What Orhan Pamuk doesn’t understand about genre fiction

How by privileging his reading experiences and preferences, Pamuk shows in The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist that he doesn’t actually understand genre fiction.

The cover of Orhan Pamuk's The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, featuring a woman in a black dress lounging on a green couch holding a closed bookOrhan Pamuk’s The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist* is similar to Stephen King’s On Writing in that it presents itself as a distillation of a famous author’s thoughts on fiction (although Pamuk talks as much or even more about the reading of fiction as the writing of it) but what is presented as universally obvious and true ends up actually being about the particular experiences, biases and preoccupations of the famous author. Whether or not one finds value from the book depends largely on how much one’s own experiences, biases and preoccupations match up with the famous author.

For all that he uses as primary examples a lot of 19th and early 20th century novels that I really like, Pamuk and I were not a great match. But this post is not about that personal argument, rather it’s a look at how in trying to privilege the novels that have spoken to him, Pamuk shows that he doesn’t actually understand genre fiction, especially science fiction.

Things start well enough. Early on he writes:

Historical novels, fantastic novels, science fiction novels, philosophical novels, romances, and many other books that blend these various types are actually, just like so-called realist novels, based on everyday observations of life in the period in which they were written. (47-48)

This is good. This acknowledges that authors of genre fiction use one of the same key tactics as those of works of literary realism (and he even uses “so-called”!): observation. Details get taken from life and then worked into the fiction that the author is written. Those details are often transmuted. But not necessarily as radically or as often in literary realism as in genre fiction, especially science fiction (he doesn’t say what the difference between “fantastic novels” and “science fiction novels” is).

Later in the book, though, things go off the rails, especially in the last chapter where Pamuk introduces his concept of “the center”, which he says every great novel has — that, in fact, determines whether a novel is literary or not. I can’t really explain what Pamuk means by the center because he doesn’t really explain it himself — doesn’t seem to really even know what it is. It’s more of a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. The most succinct explanation he provides is:

The center of a novel is a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined. Novelist write in order to investigate this locus, to discover its implications, and we are aware that novels are read in the same spirit. When we first imagine a novel, we may consciously think of this secret center and know that we are writing for its sake—but sometimes we may be unaware of it. (153)

I have no problem if Pamuk wants to describe novels in this way. My issue is that he then uses this construct — one which is entirely idiosyncratic to him and isn’t well-defined — as a bludgeon against genre fiction.

For example:

Let us try to describe the insufficiency we feel when we read a novel, when we think via the medium of a novel. As we get further and further into story, as we joyfully lose our way in the forest of details and incidents, its world seem far more substantial than real life. One reason for this is the relationship between the secret center of the novel and the most basic aspects of life—a relationship that empowers novels to provide a greater feeling of authenticity than life itself. Another reason is that novels are built with everyday, universal, human sensations. Yet another reason is that in novels—and this is generally also true of genre novels, such as crime fiction, romances, science fiction, and erotic novels—we find the sensations and experiences that are missing in our own life. (123-124)

Pamuk ties this “secret center” to authenticity — in fact, an authenticity that is so authentic it’s more authentic than real life — and then claims that genre fiction lacks this type of center. That they are about the inauthentic experience of heightened sensation and exceptional experience. Or to put it in the way it more often is in these tired literary vs. genre debates: genre fiction’s only use is escapism from everyday life.

But wait—there’s more! Pamuk double down on his claim that works of genre fiction have no center, although he does do the inevitable carving out of exceptions for the (Lem and Dick for SF; plus a bonus of Patricia Highsmith and John Le Carre; although, what? No Le Guin?):

Both writing and reading a novel require us to integrate all the material that comes from life and from our imagination—the subject, the story, the protagonists, and the details of our personal world-with this light and this center. The ambiguity of their location is never a bad thing; on the contrary, it is a quality we readers demand, for if the center is too obvious and the light too strong, the meaning of the novel is immediately revealed and the act of reading feel repetitive. Reading genre novels—science fiction, crime novels, period fantasies, romance novels—we never ask ourselves the questions Borges asked while reading Moby-Dick: What is the real subject? Where is the center? The center of these novels is precisely where we found it before, while reading novels of the same type. Only the adventures, the scenery, the main characters, and the murderers are different. In the genre novel, the profound theme that the narrative must structurally imply remains the same from one book to the next. Apart from the works of a few creative writers like Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick in science fiction, Patricia Highsmith in thrillers and murder mysteries, and John Le Carre in espionage fiction, genre novels do not inspire us with any urge to seek the center at all. It is for this reason that writers of such novels add a new element of suspense and intrigue to their story every few pages. On the other hand, because we are not drained by the constant effort of asking basic question about the meaning of life, we feel comfortable and safe when reading genre novels.

