The New Comprehensible, or, This is Not a Literary Manifesto, Thank God
SFBC Editor Andrew Wheeler, in his post on Boskone, noted a Sunday afternoon panel he was on about hot writers and trends, and brought up my name:
I forget all that we talked about — though I’m sure it was utterly brilliant and provided a model for all future fantastic literature — though I did get to unload another one of my attempts to invent some skiffy terminology. (I aspire to be the Boy Clute.) I said that John Scalzi — who had already left the con and wasn’t around to protest his name being used in vain — should continue on his entry-level SF kick and produce a real manifesto, throwing people out of the movement and creating a posse of “in” writers. In fact, I already have a name for his movement, should he want it: the New Comprehensible.
For accuracy’s sake, I would note that I was actually still at Boskone when he was talking about me (I was having my tag-team literary beer with Toby Buckell). Also, I’m generally of the opinion that people who issue manifestos about writing should be sentenced to having their pointy pretentious heads literally shoved up their own asses, so their physical state can match their intellectual one. Inasmuch as I am in no rush to goatse my noggin, I will refrain from issuing any manifestos today. Moreover I would hope, if I were ever to issue a literary manifesto in the future, that you would do the sensible thing, which would be to point and laugh at the silly pompous man I had become. I thank you in advance for your willingness to do so.
Having said that, I am delighted to have been anointed by the estimable Mr. Wheeler as the leader of my very own literary movement, The New Comprehensible. I feel shiny. I may make T-shirts. Moreover, I think the New Comprehensible is a fine literary movement to have, particularly for science fiction — I’m all for bringing new readers into the genre whenever possible, and a good way to do it is to write SF that’s inviting to the uninitiated.
Now, let’s say that at this point, some writer out there is saying “Hey, I want to be part of this New Comprehensible movement in science fiction that I’ve heard so much about in the last four paragraphs,” and wanted advice on how he or she might go about doing it. What advice should this person be given? Well, manifestos are not my thing, but basic, practical advice? I can do that. Here’s what I would suggest, and it’s really rather simple:
1. Think of an actual person you know, of reasonable intelligence, who likes to read but does not read science fiction.
2. Write with that person in mind.
That’s all you do.
My person is my mother-in-law, as I’ve mentioned here before. She’s your pretty much the average American in all respects and downs Nora Roberts and Julie Garwood books like they’re going out of style. I write my novels so that when she sits down to read them she’s able to follow what’s going on and doesn’t feel like she’s missing scads of context. My mother-in-law is not my primary audience; I’m not writing for her. But by keeping her in mind when I write, I don’t exclude her, and by extension I don’t exclude lots of other readers like her.
I don’t necessarily suggest you write with my mother-in-law in mind; you don’t know her, after all. But you probably do know someone like her: Pretty normal, likes to read, doesn’t read science fiction. Your dad or mom or brother-in-law or friend from college or office mate or whomever. When you’re writing, ask yourself “Will dad/mom/brother-in-law/friend/workmate/whomever follow this?” And if the answer is no, try, try again.
(This is why, incidentally, I specify that you need to have a real person in mind; if you try to imagine some Platonic version of the Reasonably Intelligent Non-Science Fiction Reader, you’ll inevitably start crediting him or her with more geek savvy than a real reasonably intelligent non-SF reader would have, because writers are lazy and delusional and in love with their own writing and don’t really want to change things for other people, particularly when they don’t actually exist. Oh, don’t look at me like that. You know it’s true.)
One caveat for writers who think this New Comprehensible thing is an invitation to be hacktastically lazy: I think it’s harder to write good science fiction with non-SF readers in mind than it is to write purely to an audience steeped in the genre. As just one example, you can’t necessarily use all the shortcuts that have been trod into the ground by generations of SF writers, because your non-SF readers won’t get all of them — and at the same time you have to make sure your genre-steeped readers aren’t rolling their eyes as you set the scene for the newbies. You have to make them both happy, and doing that is like serving a meal to a group that includes hardcore vegans and committed carnivores. Yeah, it’s tricky; no one ever said being part of the New Comprehensible was going to be easy, and not just because at this point only two people have ever used the term at all.
Now, if this were a manifesto, somewhere along the way I’d have intimated that all science fiction henceforth should be part of the New Comprehensible, and all those who choose not to follow its strictures are poopy poopyheads who must be crushed when the revolution comes, or whatever. But remember: people who issue literary manifestos should be thrown into jet engines, and also, why on Earth would any sane fan of science fiction want all SF to be of just one sort or the other? I think there should be science fiction my mother-in-law can follow; I think it’s fine that there’s science fiction that my mother-in-law would go “WTF?” to. Variety is fun; let’s have more, not less.
(To be clear, my mother-in-law would not actually say “WTF?” Although it would be kind of funny if she did.)
I’d also note that the steps to writing the New Comprehensible science fiction work equally well for any sort of genre; with replace the words “science fiction” with the name of whatever genre you like. Want to write New Comprehensible romance? Think of a reasonably intelligent non-romance reader you know and write with him in mind. New Comprehensible horror? Reasonably intelligent non-horror reader you know. New Comprehensible lit fic? Reasonably intelligent non-lit fic reader, blah blah blah. You get it by now, right? Okay, then. The New Comprehensible is both multi-disciplinary and interstitial, contingent on creator impetus; or to put it in less pompous terms, any sort of writing can be made accessible to most folks if the writer wants to make it happen.
So, there you go: The New Comprehensible, perhaps the world’s first 100% manifesto-free literary movement. It’s simple but not easy. Try it out. See if it works for you. Let me know how it goes.