Making It Work
warning: flashing gif at the end
I read this interesting article the other day from poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib, an interview with The Nation about his 2019 book exploring the work of A Tribe Called Quest. In it, he talks at length about being a critic, and how he feels that being a critic and being a fan are inextricably linked. For Abdurraqib, the experience and culture of fandom is just as worthy of being studied as the work fandom worships itself, and he’s very interested in interrogating fan expectations and reactions to work from artists they love.
“Any artist who’s been in the spotlight for more than, like, five to seven years is inevitably going to put out an album that’s not as highly regarded as their other albums. The work of the critic and the fan is to reckon with their own expectations: to be honest about what it is to love a group or feel affection for an artist in all of their evolutions—even the evolutions that aren’t necessarily for you. The critical approach has to move out of the binary of “Is this good or bad?” and into “Is this working versus not working? For whom is this working, if not for me? Can I find value in this?” Those questions are more interesting to me.” - Hanif Abdurraqib
This approach - “is this working versus not working?” is incredibly fascinating to me, and illustrates the way I approach a lot of editing these days. Oftentimes, when I’m editing, a book can work as the thing it’s meant to be and not be particularly good by “literary” standards. In those situations, what’s the advice to give? Do I try to make it “good,” by this literary standard, or do I try to help it do better at the thing it’s trying to be?
Different genres have different expectations, and the writing in those genres should as far as possible be up to the level of those expectations. On a prose level, the writing in romance isn’t particularly complex; however, the genre has very high expectations for structure and pacing, and the writing has to help the story match those. I was thinking about this recently when reading one of BookTok’s recent crazes: a series of scifi romance novels called Ice Planet Barbarians.
Yes, you read that right. Ice Planet Barbarians. There are twenty-two books in this series by Ruby Dixon and I have read nine of them so far. The premise: a number of human women are kidnapped from Earth for unspecified purposes by one set of (bad) aliens and are stranded on the titular ice planet, where they encounter a different group of (sexy) aliens and smut ensues. There are various world building tropes that come into play, such as the idea of soulmates, but that’s the basic gist of the series. Each book follows a different woman with her chosen ice planet boyfriend. The series has attained viral fame thanks to an avalanche of tiktoks made by incredulous readers: first, they can’t believe that someone actually wrote a novel in which various women get dicked down by seven-foot-tall, ribbed-for-her-pleasure aliens, let alone twenty-two. Then they read the books, and can’t believe they finished them, let alone liked them. Then they’re making tiktoks on how they’ve read all of them and don’t know where to go from there.
There’s an element in many of these videos, when talking about the writing, to say something like “the writing isn’t good per se but--” and then to justify that they still really enjoyed it. Their enjoyment came in spite of the writing, in this framing. But actually, their enjoyment was directly caused by the writing - writing which accomplished exactly what it needed to for the genre and for reader engagement.
What I’d like to do is throw out the idea of “good” and replace it with “it works,” the way Abdurraqib encourages in that interview. Different genres require different things; different plot styles need different kinds of power. The writing in Ice Planet Barbarians wouldn’t win a Pulitzer but it works incredibly well: it’s propulsive. It’s very sexy. It’s a little absurd - just absurd enough to keep you interested and wanting to read more. There is more than one clock ticking down for there to be suspense around how it’ll work out. (The planet is very cold, and unless the humans get One Specific Parasite in them, they’ll freeze! Oh, and the parasite is the one that will pick out their new alien bf! Oh, and the bad aliens might come back at any moment!)
Now what I’d like to say is that for writing to “work” in any given genre it has to be good in a grammatical sense. It has to be readable and comprehensible, and to have a minimum level of clarity for the reader to follow. If Ruby Dixon were an actual bad writer, her prose wouldn’t be readable enough to be propulsive. It would lie flat on the page, and no one would get past chapter one.
There are a lot more concepts in the interview that I’m still mulling over - the idea that fans can idolize their favs in a way that precludes nuance, how nostalgia can cause fan to “demand absolution for the things they love.” And I’d love to think more about the extended questions in Abdurraqib’s formulation. But this idea of “is it working” made me think of the cricket bat speech from The Real Thing that I referenced back in my May reading roundup. A cricket bat has to be constructed a certain way not because of cultural forces but because the way it’s constructed is the way it works best to accomplish its task. The same is true for novels; from romance to fantasy to literary fiction, does it work? If it doesn’t, why?
On a final note, last week I asked Rebecca Faith Heyman for her thoughts on interiority, and this is what she said:
I often find myself asking for more interiority, except in romance, where I am almost always asking for less navel-gazing and more bona fide action. What it comes down to, for me, is that interiority still has to advance the plot! No one wants to think about this because it's daunting af, but a character just la-di-dah thinking their precious thoughts is boring. A character thinking through
- revealing backstory
- illuminating observations
- questions that inspire action
changes their relationship to conflict -- and that's the goal of nearly all prose within the narrative.
