Saturday, January 27, 2007

Intellect vs Emotion

I was in Google Reader recently, scanning down older posts on a blog I recently added there. I came across Genre Don't Want No Respect at the DeepGenre blog. I think there are some valid points in there, and I'm going ignore the somewhat condescending tone of the way she refers to the rise of "sex fantasy" (assuming she means the rise of paranormal erotic romance). That isn't what got me. It was the following paragraph.

But instead of actively seeking out such readers, it sometimes seems that genre publishing is taking the opposite direction. I see a significant increase recently in romantic fantasy, in kinky sex fantasy, the kind of stuff clearly intended to engage the limbic system rather than the brain’s critical and analytical faculties. And in so-called science fiction, there is the sort of military SF that is meant to engage the reader’s primitive hindbrain in identifying with the good guys and vicariously pounding the shit out of the bad guys/evil aliens. It is not that I believe every work has to be serious or difficult to read. I, too, will often read for escape and mere entertainment. But when readers’ preference for the mindless stuff overwhelms their appreciation for more serious genre works, when the serious stuff doesn’t sell while the mindless stuff gets snatched up off the shelf, the consequence is the dumbing-down of the genre, creating a marketplace in which books for serious readers can not survive.

When she talks about fiction that appeals to "critical and analytical faculties" vs. the stuff that engages the "primitive hind brain"/"limbic system", she's setting up a Brainy/Brainless divide. Serious vs Mindless. While that's one way to split them up, I think it shows bias and privileges the intellectual in a way that shows a lack of appreciation/understanding for why people read the stuff she calls "mindless."

I don't think it's Mind/Mindless. I think that if you're going to split it up, Mind/Emotion is a more accurate way to go. Granted, I'm speaking as a romance fan, and as someone who doesn't tend to turn to fiction for intellectual stimulation at this point in my life. Right now, when I pick up a book, it's more important to me that it engage my emotions. I think there are extremes at both ends (dry, emotionless, brain bending exercises in high, literary technique and drippy, brainless melodramatic fluff). All emotion and all intellect...well, there are certainly people who prefer both.

And, sadly for people who prefer the former, the latter is always going to sell better because frankly yes, a lot of people don't want intellectual stimulation, period, let alone from their reading material. And the number of people who will take their emotion without brains will always outnumber the reverse. And when you're in the hands of a capable craftsman, reading a story designed to appeal primarily to emotion (whether that's horror, lust, love, sadness, violence or what have you) then yeah, you can afford to disengage your brain somewhat as long as your emotions are engaged, because that's what you came there to do.

Since the emotionally driven market is bigger...well, publishers are going to publish more of what people buy more of, which means a marketplace crammed full of lusty, romantic, brooding vampires and the spunky heroines who fall for them and have lots and lots of sex.

And when the volume of something goes up, the percentage of quality stuff in that category doesn't necessarily increase. And if there aren't enough writers out there who can write GOOD lusty, romantic vampire novels, I don't think most publishers are going to let that stop them. They're going to snap up all the mediocre ones as well. And since the primary goal of those books is going to be to appeal to the emotions of the readers...whether or not they've got "intelligent" and/or "critical faculty engaging" plot lines or prose that makes you work for it a little...the literary quality isn't a top priority. Lusty and romantic and (above all) emotionally compelling is.

I don't think this is an excuse for publishing crap. The excuse for publishing crap is money, obviously, but I think that utter crap is published on both sides of this (artificial) fence. I agree with someone in the blogosphere who's name escapes me at the moment (feel free to let me know in comments who originated this idea) that it's not "literary" vs "genre". "Literary" is a genre, one with its own set of customs just like Science Fiction and Mystery and (yes) Romance.

And while I understand that it's frustrating to have other Authors dis your genre and say, "I don't want to be with *sniff* those books," it's also frustrating to hear someone refer to a genre you enjoy.. hell, a whole way of reading you enjoy and dismiss it as stupid.

Because I don't think that reading for intellectual stimulation is any more noble or worthy or good than reading for emotional stimulation. And neither exists in a vacuum. Any book, even the most melodramatic, crappily written, cliche piece of category dreck has to engage your intellect a little. There are words and sentences and chapters involved. Reading forces you to think, even if it's just a little, to turn the letters on the page into images that engage that dirty, dirty lizard brain. And (while I have less experience with crappy literary fiction) I assume there's usually a little emotion involved in the most dry, cerebral literary exercises (even if that's just ennui or faint disappointment at man's inhumanity to man).