In fact, the reason we read such novels is to feel the peace and security of being at home, where everything is familiar and in its accustomed place. The reason we turn to literary novels, great novels, where we search for guidance and wisdom that might confer meaning on life, is that we fail to feel at home in the world. (159-160)

Notice the equivalent of literary with great and “such novels” with familiar. Notice the assigning of genre novels to the tidy domestic sphere and of literary novels to travel—to the seeker, the wanderer—to the wisdom that creates meaning out of failing to feel at home in the world. Notice how the achievements of entire fields are boiled down to one or two supposed outliers. Most of all, notice how the work of reading and the byproduct of such reading—the conversations, arguments, fan fictions, fan art, original fictional works written in dialogue with—are brushed aside because Pamuk claims we feel “comfortable and safe when reading genre novels.” I suppose here is where I should insert all sorts of caveats: “well, yes, let us acknowledge there are, indeed, works that are derivative” or “it’s true that many genre readers only seek the familiar”. But even if that’s true, turning the number of exceptions from one or two into ten or twenty or five hundred is to accept Pamuk’s terms of definition.

No, what Pamuk gets wrong—what many critics of genre fiction get wrong—is to mistake what they learned to read for in literary novels (where they find “the center”) for all there is to be found in fiction. “What is the real subject?” asks Pamuk. Well, in genre fiction it may or may not be found in theme or characterization or prose. It instead may be found in world building and setting. Or reconfiguration of standard tropes. Or character relationships. Or across novels in a series. Or on a level of variation of plot, character, setting, etc. that is unique or fresh or particularly effective but only to readers who know the standard tropes well enough. It’s not just that reading tastes differ—there’s also the fact that both the pleasures and the thing that challenges and the journey that’s dangerous sometimes (maybe even often) happens on a level that only the connoisseur can appreciate. This is not a defect on their part (although it could be in some instances). Rather it’s a mode of reading. I suppose one could argue that it shouldn’t take a connoisseur to find the pleasures, virtues, meanings, wisdom in a work. But all the works that Pamuk points to in his book also require learning how to read them. Just because a certain type of reading work has been codified by education and the family practices of the middle class, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Reading literary fiction for light and center requires become an active reader, a connoisseur. It’s just that such connoisseurship is respectable (because the 19th-21st literary novel is [was?] respectable to the bourgeoisie).

Now, it may seem hypocritical for me to champion genre fiction when what I tend to most write and talk about is non-core genre fiction. But what makes novels that combine literary elements with genre elements great is not that they achieve more than solidly genre novels (although some might do just that). What makes such novels great is that they activate tropes and wrestle with concerns and deploy prose and characterization in ways that feel more abundant and complete to those of us who grew up reading both literary and genre fiction. But those heady delights shouldn’t lead us (me) to proclaim that as the superior way just as the way Pamuk being steeped in late 19th century/early 19th century novels shouldn’t lead him to mistake their particular delights and strengths for the entirety of the value to be gained from fiction. What’s more: the reader we currently are doesn’t have to be the reader we always are. The best way to experience the delights of other modes of reading is to sample from wide array of fiction that is available. And the best way to identify the flavors you might be missing is to talk to other connoisseurs about what the like and why the like it. There’s a vast array of delights on offer. Wisdom is great, but can be found in so many types of fiction. Who needs the center?

*Quotes are from Orhan Pamuk, The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, trans. by Nazim Dikbas. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Three translations of Kafka’s Aphorism 20

WHM provides three translations of Kafka’s aphorism about the leopards and the temple.

