The OF Blog: Thoughts on "artificiality," selection bias, listmaking and trendsetting

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Thoughts on "artificiality," selection bias, listmaking and trendsetting

Just a few more odds-and-ends to wrap up a few discussions that have been ping-ponging from this blog to others and back again.

Over at The World in the Satin Bag, Shaun Duke raises an important question that has to be considered whenever discussions of reading habits arises.  He wonders if intentionally trying to read more of X and/or Y type of authors/stories creates a sense of artificiality to the reading selection/experience.  My response to that would be that at its best, reading selection tends to be an active experience, in which the reader is self-aware of his/her selection possibility and that s/he takes the time to consider the available choices.  There is nothing "organic" about it; readers end up reading the books they choose, based on a variety of factors both conscious (availability, pricing, blurbs, praise from others) and subconscious (past experiences, moods at time of trying to decide what to read or if to read).  I would instead recast the question as being whether or not readers ought to try to break a reading habit or if remaining in a particular reading habit can be an inherently "good" thing.

Selection bias is an insidious, nefarious thing.  Doesn't matter how well one tries to be cosmopolitan (or not), there is always that creeping, often subconscious, filtering out of certain elements in favor of others.  In some cases, selection bias can be good (as in refusing to eat rancid meat due to appearance and smell), but in other cases it serves to limit exploration and sometimes to blunt curiosity.  Take for example a particular "Best of Decade" list that was brought to my attention in a comment link.  Posted at a George R.R. Martin-oriented site, Tower of the Hand, "Best Fantasy Books of '00s" practically is a paean to the multi-volume serial narrative form. Although an early criticism cited in the comment link I read was in regards to the paucity of female authors, what I noticed about that list is just how devoid that list is of several other narrative modes and storytelling formats that I have emerged in the past decade.  Although the majority of the individual books selected were solid or better, based on my personal experiences, the end result felt as though blinders had been applied, narrowing the field of excellent fiction (and exciting subgenre developments) to a very small percentage of what was available.  No short fiction, nothing much about steampunk, seeing the Miéville/New Weird moment being cast as a primarily British entity (or at least that's how it felt based on the curiously small sample size), very little in the way of the various "urban" fantasies, and so forth - such a list gave very limited insight into what actually developed this time (could note more about podcasts and how a few authors gained major publishing deals off of those, as well as book "remixes" and the like, but that's a topic for another time, perhaps). 

Not directly related to the above comments but worth considering is the comment that Martin Lewis made in an earlier post of mine.  In response to a comment Aidan Moher made about how "the problem doesn't lie with the bloggers making the list, but rather with the genre as a whole and the manner in which publishers," Martin said, "It is pretty pathetic to abdicate all responsibility like this."  There is much truth to this.  If someone is going to construct a list and presume that said list will have value to others, then that list constructor better damn well be more proactive and thus not basing his/her selections on what s/he receives passively from others.  While there are certainly some valid arguments that could be made to the notion that reader/reviewers have the right to choose their "favorites," once any list is presented as reflecting any sort of "authority" (and publicly posting decade's best list, especially those derived from several who have a privileged relationship with the publishers compared to the average reader), then those reader/reviewers have certain obligations to meet in regards to considering more than their own personal tastes if they want their lists to hold any authority and if they don't want to be called out for putting blinders on and failing to see just how diverse and wide-ranging speculative fiction (or other genres of literature and material culture, for that matter) really is.

Doesn't mean that one should not develop such lists if one fears to be unable to cover everything (Lord knows that as much as I have read in recent years, there is a helluva lot that I miss each year).  Instead, one ought to be open to the possibility that one's "authority" is going to be limited in some cases and that if this is at least tacitly acknowledged with the presumption that the honest critic will try to explore more than one's own comfort zones, then such lists will develop a more true "authority" to them.  Plus doing this has the additional benefit of not coming across as a trend follower, but instead a trend setter, for those that put any stock in such things (I don't).  But people like Martin are correct to note that true critics have a responsibility not just to reflect trends in publishing, but also to take note and to praise (or denounce) works that are not being as heavily pushed by the publishers.  Being a trend setter (or advocate, as I prefer to call what I do) is much more than just book pimping.  It is displaying a particular taste for stories that often stands out in relation to other critics, whose tastes presumably are equally distinct and worth consideration.  It is not "artificial," in that it springs from an active, non-passive relationship between the critic and the text/s being considered.  It does not involve more than a casual consideration of what other critics are covering (if something is presented as being worth considering, then explore it, but don't settle for another's opinion.  Makes me happy when others read what I've suggested and found new things to like, as well as things that worked for me but didn't for them.  Makes for great discourse).  It is the development of an "authority" that stems not from what others have proclaimed to be good, but what one has discovered to be worth some people's time, if not everyone's.