But only hardcore fans of either side (intellect/emotion) are going to enjoy the emotionless brain-benders and brainless heartstring-tuggers. Most writers, I think, are going for some combination of both. Mystery writers and SF writers might privilege a really good workout for the brain and Romance and Thriller writers might privilege a roller coaster of emotions, but I don't think that makes Mystery fans heartless or Romance readers stupid. I think Mystery readers may be more tolerant of books that don't bother much with the emotional component but really made them think hard, and Romance fans are going to be more forgiving of a book that didn't make them think hard, but that perfectly and intensely evoked the feeling of that intense, heart-pounding, indescribable emotion of falling madly in love.

I'm not saying there aren't a lot of crappily written romances out there, I've got plenty of them on my bookshelf. I'm not saying that intellectually lazy, cliche-ridden writing is to be preferred either. I would LOVE to read more smart, daring writing that ALSO engages my genre buttons, but at this point in my life, when I pick up a book, I want (besides a basic level of competence in writing) to have my emotions skillfully engaged and manipulated. I want my writing to make me feel, so, all else being equal, skillful genre-button pushing is going to get my genre $.

I'd also like it to make me think, sure. But that's not the primary reason I'm buying books at the moment. Frankly, I think enough at my job. It's not that I want to turn brain off, though sometimes, that is what I'm looking for. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, and it sure as heck doesn't make me stupid or intellectually lazy. It does mean that sometimes, it's not my brain that needs a work out, it's my emotions.

And while (maybe, just maybe) it takes a lower level of writerly skill to adequately engage a reader's emotions, than it does to, say, adequately engage a reader's intellect (just go with me for a moment), skillfully running me through the emotional ringer is hella hard to do, and I don't think it's as easy as some people on the "literature rocks, genre is crap" side of the fence would make it out to be. Granted, they also might say it's a less worthy pursuit.

Erotica, Erotic Romance, weepy Women's Fiction, what have you...and yeah, okay, sometimes they engage my lizard brain more actively than my cerebral cortex. But you know what? I'm both. I'm a smart girl. I'm also, sometimes, a horny girl. I'm a romantic girl. I have a mind and a heart, I have a synapses and adrenaline. And sometimes, it's the latter I'm interested delivering that vicarious experience to.

Because that's what fiction does, it lets me think and feel things without having to experience them myself. It lets me think and feel things I never could experience myself. It expands my mental and emotional horizons. Genre fiction, particularly the one I'm most into at the moment (erotic romance) does tend to hold emotion as more important than intellect. Not to its exclusion, not nearly as much as the smarty-pants romance detractors who think it's all bodice ripping and goo would have you think, but the fact is, erotic romance's primary purpose isn't to engage your brain. A smart, intricately plotted but emotionally dry and unarousing erotic romance is a failure as an erotic romance.

And maybe it might make a great Science Fiction novel. But without really working the reader's emotions - the romantic and erotic ones she or he bought that particular genre (erotic romance) to feel - the intellectually rigorous erotic romance will fail as an erotic romance. And, stay with me here, if the numbers that romance novels and thrillers and tearjerkers and all emotion-based genres do is any indication, there are simply more readers out there buying to fulfill emotional needs than there are readers looking to fulfill intellectual needs.

Not that most people are going to actively think about that at the counter talks. Numbers talk.

I think American Idol is the dumbest fucking show I've ever seen. I'm sorry. It grates on my nerves. But, no one who knows a lick about television will deny that it is a ratings juggernaut. My theory as to why? It shamelessly and skillfully manipulates a certain set of emotions that a large number of Americans seem to like. I? Don't give a crap about Tami Lou's dreams of stardom and heartwarming tale of overcoming adversity. It's really, really, really dumb. But. I will not for a second deny that it's very, very good at what it does. And what it does sells. Because with what it's selling, it's not about smart. It's about feeling.

I'm sure there are some people who watch AI ironically, but I think that most fans generally like it. And they don't watch it because it's dumb. They don't go, "All my other options are too hard, my brain can't take it, I must turn my brain off now, thank god AI is so stupid." They watch it because it's really, really good at the emotional stuff, so good that they don't care about how smart it is.

You look at other ratings powerhouses, 24, Grey's Anatomy. Both really make you feel. 24 happens to be smart too. Grey's Anatomy, which I enjoy, is kind of dumb sometimes. It shamelessly uses current emo-pop to slather emotion onto emotional scenes. Sometimes, stuff that's really emotionally compelling can be really smart too. But the sad fact is, it doesn't have to be.

The sad fact is, there are more people who buy to please their hearts/limbic systems first than there are people who buy to satisfy their need for intellectual stimulation. Horror, Action, Romance. Death, violence, love. Sprinkle a little sex in and hello lizard brain, hello $100 million dollar opening weekend. Same goes for books, if the Romance share of the market is any indication. If the success of Chicken Soup for the Soul is indication. (I'm sorry, this is in the same category as AI for me, since it stimulates a type of emotion I find...annoying). Some people point to this fact and say it's the a sign of the end times, creatively and it'll be WWF and Soap Operas as far as the eye can see in a few years.

