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A curious photo, a touching story, and how lies can be true

I have been in email contact with a number of people pretty much since email existed. Today, one of them sent me the following picture.


Touching, isn’t it? It is certainly a poignant message about the costs of war. The symbolism is clear. The bicycle represents youth and innocence, the condition of it represents how such things are lost and abandoned because of war, and the tree shows how the natural world continues without regard for such conflicts between men and prompts us to reflect on why we continue to engage in such things.

The trouble is that it’s not real. Not entirely. The photo is real. There really is a bike in that tree. The story is made up, though. According to Snopes, a boy by the name of Don Puz from Vashon-Maury Island in Washington State was playing in the woods with some friends in 1954. He was the only one who brought his bike. When his friends left on foot, he joined them, leaving the bike leaning against a tree. He didn’t much care for the old bike, which had been given to him. He owned at least one other, so he never returned for it. The tree grew around it and it became an internet curiosity half a century later.

That’s not as good of a story, though. The one the email came with is better. So which is truer?

Well, the one about Don and his abandoned bike is more factual, but the fictional story about the boy going off to war in 1914 is also true, in a way. The message is true. The theme is meaningful. War really is as disruptive and wasteful as this fictional account implies.

Whereas I resent being lied to, and I don’t appreciate it when people fabricate or misrepresent evidence to make their point, I do appreciate a good story. I am a fiction writer. Telling lies with true meaning is what I do. The story someone pasted onto that photo is a good piece of fiction. I like it. Had it been presented as fiction, it would have been better. If it carried the disclaimer that you often see in front of books (mine included) that all characters and events in them are fictitious, I would have no problems with it at all. However, I am also an advocate of not confusing fact with fiction, even when the fiction is true. Implying something is a fact when it is not is simply a lie no matter how true the message is. I try my best not to do this. Lying to make a valid point is still lying.

With that said, it is time for full disclosure. Nothing in the books I wrote actually happened. None of the people in them is real. Many of the things I say in my stories, however, are completely true. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which those are.

On Digital Books and the Evolution of Genre Fiction

I was listening to an obscure band, playing music in a relatively obscure musical subgenre last night on my MP3 player when I realized that before the age of digital music, I would never have heard either this band or this type of music.  It was simply too different, too outside the mainstream, and too risky for any music producer to take a chance on.  But the rise of digital music has led to the evolution of many new musical subgenres and I can’t help wondering if something similar might not be happening for fiction.

I think it may.  One bit of advice I saw recently for writers of e-books seemed counterintuitive at first but it reinforces this idea.  The advice? –  Don’t try to appeal to a broad audience.  Focus on your core group, those likely to be strong fans and don’t worry about pissing off those who aren’t, even if that’s the majority of people on the planet.

I’m not entirely sure, but this might not be bad advice.  It happened with music.  It split into a great number of subgenres and I doubt many of them appeal to more than a relatively small group — but those who like them, really like them.

So what does this mean for fiction?  Well, possibly the same kinds of things it meant for music but possibly even more so because almost everyone listens to music of one type or another but fiction readers are already a subset of the population and possibly more discriminating about what they read than most music listeners are about what they listen to.  Fiction readers are more like the audiophile subset of music listeners.

Here are a few possible impacts of the e-book revolution that come to mind.  Most of this is idle speculation, of course, but since the batteries in my crystal ball died, my prognostication abilities are somewhat limited.  Still, these seem to make sense to me.

Specialization – More books that focus on specific themes, tones, and moods within each genre will become available.  What this means for readers, as it did for music listeners, is that there will be works more likely to really appeal to them.  If you like science fiction novels with an introspective protagonist, told in a satirical tone, conveying a hopeful mood, and a humanistic theme, well, there just may eventually be a subgenre for that.

Genre melding – This is already happening.  There are fantasy detective stories, science fiction westerns, horror romances, etc.  Digital books, I think, are likely to fertilize such cross breeding and give rise to new subgenres mainly because it will be less risky to explore such mutations.

More books – More books will be published simply because authors can bypass the traditional gateways (agents and publishers) and publish their work for little or no money.

