Tag Archives: literary criticism

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.