Mosaic of Leopard Chasing a Gazelle from Roman, Homs, Syria, 450-462 AD, polychrome marble tesserae - Chazen Museum of Art
Mosaic of Leopard Chasing a Gazelle; Roman, Homs, Syria, 450-462 AD; material = polychrome marble tesserae; on display in the Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison; photography by wikimedia user Daderot

20. Leoparden brechen in den Tempel ein und saufen die Opferkrüge leer; das wiederholt sich immer wieder; schließlich kann man es vorausberechnen, und es wird ein Teil der Zeremonie. (From Aphorismen – Betrachtungen über Sünde, Leid, Hoffnung und den wahren Weg*; source = Project Gutenberg)

Translation 1:

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial vessels empty; that repeats again and again; finally, it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes part of the ceremony.

Translation 2:

Leopards break into the temple and lap up the contents of the gold chalices. It happens again and again until, finally, it become predictable and is incorporated into the ceremony.

Translation 3:

Leopards invade the temple and empty the ewers. This event recurs over and over until at last it can be anticipated and thus become part of the ceremony.

* Aphorisms — Reflections on Sin, Hope, Suffering, and the True Way

“Literary” SF&F and self-publishing: qualitative results

WHM reports on the qualitative results from the 32-respondent survey he did looking to evaluate the perceptions of value/interest in a debut novel-length work of “literary” SF&F in ebook form.

In a previous post, I presented the qualitative results of my survey of self-publishing and literary SF&F. Quite a few respondents also provided comments. Because some were okay with me quoting them and others preferred that I not share, I’m going to do a bit of a mishmash here. If anyone who commented wants to clarify or add additional comments, feel free to do so below.

ON LITERARY SF&F:

Will Ellwood (@fragmad) said: “I want SF&F to advance an argument. This holds true for novels published via ‘traditional’ routes as well as self-published material. A good example of ‘literary’ SF which has been self-published is Ian Sales Apollo Not-Quite-Quartet, which advances an aesthetic argument and is identifiable as the work of an individual author rather than a work which has been massaged for mass consumption.”

Other respondents said that they like literary SF but feel that is a sub-genre that is often likely to be highly politicized (which is a turn-off) or that they don’t trust the majority of titles presented in that category to also be entertaining because it so often isn’t (and that it being self-pubbed means that it already has two strikes against it). On the other hand, a respondent said that “for me, one of the big promises of self-publishing was that it would make quirky, offbeat and niche works available that the big publishers wouldn’t normally pick up.”

One respondent made the point that if an author is going to claim to be literary SF&F, they better be able to prove it: “The sample chapter’s quality will be very important in deciding to buy. Have enough bad experiences with indie writers cover copy touting literary qualities that aren’t there.”

ON SELF-PUBLISHING:

Several of the commenters reinforced the quantitative results that suggested that what matters most is a perception of quality by the reader (especially via recommendations).

Mike said: “if I’m interested in a book, whether it’s self-published or not has essentially no relevance to whether I would buy it or the amount of money I’d be willing to pay for it. I don’t generally feel that whether a book was traditionally published or self-published provides much useful information about the book’s quality, and by the time I’m willing to spend any amount of money on a book, I’ve usually already been convinced of its quality.”

Another respondent said: “I don’t trust self-pubbed books generally, so to buy one I would really need to have a strong recommendation from someone I trust a lot.”

And another said: “More likely to be interested if the book has had an editor work on it.”

A respondent who preferred to not be quoted directly but was okay with me summarizing their comments said that the motivation of the author to self-publish and their previous experiences in/with the publishing industry are an important factor in if they’d be willing to give a book chance. For example, if an author is self-publishing because their work is considered by mainstream publishers to be too experimental or difficult then that’s a different thing than if they’re just doing it because the work wasn’t good enough.

Some respondents have strong feelings on format:

One respondent said: “My answers to the third and fourth questions are invalid because I would not by an ebook, ever. I will not read an ebook.”

Dave added: “Rather than print-on-demand I would first look for an audiobook version narrated by a good reader. I find I satisfy 75% of my fiction habit through audiobooks. I love printed versions the most, but audiobooks come in a close second. I usually start with the audiobook and then buy a print version as well, when it becomes a favorite. An ebook is also a gateway to a print book but I use it much less often.”