It is, simply, daring to question and challenging everything before presenting what undoubtedly will be a flawed list in some regard.  But as I've said before, based off of a quote from Samuel Beckett, "Fail again.  Fail better."

18 comments:

S.M.D. said...

So you're also chiming in too and saying what others have said: whether it's artificial or not (you say no, obviously), I should do it anyway.

I think what is most shocking for me as a reader is that my regular habits don't lead me to certain kinds of authors. I don't think it has to do with a bias though (I read those few works by PoC and the near-half by women just as I read anything else), but certainly with other factors that I don't think are within my control (i.e. publishers, booksellers, etc.; it's hard to encounter international SF, for example, when it's not obvious on the books, etc.).

So, you're probably right that it's not artificial to intentionally try to expand my horizons (though I'm doing it for other reasons; I want to actually read those things, just haven't yet, which might mean this would be less artificial than usual).

Thanks for the commentary :). Gives me much to think it.

Larry said...

Good. That's a large reason why I wrote it, to give you (and others) something to consider. Nothing more nor less than that.

And yes, there are going to be external factors that influence one's reading. But if you're the curious sort, then being pro-active is a "natural" thing, no? :D

Anonymous said...

Hmm, interesting post. Quick reaction:

- I agree that branching out of comfort zones is a good thing. There's a lot to explore in literature, so why not explore it?

- Is it wise to assume that a genre/subgenre-heavy list means that the reader in question didn't sift through a larger range in order to cut down to the "best." My top ten sf/f list would probably favor epic fantasy, and yet I consider myself to be pretty keyed into the range of what the genre can offer. I've read and appreciated works of steampunk, Weird City, magical realism, etc.

- If we're going to "call out" the Tower of the Hand list for favoring epic fantasy, should we not also call out a year's best anthology that contains not one lick of epic/heroic/sword and sorecery? Or should the inevitable degree of bias/content preference/editorial vision be accepted as such, and, if it's not, and editors/compilers have to admit their authoritative shortcomings, then isn't this in some way just a slightly more complicated way of adding the words "in my opinion" to every statement?

- Zach H.

Larry said...

Zach,

Considering that out of the hundreds of books of various forms of spec fic published year epic fantasy might at best make up a quarter of the books being published, it would be rather odd if not just a majority but a near-unanimity of selections were to come from that part.

As for the bit about the year's best, do you think the epic fantasy form lends itself well to being written in under 10K words? I'm the one having to read through all these anthologies, lit journals, and genre magazines and to be honest, I barely recall any epic fantasy stories after the times of Howard and Leiber that were under that length (25 or so pages in a MMPB format). Your hypothetical case doesn't hold up due to structural demands, although I suspect some of the Songs of the Dying Earth stories will be under consideration for the reprint anthologies, provided they are not too long.

Anonymous said...

"As for the bit about the year's best, do you think the epic fantasy form lends itself well to being written in under 10K words?"

Depends on who's doing the writing. Scope can be evoked by means other than word count. And if not always, then that's why I also noted swords and sorcery/heroic, which I think most certainly can be done well in under 10,000 words. And yet I didn't really see anything that fit this bill when I read the first Best American Fantasy.

However, I don't think this is a problem. For whatever reason, the editors didn't go that route, and that's fine. I'd rather a compiler stick to their vision than have them shoehorn in what they consider lesser quality in the name of "offering something for everyone."

I see the Tower of the Hand list in a similar light.

- Zach H.

Larry said...

And I see it differently - when one is focusing on the short form and would be aware of (presumably; speaking for myself, I am aware and I would love to submit stories of that nature for BAF's guest editors to consider) the various styles out there, that is different from constructing a list without much in the way of awareness (presumably) of the plethora of narrative forms and storytelling elements. The first is informed, the other is ill-informed. Big difference, I would believe.

