All posts by Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold's short fiction has appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov's, F&SF, Baen's Universe, Strange Horizons, Scifiction, and Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction. Her fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Tiptree, and Sturgeon Awards. In 2007, the Italian translation of her novella "Looking Through Lace" won the "Premio Italia" award for best international work. Her novel Flamme und Harfe appeared in translation with the German imprint of Random House, Penhaligon, in 2009 and has since been translated into Dutch and Italian. She maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com.

Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story

By Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold

Story is not automatically story, especially when dealing with genre and its tropes. Trope can be a rather difficult concept to grasp, seeing as it includes so many different elements in literature. For the purpose of this article, we are using the term “trope” in the sense of a familiar and repeated symbol, meme, theme, motif, style, character or thing that is common in a particular type of literature. Such tropes are closely related to genre. Examples of this kind of trope in horror include the mad scientist or dark and stormy settings. Tropes can also be plot elements, such as the science fiction trope of an alien invasion that is deterred at the last minute.
The transmissibility of story is dependent on an understanding of (and, we would argue, interest in) the themes, motifs, props, and characters of the genre in question, from the wise old wizard of fantasy, to the plucky gal of chicklit, to the foreign planets of science fiction. But literary and mainstream fiction are not free of tropes either: the gut-spilling, angst-ridden, pseudo-autobiographical protagonist is a figure that appears repeatedly and almost exclusively in stories categorized as literary and mainstream.
When familiar tropes are missing or unfamiliar tropes present, this can lead readers to reject a story outright. Within our field, witness the endless skirmishes between the old guard of Silver Age science fiction and the various innovations which have proliferated since the New Wave arrived – in recent times famously exemplified by critic Dave Truesdale’s emphatic rejection of the Karen Joy Fowler story, “What I Didn’t See.” (2002) For readers who find confessional narrative self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical fiction may strike them as dishonest; for readers who prefer their fiction a step away from memoir, anything that cloaks the story in the kind of tropes used in science fiction and fantasy will be too far away from reality for them to be interesting. The transmissibility of story is dependent on an acceptance of those tropes.
We’ve written before about Samuel R. Delany’s concept of reading protocols and what Gardner Dozois calls “the furniture of science fiction.” To simplify, protocols are the experiences and assumptions that a reader brings to a genre work – the shorthand that enables understanding without repeated explication. “Furniture” refers to the signifiers for these protocols – the standard props and elements that characterize a genre. These concepts are closely tied together and work in concert with each other.
For example, a science fiction writer might use the term “FTL.” A reader with even the most modest experience in science fiction will understand this to mean “faster than light,” and most will be conversant with the basics of Einsteinian physics and the implications of supraluminal travel. A reader with no experience in science fiction might well not even be able to parse the acronym. Those who look up the term and find out what it stands for may still lack the theoretical background to understand the implications a regular reader of science fiction will immediately comprehend.
In genre, we have stockpiles of tropes of varying familiarity. These elements serve to enhance the transmissibility of the story. When a writer takes up a standard trope, either to serve in its stock role or to invert it for their own purposes, they are tapping into the traditions and shared referents of their genre.
One thing that distinguishes genre fiction from naturalistic fiction is that these shared tropes are a result of specific, self-selected reading experiences, rather than coming from the normal course of life in the culture where the story is set. Philip Roth doesn’t have to explain the details of Alexander Portnoy’s life, he merely cites them.
Without these tropes and the shared assumptions they signify to serve as lubrication in the machinery of plot, genre stories would be heavily constrained by the need to explain.

