The Big Payback, er, Payoff


Matt was talking about Gene Wolfe when he hit on this:

Midstream Thoughts on Book of the New Sun :: Matthew Buscemi

This brings to mind a writing "principle" a former writing group harped on, that the reader should get "payoffs." The idea here is that each moment the reader spends scanning their eyes over the author's words creates a kind of debt, that the reader is putting themselves out by forcing themselves to pay attention to the writing. The author, under this logic, is thereby obligated to provide "payoff" for this debt. When pressed, the writing group would admit that elements such as narrative inter-connectivity and detail discovery could serve as "payoff," but the lived reality of receiving the group's feedback laid plain that "payoff" consisted of mostly of sex, violence, and explosions.

A couple of things to mull over:

First: Good feedback is hard to find, because good, thoughtful readers are hard to find, and many writers are actually not all that great readers. Most folks are guided by their tastes when they read, and have trouble owning up to that when they're asked to read in an editorial or analytical capacity. (I caught myself doing this once, when I realized I didn't like the fact that a friend had named a character "Deacon", because it reminded me of the word "bacon" and I hate bacon. No, really.)

Second: Payoff is largely about expectations, and the genre or labeling of a work is itself a signal about what to expect. I once wrote that much SF in film is little more than tarted-up violent action with some SF trappings shaved down and melted over it. I suspect many peoples' expectations about literary SF are about as denatured by now, in big part because most anything literary scarcely exists except as a prelude to a filmed deal, because that's where the money is.

I am as guilty as anyone else of providing payoffs in the form of big fat booms. I do it all the time, because I know it works, at least superficially. But I also know it's not the only payoff, and far from being the most interesting payoff. A cake isn't only icing, and besides, it comes at the end of the meal, not as the appetizer.

Romanticist that I can be about such things, I am inwardly in love with the idea that the author owes the reader nothing except the promise of absolute devotion to his vision. That vision could be anything, could manifest in any way. There doesn't have to be a payoff except in the sense that I'm seeing someone be true to themselves. But the lived reality (to use Matt's nice phrase) is that most such work is intolerably self-indulgent and inaccessible. If I plug into it, it's because I'm lucky enough to have an in with it somewhere, not because I can rise to the book's example. Rare is the work that lives and dies entirely by its own rules: Norman Manea's Captives; Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities. (It hits me just now that maybe the reason those things work is because they were produced under adverse social conditions that made it impossible to do anything other than tell the truth, no matter what the form factor.)

It's okay to give people a story, to keep them moving, keep them guessing, occasionally light things up with a boom. None of this is a sin against any of the muses. It's only a sin when it sucks all the oxygen out of the room and leaves everything else you wanted for the story suffocating on the floor. But that requires some modicum of taste and discernment, and those require cultivation independent of actual creative talent. Not something many people go out of their way to do.


Tags: genres  science fiction  writers  writing 


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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2019/07/03 17:00.

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