Early in February, a thread on the Shocklines board exploded for a few hours as the subject apparently touched a nerve among many readers: people were asked to list five storyline cliches that really irritated them. Our fellow unplugged storyteller Jim Moore started the thread in part as research for his own column February 12th on story telling cliches.
Now this is a fairly interesting topic for writers trying to stay on the edge of readers’ expectations and intent on building literary reputations, or at least breaking out of the pack of nameless hacks churning out indistinguishable product.
A few brave souls resisted – including our own Elizabeth Massie – who pointed out that some of the cliches listed were actually “favorites” of theirs, or that they didn’t care about the cliches as long as the writing was engaging. I detected a faint echo of something I heard Joe Lansdale say years ago – paraphrasing: that he enjoyed going along for the ride and surrendering to his sense of wonder in reading a story, which seemed to indicate that he didn’t necessarily engage his obviously keen critical faculties when reading for entertainment. Hopefully, I didn’t misunderstand him (or else I’m due for a serious ass-kicking), but basically I thought he was saying he just liked certain kinds of stories, and if they were well done he didn’t care if he’d heard the same type of story before.
There was even some conflict about identified cliches that others felt weren’t cliches. Jim’s column also inspired further discussion, which was great stuff.
And then John Rosenman followed up with a dead-on column on the joys and pitfalls of writing workshops, which touched on some of the same issues based on the needs and personalities of readers approaching stories we write. There was even a posting by my buddy Gary Frank on Shocklines with the subject, “What I wrote vs What they read,” which pretty much summarizes the stunned reaction I’m sure many of us have had to critical and reader feedback.
I am not, of course, forgetting Richard Steinberg’s valuable lesson on communication and clarity, from his January 22 posting. I’ll try, but I’m afraid my parenthetical nature will get the better of me.
The general topic of reaching, or turning off, readers is certainly not new to this blog or to the writing community – one might even say it is cliched. And yet obviously some of us are drawn to it, fascinated by the view another writer can bring to the pit of our demise and doom. It may be superficial to some, but to creative types bent on making money, the discussion has significant value.
Which brings me to my own interpretation of the problem of cliches and reader expectations. Basically, we’re a genre. In fact, everything is a genre – style, plot choices, characters fall together into a pattern readers identify and react to, hopefully in ways that ease the money from the wallets. (Yes, I know, horror is an emotion, not a genre, but for the sake of playing devil’s advocate I’m going with genre as defined by a recognizable pattern of techniques and creative choices that bring the reader to the emotional and/or intellectual state they’re paying good money to attain – fear, terror, horror, or at the very least, unease).
Mystery, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, westerns, urban. Or, if you like, stories about family, or coming of age, or young adults, or space. Folk, pulp, media tie-in, commercial, post-modern, slipstream, experimental, bizarro, literary.
All genres. (Well, maybe.)
Of course, you can then slice any book into a lot of different genres, as well you should.
My point is that it’s all cliche, to a significant degree. In mysteries and certain kinds of horror, the killer’s either going to be a man or a woman, as is the victim. You go to a ghost story for, well, a ghost. Same with vampires, werewolves, etc. If you want to approach plot and character from a point of view of irony, with emotional distance and intellectual curiosity, then I suppose you’ll want post-modern with its own unique way of doing and saying things. But like New Wave, splatterpunk, experimental fiction in general, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. There’s an expectation of predictability in the fiction readers seek out. We want gore. Or atmosphere. Or footnotes.
There are only certain things you can do once you’ve chosen a situation, mood, character you want to write about. You can only mix and match so many genres before losing audience share – a slipstream vampire slice of life? Fascinating, but damn you’ve got to be talented to make that work, and then you risk pissing off slipstream readers with the vampire cliche, and vampire readers with the “no story” slice of life cliche (I don’t know if anybody can be upset by yet another slipstream “twist”….).
And, even worse (and how’s this for a cliche) – everything’s already been written.
But that’s okay.
Because I think most readers, from the media fans to college professors making a living interpreting and teaching classic literary fiction, are all looking for comfort food that will satisfy their reading soul, or stomach, or mind.
Many readers (I won’t say all, or most, even if those iconoclastic types who insist they only want to be surprised get pissed off when they’re not surprised in the way they’re looking for – they’re not getting the genre or mix of genres they want) want the cliches they like. They don’t call those things they like cliches. They call it the good stuff. It’s all that other stuff that’s cliched and hackneyed and stupid. Which may be perfectly true, in the sense of what I think we really want cliche to mean – lacking originality. But for many, vampires are cliched and there’s no room for originality and just bringing one up ends the reader/writer relationship on a sour note. Writers writing about writers is cliched. Small towns, young rebels, abusive fathers, victimized mothers, all cliches.
When I was an undergraduate, the English department had a “writers’ track” of literature courses they organized into genres like the Political or the Religious Novel (fortunately, Kafka fit into every genre and I made quite a literary term paper living interpreting him for my various professors). Now the fact that some works showed up in more than one course speaks to genre mixing and bending, which may point to the strategy for folks fighting for cliche liberation – certainly we have vampire detectives and romantic vampires and vampire-killer vampires, though I believe there’s an opening for a vampire clerk story in The New Yorker, but only if the piece is drained thoroughly of plot and infused with rich irony and topical references and commentary. Vampire cowboys, anyone? Well, I suppose now they’d have to be gay. I know a few years ago the horror field was nearly invaded by vampire roaches, but the project wandered into the Publishing Motel and never came out.
Except, of course, if you’re lucky enough to be branded sui generis, in which case booksellers don’t know where to put you, readers don’t know what you are, and so you’re screwed, anyway.
Yeah, the cliche thing can drive anyone pretty crazy.
