It's been said, not wholly incorrectly, that a story is not what it is about but how it is about it. This was once about how a given approach to a piece of material — a family drama, a comedy of errors, etc. — allowed new insights into what was happening within the material. But as of late this has become interpreted as an excuse to elevate style and form above all other considerations — above theme, above content, above a story about interesting people, above whether or not the work in question will be worth giving a damn about once all the noise about the mere fact of its existence has died down.
No question that at first it was exhilarating to explore style and form at the expense of almost everything else. The mistake was in not taking the lessons learned there and then applying them selectively back to the stories that are most worth telling and hearing.
Here's an irony: of all the media that have properly learned the lessons of their more experimental counterparts, television and film and sequential art, not literature itself, stand out as being the most successful. Most of us watch TV and movies and read comics now without blinking at non-linear storytelling, surreal elements or dream imagery, or what have you. All this stuff has not only entered the common vocabulary for mainstream filmmaking (thank you, David Lynch) but become difficult to conceive of without it.
What's strange is how all of these innovations have, over time, not rejuvenated literature but instead enervated it. The mark of a work's ambition and seriousness has become less its subject matter or its degree of insight than the ways it breaks with "traditional narrative" — inasmuch as there's any such tradition left to break from, apart from the bestsellers which self-respecting literati tell themselves they must look upon with horror lest they be drummed out of the union. The subject matter for the story becomes a vessel filled with any number of stylistic gestures, and insights become little more than posturing and lecturing, because they're not being permitted to take on a life of their own. The exactness of the observations and the justice of the situations are considered old news — but in the end they are all these stories ever had to deliver in the first place. Dress them up as you might, they never became any more full than when they were coming from somewhere in particular and about something in particular.
The SF&F side of this issue plays out, as you might imagine, rather differently from the lit-fic side. Most SF&F is written to sell, and that means heavy-duty textual experiments are usually not part of the plan. When they are, they are interpreted as a sign that some higher ambition is at play, some attempt to glean recognition outside of fandom and amongst literati — even if it really isn't.
This is not a wholly bad thing, since it means SF&F mostly sticks to the business of telling a story and telling it well. An affected style can make the goings-on in SF&F seem that much more enjoyably exotic, but at what cost? Again, I'm trying not to make this into an argument against experimentation, because I know full well that's a foolish position to take. The rules are there to be broken — but not indiscriminately or for the sake of quick glory. They are there to get you halfway where you need to be, and then the rest is up to you.
These days I pay that much more attention to the substance of a story — what is it showing me? what is it saying about its material? — than the actual sentence-by-sentence way it accomplishes this. The surface can be lovely, but in the end it's merely a surface, and there has to be something underneath it that convinces us. SF&F has by its very nature access to substance that other genres do not (or simply choose not to have access too). We shouldn't shirk that. We should write the stories that only SF&F can tell, and tell them in a way that makes them seem as universal and real as any other story we would choose to tell.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind