Sunday, 15 July 2012

Comfort Food for the Eyes

My social life is active enough that I am able to make excellent use of my LoveFilm subscription (for those in the US, LoveFilm is the UK's answer to Netflix). I get four discs sent to me each month, and I'm generally able to watch all four with time to spare.

Because the queue system is a little bit screwy, I never know exactly what they'll be sending me next - there's a priority system, which LoveFilm's system tends to completely ignore in favor of sending me things from the depths of my list. This isn't generally a problem, as I do actually want to see everything on my queue, but it gets a little annoying to be two or three discs into one show only to have the system spit out disc one of another show.

So whenever I get to the end of a season of something, I go in and start rearranging things, so I can make sure I get the next show without any interruptions. I have a lot of SF/geeky stuff in my list (there may be a correlation between this and the state of my social life, but I don't want to infer causality either way), but I like to break it up a little bit with other types of shows. For instance, I couldn't really go through all seven seasons of Voyager in one gulp - I'd have to break that up with a season of The Shield or something. But then, too many seasons in a row of the Shield would be a little much for me as well.

So I was pretty excited to be getting Season 2 of Voyager, after two seasons in a row of the Shield. There's just something reassuring for me about watching some science fiction from time to time, like eating comfort food; and in this case, not only have I had two seasons of the Shield, but with house moves and other things taking precedence, I feel like I haven't actually seen any SF this year.

Naturally, this got me thinking about why certain genres should be like comfort food for us, even if we don't particularly enjoy every example of that genre. I've sat through duff seasons of the X-Files, Babylon 5, Enterprise... and yet, bad as it all is, it still scratches some itch.

I've long been interested in the idea that genres have specific conventions, and the success of a work in a particular genre is judged on the basis of how well it hews to these conventions, and by how well it subverts the more cliched elements. In fantasy, for example, many authors are fond of talking about how many tropes they've subverted (no farm-boys who find swords of power, please!), but if you go too far out of the boundaries set by Tolkien, then it either ceases to be fantasy, or it doesn't get published (cf the sequel to Hal Duncan's Vellum and Ink).

So we go to fantasy - or detective novels, or romcoms - with certain expectations about what will be in the story. We've probably seen or read loads of other works in that genre, so we know the basic story these works all tell; what we want is to hear the story told again, but just differently enough that it surprises us. In my experience, having read The Lord of the Rings, I want to find other stories that stir the same kinds of emotions in me; the stories that do that (eg Game of Thrones) stir other emotions, and so I go looking for stories that provoke that new reaction too.

And the logical extension of this is that I then start writing stories myself that will give rise to these reactions too.

There are two extremes to which this genre expectation can go. As I've said, in the fantasy genre there's kind of this expectation now that you subvert tropes, to the point where subverting tropes becomes a trope in itself. It's also become fashionable to set stories in secondary worlds based on cultures other than the traditional European (or more accurately English) medieval setting; Guy Gavriel Kay mentioned this in an interview, which I thought was spot-on.

Superhero comics present an example of the other extreme, where the story has become so formalized that it might as well be kabuki, or more appropriately porn - each beat has to be hit perfectly, and it needs to end with a money shot, which in comics is a big splash page of somebody being punched in the face (or, if you want a double-entendre, "Pow, right in the kisser!").

The first extreme is actually the harder to avoid, because it gets to be a matter of craft and artistic vision - Tolkien presented us with a world that, while built from Scandinavian and Germanic epic poetry, was uniquely his. Many who have come after him have attempted to tell the same story, without regard to what they were bringing to it; it's what they call the second artist effect, where one artist paints a landscape because she sees something unique, and the second artist paints the same landscape because people liked the first one, or she wanted to recreate the feelings that the first landscape gave her.

This is all a bit far from my original thesis, perhaps, but I think the idea of comfort viewing is bound up with this second artist effect. We are all constantly trying to recapture an initial, powerful reaction, and sometimes it leads us down odd roads.