Anonymous said...

I suppose we simply disagree on several fronts. I wouldn't call the Tower of the Hand bloggers ill-informed for two main reasons:

a) I'm not privy to all the sf/f they read before they set the list.

b) I don't think they carry an obligation to meet a certain degree of inclusiveness in order to express their reading tastes. If I want more variety , I'll simply look elsewhere (just as I looked elsewhere when I came to the conclusion that Best American Fantasy, while interesting and well put together, felt like it was missing something I wanted to read).

- Zach H.

Larry said...

Tastes vary, no doubt about that. I like to think that BAF serves those who tastes are not satisfied by other reprint anthologies, but not everyone will be satisfied by that in turn. But all I know, based on the numerous anthologies I've read over the years, is that epic fantasy in short form is a rare beast these days, since publishers prefer it to be in the novel form, where it is serialized that way.

As for "knowing" what the others in that list have read, I have only their comments about how much of their reading is derived from what they receive from publishers. This is no doubt due in large part to hard economic facts (it's not cheap buying a representative sampling of works and I've budgeted thousands yearly for my acquisitions, something most cannot do), but also in part I suspect to selection biases taking place. As I said in this article, that's almost inevitable at some level, though.

S.M.D. said...

Larry: You're right. If I'm already curious, then it's perfectly natural! And so, my adventure for the year begins (I have two international books on my reading list thus far, one fantasy, one an interesting anti-communist/polemic/dystopia novel--Darkness At Noon; heard of it?).

Larry said...

You're reading Koestler's book? :D I read that for a 20th Century European History course and loved it! The story is chilling, but not overly polemical, thankfully.

Jonathan M said...

I find it interesting that Zach defends the narrow-mindedness of such lists by talking about the fashions regarding the writing of epic fantasy.

As with Aidan's original response to Larry, this just opens up a wider question of selection bias : Is it healthy to be only reading not only from one genre but from one corner of that particular genre?

Obviously if you're setting out to be narrow-minded then it's incredibly difficult to be open minded ("it's really difficult to read books by women and people of colour when you only read books written by fat white guys with beards!"), but then why be narrow-minded in the first place?

Anonymous said...

"I find it interesting that Zach defends the narrow-mindedness of such lists by talking about the fashions regarding the writing of epic fantasy."

And, of course, by "interesting" you mean something oh so snarky a la bearded fat men, right?

I framed my "defense" of the list with epic fantasy because the place the list in question came from is a Martin-related site, and I don't have any inherent problem with specialized tastes or lists.

Similarly, I'd expect that many China Mieville fans tend to favor weird fiction, and as such I don't have a problem with a hypothetical list from this front that doesn't feature a single "fat white guy with a beard."

Speaking of which, I find it interesting that two of my favorite epic/heroic pieces I've read in the past year were written by David Anthony Durham and Holly Phillips.

- Zach H.

S.M.D. said...

Larry: I figured it would be a polemic due to the description of the book as critical of the regime of the time, but maybe Koestler was not as despised as Yevgeny Zamyatin or other Russian writers of the time?

Larry said...

The irony of all this is that I received my review copy of Warriors today and will be reading it to see which stories are worth considering. The Martin story is nearly 100 pages long, so unfortunately that one has to be excluded due to space constraints.

Shaun,

Koestler left the Soviet Union just as Stalin was consolidating power and I believe his works were banned for decades in the Communist world.

Mike Johnstone said...

[De-lurking ...]

"Selection bias is an insidious, nefarious thing. Doesn't matter how well one tries to be cosmopolitan (or not), there is always that creeping, often subconscious, filtering out of certain elements in favor of others. In some cases, selection bias can be good ... but in other cases it serves to limit exploration and sometimes to blunt curiosity."

I deal and struggle with this issue in my teaching of SF&F when coming up with course reading lists. I enjoy the challenge of trying to strike a balance between including the classics along with newer works, between male and female writers, between Western and non-Western/postcolonial works, and so forth. In a 13-week term, I am merely scratching the surface on all counts, really, but the goal is to expose students to as wide a variety of SF as possible. I'm getting there, gradually.

