonderful minor character named S; but what's the name of the narrator, the central character? … I had to look at my copy of the book. … I have sat facing D–503 … in a great glass-walled, glass-floored, glass-roofed, super-Utopian building; have suffered with him; escaped with him; been recaptured, and dragged back to Utopia, and lobotomized, with him; and I will not forget it.

Ursula K. Le Guin, "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown," The Language of the Night 94–95

For, in the end, the long-term evaluation of a book is usually based upon character, not upon the innovativeness of plot or sterling exposition or inventive environment. Certainly the major awards—once one removes the obvious politicking—look for memorable characters for both nominees and winners. (As I have argued before, an author's skill is perhaps better measured by the consistency with which he or she makes the final ballot for the major awards than the number of times he or she has won the award.)

As you may recall from basic algebra, solving an equation with three independent variables requires at least three data points. A book, however, is only a single data point.

Awards, of course, are not enough. Or at least not enough for the so-called Ivory Tower. (If you've ever been in academia, you'll realize that the only ivory in the tower is the bones of the graduate students and even undergraduates sacrificed to the great god Tenure.) Most of the contemporary works that are actually studied with any degree of regularity in literature courses were not award-winners; and, conversely, most of the award-winners are not studied with any degree of regularity, let alone any degree of perceptiveness by instructors not engaged in a desperate attempt to be original enough to get tenure.

One of the terrible weaknesses of most programs in literature since the GI Bill began sending so many more students to get college degrees is the not-quite-overt attempt to make literature both more scientific (gets better funding if it's got numbers) and more mysterious (lets literary folk feel superior to the poor schmucks over in the b-school who can't tell the difference between good literature and good advertising copy). If one ever makes it beyond those sixth-grade book reports—and just going to high school won't, because that's exactly what the "standards" generally require—into a literature program beyond the gut distribution requirements, the instructors care generally about only one of the six elements of fiction: theme. The more complex, the more elevated, the more abstruse, the thematic material, the more highly a work will be praised. Whether that theme is well executed or well integrated is beside the point; if it wasn't, nobody would ever read Pilgrim's Progress, Moby Dick, or Proust.

Consider, for example, the science fictional works most likely to end up in an English literature curriculum outside a course devoted to speculative fiction: 1984, The Left Hand of Darkness, Fahrenheit 451, Gravity's Rainbow, and perhaps two or three others. All fine books; but all studied for their theme, for what they reveal about the human condition; not for their prosody, or plot development, or characterization, or anything else. By itself, this explains a great deal about the "ghetto" to which academia has consigned speculative fiction, because the market forces in speculative fiction generally force subordination of theme to other concerns, particularly the environment and plot.

So, then, we have a fourth independent variable. This equation is thus insoluble for a given book, even leaving aside concerns about prosody (which generally are more a matter of fashion than anything else) and completion.

Or is it? Is there a "general field theorem" that eliminates some of these independent variables and produces a single answer? I believe that there is; not one that results in a great deal of precision in the answer, but one that is nonetheless accurate in its general assessment.

I've purposely used some mathematical language that has implications completely inapplicable to literature as part of the rhetorical strategy in these musings. The key to solving this equation is recognizing that environment, plot, character, and theme are not independent variables (only completion and effect are, and do not seem to have much effect on the overall value). In excrutiatingly mathematical terms, the apparent assertion was that

f(work) = ∫{g(environment)' h(plot)' i(character)' j(theme)'} dghij

which makes no sense. For example, one cannot isolate a character from the environment. A character is a product, in however indirect a fashion, of the story's environment. Similarly, plot and theme are not independent of each other. Neither are any of the other elements. Instead, the "correct" equation would look something like this:

f(work) = ∫g(environment, plot, character, theme) dg

(Purists on notation can sod off; HTML isn't all that flexible for expressing math.) Although this does not make the "equation" easy to solve, it does make it possible to solve, and points out the serious errors in the publishing industry (and, for that matter, Certain Prominent Reviewers') approach to works of fiction. What I'm asserting is that the actual value of a work is based on the integration of the elements of fiction, not the strength of any one element. Under some circumstances, the most obvious (memorable) aspect of a work of fiction will come from one element, thus the remark above about character. Consider, for example, Heathcliff. Whether one likes him or not, he's a memorable character. But would he be memorable outside the context in which he appears in Austen's novel? Would he even work as a character in, say, 1980s St. Louis? Would he even matter as a character in a Quest? Would he even appear as a character in one of Beckett's later works, such as Endgame, with its overwhelming theme of despair and nihilism? No. Heathcliff is a convenient handle for Austen's novel; but he does not exist, cannot exist, cannot even maintain similarity, outside the integrated result of all of the elements of fiction.