And some people might look at this and see it as a march from intelligence. I don't see it that way. It's prioritizing emotion. It's saying as a fan, "Look, this is my thing. You can make it smart or dumb, but if you make it really, really heartwarming/hot/scary/hair-raising, I'm there. I will give you my money. I will preorder your books. I will watch Titanic sixteen freaking times with my girlfriend! *squeal*."

So what do you do if you're a more serious writer? If what you do is more about making the mind do some work? Ms. Tilton suggests

More serious readers, that’s what I think genre fiction needs: readers who don’t mind doing some work, readers who can appreciate the stuff that a writer puts into her work below the surface story, the stuff like symbol and metaphor and allusions, complex sentence structure, or techniques like Priest’s unreliable narrator.

Those readers are out there. There are readers who care more about "the serious stuff below the surface story" and prioritize that over the emotional impact. There are readers who enjoy that exclusively and don't want emotion all over their literary allusions and complex sentence structure. But I'm sorry, there are WHOLE lot more who read for thrills or arousal or romance or horror first, and literary merit second.

There are always going to be more readers who read for emotion, and I think most of don't mind symbol and metaphor and complex sentence structure. But their number one priority is emotional impact. And when she says "readers’ preference for the mindless stuff overwhelms their appreciation for more serious genre works, when the serious stuff doesn’t sell while the mindless stuff gets snatched up off the shelf, the consequence is the dumbing-down of the genre, creating a marketplace in which books for serious readers can not survive." she's starting from a flawed premise, I think. I don't think hoards prefer stupid, I think they prefer emotion. And if "serious genre works" in question are serious with their attention to intellectual and literary rigor yet lack the emotional impact that the reader-at-large goes to the bookstore to find, then no. They're not going to get a share of the "emotion-first" buyers.

But you can't say, "Forget about the reason you came here, forget about whether or not it makes you feel, you should care about the skill with which I crafted my multi-layered literary allusions." Not if you're writing in a genre with those emotional requirements, not if you want find that audience and get them to open their wallets for you.

I think if you want to get that audience, you can't say, "Forget about your mindless escapist drivel, stop being stupid and come appreciate my finely crafted metaphor." You have to bring the what they want into that finely crafted metaphor. Writing that best selling genre trash that stinks so bad it scares the "good" writers off your genre isn't a question of turning off your intelligence, it's a question of developing the ability to skillfully play with their emotions, which is harder than it looks. Successfully hitting a genre's emotional buttons is a different skill set than complex sentence structure and multi-layered allusions and writing at a college level. Not an opposite skill set, just a different one.

You want a bigger audience for your book? There are plenty of factors, but there are whole herds of readers out there in the genre pens, just itching for a book that's just SO hot/heartwarming/horrific/thrilling. And they don't care if it's good or bad, they just want it really, really thrilling. They'll read smart, complex and multilayered, but it has to be thrilling.

If emotions aren't your thing, if you prefer the intellectual over the emotional in the fiction you read or write, that doesn't make you a heartless robot. And chances are, some of the really incredibly groundbreaking, prize-winning, "good" writing out there - the kind the readers mentioned in the first quote get a literary boner for - some of that intelligent, "quality" fiction is also super-emotionally compelling. But some of it isn't. That's not what it's going for, that's not the goal. And that's fine, and it can still be very, very smart and very good. And people who know what they're talking about will talk highly of it.

But it's never, ever going to sell as well as stuff that's smart AND emotionally compelling. And, sadly, it's probably going to drown in a sea of the stuff that is brain-hurtingly stupid and mind-numbingly formulaic but emotionally compelling.

You want to write smart stories? Cool. You will automatically appeal to the (unfortunately) smaller herd that reads for smart/literary/quality/complex allusion kinda stuff.

You want them to find a larger audience? You want them to be read widely? You want access to the genre herd? The herd wants emotion. The herd is a bunch of sappy, horny, schmaltzy, bored, angry, frustrated, romantic, thrill-seeking, guys and girls who will pick up a book, any book, that pushes their particular genre button well. They'll happily tolerate dumb, but I'm pretty sure they'll also tolerate smart if it comes along with a skillful push of their emotional button.

Asking the herd to be smarter, or be more appreciative of literary quality or pointless. People like what they like. People buy what they like, and good portion of the ones who still bother to read fiction these days are reading for emotion. Bring them that, and I think they'll eat the intellectual stuff right along with it. Maybe even learn to appreciate it.