Just my two cents :0)
#1: Today, June 26th at 2pm ET, I’ll be doing a #FirstLineFrenzy IG Live with fellow freelance editor Rebecca Faith Heyman on her instagram! Rebecca started the #firstlinefrenzy critique series, which is incredibly informative in terms of breaking down the effectiveness of a novel’s first line. Also, I love her and we have great banter, so it should be fun to watch in any event! She also has an incredibly informative writing-focused newsletter which you can subscribe to for free here.
#2: I will be going on vacation! This newsletter will appear on July 2 with the June reading roundup, and then return on July 16th. (Unless inspiration and time conspire )
Have a question? Want me to talk about something related to reading, writing, books, publishing, etc? Leave it in the comments or in a reply to the newsletter!
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
I’ve been barely paying attention to hockey playoffs, but I would like to congratulate Carey Price, the most beleaguered man in the league (who I have just learned is also handsome,) on beating the Vegas Golden Knights and making it to the Stanley CupFinals. In less fun news, I’m incredibly disappointed (but not surprised) that the Blackhawks organization (allegedly) knew about and actively covered up the (alleged) sexual assault of two of its players by a coach, who they (allegedly) continued to promote within the organization. Given what happened when one of their stars was (credibly) accused of sexual assault, it’s unsurprising that this is the route they’ve taken. In the meantime, my only joy comes from the NFL’s first out active player and irate pitchers stripping in faux(?)-outrage amid the MLB’s crackdown on “sticky substances.”
To All Streaming Services: Pick Up Hornblower, You Cowards, You Fools by Shane Ryan (Paste Magazine)
First, I regret calling you cowards and fools in the title of this piece. I regret that you have driven me to it. I am not sorry. I would like to be sorry, but I can’t possibly be, because each day that you wake up in your beanbag office chairs somewhere in Sacramento or Kiev, you fail to make a very easy choice that would make you billions of dollars and end the streaming wars for good. By ignorance or by fear, you fail to add the late ‘90s/early aughts maritime masterpiece Hornblower to your catalogues. The ITV Meridian British classic (which aired in the U.S. on A&E) currently sails the high seas of digital anonymity, unable to find the solid ground of online availability, and in order to watch the thing, you have to watch a lo-fi version on YouTube or do something insane and drastic like smearing yourself with clown makeup and purchasing a DVD. (Author’s Note: It me)
The Problem with Bo Burnham’s “Inside” by Lili Loofburrow (Slate)
Given the confused concern so many fans expressed, the artifice—specifically, the mismatch between Burnham’s circumstances and his protagonist’s—isn’t obvious. And it does take away from it. Confessional meta-comedy of this type, being relatively new, hasn’t yet developed rules about the obligation to truth. Burnham’s special thrives in that ambiguity. Framed by a claustrophobically dominant metaphor, Inside is about feeling as if you were trapped “inside,” where “inside” means existence on and with the faux-connectivity of the internet andthe hell of your own brain and the confining square footage of a plain studio apartment during the pandemic. I take no issue with the first two; it’s the last bit that rankles.
The dangerous rise of the IUD as a Poverty Cure. | The NHL is at a rule-enforcement crossroads. | Worldbuilding for Masochists Episode 30 ft. K. Tempest Bradford, Sarah Guan, and K.S. Villoso: Fantasy, Race, and Avoiding Fantasy Racism | The Hunchback of Notre-Dame at 25: “The Most R-Rated G You Will Ever See” | Brooklyn Apartment Now an All-Pink “Content Creation Studio”
READING: Rogue Protocol - Murderbot Diaries #3 by Martha Wells
LISTENING: “The Sharpest Lives” by My Chemical Romance
WATCHING: Ted Lasso
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.
Jen, I found your essay on "Making It Work" especially interesting. It reminded me of something I just read in the book my Sunday school class has been reading and discussing. Will Willimon is writing about the Bible, and he says: "One of the challenges of biblical interpretation is that the Bible contains a wide array of genre. We contemporary preachers of the Word marvel at the resourcefulness of these early communicators of the faith. They use poetry, myth, parable, genealogy, invective, hyperbole, and a host of other literary devices and conventions to communicate the truth about God. We do them a disservice when we apply inappropriate standards of interpretation to the literature that they employ."
Maybe that sounds like a far-fetched comparison, but you know what I mean, right? Like the Ice Planet Barbarians novels make it work in a different way than, say, "I Robot," Genesis makes it work in a different way than Ruth, and the Gospel of John makes it work in a different way than Hebrews.
The more I type, the crazier this sounds, so I'd better just stop here.