I will say that by aiming for such variety and balance, I have needed to seek out and discover works by writers I previously did not know -- and I am better for it. Yet it is a deliberate, conscious process. It is, as Larry writes, an "active" as opposed to "passive" engagement with the genre. Moreover, if I am to give a properly representative introduction to SF, I feel that I have a responsibility to be as inclusive as possible.


In response to a comment Aidan Moher made about how "the problem doesn't lie with the bloggers making the list, but rather with the genre as a whole and the manner in which publishers," Martin said, "It is pretty pathetic to abdicate all responsibility like this." There is much truth to this.

I think there is truth in both statements, actually. Yes, laying the "problem" solely at the feet of the publishers does, in a way, divest oneself of the "responsibility" for making more proactive decisions and choices about one's reading.

However, readerships have been targeted marketing categories at least since the Victorian Period (if not a little earlier in the 19th c.), with a distinct gendering of certain kinds of publications and genres. With regard to current SF&F and recent discussions about reading habits, I think it is important to consider the role of the publishers (and bookstores and blogs, etc.) in how reading habits can be influenced.

For instance, I've been looking at the differences in cover art between SF novels by men and women. I want to read more SF by women, but I generally find the covers for their books a bit, erm, cartoonish and pulp-like: consequently, I find myself predisposed to think of such novels as not-so-serious, as not-so-literary. For instance, I'm intrigued by the mostly positive response to Rusch's new novel Diving Into the Wreck, but the cover does not say "serious, important, mature SF" in the way that the covers for Alastair Reynolds's or Paul McAuley's or Iain M. Banks's recent books do.

Might a cover such as the one for Rusch's novel possibly dissuade male readers and appeal to female readers? Are publishers deliberately marketing to specific audiences through their covers? How many readers consciously, actively resist or push through such ... veils?

All that said, I will still likely get to Rusch's book, because I've read some short stories/novellas by her recently that I like and so I want to check out a novel by her (and Diving does seem to be a good, hearty contemporary space opera).

So, I agree that readers can/should take responsibility for and reflect upon their reading habits if they want to present themselves as public authorities on the genre. Yet I also agree that considering the role of publishers (and other parts of the publishing industry) in influencing/guiding reading habits should constitutes a fruitful discussion.

Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

Martin said...

I'm intrigued by the mostly positive response to Rusch's new novel Diving Into the Wreck, but the cover does not say "serious, important, mature SF" in the way that the covers for Alastair Reynolds's or Paul McAuley's or Iain M. Banks's recent books do.

That might just be the difference between US and UK covers.

Martin said...

That does remind of something else though:

Every time there is a complaint about the fact SF covers are so cheesy or that their contents are unadventurous publishers say "hey, don't blame us, we are just giving people what they want". Now we have the situation where bloggers are being criticised for being unadventurous and they are saying "hey, don't blame us, publishers aren't giving us what they we want." If you don't demand more, you don't get more.

People react negatively to these looks at gender balance because they think they are accusations of sexism. It doesn't necessarily mean you are sexist but it might well mean that you are complacent. It is useful to remind both publishers and readers to think more deeply about their choices.

Mike J. said...

@Martin: "If you don't demand more, you don't get more. ... It is useful to remind both publishers and readers to think more deeply about their choices."

Agreed on both counts, definitely.

A somewhat similar issue arose in late 2009 when Kim Stanley Robinson accused the Booker judges of completely ignoring science fiction, particularly recent British SF. One of the judges responded that, well, publishers just aren't sending SF titles to the judges. (Another judge responded that, well, SF is what 14-year-old boys read and what strange people who gather at weird conventions enjoy ... but that's for another discussion, I suspect). This justification is certainly an "abdication of responsibility," but it does also point to a sense of how the publishing industry and prizes and the like operate: i.e., to how publishers have the means to guide/shape readers's tastes -- the means to encourage a kind of complacency in readers (and judges).

What would happen, I wonder, if an SF novel won the Booker? How would such an event challenge what Larry calls "selection bias"?

What would happen, I wonder, if male readers started reading more SF&F by women and, consequently, if publishers looked for ways to market and present women writers to male readers more effectively?


Edit of my previous post:
Yet I also agree that considering the role of publishers (and other parts of the publishing industry) in influencing/guiding reading habits *can constitute* a fruitful discussion.

That's better ....

 
Add to Technorati Favorites