Tropes

A commenter on Nick Mamatas’ blog posted a link I wanted to share: “Literary Fiction is a Genre: A List” by Edan Lepucki. This article, obviously, is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I really like how it goes through and identifies tropes of literary fiction. And, yes, those are all legitimate tropes in the genre, just like we’ve got tropes in the spec fic world. And the post got me thinking. What’s wrong with a trope?

Perhaps it’s tempting to look at the Strange Horizons “Stories We’ve Seen Too Often” list and use it as a writing prompt. I know a couple of my stories were “I wonder if I can make the trope work” experiments. But let me tell you something about those stories — they collected a very large number of very nice rejection letters before landing at a publication that hadn’t seen the trope too often to even consider it. Even if you do the trope better than it’s ever been done before, you’re starting with your story at a huge disadvantage, at least in the speculative fiction community.

But Lepucki is right about the lit fic tropes. I do see them a lot, in print, in respected publications. Clearly there’s a market for them.

And right here in our own genre, I consistently see calls for submissions to zombie anthologies, or time-travel anthologies. There’s a whole magazine dedicated to re-exploring Golden Age tropes. Asimov’s may try to eschew the tropes, but there are certainly publishers and editors who still actively want them.

So what’s the deal?

More and more, I think of tropes like a comfortable, old pair of bedroom slippers. There’s nothing daring or challenging about a trope, even when you’re “re-thinking” it. (And, I’d argue, if you’re not re-thinking it, you’re just ripping off the masters.) But a lot of times, that’s what we’re after. When I want to escape into a giant-robot fantasy, I’m not looking for challenging, mind-altering fiction. I want the comfy slippers. I suspect that the academics who are the primary market for lit fic feel the same way. They want to be able to point to the current issue of whatever journal and use it as an example of how to achieve competent fiction in the genre, and not have to stretch their (and their students’) brains to get something out of it.

What these comfortable stories rarely are, however, are classics. Generally the stories that get remembered, that get talked about, that themselves get imitated are the ones that did something new, something different. These can be equally challenging to sell for other reasons, of course, but only very rarely do we cite something that embraces tropes as noteworthy (and even then, it’s usually as the archetype of the trope — think Star Wars).

This all comes down to knowing your audience and knowing your market. Certainly writers have made careers — and very successful ones — doing nothing but regurgitating tropes. But those authors know their publishers and know their readers, and market their work appropriately. Other writers garner awards and critical acclaim for their innovation, however that doesn’t necessarily translate to sales. Those writers similarly must know which publishers are willing to lose money on something that pushes boundaries, and must find a way to reach readers who like something that defies their expectations.

But, whether you’re trying to embrace or avoid the tropes, you’ve got to know them. And to know them, you’ve got to read a lot, which is how Lepucki and the (former) Strange Horizons editors came up with the lists I linked to above. So, the takeaway advice of this rambling post? Read.

But I think I’ve said that before…

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