Literary-friendly entertainment fiction: the “progressive rock” of books

 

 

I had an interesting discussion with the Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress about more literary sci-fi and its sales potential the other day, and was reminded of this when I heard the audio of a Coldplay concert last night.
My daughter had attended live and went gaga about how this was the best concert she had ever heard. Having listened to about 2 hours worth of Coldplay, I can hear why this band is popular. It’s definitely a cut above today’s pop music — which is, of course, damning with very faint praise. It also has a few clever harmonic touches — but they are added in, for my taste, homeopathic doses, and smothered in pop cheese and endlessly milked hooks. (I was actually surprised they had a live drummer: the drum parts are so monotonous to my ears that I was convinced they were using a drum machine with very good samples.)

But apparently, that is as much musical sophistication as you can add and keep a mainstream pop audience nowadays. Sgt. Pepper era Beatles, or ELO in their heyday, are far-out progressive rock in comparison — heck, so is even Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys! But here’s the point exactly: they know their market, and they produce exactly what the market wants. If they are at all disaffected musically, they are suffering all the way to the bank.

All this has a parallel in fiction. Allow me to explain.

In pure entertainment fiction, everything is secondary to “the meat and potatoes” of the genre: in military sci-fi or space opera, for example, those would be a strong, sweeping plot, protagonists you can root for, credible antagonists, lots of action, and the like.

And no, that does not mean “dumb” fiction: plots and characters can be very complex, and about certain special interests that are central to their chosen bailiwick, genre writers and their fans alike can be detailed and obsessive to the point of “weaponized autism”. So if, say, Larry Correia geeks out about guns, or David Weber about orbital mechanics, that is not just tolerated but expected. (Never mind the level of painstaking detail seen in police procedurals and the better techno thrillers.)

But for anybody who is well-read, the prose in many works of genre fiction can be irritatingly pedestrian, if not outright “dumbed-down”. This is especially true of the American market: a few recent contemporary romances I read for “market research” seemed to have been deliberately written at an 8th-grade reading level. British readers seem to expect somewhat more polished prose.

At the other extreme, in pure “literary fiction”, one can often be forgiven for assuming that entertaining the reader is an afterthought at best. Writers of such books are often academics or academic wannabes, and peer approval is more important to them than anybody actually reading their book for pleasure.

There are writers that are trying to steer a middle course: combine entertainment mainstays with prose that those who love the language for its own sake will find pleasant to read — and if some readers need to look up a word on their Kindles, well, so be it. Often such books have philosophical, sociological, and/or spiritual themes running through them. “Literary-friendly entertainment fiction”, if you like. Dave Freer and Brad Torgersen are examples in the sci-fi field. Yet discussions with, among others, our BbESM suggested that the market for “literary-friendly entertainment fiction” is limited.

The musical equivalent of “literary fiction” would be contemporary classical music — which for the most part has no mainstream audience, and is written by academic musicians for academic musicians.

The Freers and Torgersens (and up to a point, Lois McMaster Bujold) would be like progressive rock: music that tries to retain some of the accessibility and energy of rock and pop music while also seeking a broader musical horizon. Now the best bands in that genre — take Yes or ELP in their heyday, or Genesis before they turned pop, or Rush and Dream Theater in a somewhat harder vein — have rabid and faithful cult fan bases — but “cult” is the operative word. I am sure the three guys in Rush made a ton of money over the years by building up a like-minded audience and reliably delivering the goods to it — but aside from airplay for “Tom Sawyer” , “The Spirit of Radio”, or “Limelight”, their mainstream appeal is always going to be limited.

There are artists with “two-track” outputs: nice tuneful pop songs or rock anthems for the casual listener, and more profound work for the serious aficionado. There’s a couple Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin songs that everybody knows, for instance, but they only scratch the surface of what these artists could do. Similarly, there are fiction writers who bankroll their more serious output with occasional crowd-pleaser offerings. Some people would call this “selling out”, but the “two-trackers” are basically following in the footsteps of Ludwig van Beethoven (!): he would write reams of bagatelles (short, inventive piano pieces playable by amateurs) and song arrangements to pay his bills and stave off the creditors, while he worked on the symphonies and piano sonatas that earned him his place in the pantheon of classical music.

Sarah Hoyt seeks a slightly different course (like her acknowledged literary guiding light, Robert A. Heinlein). Yes, there are philosophical elements and literary allusions in works like Darkship Revenge — and not always in small doses, mind you —  but they are blended in subtly, carefully mixed in with the “meat and potatoes”.  Similarly, Lois McMaster Bujold (possibly my favorite living writer in any genre) has deep psychological material in her novels, but makes sure not to skimp on the things that Baen’s target audience wants in a novel. In music, this would be a “progressive pop” approach, with Coldplay at the more timid edge and Steely Dan at the more daring edge.  (More experimental artists like Frank Zappa would actually derive quite a bit of their appeal from extra-musical factors, such as shockingly bawdy lyrics.)

What does all this mean for a writer? The answer will, of course, be different for those trying to make a partial or complete living off our pens, and for those of us for whom fiction writing is a labor of love rather than an income stream. Robert Heinlein used to quip that his favorite five words in the English language were “pay to the order of”, and until late in his career made sure to write books that are easy to read on the surface — but that reveal several layers when read in depth.

 

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