More variable quality – The downside of letting anyone in means, well, anyone can come in.  A lot of what gets e-published may do so with inadequate editing or review, meaning the reader can’t assume a minimal level of quality.  A lot of what becomes available may be overly verbose, deadly dull, full of errors, or even incomprehensible.

Smaller audiences – Highly specialized subgenres will appeal to fewer people so individual books and authors may have few readers.  The plus side, of course, is that these books and authors will be available to those readers where they were not before.

Larger audiences – No, this isn’t a contraction.  It is quite possible that the total number of people who read may increase as more books that appeal to them become available.  Most e-published books may have few readers but a lot more books will be out there.

Disdain for works with broad appeal – At one time there was a sentiment that if a song was played on the radio, especially AM radio, it could not be good.  It was “popular” or “pop” music, which, almost by definition, no serious music listener would bother with.  You sometimes come across this with books, although not as frequently.  The reason bibliophiles don’t normally disdain best seller lists, I think, is because, as I said before, book readers are already an elite group.  But if authors feel free to explore their art with less concern over popularity, you may see popular books being looked at the same way as pop music once was; it represents the lowest common denominator and appeals to those without cultured taste or much knowledge of the art form.  I personally think this is somewhat elitist because when all is said and done, different people like different things.  Taste in music or literature is a personal matter.  It’s like food in that way.  If you like beer better than champagne, who is to tell you you’re wrong?

Harder to find – With more books available, it may be harder to find things you really want.  First there is the quality issue as stated above.  The reader will have more to choose from, but much of it may be dreadful.  This can make the good stuff hard to find.  But even if you could weed out all of the stinkers, there will still be a lot of choices.  It’s like going to a Chinese restaurant with a huge menu.  It’s hard to decide because so much looks good but you can only pick one thing.  Deciding what you want most is difficult because there are so many options that sound good.  Unlike with the menu though, a lot of the book options, as is true now with music, are not obvious.  It’s like there are a bunch of addendums and footnotes with really fine print on the menu so you may have to search a lot more.  The most popular stuff will still be in big print on the first page, metaphorically speaking, but what you would like most may only found written in Mandarin on the back of the napkin under the soy sauce.  On the plus side, it is available somewhere.

There does not seem to be a lot of consensus on the benefits and drawbacks of e-publishing right now.  There are obvious issues, quality and piracy probably being the most troubling.   But I think, overall, the e-book revolution will certainly be good for readers.  I think it will also good for authors and for agents and publishers but not without some paradigm shifts.  Sometimes more is less but in this more is better.  More books, more published authors, more perspectives, more diversity, and more choices for readers.  Problems exist and I hope they are resolvable, but as both a reader and writer, I see the rise of digital books and e-publishing as a very good thing.

Oh–The band I was listening to was Magion, a progressive rock band in the subgenre of female fronted symphonic metal with Gothic metal influences — not as symphonic as say Epica or Nightwish — but I digress.  What can I say?  I like it.  You won’t hear it on the radio and you can’t dance to it but I like this stuff and yes, I did buy the MP3 album from Amazon and I don’t care that they will never make it on anyone’s top ten lists.

Beyond Genre – Novels and Emotional Needs

 I stated in a previous blog post that I thought tone and mood mattered more to me than genre and provided a far better indicator of whether or not I would like a particular book.  I’m not saying genre doesn’t matter; it just doesn’t matter as much.  In this post, I’m going to try to explore why that might be.  I assume others may also share my ranking of relative importance but since my sample size for this in one, my hypothesis is philosophical rather than scientific so I’ll treat this as a personal voyage.

As a reminder (so you don’t have to read the previous blog), the term mood describes the overall feeling of a literary work in terms of the emotions felt by the reader, and tone describes the way that feeling is expressed by the attitude of the author.

Fiction is an art form.  People feel something when they read it.  As with all art forms, it is this emotion that draws people to the work.  It may have intellectual aspects as well, which can enhance the experience; and increased knowledge about the art form can add to one’s appreciation of it, but it is the emotional impact that makes a person either like a particular piece or dislike it.

First, let me define the term “art form.”  I’m making this one up, not the term, the definition, so there is no compelling reason for you to agree.  It’s just my take on what all good art has in common.  For me, an art form is any stylized representation of some aspect of reality intended to evoke an emotional response from an audience.  That’s what makes a novel art, and a text book not.  Not that you can’t have an emotional response to a text book.  When in school, there were several text books I really came to hate but I seriously doubt the authors intended that.

