Novelty, Perversity, and Randomness

John Ohno on 2016-07-01

I recently read a blog post (never mind which one, since this is a pretty common position) railing against “rules of thumb” for writers that make generalizations about readers. This post made the argument that a readership, because it is heterogeneous, cannot be generalized about. Such an argument is untrue (one can take the mean, median, and mode of extremely diverse data sets and still get somewhat valuable information from that), but more crucially, it’s untrue in a boring way. It’s true that rules of thumb that make generalizations about readership are problematic, but this is the case for a much more interesting reason that I’ve never seen articulated.

First, I’d like to get something out of the way. These rules of thumb and generalizations about readers exist for a reason: specifically, they are useful to two different groups of authors. One group is expressly commercial: people whose primary or sole goal is to maximize their sales will want to optimize for a large readership, and will therefore want to model their readership and appeal to this model. The second group is the aspiring amateur: someone with no experience and no model at all of a readership or of the way in which one goes about writing benefits greatly from the confidence provided by any direction at all, even if the direction in question is anecdotal, misleading, limiting, or false; arbitrary advice benefits these people.

The real reason why rules of thumb are a problem is that readers read in order to satisfy a hunger for perversity. By this I mean that readers are looking for a special kind of novelty: within a constrained system (such as a fictional world, a genre, a style of argument or of writing, or a set of themes), a path through this domain is created that is plausible but surprising. The author is an engineer of subversion, creating expectations and then delighting the reader by perverting them. Rules of thumb, whether or not they correspond to tendencies desirable to readers, are best understood (as TvTropes notes) as a set of rules or expectations in the mind of the reader — in other words, as the starting point of subversion.

However much a reader may love some trope, the reader will love an interesting perversion of that trope more.

Writers, like readers, are human beings, unfortunately. Human beings are a bit too good at categorizing and finding connections: this is a liability when it comes to producing novel ideas or determining how novel an idea is once produced. Randomness-driven “writing machines” like cut-ups, bibliomancy, Cards Against Humanity, and similar techniques can introduce novelty unlikely to be produced by a human mind unaided; constraints like those in Oulipolian writing games or those used by Dr Seuss can force novelty from the reader’s perspective by warping the environment the writer is navigating: the most straightforward choice of words for a writer unable to use the letter ‘e’ will seem very strange to a reader not accustomed to playing the same game.

It is important to note that the novelty of a work is a property of the mind of the reader, not a property of the work itself. In other words, an experienced reader has more discerning taste as an inevitable consequence of that experience: anything is novel to a tabula rasa and nothing is novel to an omniscient being. As a result, the game of writing can never be won. Every set of expectations is the end result of someone subverting previous expectations. Furthermore, we can divide up groups of people by what expectations they have (and thus, what they find novel), essentially based on what they’ve already been exposed to.

A work like The Last Ringbearer is in dialogue with Lord of the Rings, but more importantly, it is a perversion of expectations created by Lord of the Rings; its value is lost on anyone who isn’t familiar with the original work. To a lesser extent, a work like Neuromancer is explicitly a perversion of the expectations set up by golden age SF: where Asimov would have given the protagonist role to someone in a role of power or authority, Gibson gave the protagonist role to someone incapable of changing even his own destiny, explicitly on the verge of being killed by minor criminals with the implication that he wouldn’t even be remembered, whose role in the story is that of a convenient tool for powers beyond reckoning; where Heinlein would have given us a wise-cracking Bill Murray protagonist and Asimov would have given us a Spock, Gibson gives us Case as Shinji Ikari; where any golden age author would have described only the important parts of the environment and shown us a gleaming, streamlined future, Gibson fixates on the tiny dents in the table of a diner and the smell of decaying newspaper piled in the entryway of a dilapidated storefront; where golden age governments are noble or evil, Gibson shows a world where government ranges from minor corruption to complete irrelevance. Similarly, Dune goes out of its way to pervert all our expectations: we have an aristocracy whose power is based on access to resources instead of an aristocracy based on the idea of genius loci and the divine right of kings as in most extruded fantasy product; we have faster than light space travel and a multi-planet civilization in a world without computers wherein most fighting is done using knives; our far-future society’s great new social and political movement is driven by an offshoot of Islam invented by an ecologist and practiced by desert nomads who ritually consume psychedelic drugs and drink their own urine. While these works can be consumed by people without the understanding of the context they are in dialogue with, the enjoyment gained by such readers is limited to that of intratextual perversion (i.e., plot twists), free-floating novelty (“what a cool idea!”), and expectations based on other domains like the real world; rather than being a lazy new trend by people trying to push cinematic universes, intertextual perversion is the primary defining factor in whether or not a creative work is considered seminal or culturally important within a genre. To use marxist dialectic terminology, a seminal work is one that is the antithesis of all that has come before it, and forces the genre thereafter to synthesize it. Every work in a genre is a reaction to each seminal work in that genre: either supporting it or reacting against it.

We can consider a genre to be defined by the parameters of its conventions: in other words, what attributes do its seminal works have in common? The domain of any interesting work in that genre, then, is in probing the unexamined assumptions of readers who have internalized these conventions: what things are these readers currently incapable of considering, and how can we surprise them by causing them to consider these ideas unexpectedly? Authors, being human, are probably also going to have a hard time considering unknown unknowns; they are advised to use machinery to aid them, since machinery has no problem being creative and original.

It is not that following the “rules” of a genre is foolishly stifling the wonderful underlying free creative spirit of the writer: any author who thinks that their underlying free creative spirit is something special never to be tamed is encouraged to look at their pile of rejection letters and reconsider a career outside the arts. Instead, following the “rules” misses the point entirely: the “rules” exist in order to make the game more interesting. Breaking the spirit of the law without breaking the letter, and vice versa, is the very manner in which writing is creative.