What this says about the awful articles on improving one's fiction that one finds in "writers' magazines" can be left unsaid—because if you don't already see it, you'll actually believe that crap in the first place.

There is more than one purposeful rhetorical mistake in this discussion; the second one points to another serious problem with fiction-writing advice. Heathcliff belongs to Brontë, not Austen. The Austen character that best fits the description is Darcy, of Pride and Prejudice. Which points out the other major problem with dissecting fiction and trying to teach it: Nobody is reading enough.

<RANT> Too bloody many MFAs, "eminent" writers, and others who purport to teach fiction writing don't have the foggiest idea of the objectives at which they should aim. They succumb to the "college literary magazine" school of criticism: the kind of writing that "we" are doing is the kind to which everyone should aspire, but more polished. There is no excuse for this. None. Stephen Leigh alluded to this error when he discussed his college painting class. Go through any issue of any of the commercial on-paper "writer's magazines," though, and allusions to recognized classics will constitute less than 20% of the examples of "good writing" in the issue. </RANT>

If, for example, one is going to write utopian fiction, one does not take Bellamy's Looking Backward as a model for much of anything. Instead, one must use acknowledged masterpieces as the starting point (note that I did not say "imitate," but "use"). In contemporary usage, that means three works: Orwell's pair of Animal Farm and 1984; Le Guin's The Dispossessed; and Zamiiatin's We. It wouldn't hurt to look at More's Utopia and Augustine's City of God, either. The hours spent in this kind of research will be far more valuable than the hours too many authors spend on the minutiae of fashion, or table manners, or nose-picking ettiquette, that shows up as phony "authenticity" in their works. Hard science fiction is hardly immune from this; if you can draw the wiring diagram for the Professor's invention based on the description in the story, you've just found the same thing.

Of course, the three works I cited in the previous paragraph (the two Orwell works really do need to be read as parts of an unfortunately uncompleted trilogy) are not the only sources from which a writer of utopian novels must learn. As masterfully understated as is Orwell's prose, his range of characters is not very large (although that's part of his point); thus, balancing a new novel's characterizations in parallel with 1984—which is to say that there is only one true character, the protagonist, surrounded by symbolic types—is probably not a good strategy. As beautifully as Le Guin develops her societies and the clashes between them, and matches her characters to their various environments (even as "misfits"), the plotting of The Dispossessed seems at times almost irrelevant. Strictly as "literature," in the sense that it might be taught to advanced undergraduates, We is the strongest of these examples; but the translations are rather clunky, missing much of the wordplay in the Russian original, and the Russian original has its own problems from the standpoint of prosody.

Remember that Ursula Le Guin's comment on finding Mrs. Brown refers to a work quite far removed from speculative fiction. Nonetheless, one can see her search for Mrs. Brown in her entire range of fictional works, from early pieces she often claims she'd rather forget (Rocannon's World) to "children's" books (the Earthsea works) to straight science fiction (The Left Hand of Darkness). She is following the path of Picasso, in that she learned the techniques of good fiction from masters before trying her own experiments. When a Le Guin character seems disquietingly incomplete, or distorted, such as the unnamed narrator of "The Diary of the Rose," a reader can be reasonably sure that there is a purpose behind that use—not mere happenstance caused by inability to understand, still less replicate, the same techniques used by acknowledged masters. None of this is to say that experimentation is never warranted. But, to return to the lab for a moment, one isn't allowed to try synthesizing chlorophyll until one is thoroughly familiar with all of the tools in the lab, and can choose the right one(s) for the task.

The publishing industry only compounds the problems with advice and theory on "how to write fiction" with its own evaluation and sales criteria. Getting published is both harder and easier than it should be. It is harder in that publishers, and booksellers for that matter, are using the wrong criteria in selecting and marketing works. They then bitch about how hard it is to get readers to buy their wares: for that is what commercial publishers do. They sell commodities. They treat books as fungible widgets. Even such comparable works as those of Brontë and of Austen are not fungible. The closest one can come is to treat each author as a "brand name" in the "detergent aisle" model of sales. Of course, if the author's brand name is what matters, managing authors who write in more than one commercial category becomes impossible. The sales and selection model, in other words, is self-defeating. (Some other time, I will dissect a book cover and marketing package to demonstrate all of the deception that goes into even this futile effort.)