That feeling the audience gets from art, whether it is a painting or sculpture, a piece of music, a film, or a novel, is ultimately what determines if they like it–not appreciate it–like it.  They like how it makes them feel.  You can appreciate how a painter uses color and texture or how a writer constructs scenes and characters but still not like the end result.  The work, despite all of its technical strengths may not touch you, it may not make you feel anything, or it may evoke feelings you don’t like or want at the time.

Consciously or unconsciously, people approach a work of art with the desire to feel something from it.  If the work meets their emotional need, they like it.  If it does not, they don’t.  But of course different people have different emotional needs at different times so a book they did not like ten years ago, they may find they like now and may not even understand why.  I think it is because their emotional needs have changed during that time.  The novel, after all, is the same.

In some ways, all art is a form of escapism.  This is especially true for novels, as well as movies and fictional television shows.  But the word escapism has negative connotations and is, I think, not entirely accurate.  People turn to fictional stories in books and movies to temporarily take their minds away from the pressures of their individual realities or to vicariously partake in something they may find missing in their real lives, but this isn’t so much to escape from their lives as to balance them emotionally.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s assume a person works every day at a dull job in which he has no real control over what he does or when he does it.  When he comes home, this doesn’t change.  Several things have to be done, whether it’s pick up the kids from school, drop them off at band practice, cook supper, pay the bills, mow the lawn, or fix something that broke the day before.  When he gets that rare moment of free time, how does he fill it?  Well, if he likes having no real control over his life, if he does not like making decisions, he may just turn on the TV news and watch more things he can’t really have much effect on.  His dull and impotent life doesn’t bother him and therefore doesn’t create an emotional need.  But if the necessity to always react to situations rather than control them makes him feel frustrated, a good novel with a protagonist who always takes charge of any situation, may be just what he needs.  It can help him feel things he does not often get to feel in his normal routine.  It can help balance his emotional life.  Whether the novel is an epic adventure, mystery, space opera, or western, doesn’t matter as much as the feeling of excitement and potency the mood of the novel provides.

The thing creating an emotional need does not have to be personal.  For example, someone who has more generalized frustrations about humanity in general, who is bothered by how people always seem to find excuses to harm one another or do really irrational and self destructive things, may turn to fiction to balance growing feelings of pessimism with books with optimistic and hopeful moods.

Escapism?  Maybe.  Therapy?  Perhaps.  Novels can fulfill an emotional need and are probably more effective and certainly less fattening than downing a six-pack.

Related Posts:

Beyond Genre – Tone And Mood

Beyond Genre-Tone and Mood

Elements of LitWhen asked what kind of books you read, how often do you respond initially with some genre category: science fiction, fantasy, young adult, epic adventure, etc?  When you do, occasionally someone might say, ah, so you must really like X (X being the best selling or most heavily marketed book in that genre at the time).  If you say you didn’t much care for it, or loathed it, or aren’t interested in reading it after seeing the description in some review, you may find yourself confronting a very bewildered face, especially if the owner of said face happens to really like X.

As an example, I’m going to pick one extremely popular Young Adult (YA) fantasy series; Harry Potter.  If we assume only people who like this genre will even crack open the cover, all reader reviews on Amazon.com , Goodreads, or any other site should give these books four of five stars.  It may surprise you that there are actually some readers of YA fantasy who loathed these books.

The following statistics are of customer reviews on Amazon.com for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as of 3 July 2011.

 5,655 Reviews

5 star:    4,758 (84%)

4 star:       548 (10%)

3 star:         93 (2%)

2 star:         80 (1%)

1 star:         76 (1%)

(2% lost due to rounding)

 Here is another example.  These numbers are for the popular YA Soft Science Fiction book Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

 2,484 Reviews

5 star:   1,906 (76%)

4 star:      373 (15%)

3 star:      106 (4%)

2 star:        50 (2%)

1 star:        49 (2%)

(1% lost due to rounding)

 Okay, so there are always a few malcontents.  The stats still show that most people really liked these books, right?  In the case of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 94% gave it four or five stars.  For Hunger Games, it was 91%.