But as one of that herd, as someone who'll pick a decent, hot, fun romance novel for my ride on the commute over a more intellectually challenging "literary" novel every time, I'm slightly insulted by the implication that I pick the hot, entertaining romance because it's dumb and easy to read. I'd love to read a hot, entertaining romance that also has all that stuff for "serious" readers she mentioned in the first quote.

But. When I go into a bookstore, into my preferred genre aisle and spend my genre-herd dollar, I need you to fulfill the genre/emotional/limbic system needs I came here to fill. You will not change the nature of the genre herd beast. And you will not get the beast's dollar unless you tickle my lizard brain too. You don't have to make it dumb! You don't have to make it bad. You don't have to make it the opposite of literary quality. You have to also skillfully push whatever that emotionally-driven genre's button happens to be. And it can be harder than it looks. And it has nothing at all to do with complex sentence structure.

And as a member of the genre herd, as a fan of the genre, I'm always vaguely insulted by the implication that if only I'd reengage my brain and set aside my childish things, my mindless entertainment, I'd be able to appreciate the big girl books with the big girl words and the big girl themes. And the implication that those who prefer the average escapist entertainment to the average Booker Prize winner are somehow dumber. You know what? I am capable of appreciating literary merit. I've got the B.A.. I think it's tacky to play dueling standardized test scores, but I usually end up winning. I'm a smart girl. I don't prefer dumb entertainment, and I don't think my genre-herd buddies do either. Not most of them, not even the dumb ones.

What we prefer is emotion. We're not asking you to prefer it or to make your book any less literary, I think. But to appeal to us (and there are more of us than there are of you), to get our almighty dollar you must appeal to our emotions and you must do it skillfully, intensely, and within the boundaries of our genre. You need to have a romance central to the plot and happy ending in Romance. Do that effectively and evoke our emotions intensely and you are more than welcome to our 40% share of the paperback market. And feel free to be as smart as you want as long as as you give my emotions a vigorous workout in the meantime.

We really, really do want more smart people, more smart writing, more daring writing here in romance, but when we're buying as romance readers (or whatever genre) you have to come to us. You need to stop thinking of us as mindless-consumers and start thinking of us as emotionally-driven consumers, I think. When we're in this mode and spending a whole lot of money on a whole lot of disappointing crap looking to satisfy this particular emotional need, we're not looking for dumb. We're just not looking for smart. There's a subtle but distinct difference.

Value that need as highly as we do, or at least satisfy it real good, and we can take just about all the smart you can muster. But there will always, always, always be more emotion-driven purchases than there are intellectually-driven ones.

I don't think you need to sell out or dumb down your product to appeal to this base; I don't believe this is a zero-sum game. And I do think there's a place for intellectually compelling fiction that isn't also emotionally compelling. And I'm sure really good examples of dry, intellectually-compelling prose makes someone money. It's got its place.

I just think that if the "intellectual literary purist-peanut butter" fans could come to appreciate and incorporate the "emotional genre herd beast-chocolate" - rather than bemoaning its non-peanut-butterness and how it's nothing but nutrition-less empty calorie sugar that's not nearly as full of vitamins and protein and natural goodness as their more worthy, nutritious peanut butter - that they'd discover that chocolate and peanut butter can work well together. That a whole lot of chocolate fans might really like some peanut butter in their chocolate. And that by virtue of the fact that people are willing to spend a whole lot more $ on chocolate, if they add a healthy dollop of it to their peanut butter, they'll sell a whole lot more peanut butter.

Both can be enjoyed separately, sure. But say "screw that candy bullshit, why can't more of you stupid candy lovers stop rotting your teeth and come enjoy my all natural organic peanut butter?" They're likely to respond by saying, "Screw you, this is my dessert, I'm eating my M+Ms." You're welcome to sell your organic peanut butter at the health food store. But if you put it inside a thin shell of high quality chocolate, the dessert crowd will eat it by the truckload and say, "WOW, that was a really awesome chocolate and check out that peanut butter," and you can laugh your organic peanut grinding ass all the the way to the bank.

But the trick is, you've got to learn how to make some really good chocolate, and believe it or not, that's harder than it looks. You're free to dismiss the genre-herd as brainless thrill seekers, but the best selling crap you line your birdcage with is probably satisfying some need, even if that isn't a need for high quality, literary prose. If you come to us, if you find a way to satisfy that particular emotional need with your "more intelligent writing", we genre fans will be SO happy to welcome you with our $. I will, anyway. I don't mind if my chocolate is nutritious, it just has to be good chocolate.

I'm not saying smart prose is always dry prose. That would be as silly as saying exciting prose is always stupid prose. I'm saying, smart isn't the end all and be all of fiction. And I'm saying that it's the emotion that's selling with the so-called crappy escapist genre fiction that the beast consumes by the truckload, not the stupidity.


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