I would note that some genre-oriented self-publishers have had a lot of success with audiobook editions (although I’m not aware of debut authors launching with an audiobook). Audiobooks require either a partner or a large up-front investment. Some literary SF&F might also not translate well to audio form. On the other hand, if the novel has particularly beautiful and flowing prose and a strong voice, it might do very well in the form.

ON THE MARKETPLACE:

A few respondents made some observations on the marketplace for literary SF&F:

One respondent said: “For me, one of the big promises of self-publishing was that it would make quirky, offbeat and niche works available that the big publishers wouldn’t normally pick up. Hence, I feel it’s a pity that self-published SFF has become a wasteland of werebear romance and military SF straight from Baen’s slushpile, because it had the potential of becoming so much more.”

I’m sure there are oases to be found in the wasteland, but I agree with overarching point of the comment: there’s so much stuff that it’s hard to find the stuff that would be interesting to me.

Another said: “I think part of the issue with self pubbed literary spec fic may be the competition vs firmly genre stuff on Amazon — that is, the difficulties of category differentiation of a relatively small vertical. On a completely different note, while I’m sure extra $ from POD are nice bonus not to be ignored, I don’t think it offers much more than marginal benefit for most, vs the multiplicative possibilities of other strategies (serialization with strategic sales, bundles, collaborations).”

And finally, a comment on who among literary SF&F writers are more likely to have success self-publishing: “I would only recommend it for VERY well established short fiction writers or those with TONS of community connections. Selling outside of your circle will be super hard so your circle needs to be big.”

Thanks for all the comments, folks. To be honest, neither the qualitative nor quantitative results made things much clearer for my personal situation. Of course, I wasn’t really looking for that anyway. My biggest take-away is that there might be more of a market for self-published literary SF&F than currently exists, but that it will likely be a difficult thing to crack/nurture.

NOTE: first time commenters are put in moderation; once moderated, any future comments are published right away.

“Literary” SF&F and self-publishing: quantitative results

WHM reports on the quantitative results from the 32-respondent survey he did looking to evaluate the perceptions of value/interest in a debut novel-length work of “literary” SF&F in ebook form.

Many thanks to all of you who took my survey on “Literary” SF&F and self-publishing novel length fiction. As of earlier today when I turned the survey off there were 32 total respondents. That’s not a huge sample size (although it’s larger than I thought it would be). Nor was the survey itself built to produce anything approaching scientific validity so even though there are numbers below they shouldn’t be taken as anything but an interesting snapshot of a limited SF&F readership where that limit is “is connected to me in some way or is connected to someone who is connected to me” and “was willing to fill out the survey”.

MOTIVATIONS & METHODOLOGY

As I wrote on the introduction to the survey: “This survey is motivated partly out of self-interest — there’s a chance I might self-publish genre fiction in the future. But it’s also reflective of my general curiosity about how novel-length SF&F w/literary elements is perceived by those who regularly purchase that kind fiction as well as my overall interest in the publication and reception of genre fiction, which you’ll sometimes see me musing (or ranting) about on Twitter or my author/critic website.”

In particular, what I’m interested in is a debut novel-length work of “literary” SF&F in ebook form. It seems to me that self-publishing short work is generally acceptable across most of the SF&F readership. However, novel-length work is less acceptable (or perhaps simply less of interest). It’s especially less acceptable if the author does not have some sort of editorial imprimatur. If your publisher cancelled your series, then maybe self-publishing is an okay route to finish the series. But if you have no track record in novel length fiction then  And it’s even less acceptable or perhaps more skeptically viewed if the author is presenting themselves as more toward the literary side of the SF&F ecosystem.

In terms of methodology:

  1. I did not ask for any sort of demographic data. I didn’t know how many respondents I would get and the fewer you get the less useful that becomes. I also wanted the survey to be as quick as possible to fill out. Note that this is a major blind spot in the survey and anyone who is purporting to truly provide a portrait of the field should collect some form of demographic data.
  2. I did not ask respondents to identify themselves, although a few chose to do so in their additional comments.
  3. I linked to the survey via my Twitter account, personal Facebook account, and on a web forum I participate on where most of the participants have an interest in SF&F. It’s not a wide sphere of distribution. However, based upon my knowledge of those groups, I think it’s safe to say that I drew upon a fairly wide spectrum of SF&F fans. If someone were to do this type of survey in a more robust way, they would have asked some questions about literary preferences and genre consumptions patterns so that they could identify some groups to compare data against. I didn’t do that.
  4. I ask about price because it seems to me that self-publishing is seen as down market and traditional publishing as up market (or just: the real market) and that debut authors are an especial risk so if those assumptions are correct then the pricing should reflect the calculations that go into a consumer deciding how much of a risk the novel is.