What makes a genre story transmissible, which is to say, accessible and meaningful to the reader, is its use of genre tropes. Viewed from that perspective, the tension for the genre writer lies in the balance between the degree of familiarity of the trope and the degree of novelty of the writer’s innovation within the story at hand.
While every genre has tropes, including mainstream and literary, the tropes of science fiction and fantasy are for the most part unconcerned with the emotional dimension of the story. Where character-driven tropes such the epiphany or the emotional framework of marital infidelity are broadly recognized in mainstream and literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy concern themselves first and foremost with the variation between the first world of the reader’s experience and the second world constructed within the story. These are mechanical, technological, magical, even sociopolitical elements – for example, romanticized feudalism in fantasy, or technocracy in science fiction – far more often than they are internal or emotional: plot and setting-driven tropes, rather than character-driven. Even the character-driven tropes our field does embrace at times tend towards the emotionally superficial – clouded succession to power, romanticization of certain roles (the scientist-as-hero), standard archetypes such the Dark Lord Brooding on His Obsidian Throne.
Examples of this distancing effect in genre abound, especially in the earlier history of the field. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (1951) is famously clinical in its approach to characters and their stories, focusing instead on the concept of future history, which was established as a core trope in the field, in large part due to Asimov’s work. Other major works in science fiction where the genre tropes intrude on the emotional experience of the story include Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and its successor books. The fantastically realized world-building and sociopolitical gymnastics which are the core joy of that book to millions of readers are combined with characters who are either archetypical or lacking depth, depending on how one chooses to view the text. In either case, are not readily viewed as rounded, emotional human beings.
On the other hand, any story strongly felt can use genre tropes to its advantage, creating gut-wrenching emotional experience on the page as effective or more so than some fiction regarded as literary. One of the most famous short stories of post-WWII science fiction is “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, published by John W. Campbell in Astounding magazine in August, 1954. The emotional impact of this story is so profound, echoing across the decades since, largely because it inverts the scientist-as-hero trope to conform to the stark realities of engineering in a deconstruction of the same classic SF tradition that produced such classics as Foundation.
The transmissibility of story itself is not a function of these emotional transactions, however – with perhaps the exception of such genres as romance, which demand the emotional dimension through their very nature and definition. The intention and realization of story moves from the writer to the reader through the tropes of genre, naturalistic fiction no less than science fiction or fantasy, taking here the word “genre” in its looser sense of meaning. Even naturalistic fiction has its tropes: coming-of-age plots, familiar setting, and firm grounding in a recognizable cultural context. Story happens in the context of the shared expectations of writer and reader, and the controlled management (or violation) of those expectations during the course of the narrative.

The themes of genres vary widely as well. The story of epiphany, for example, is a strong thread in twentieth century naturalistic fiction, beginning with James Joyce’s classic The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and continuing with various related forms of self-revelatory and semi-autobiographical fiction such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). In this tradition we could also count the consciousness-raising novels of the women’s liberation movement in the seventies, such as Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1972) and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1978). Of course, only a small percentage of mainstream and literary fiction is fictional self-examination of this sort, but it is interesting to note that this particular impulse is almost non-existent in science fiction and fantasy.
Our genre has not in general been so concerned with emotionally revelatory writing, certainly not autobiographical or semi-autobiographical revelation. There is a thread of stories built on a strong emotional dimension – novels such as John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981), for example, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968), or short stories such as David Levine’s “The Tale of the Golden Eagle” (2003), but more often than not the genre-related tropes seem to be more important than the emotional underpinnings.
This is not to say that the emotional structure of speculative fiction is suppressed, only that it serves the foreground concerns of genre. Often, the emotional transaction seems to come along for the ride rather than serving as the core driver of the story. Due to the primary payout of the genre experience – the exploration of the second world developed by the author, with the attendant thrill of discovery and sensawunda – few stories in science fiction and fantasy are written to be epiphanic or emotionally revelatory. Rather, they address some aspect of the tropes of the genre, using emotion as an optional tool to reach their point. Many of the strongest examples of the genre, however, do go the extra step and explore the emotional dimension of their subject.
It is interesting to note that a number of genre novels with a greater emotional underpinning appeared during and after the New Wave, when many of the elements of literary fiction were adopted by science fiction and fantasy writers. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) stands out in this regard, as do the novels mentioned previously such as Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
By the same token, when literary writers adopt science fictional language, while still employing their core emotional tropes, the result is often oddly unsatisfying to genre readers. Kirstin Bakis’ Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997), Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) are examples of this trend. Reading them with genre expectations impedes the transmissibility of story because the tropes are misaligned. An experienced genre reader has expectations of genetic engineering, time travel and interstellar travel stories which can impede the enjoyment of such works. Excellent as these books are, genre trope expectations are not met in them.
The story is transmitted to the reader at least in part because of the tropes. Some are emotional, some are external. The transmissibility of story is both enabled and restricted by the tropes of the genre within which the story – and the reader – are functioning.