I guess the struggle against the cliche leads to outbursts of things we feel is new, in terms of technique (splatter to post-modern), character (serial killer to children), setting (haunted to mythic, with an overpass of technology). But ultimately, the “new” quickly becomes “cliche” (visually, everything from Universal Dracula and Frankenstein to Alien) and we’re back to the norm of boredom.
Boredom for some. Satisfaction for others. The plots, the characters, the stories all lead to theh same menu of conclusions – life sucks, life is great, people suck, people are great, the universe is a mystery, the universe is defined by spiritual entities good and/or evil, etc.
So maybe we’re not talking about cliches at all, and maybe not even genre, but form. A structure, a story pattern. An archetype? The abusive father story, the tale of the killer, the vampire or ghost or mermaid story.
It sure seems like I’ve read a lot of mermaid stories. I’m not wild about them. But somebody is. And sometimes I even find them entertaining, not because mermaids scratch my itch, but the writer has done a fine job of defining character and conflict (thought for me there’s a depressing sameness to the these aspects of the story, too). So the writer for me has elevated the both of us out of the cliched aspects of the archetype if with nothing more than the rhythm and power of language. Other readers seek out these kinds of stories.
I like noir, though, and it’s hard to find a form more bound by limitations. And yet, I like the story pattern. The characters and message corroborate my world view. I find in noir a reasonable depiction of the true nature of things and people. It makes me feel better.
The blues is about as cliche a form as you can get – even stretching beyond the twelve bars, you’re still talking about a limited point of view – life sucks, and/or this is how I’m gonna deal with this here sucky life – and a limited set of progressions and rhythms. A number of horror writers have made the observation that the blues and horror are related, parallel expressions of the same aspects of humanity (like horror, the blues are an emotion). And yet, for all its predictability, the blues as a form sings eternal for a small but loyal following, and has spawned other genres/forms from r&b to rock and roll all the way to hip hop.
We need these forms. Not everybody needs all of them, but it’s evident by their survival that there are forms writers consider cliched which still speak to a great number of people willing to part with the beer money to pay for the book. They fulfill an expectation, a desire, a need. Even the space opera media tie-ins and the vampire stories. I’ve seen Ed Bryant bow his head and shake it from side to side in mourning for the commercial fate of writers (in the case I’m thinking about, William Browning Spencer) who try something new and put themselves on the bleeding edge of literary creation, beyond the reach of reader expectation. Messing with reader expectations for a writer making a living at the game seems dangerous – maybe some of the full time pros on the board could speak more to that aspect of writing, if they haven’t already….
But as for the cliches, even as some folks need them, others react harshly to their use (one shocklines poster even singled out monsters, which is pretty funny on a horror board). There’s a wide borderland between cliche and cutting edge where, judging from the board reactions, the babies can get tossed out with the diapers.
So my struggle now boils down to finding the cut off line for something a writer does with a much-used form even fans of that form consider cliched. (Another struggle might be to find the right form, or combination of forms/genres, to make a hit with editors and writers, but that, as they say, is not the subject of another essay but simply the nature of the beast.) Someone on one of the boards made the very cogent observation that, for horror, imitating the superficial components of a style or storyline, without getting to the root fear, defines cliche.
That observation helps me get a handle on the issue. Like the blues, or horror, it’s the emotion of the piece that helps it transcend its predictability, at least for devoted followers. I’m not quite sure how the observation would translate for other genres – in mystery, is it the bracing intellectual challenge of the crime’s solution or the reality of the emotional journey of the crime’s perpetrator and/or investigator that provides the spark (or illusion) of originality? For science fiction, is it the sense of wonder provoked by the vision of a future us, or the audacity of a premise rooted in the intersection of a character and a sliver of that vision? In “literary” fiction, is it the delicacy and precision of selecting and deploying details and language, even structure, that separates the forgettable from the memorable, or how deeply the ordinary, the “real,” can be plumbed?
False dichotomies, I know. Ultimately, I think it’s how the story makes the reader feel, or rather, how successfully the story makes the reader feel (what they want to feel) rather than think, that becomes the litmus test for the cliche. Even in the intellectually-oriented forms, I believe the reader comes to them not just to solve a problem or admire the construction of sentence or smirk at irony, but to feel “smart,” to connect with the part of themselves that happens to function at a higher level and experience a connection with someone who shares their world view, or the thrill of understanding a complex set of ideas, or catch a reflection of what they perceive to be the “real world.”
If a reader doesn’t have a need to experience the emotion implicit in the form, or can’t, then there’s no connection between creator and consumer and the work becomes irrelevant, cliched. Lame. Stupid.
Like watching hockey when you’re into football. Or any team other than the one you were raised to root for. Or a classical music fan confronted by rock and roll, or a goth at a couture show.
So I don’t know how important it is to worry about what readers may feel are cliches – at least part of the reaction may simply be that the work is reaching the wrong audience. Vampire novels are, for many in the horror field, tired and played out. But they’re still selling. To me that means for many readers, and for some writers, vampires are not only important but emotionally meaningful. Is that any more “wrong” than writing for critics, professors and a handful of literary journal readers? We write and read what we need to write and read, not necessarily what the masses or the elite judge is good for us.
As writers, it is perhaps more important to listen to the reaction of the hard core fans to the work (or the editorial gatekeepers to that audience), whether their zombie zombies or vampire slaves or into realistic characters/settings or the supernatural – if a consensus judgement of “cliched” is passed, then the writer needs to pay attention – the itch hasn’t been scratched. The emotion inherent in the form hasn’t been reached.
You haven’t reached the intended reader’s inner zombie, or vampire, or sensibility for language and structure.
At least, that’s what I’m thinking today – please, feel free to educate me. I’d really hate to wind up being cliched about all of this….
— Gerard Houarner