Monday, September 7, 2009

The problem with pigeon-holes is pigeons

And of course the products of pigeons. And no, strangely enough, I don't mean eggs. Or even chicks.

As Kurt Vonnegut put it: "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'Science Fiction' ... and I would like out, particulary since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."

Being me I really don't care deeply about serious critics inherent anti-sf bigotry. The literary establishment is desperately insecure and needs something to look down on, after all. What I do care about is when pigeon-holing, pre-conceptions and ignorance cuts me off from readers. Take, for example, SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS. Now, if I had to try to put it into discrete genre pigeon-holes... I'd start by saying it doesn't fit into any one. To the best of my knowledge the technology -- while it involves space travel -- is (unlike a lot of sf) all based on working (or near working) technology. It is a grand concept, but I intentionally went for a very matter of fact no-dazzling-flashing-lights-and-exploding-impossiblium attitiude to it all. It neatly 'solves' three of the enormous problems in any pre-existing slower-than-light travel sf : the issue of habitability of the target (the colonists are colonising space, not planets. They need space debris and a sun - something a lot easier to find than a second Earth), the issue of ship size for bio-viability (the viability and carrying capacity is not related to volume. It is related to surface area! The 'folded' inside to the habitats is a first), and the speed issue (the trip time is hugely increase by accelaration and decelaration - and these are energy expensive. Therefore accelarate once, and drop modules. Cheaper, faster and better!) It therefore fulfils the hard-sf genre pigeon-hole. It is intentionally a Gulliver's Travels through isolated human societies using the established satire technique of the 'innocent observer' to show up the ridulousness of the mores of present society: That would put it into social satire (and not Science Fiction at all any more than Animal Farm is Science Fiction) or, if you were to ignore the satire aspect, social Science Fiction - which as it also is, in that it looks a social issues (such as colonialism and isolation) in a science fiction setting. There is a distinct element of humor and, um, biology (they go together so often) - humorous sf. Biological sf. Oh and then there is the just straight adventure story to carry it all along and keep it moving fast. Depending on you, the reader, you'd probably say it was one or another of categories with aspects of the others. About the only thing you wouldn't say it was, was space opera. There are no intergalactic conflicts, no powerful and fanciful unexplained technology, no untamed frontiers a la Wild West or Africa. To quote Wikipedia on Space Opera: "Perhaps the most significant trait of space opera is that settings, characters, battles, powers, and themes tend to be very large-scale." Hello, this is the story of a small cast of individuals on one space ship. The themes, I suppose, might be large. But I think you can safely say that this is not a pigeon-hole that book fits into at all. Probably the only one... SORCERESS OF KARRES and WIZARD OF KARRES are principally Space Opera. They certainly fit the Wikipdia profile: so I do write it, and to some extent it has a fairly distinct reader group (ie. there are people who only read that, or who don't).

So let's see what the critics who do this for a living (and thereby affect our living) said about which pigeon-hole SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS fits into:

Publishers Weekly: 'doesn't bring anything original to space opera.'

I have to laugh. I suppose in a way this is a first :-). That is 100% accurate. It really doesn't bring anything original to space opera. Yeah, Kurt. I feel your pain! I shudder to imagine what pigeon-hole they're going to put DRAGON'S RING into. Odds on paranormal romance or funny fantasy anyone?

Anyway, so let's talk about pigeon-holes. Do you think your work belongs in them? Which ones, and why? Are they useful? Do you buy by 'type' of book? Should you try to write, or market your work to a pigeon-hole?


Amanda Green said...

Dave, great post. I hate pigeon-holes, especially with regards to this business. For one thing, the only ones who seem to continually try to pigeon hole books any more are the critics and bookstores. I can understand the stores. They have to try to figure out where to shelve a book because -- gasp -- you can't just put them out according to author or title.

Critics, on the other hand, I can live without. And by that, I mean the professional critics who have been screaming for years that SF is dead -- gee, has anyone told Tor, Baen, DAW, Pyr and others? -- that romance novels should never be read in public and who -- gasp -- view Heyer as outdated.