It is obviously easier than it should be, though, given the immense quantity of crap that still manages to get published. True, the slushpile is generally worse than what does get published; and there is an aspect of editorial taste involved, however crushed it is in this day of marketing-dork-driven acquisition processes. Nonetheless, some of what is in the slushpile and never receives serious consideration has simply got to be objectively superior to most of the true crap that gets published. For example, I've read at least six first drafts of novels in the last two years that were objectively superior to the garbage published under the bylines of Tom Clancy, Janny Wurts, and Pauline Alama, that could be marketed in a comparable fashion under the current marketing model. But these latter three authors represent the models from which writing instructors who concentrate on commercial fiction draw their inspiration and formulae; and any recent issue of a college literary magazine will show the problems with the artiste instructors' inspiration and formulae (as would looking at the early work of Picasso and Shostkovich).

There is an all-too-true aphorism in military history holding that "Victorious generals are always, and only, prepared to fight the last war—not the next one." This exactly describes the problems with both the publishing industry and writing instruction: they draw upon the details of what is now "hot," rather than the general principles applicable to good writing. Returning to military terms for a moment, consider the opening conflict of the Second Thirty Years' War. In August 1914, the generals seriously underestimated the power of automatic weapons and indirect-fire artillery in creating a significant defensive force multiplier. Looking at the broader sweep of military history since the introduction of firearms, though, should have shown that the defender has always had that force multiplier. Attackers have been able to overcome that force multiplier against an in-supply defender with only two operational methods: attacking the flanks and/or siegecraft using vastly superior firepower. The "Race to the Sea" left the German and Anglo-French armies with unassailable flanks, and firepower was roughly equal. Three years into the war, the Schwerpunkt, or "concentrated point of attack," method used by the German Stosstruppen that nearly opened the Western front is merely a means of creating flanks in the middle of the opponent's line. The Entente's response was to bring superior firepower (the tank) onto the battlefield, combined with running the German forces out of supply. This led directly to the fall of France in 1940, because the victorious generals of France and England had no incentive to advance beyond the war they had most recently won.

The publishing industry is in much the same situation as the French General Staff in early 1940. It has no idea how to deal with the new media; the hemorrhaging of both money and readership from Bertelsmann as it attempted to move into "new media" is merely the tip of the iceberg. It has no incentive to learn, either, as it has essentially succeeded in driving the editorial function from the industry's control. Instead, it wants to analyze what has already been published to some commercial success and replicate it, failing to recognize that literature by its very nature cannot be replicated (which, at its core, was Jorge Luis Borges's point). Writing instructors make this same error. Perhaps an analogy from the so-called "useful arts" may prove useful. One does not build a better bookcase by simply using better carving technique to decorate the fronts of the shelves, particularly if one pays no attention to either the quality of the joinery or the fitness of the bookcase's proportions for its intended uses.

Similarly, the problem with most garbage fiction is not that any one individual element fails. Although too often that is the case, the critical failure is in the failure to integrate the elements of fiction into a whole that works. This is true distinction between original works of quality, such as Tolkein's tetralogy (The Hobbit together with The Lord of the Rings), and imitators such as Terry Brooks's never-ending Sword of Sha-na-na series. Brooks actually does quite well in imitating many of the most-praised aspects of Tolkein's work. Looking at the individual elements does not help much in understanding why Brooks's works are abject failures; looking at the almost complete failure to integrate those elements does. On the other hand, truer heirs of Tolkein's approach either get commercially ignored or remain unpublished, because their works do not have one-to-one correspondence with out-of-context distillations of various elements of Tolkein's work.

The last war that the publishing industry is prepared to fight, then, is one of its own making. When it either collapses or transmogrifies into an entirely different beast (keeping in mind that the publishing industry as we know it has only existed since the mid-1920s), it will hopefully take with it the unreality of element-based writing instruction. That, however, is probably far too optimistic a hope. Perhaps, though, the publishing industry can draw some lessons from what happened to the French army after Verdun—and the fate of its generals.

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