Yes and no.  There are two reasons why these figures do not necessarily represent the overall opinions of readers of those particular genres.  The most obvious is that no statistics indicate how many applicable genre readers decided not to read these after seeing the description on the book jacket or on Amazon.  The reader reviews only represent the opinions of people who actually thought enough of the book to pick it up and give it a shot based on the marketing and, possibly, other reviews.  In other words, only those who expected to like the book before reading it were in the pool of potential reviewers.  The other reason is that many people (myself included) are more likely to write a positive review for a book they liked and simply not say anything about the stinkers.

So what is it beyond genre that makes someone want to read a book and, having read it, like it?  I think much of the answer to this question lies in what it is different people are looking for in their reading experience.

I have probably read thousands of fiction books.  Until recently, I never really kept count or, except for a few I really liked, kept copies.  These were in various genres but primarily science fiction, fantasy, epic adventure, and YA although I have also read several mysteries, and books considered literary fiction.  Some I liked, some I didn’t, and I asked myself why this was.  What was it about one book I really liked while another in the same genre, possibly with a similar plot left me cold?  I have come to realize that, for me, the tone and mood of the novel matters more than the genre.

If you are not familiar with tone and mood as they apply to literature, here are some quick definitions.

Tone – The tone of a novel reflects the author’s attitude toward not only the characters and events he creates but toward the story itself as a whole as well as toward the reader.  It is conveyed by how the author tells the story including choice of setting, vocabulary, and other details.  A single book can have more than one tone simultaneously and they can be mixed in an almost infinite number of combinations.

Following are some words that can describe tone:

Amused, Angry, Cheerful, Clear, Conciliatory, Conversational, Detailed, Formal, Gloomy, Humorous, Imploring, Informal, Ironic, Lighthearted, Matter-of-fact, Neutral, Optimistic, Pessimistic, Playful, Pompous, Resigned, Sad, Satirical, Serious, Suspicious, Witty. . .

An example may help to clarify this concept.  Terry Pratchett populates his immensely popular Discworld fantasy novels with likeable and believable characters and he puts them in situations that can seem very real–except he conveys through the use of a lighthearted and satirical tone that he does not take them seriously and neither should the reader.  Neither they nor the world they inhabit can really exist, and yet the stories are immensely enjoyable and have important meaning and relevance.  It’s not easy to do but Sir Pratchett is a master at it.

Mood – The mood of a story is the prevailing emotion the reader experiences when reading the book.  Setting, plot, dialog, images, and many other factors can be used to convey mood.  Sometimes the mood will remain the same from the first page of a novel to the last; other times it will change because of changes in the plot or characters.  The emotion the reader feels at the end, however, is the most important for defining the overall mood of the book.

Following are some words that can describe mood:

Anxious, Cold, Disgusted, Depressed, Excited, Fanciful, Frightened, Frustrated, Gloomy, Happy, Hopeful, Idealistic, Intellectual, Joyful, Lonely, Loss, Melancholy, Mournful, Mysterious, Optimistic, Pessimistic, Realistic, Romantic, Sad, Sentimental, Sorrowful, Suspenseful, Suspicious, Tense, Thoughtful . . .

Basic emotions such as these provide the mood for the story.

A good example of tone and mood is provided here using Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as and examplehttp://www.online-literature.com/austen/prideprejudice/

The tone of the novel is light, satirical, and vivid.  The mood is intellectual and cold.  In this book, lack of strong emotion is the prevailing mood.

Notice that words that can be used to describe tone can also be used to define mood because both are dependent on feeling.  You can think of mood as the overall feeling of the work in terms of the emotions felt by the reader, and tone as the way that feeling is expressed by the attitude of the author.

This blog post has already gone much longer than I had originally intended, so even though this has not been an exhaustive exploration of tone and mood, it’s time to wrap it up.

My point in this post is to point out that there are aspects of fiction beyond genre that may be better indicators of whether or not a person will like a particular book.  A bit of introspection has led me to suspect that the most important–to me at least–are tone and mood.  As to why that is will have to wait for another blog post though.

Related Posts:

Beyond Genre – Novels And Emotional Needs

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