There are very few "pure" books any more. You have military SF, romantic suspense, historical fantasy, etc., etc., etc. That means there are fewer and fewer pigeonholes, despite all the attempts by critics to shove good books, like Slow Train, into them.

So, what pigeon holes does my work fall into? Nocturnal Origins is an urban fantasy. But that, in itself, means it has supernatural critters, mystery, an urban setting...gee, three pigeon holes within a pigeon hole. Oh yeah, add police procedural in there as well. Russian Nights, a work currently looking for a home, is best called an historical fantasy, although it could also be an alternate history with fantastical elements. So, no, I don't write to the pigeon hole nor do I buy books based on what hole they fall into. I buy books because I know the author or it's been recommended to me or, gasp, the cover blurb sounds good.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Who pays professional critics, and why? From what I read, it looks like a low paid profession that attracts people who are at best wannabe authors.

They probably have a huge quota of books to read every month. Not enough time to think about the books.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, it is definitely a two-edged sword. I resent being 'labelled', BUT - let's be frank - I do search for books in a bookstore by category. I could quite possibly buy a paranormal romance book filed in among fantasy novels, and possibly enjoy it. File it among 'women's Fiction' and I am not going to even see it. The answer, I think is for the author and the publisher to advise where it would best fit. If you leave it to a critic you get Slow Train (possibly. I have to hope this was ignorance and not a deliberate attempt to bury what was to the critic a totally unacceptable (and unrefutable) piece of social sf on the real meaning of 'liberal') or as in the classic example of GIGO - where 'The Time Traveller's Wife' was considered sf, and fantasy by bookscan winning the best-seller in a number of discrete categories, none of which it belonged to.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, you're probably right about the volume. And the pay. That doesn't stop some very good reviewers doing a professional job of it. (My Father-in-law used to reveiw novels for large newspaper once. But he only did about 3-4 a month. He was an Oxford educated English graduate, back when those were rare, and his reviews carried his name. I have no idea what it paid, but I suspect things in the volume and pay rates may have changed since 1950.) The trouble is you want two things from a reveiwer: 1) some knowledge of the area under reveiw. 2) No overt bias. These two are often mutually exclusive, even if it is because of sheer volume.

Francis Turner said...

on that note Lois has a great throwaway line regarding academic lit crit at her dragon*con interview

"Never underestimate the role of economic jealousy in literary criticism."

methinks it has general applicability

Dave Freer said...

(chuckle) Francis, and add 'lurking insecurity'(speaking as someone who knows a fair number of people in that arena)

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave Freer: I resent being 'labelled', BUT - let's be frank - I do search for books in a bookstore by category.

Ori: Exactly. Being "labeled" is necessary. There are too many books being published, we'll never find new authors unless they're properly labeled.

Being "pigeonholed", OTOH, it a different and bad thing. The difference is that you can have multiple labeled, but you can only occupy one pigeonhole.

Dave Freer said...

Neatly put, Ori

Anonymous said...

Another problem with the pigeon-hole is the tendency of some folks to base everything on the biggest pigeon in the hole (the "Alpha Pigeon," we'll call it) and not judge each pigeon on its own merits. Mind you, I do not begrudge the Alpha Pigeons -- they worked their feather-clad butts off to get where they are.

It's a double-edged sword for a New Pigeon. On the one hand, those who like the Alpha Pigeon might give the New Pigeon's stuff a chance on principle. They might dislike it because it's too different from their favorite Pigeon's stuff for their comfort level, but they also might like it because it's a change of pace from what they had been reading -- but at least this group will give the New Pigeon a chance.

On the other hand, those who hate the Alpha Pigeon -- the folks who believe that Alpha Pigeon is single-handedly destroying the genre -- might just lump the New Pigeon's stuff right in with the Alpha Pigeon's and dismiss it on general principle.