This article was originally published in the Internet Review of Science Fiction (IROSF) in February 2007. I have made slight editing changes and updated the links.

Works Referenced

Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. New York: Gnome Press Publishers, 1951.
Bakis, Kirstin. Lives of the Monster Dogs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1997.
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. New York: The Viking Press, 1968.
Crowley, John. Little, Big. New York: Bantam Books, 1981.
French, Marilyn. The Women’s Room. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Fowler, Karen Joy. “What I Didn’t See.” SCI FICTION, July, 2002.
Godwin, Tom. “The Cold Equations.” Astounding, August, 1954.
Herbert, Frank. Dune. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965.
Joyce, James. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1916.
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Walker and Company, 1969.
Levine, David. “The Tale of the Golden Eagle.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June, 2003.
Niffenegger, Audrey. The Time Traveler’s Wife. San Francisco, CA: MacAdam, Cage, 2003.
Piercy, Marge. Small Changes. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1972.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. (1963) New York: Bantam, 1972.
Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: Random House, 1969.
Russell, Mary Doria. The Sparrow. New York: Villard Books / Random House, 1996.

New Blog Feature: Reprinting IROSF Columns Written with Jay Lake

Almost 15 years ago now, Jay Lake and I started writing a (mostly) monthly column in IROSF (Internet Review of Science Fiction), which we kept up for over three years. Topics varied from writing advice to observations on genre to literary criticism in the broadest sense.

Even after IROSF folded, they maintained archives so that the articles they had published could still be accessed. Just recently, however, I received an email from someone who had followed a link to one of our pieces and could no longer get it. Sure enough, the archives had been taken down.

For that reason, I have decided to republish those articles here on my blog. I will start with the one requested, “Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story” — once I can find it, that is, and as long as I am not interrupted by the birth of the next grandchild. 🙂

It’s certainly a good reason to revive this flagging blog. On that note, I wish you happy reading.

Entering story

Aphra Behn and Chameleon in a Mirror

Usually I try to post every year on the death date of Aphra Behn, the first professional woman writer in the English language. I missed it this year (April 16) for a number of reasons, the main one being that I was preparing for the Villa Diodati Workshop, reading stories and writing critiques.

But I have a consolation prize this week: for those who have not yet read it, my time travel based on the life of Aphra Behn, Chameleon in a Mirror, is on sale for only 99c on Amazon until April 28. 🙂

Chameleon in a Mirror

Here’s a short excerpt, based on an incident from Aphra’s life:

