I read something today that made me want to pull my hair out. As you may know, I’ve been looking forward to Holly Lisle’s upcoming fiction journal Rebel Tales, because I love Holly’s work, and I’m expecting Rebel Tales to reflect what she values in a good story.
Today, John Dye, the Rebel Tales SF editor, announced his first season’s theme and editorial requirements. On the subject of the latter, he writes:
I believe that the magazine, especially early on, must attract a majority readership before it can begin catering to niche groups… To me, this is simple nickels and dimes.
אוי (Or for you non-Hebrew readers, “Oy!”)
Upon reading this, I retched a little, and I swear I tasted something funny in my mouth.
This is the strategy of mainstream publishers, as they call for the death of the midlist novelist. They’re only interested in the lowest common denominator, what will appeal to the greatest number of people. They have no vision, except for what will sell the most copies the fastest. That is why Stephanie Meyer is famous, while more and more actually competent authors go starving.
I absolutely loathe lowest-common-denominator fiction. Because it has no soul.
Moreover, if you care about what you write–and I gather that Holly does want to attract those authors who do–and if you want to stand out in this environment, and especially if you want to make it on the midlist, you must do the opposite of what the midlist killers are doing. You must appeal to a niche. You must give very specific readers something that challenges the lowest common denominator, something they will lust after, so that they’ll keep coming back to you over and over again. Holly has successfully done just that with this specific reader, as with many more like me.
But wait! It gets better!
John goes on:
Holly’s Requirements: Heroic but ‘human’ protagonist; Protagonist wants something desperately; Sense of Wonder… My Requirements: Character-Driven; EPIC: Sweeping Narrative, Boggling Scale, Adventure; Underdogs; [etc.]
I agree with all the items on this list… kinda. Holly’s list in particular is right on, because these are elements that make her novels IMNSHO worth reading. John’s list, too, sounds good. I like complex, bigger-than-life stories. I like underdogs who prevail in the end. That’s one of the reasons I like football; part of me finds satisfaction when the disfavored team comes from behind, pulls ahead, and wins in the last few minutes of the game. Especially when it’s my team.
In particular, I agree with the first of his requirements, “Character-Driven,” which he expands on:
This was the attribute yalped barbarically from rooftops everywhere… Now, I don’t want “character pieces”–there wasn’t a single cry for character pieces–but I do want stories that sport multidimensional characters, complex relationships, and emotional interaction.
The tendency in science fiction is to populate your world with either emotionless Ambien junkies or over-the-top caricatures whose personality is basically what they are wearing. Having sterile zombie characters doesn’t make a story intellectual; it makes it boring. Having a character wear a buzzsaw blade around his neck in place of a personality doesn’t make him wacky and interesting; it makes him flat. People want characters that feel real, and that’s what I’m looking for.
Hoot! Preach it, brother! (Except, “yalped barbarically”? Not so sure I know what that means, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?) He’s 100% right about what makes characters rich and deep. I also indeed do not want to read literary character descriptions, which I assume is what he meant by “character pieces.” I want full, 3-D, realistic, people-like characters, with compelling needs, who live “Aha!” moments. And I want to take part in that part of their lives.
But then he continues:
“High stakes! Conspiracies! Badasses! A general sense of EPICNESS.” … The word epic kept appearing over and over again… “Big guns, big adventure, and things going BOOM.” … We didn’t get any requests for stories about characters doing globally insignificant but personally meaningful things…
Everyone here wants to read underdog stories. They don’t want to read stories about the space marine who trained his entire life for the mission and then walks into the room, kills everyone, and walks out without breaking a sweat… [They want] “the little guy”… an “average Joe [who is] thrust into an unfamiliar situation yet [he] overcomes it.”
And that, my friends, is what we call “gimmicky.”
This is where my stomach starts to roil. I’ve only quoted parts of these paragraphs that make me tense, because I want to highlight them. John does say that “epicness”–and I’m not sure I know what that means now–can’t be over-the-top or interfere with character. So that’s good… I think.
But let me explain why I’m having second thoughts, why I’m not so sure that Rebel Tales will be the stream of pure enjoyment that I originally assumed it would. Let me explain by comparing these requirements to Talyn, one of the most exciting and enjoyable SF-fantasies Holly’s ever published, which I’ve raved about before and which I will rave about again.
Talyn does not save the world. She saves the Tonk, and the only reason she does so is because her entire identity is wrapped up in her people: her security, her family, her community, her spirituality. Everything she knows is the Tonk way of life, and when it begins to slip away, she takes action. And because I sympathize with her, I’m on her side. Frankly, I do want characters who do personally significant things, and I don’t care how globally significant they are. I would rather read about a character who lets the world die to save her one true love, than about one who sacrifices her love to save the world.
Talyn is epic because of the depth of the story, not because of its bigness. As I said, Talyn doesn’t try to save the world. She doesn’t even care about the world. The world can go to hell, as far as she’s concerned. She just cares about herself and hers. But this story is not just about Talyn saving the Tonk; it’s about cultures that clash, the abuse of power, about friends and enemies and peace and war and chivalry and manipulation and love and sex and post-traumatic stress disorder. To say that Talyn is epic because the storyline has worldwide implications is specifically missing the point.
(And to say that Talyn is epic because there’s a big explosion at the end, that also misses the point.)
Talyn is not average. Rather, she is a well-trained warrior and one of most talented individuals in magicks. She knows people, and she knows secrets, and she knows magic, and she knows how to fight, and she even knows how to subjugate her own feelings in order to get the job done. All of which makes her the right person in the right place at the right time to make a difference. As a result, the climax of the story was rather anticlimactic, though fully satisfying.
Talyn is an underdog story, because Talyn and her countrymen get taken by surprise, not because she’s a “little guy.” I don’t know how else to say it. If any of the Tonks had put two and two together–and they certainly had the evidence, even early on in the story–the whole thing might have turned out very different, with far less loss. We’re back to my football analogy: Talyn is like a team of pro-football players, who know their stuff but make a few stupid mistakes, and now they’re trying to come back from 21 points behind. Occasionally, a team will even do it, come back. And win. In overtime.
So, in summary, I’m still looking forward to Rebel Tales, because there’s so much fiction out there that only half does it for me (or even less). Sometimes, I literally feel starved–that empty feeling you get in your gut–for compelling stories to read. Moreover, character truly is the most important element in a story, and if they do that right, I’m willing to forgive a few gimmicks–and I still expect Rebel Tales to do character right. But I’m not quite as excited as I was yesterday. Still staying tuned.