The Vic-20 and Genre

One of the first computer games I ever played was a game on the VIC-20 called “Night Driving”. A black screen, with colored rectangles representing the reflectors on the side of the road. It was a celebration of the limitations of the platform – there was no way that computer could display anything like a real road, so it turned that weakness into a selling point. Now, It was hardly a great game – it’s other main selling point was that it was one of maybe 3 games available – but I always loved the sheer chutzpah of it.

I think of this sometimes when I look at runaway successes in literature, and I’m specifically looking at the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, with a little bit of an eye towards Dan Brown. I look at those and one common thread runs between them: the manner in which they inspire nerdfury. Specifically, they’re genre books that are fairly indifferent to the rules of genre. You’d think that would be a problem, but I sometimes suspect that it’s actually a big advantage.

At the most obvious explanation is a trifle cynical. For any given genre, there are a certain number of people who are interested, and a vastly smaller number of people who care a whole hell of a lot. If you write for those enthusiasts then there’s a good chance that you’re not going to be too interesting to the larger populace because they’ve already demonstrated that they don’t really care that much.

A slightly less cynical explanation is that the basics of a genre are usually very quickly grasped, and it’s those basics that really matter. Sticking to those basics (whatever they are) is more likely to appeal. Moving away from them, even if it’s “more” into the genre, is moving away from what people came for.

There’s a nice lesson there – if you’re enthusiastic about a genre and willing to just use it to launch into a story you’re excited about, then there are examples of how well it can work. Naturally, some readers immediately want to point out that these examples of how things can work are reprehensible affronts against all that is literature, so we can just take that rage as a given.

Now, the counterpoint is that the more purely you serve a genre, the more you create an audience for yourself. The people who are REALLY into a genre are always looking out for something to serve their level of interest, and they constitute a pre-existing audience. You can do well by playing to that, even in a market as small as the RPG industry (some would say you are already doing so by writing RPGs but, hey, into every life a little recursion must fall).

The problem comes, I think, when the choice is not made, and you end up kind of half-falling into genre. If you make the choice consciously, you can work with it. If you make it accidentally then you’re a lot more dependent on luck than you are on your talent and effort, and that’s a pretty tenuous position.

6 thoughts on “The Vic-20 and Genre

  1. wyldelf

    Most of my geek friends LOVE Harry Potter (I enjoy it too). The people who I know who don’t care for it are mostly not geeks, and those who aren’t don’t have nerd rage about it. It’s just a lukewarm “not for me” type reaction.

    Most of the rage against Brown and Meyers are about the quality of writing. Is that the VIC-20 metaphor, their limited writing ability?

    Alhough Meyers has a special place in hate-hell, mostly by my feminist friends. In addition to the bad writing and Mary Sue main character there is the celebration of rape and abusers, and the old style male ideal. The ideal that men are violent and dangerous. The only difference is good men hold back those impulses. The celebration of the abuser (and contrawise, reinforcing the idea that abused women should stick it out for love). Edward fixes on Bella, professes she’s special, wants to hurt her, separates her from her friends and family in order to “keep her safe”, and so on.

    The celebration of rape (mostly in later books) is not just in the heroine comparison, and times when Edward physically and emotionally forces her to comply with his wishes, but when they finally do have sex, Edward loses control (or perhaps that’s just how sparkle vampires do it) and Bella ends up battered and bruised because of it but she still loves it because she loves him, and that’s all that matters.

    Most nerd rage that I’ve seen for Twilight stops at the bad writing and sparkle vampires.

  2. Tim

    I think those runaway successes are less about genre and more about finding something else that attracts readers.

    Harry Potter grabs people with a vaguely traditional epic arc, and you can almost track the series to Hero’s Journey. The characters grow in expected and predictable ways and there are minor surprises throughout, so that’s pretty spot on.

    Brown writes conspiracy kook formula, pure and simple. I’ve only read Deception Point and it tracks like a movie script, one that Michael Bay could direct. Just add explosions. Instant gold.

    Twilight I think finds its success less in the characters. I’ve read the first two books and while I’m reading them I can feel the characters. Agree or disagree, think they’re stupid twits or idiots or abusive a-holes, you can feel them. Yeah, Meyer is no Dostoevsky, but I think that most of the people that make that comparison (and I’ve seen it a lot) wouldn’t know Dostoevsky if he sat in their lap and wiggled around some.

    A great example, in my mind, of playing fast and loose with the genre rules is Dresden Files. Sometimes the books are so noir that I forget they’re supposed to be fantasy. I mean, you want screwed up vampires look there. I love them but there’s no stakes and garlic. Hell, Edward Cullen is a wannabe Thomas Raith anyhow. That’s how a tortured vampire love story should be!

  3. joshroby

    Yes! If you’re going to write in-genre, it needs to be a conscious choice, and you must accept or challenge (or both) the principles of the genre or else what you spit out will have no sizzle, no pop.


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