Aphra entered the playhouse with more confidence than she felt. The portly playwright, poet laureate of the realm, was giving instructions to the actors and actresses. “Wait here,” she said to her maid. Katherine nodded.
She approached a dark-haired woman standing on the side of the stage. “Prithee, can you tell me where I might find Thomas Killigrew?”
“He’s not here right now, lass,” the actress replied. “But if you want a part in the play, you can speak with Mr. Dryden.”
Aphra felt a surge of sick disappointment. “Nay. I wanted to give him this.” Aphra took the linen cover off the basket she was carrying and pulled out a feathered headdress. The actress gasped.
Aphra’s courage returned. “I brought it and several others back from America. I heard the King’s Company was staging a play where they might be of use.”
“The Indian Queen,” the actress murmured, taking a colorful feather between her fingers. “They would be perfect.”
The playwright joined them so abruptly, they were both startled. “What is the attraction here, Mrs. Marshall? There is work to be done!”
“I had no lines, Mr. Dryden. And you must see what this young woman brought — perfect for The Indian Queen!”
Dryden took the headdress from the actress’s hands, staring at the clever arrangement of colorful feathers. “This is incredibly good,” Dryden said, looking up from the feathers and into Aphra’s face. “Where did you get it?”
Aphra made a hurried curtsey. “I am fresh arrived from the colony of Surinam, Mr. Dryden. I brought the headdress with me, and several others as well. I also brought an assortment of unusual insects …”
Dryden waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal. “You can present those to His Majesty for his zoology collection. But this … this we could use.”
“I would be happy to present them to your company.” The words nearly stuck in her throat in her excitement. “When are you expecting the master of the company, Mr. Killigrew?”
“He did not plan to come to the theater today, to my knowledge,” Dryden said, and Aphra’s face fell. “If you leave the headdress with me, I will give it to Mr. Killigrew.”
“I had something particular to give him,” Aphra stammered.
“I am one of the shareholders of the company, Mrs. …?”
“Johnson.”
“I will make sure it gets to Mr. Killigrew.”
Aphra pulled a sealed letter out of her basket, along with the painstakingly copied manuscript of The Young King, and handed them to Dryden. “This is a letter of introduction from my foster brother, Thomas Culpepper, and a play I wrote while I was in America.”
“A truly American play,” Dryden said with a sarcastic smile. “Not like our London Indians.”
“Oh no, nothing of the kind,” Aphra hastened to reassure him. “’Tis based on a classical precedent!”
Dryden raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
The actress shook her dark head and smiled. “The times are changing, are they not, Mr. Dryden? Women are already actresses. Perhaps playwrights next?” Dryden didn’t look pleased, and Mrs. Marshall gave Aphra a conspiratorial wink.
“I will give these to Mr. Killigrew, Mrs. Johnson,” Dryden said in a tone of dismissal. “Good day.”
“Good day, Mr. Dryden, Mrs. Marshall,” Aphra said curtseying, and turned to leave.

The actress and the playwright watched the copper-haired woman and her maid leave the theater. “A woman playwright would be quite a novelty, would it not?” Anne Marshall said, baiting the playwright, not well-liked among the actors.
“That it would,” Dryden agreed.
“Enough of a novelty to mean serious competition?” the actress added, a malicious gleam in her eye.
Dryden glanced through the pages of fine handwriting, quickly skimming a passage. He was relieved to see that the writing was bombastic and artificial, and although the public was often pleased with much less these days, he probably would have little difficulty persuading Killigrew not to take it. “Only if she wrote better than this one does,” he said. “Come, Mrs. Marshall, it will soon be your entrance.”

One of the things I love about Aphra Behn is the way she managed to succeed despite the odds. 🙂

Testing Kindle Scout: Cutting Edges; Or, A Web of Women

My most recent indie experiment is actually based on something fairly old: my hyperfiction piece, Cutting Edges; Or, A Web of Women. I put the hyperfiction* version of Cutting Edges up on the web over 20 years ago, in a fit of literary experimentation when I still thought my future might lie in academia.

Well, it turns out that both hyperfiction and my future in academia didn’t have much of a future after all. Cutting Edges got a fair amount of attention at the time, but has now been languishing mostly unread for well over a decade.

So I decided to turn it into a more traditional novel and use it to test the Kindle Scout platform. You can check out the campaign here.

Cutting Edges

Lyssa Strutter only wants to make her magazine, Cutting Edges, a success. But then the unthinkable happens…

Mercy Kennedy Flunk is dissatisfied with her life and her marriage, but she feels stuck. And then the unthinkable happens…

Diana Archer is looking for a new band in need of a singer. But then the unthinkable happens…

These women and their friends respond with something unthinkable of their own: they organize a strike in bed in order to put an end to rape.

Sound like a fairy tale? It is.

But if we want to change our lives, we have to change the myths.