Then, on the gripping hand, you've got the worst case scenario -- the folks who start calling the New Pigeon "the Next Alpha Pigeon." Their intentions are good, but the results...not so much. All this does is make life miserable for the New Pigeon, because now he has this whole new reputation to live up to. Doubly so if the Alpha Pigeon happens to be a "Grand Master of Pigeondom" or something like that. It gives those who hate the Alpha Pigeon yet another excuse to hate the New Pigeon, and it rubs the Alpha Pigeon's fans the wrong way. From that point on, the Alpha Pigeon's fans will be going over everything the New Pigeon writes with a fine-tooth comb, just looking for an excuse to roast some squab. And even if the New Pigeon writes his feathered little heart and soul out and crafts some truly magnificent stuff, there will always be those who say that he's not fit to poop on the same statue as Alpha Pigeon.

At least that's the way my Pepsi Max-addled brain sees it :-D

John Lambshead said...

Dear Mr Freeze

I must protest. Your novel, Slow Train To Accrington, has totally failed to enrich the English Mystery Story. In particular, your hero Miss Kretz is utterly unconvincing as a Dorset spinster who solves crimes by examination of tea leaves. She even lacks a moustache. I would add that Mr Zelma does not behave anything like a Scotland Yard detective.

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells,
C/O Monty Reedhalls Olde Englishe Tea Shop (fully licenced), Hot Poker Street, Much Wipping in the Shires, Kent.

Ori Pomerantz said...

What John said.

Although, if we continue the sharecropper analogy, I suspect literary critics are like migrant farm workers. One day, if they're very lucky and work really hard, they might have a farm to call their own (as long as they give the real owner his/her share, at least). Until then, they move from genre to genre, getting paid nearly nothing for the work they do. Most of them try to provide their salary's worth (as I did when I was a conscript in the IDF, making 60 $/month).

Kate said...

Warning: This may not be terribly coherent since I've been more or less awake for about 37 hours and counting. The joys of the red-eye special...

Pigeonholes are bad news. You might be able to generically shelve books somewhere kind of obvious (like "SF and Fantasy") but what do you do with an alternate history that has almost no fantasy elements and could be mainstream? Or for that matter my latest effort which I know is set in a far future earth and has a very solid SFnal background - but it looks and feels like (or at least Sarah said so) epic fantasy with vampires. (Don't ask. Really. I can guarantee you don't want to know)

As for critics, you know how it goes. Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. And those who can't do or teach become critics. They can be useful, though. Most of them seem to hit the exact opposite of what I like, so if they pan something there's a fairly good chance I'll be okay with it, and when they rave I know to avoid like the plague.

Chris McMahon said...

The whole idea of categories sends a shiver down my spine. A lot of my ideas (and I'm not alone - in facts it crowded in here) don't fit into neat genre categories at all. This has been rather a problem in the past in trying to place work.

I have 'emerged' from the world I have been working on to suddenly realise that it straddles four SFF sub-genres and publishers don't know what to do with it.

Its kinds of annoying. Isn't it just a damn story?

Dave Freer said...

Bob... go easy on the pepsi ;-). Actually most of the alpha-pigeons I have met have been nice guys only too willing to give a helping hand to newcomers. And quite a few of them want out of the pigeon-hole

Dave Freer said...

Dear Disgusted,

Have you tried growing vegetable marrows?


Ercule Monkey

Dave Freer said...

Kate, i think they really really become bad news when they put people off looking. Broad categories on the other hand do help readers to find what they like. And I hope you had a great con. I'm envious.

Dave Freer said...

Chris - that's why I mentioned the subject of marketing your work. Readers don't care much. Marketing depts do...

Anonymous said...

So Dave, you're telling me the Pepsi Max I.V. might fall under the category of Bad Idea? Oh, come on; a little embolism never killed anybody. Oh. Wait. :-D

I've no complaints of the Alpha Pigeons -- they're some stand-up birds -- it's the Non-Pigeons who arbitrarily created the whole Pigeon-Hole System who are the root of the problem. Were it left up to the pigeons, they'd be out there pooping on the statues that need pooping on (or in the drinking water of some particularly annoying Sacred Cows...)