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Good writing is good writing - a view through the lens of genre

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Warning: This is a work in progress. -- Fritz.

Something I encountered recently is bothering me. While I don't intend to step on any toes or cause discomfort, I know I will. So I apologize up front for the following rant.

Have you ever heard someone say "good writing is good writing no matter the genre"? While I believe this sort of statement is well intentioned, indicating that someone has an open mind about genere and is trying to be inclusive, I also believe that it is, at core, a meaningless statement.

If we substitute the word "art" for the word "writing" we begin to see why this is a meaningless statement. While it may have been seen as an obvious truth in centuries prior to the 20th that "good art is good art" without further consideration, this is a difficult position to defend these days. And how does one judge that an abstract painting is a good abstract painting without knowing something of the history and "vocabulary" of abstract painting? Or painting in general? If one knows that the artist is an accomplished draftsman, well versed in perspective and aspects of the craft of painting, does this not change one's view as to the intention of the artist when they produce a piece of abstract art? Note that I am not saying anything about "I like" in the context of "it is good". One can like a work without thinking that it is "good (in a technical sense)".

Which brings us to the other major problem with trying to find meaning in a statement like "good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre". What is meant by "good writing"? (I suspect I should make some attempt to define "genre" here, too, but trying to define "good writing" seems like a daunting enough task. So I'll just ignore the over arching issue of what genre is and talk about it in the narrow context of how it interacts with the notion of good writing.)

I think, fundamentally, "good writing" is effective communication. Can the writer evoke in the reader an image, emotion, or thought? The pallet for this communication is words and how they are assembled on the page into sentences. Words and sentences form the narrow pipe that meaning must find its way from one mind to another. One assemblage of words, while new and refreshing, or simply new and confusing, to one reader, may be old and hackneyed, or old and comfortable, to another reader.

How does genre not merely inform, but transform the words on the page into good writing? I will attempt to answer this through a series of examples focusing on "world building", which is the aspect of writing wherein the author establishes a setting that is outside the bounds of the readers direct experience. This is not to say that mainstream literature doesn't face the issue of "world building", it does, but in many forms of genre, such as science fiction and fantasy, it is generally an immediate and significant task for the writer. In mainstream literature, the reader does the heavy lifting of establishing world. It is the one they are familiar with. The science fiction or fantasy reader brings less to the table as far as the setting is concerned, and the writer must work harder to establish it.

For example, 1984 starts with following sentence:

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

While this opening may seem odd or even incorrect, knowing the genre, or even that it is genre, moves the reader through any perceived "badness". I would argue that this is basic world building. The juxtaposition of the normal "bright cold day in April" with the unusual seeming clocks "striking thirteen" establishes that the story is not in the comfortably normal world that you expect. You are left with a a number of potential questions. Is there an extra hour in the day? Is it military time? And since it is more than one clock, why is it normal for all clocks to have thirteen hours?

The Hobbit starts with:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

The first sentence of Neuromancer is:

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."

Or Farenheit 451:

"It was a pleasure to burn."

A non-genre reader may consider the process of deciphering the meaning of a work of genre a task too arduous to be rewarding. A genre reader may consider it a process of unfolding wonder. How can a piece of mainstream literature hope to achieve this? By definition, mainstream literature has limited itself to the "real". No matter how lush the internal landscape, it is still all in the mind of the characters. How does this compare to a character finding themselves surfing on the curling plasma of the sun's solar flares? Or stepping out onto the surface of Pluto, a planet so far out that it is in the Kuiper belt and the sun is just a particular bright star, a place so cold that steel is as brittle as glass.

Another aspect to genre-mainstream divide is that words and phrases, if they are even shared at all, may take on quite separate and distinct meanings.


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