If you’re unfamiliar with Kindle Scout, it’s a platform where readers can browse unpublished books and vote for their favorites, thus giving them a better chance of being published through an Amazon imprint — including all the promotion that entails. The royalty rates are lower, but since Cutting Edges doesn’t really fit with my other published fiction (other than the fact that it’s feminist), I decided to run it through Kindle Scout. And who knows, with it’s theme of women’s reaction to sexual harassment and rape, it would be a good companion to the #metoo movement — if anyone notices. 🙂

* Hyperfiction is (or was) an experimental genre in which the narrative could be read however the reader chose, via the links provided in the text. If you are curious as to what I mean, you can try out my story “Triple Helix,” which was originally published in Ideomancer in 2007, but is no longer available on the site. You can now read it here: http://www.nestvold.de/helix/helix.htm

Recent Changes to CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing Paperbacks

I was wondering when Amazon was finally going to make their print service less crippled. 🙂

chrismcmullen

CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing

Recent Updates to Paperback Features

Amazon has recently added new features to KDP’s paperback self-publishing option:

  • You can now order printed proofs from KDP. This is a vital step toward ensuring that your book is ready to publish.
  • You can similarly order author copies from KDP. This makes it viable to stock your book in local stores and libraries, and creates marketing opportunities like advance review copies, paperback preorders (through Amazon Advantage), press release packages, paperback giveaways, and book signings.
  • UK and Europe authors should be particularly excited, as KDP introduced a new feature that you can’t get at CreateSpace: author copies and proofs printed and shipped from Europe.

The first two changes simply bring KDP up to speed to make it a viable alternative to CreateSpace and Ingram Spark.

But the last change offers authors in the United Kingdom and continental Europe something…

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Goodbye to a woman who revolutionized science fiction: RIP Ursula K. Le Guin

There are two books that that were integral to my decision to become a writer of science fiction and fantasy, and both are by Ursula K. Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. When I read those as a young adult, I was blown away at the way her thought experiments in those novels could leave me stunned and amazed — and considering the world in a very different way than I had before. One of the lines I absolutely loved (and I’m quoting from memory here, so it might not be accurate): “The king was pregnant.”

The Left Hand of Darkness

I used to say jokingly that I wanted to be Ursula K. Le Guin when I grew up. It was one of the greatest honors I have ever experienced when a review compared my fiction to that of Le Guin.

I read her revolutionary works in the seventies, and they may not be as eye-opening now as they were then. On the other hand, when you look at the present political situation in the U.S., revolutionary thinking seems to have gone by the wayside.

RIP Ursula K. Le Guin. May your brilliant thought experiments soon be revived and social progress not be in vain.

New Year, Old Problem: Innocent Author Rank-Stripped For Third Time

Another important post for indie authors. *Sigh.*

David Gaughran

Kristi Belcamino is really being messed around by Amazon. Yesterday morning, she was rank-stripped for the third time, and it appears to be happening every time she puts a book free – even before she hits the promo sites or moves up the charts.

Back in September, Kristi was one of the unfortunate (and innocent) authors who were unfairly rank-stripped by Amazon for several weeks. She had a BookBub promotion which catapulted her up to #3 in the Free charts on September 18, was then rank-stripped, and didn’t have the sanction lifted until October 22 – over one month later.

Along with all the other authors I wrote about in October’s post Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives, Kristi received the standard form letter about rank manipulation from Amazon KDP’s Compliance team, regarding her book Blessed are the Peacemakers.

Hello,

We detected that purchases or borrows of your book(s)…

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BookBub CPM Ads and Wide Distribution

Great info here! I may have to finally dip my toes in the water with BookBub CPM ads.

David Gaughran

I decided a while ago that I was going back wide with all my books. Sales were pretty anemic to begin with (readers don’t magically discover books), but then I put together a little marketing plan. I don’t want to invest too heavily in pushing my historical novels until I have a couple more books in my series out, but I was curious to experiment with a few different approaches for pushing wide books.

After nabbing an International-only BookBub Featured Deal for Liberty Boy, I decided to build a little campaign around it, particularly looking at sales internationally, and off-Amazon. When you are in KU, it makes sense to concentrate sales. As detailed in this post from August, visibility turns into borrows and the best place to do that is in the US Kindle Store, where you can be more aggressive with ads and bids and have some…

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