QUANTITATIVE RESULTS

On a scale of 1-5, how likely are you to buy a self-published debut novel that presents itself as "literary" science fiction or fantasy? Where 1 = wouldn't buy it and 5 = would totally buy it. Results: 1 = 6.3%; 2 = 25%; 3 = 25%; 4 = 34.4%; 5 = 9.4%
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Assuming you do decide to buy a self-published debut novel that presents itself as "literary" science fiction or fantasy what factors would be most important in helping you take a chance on the novel?
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Because the answers to this question were really long, they don’t show up in the image so here’s the key to the graph above. Note that respondents could select 1-3 of the options that they thought applied most to the situation:

  1. Debut novelist has established record of short stories I like (43.8%)
  2. The novel gets a good review from a reviewer I respect (56.3%)
  3. The novel gets recommended to me by a friend or acquaintance whose tastes I trust (81.3%)
  4. The cover, marketing copy and excerpt from the novel interest me (25%)
  5. I’m friends or acquaintances with the author and I like what they have written on Twitter, Facebook, their personal blog, etc. (34.4%)
  6. The novel has good Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Library Thing and/or Goodreads ratings and reviews (25%)
  7. The author does a podcast or online/print publication interview that intrigues me (25%)
  8. Other (no responses for this option).
What's the highest price point you'd consider paying for an ebook edition of this debut novel if one or more of items in the previous question were to take place? Results: $7-12 = 40.6%; $6.99 = 3.1%; $5.99 = 18.8%; $4.99 = 21.9% ; $3.99 = 9.4%; $2.99 = 0%; $1.99 = 6.3%
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What's the highest price point that would make it a no brainer purchase? Results: $6.99 = 9.4%; $5.99 = 3.1%; $4.99 = 12.5%; $3.99 = 3.1%; $2.99 = 34.4%; $1.99 = 18.8%; $.99 = 18.8%
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One of the truisms in the self-publishing scene is that making a print-on-demand trade paperback available alongside the ebook is a must. Is the presence of a trade paperback version of a self-published debut novel something that you value?. Results: 50% = no; 25% = prefer paperbacks; 12.5% = because might want to buy paperback if really like book ; 12.5% = yes, because paperback shows self-publishers is serious
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ANALYSIS

Here’s what jumped out to me:

  • I’d say that based on the results of question one, there’s cautious optimism for a self-published “literary” SF&F novel — if, of course, it meets all the standards it would need to in order to present itself professionally
  • No surprises, I think, in the most important factors that would lead folks to buy such a novel. Word of mouth is still king. Reviewers matter (and probably matter more in this particular situation). The track record of short stories is a bit higher than I would have expected, but I suppose it makes a lot of sense — that track record would matter to fans buying a self-published novel for the same reason that editors at traditional publishers would see it as a factor: it’s a way of assessing if the writer can write well, and if you like their sensibility.
  • On the pricing, I was a bit surprised that respondents were willing to go as high as some of them did, but, then again, I think it shows that if someone perceives the novel as interesting and good quality, that they’re willing to pay for that. On the other hand, it wasn’t surprising that the $0.99-2.99 is the sweet spot for no-brainer buying of a novel. That’s long been the conventional wisdom among self-publishers and traditional publishers have also started to use the same pricing tactic.
  • When it comes to offering a paperback: I find it interesting that the main reason that the self-publishing conventional wisdom provides for doing so wasn’t much of a factor.

For the qualitative results (the comments that people submitted) I need to spend some time summarizing and excerpting them so those results will come in a future post. Thanks again to everyone who participated!

Also see: qualitative results from the survey

NOTE: first time commenters are put in moderation; once moderated, any future comments are published right away.