Genre criticism

I'm in a book club with some buddies in town, and as it happens I'm the only one who liked the latest book, a work of fantasy. Two issues with the book have come to the surface, and I've been thinking about their status for fiction more generally.

First, I've realized that I don't believe in "pace." Or rather, a book's having a slow or fast pace is at best a neutral statement that requires content to be filled in: was the slow pace done well, or was the fast pace rushed? More often, I think pacing is a cipher for other matters: whether the reader finds the characters, interactions, descriptions, and events engaging—or not. In that sense a reader might well say, "I found the pacing slow," to which the author could reply, "Yes, exactly, that's the idea," at which point the reader then must supply further reasons as to why the slow pacing was a problem. There may be good reasons to make such an assertion, but they involve reference to other features of the narrative, not the pace as such.

Second, all fiction, all storytelling, is responsive to other instances of the same art, indeed every other art form, and thus every novel is derivative in one way or another. So that tropes—particularly when speaking of genre fiction, given the more identifiable and delimited features of that sub-form—are always everywhere present; there is no storytelling, there has never been a novel, without tropes. Nor is a novel or story's success directly proportional to the minimization of tropes: the very worst fiction in the world might be the most original. What we mean by originality, at least when using it as a criterion in the right way, is that the author's handling of the story's tropes was deft, subtle, unexpected, masterful, funny, gripping, complex, pleasing, or otherwise well done. In which case, as with pacing, reference to tropes in critique of a novel is the beginning rather than the end of the conversation, since the proper response to such a reference is, "Indeed—go on..." At which point further reasons enter in to clarify the quality of the use of tropes, granted their inevitability.


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