Monday, May 23, 2011

Pattern Recognition

L.G.C. Smith

I’ve been thinking about unpredictability all week, reading the other Pens posts and nodding along in agreement. I’m pretty much in Adrienne’s camp in that I don’t wholly support unpredictability. Serendipity is fine. Unexpected events are often interesting, if not always fun. Unpredictability can be way too challenging.

Except in fiction. It occurs to me that one of the more salient distinctions between popular and literary fiction lies along the unpredictability fault line. In general, and there are scads of exceptions, I know, in literary fiction it’s entirely acceptable to explore the predictable and how characters shape, respond to, and cope with it. There’s some magical realism here and there, but it’s mostly lots of secrets and emotional pathology, heaping helpings of death, disappointment, loss, love, failure and regret. Small victories loom large. Quiet moments resound with import.

Popular fiction can be a lot more unpredictable and maintain credibility. This is the realm of time travel, zombie apocalypse, vampires, werewolves, elves, ghosts, ghost cats, regular folks who solve murders, journeys across the galaxy, and epic romances. Treasure maps and worldwide conspiracies abound. Urban shamans wrangle with the gods of a hundred cultures in five hundred nameless cities while aliens walk amongst us. Angels, demons, nanobots and electric sheep prance across the page.

I enjoy popular fiction because I rarely run into these potentially interesting things in everyday life. In good popular fiction, the emotions are as real as they are in more literary fiction, but they come in response to much more unpredictable events.

This is fun. This is one big reason more people like popular fiction better than literary fiction. Again – not everyone. Obviously. But if literary fiction were called Unpopular Fiction, it wouldn’t be as far off the mark as we might wish.

So. Time travel. A popular fiction staple. Love it! Not only would it be unexpected in my regular life, it would be totally unpredictable. Nothing in my experience or my limited understanding of physics and our current state of technological development leads me to predict that any of the kinds of time travel by which fictional characters zip through time and space are going to occur in my natural lifetime.

This, predictably, brings me to a pet peeve. Why do so many characters in time travel romance novels, and I focus on romance because that’s what I know best, act like going back and forth in time is normal and predictable once it’s happened to them? Let’s say Missy Schoolmarm-1885 gets zapped into the present by a lightning strike. Odds are she’ll assume she can go back. Why? Why doesn’t she assume it was a one-time deal, a total fluke, and will never happen again? Has she ever seen lightning induce time travel before? How many thunderstorms has she seen? Balancing previous experience against the one time occurrence, only a moron comes up with, “Yep, I can now travel in time.”

Wait. What was my point? I’m not sure I had one. Because that would be so predictable. But you all know me by now…I’m down with predictable.

Except in fiction.

6 comments:

Gigi Pandian said...

One of the reasons I devour mysteries and thrillers more than literary novels is for that very reason; my own life is lovely but so very stable -- but I can still get grand adventures through fiction!

Rachael Herron said...

HA! I've had that very thought about time travel -- I, for one, if zapped, would be FREAKING OUT for the first ten times I went back and forth. :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

Love this...yes yes yes! The novel can take us to places we would never actually venture...and when it's done well, there's nothing to match it -- even my unpredictable life!

Lisa said...

Haha--I was just thinking about time travel and BUGS the other day (why I have no idea) and thinking if I were a heroine who traveled back in time I would be completely FREAKED out by the common pests. After the GREAT LICE epidemic of 2007 I know I would never survive a trip back in time. ;)

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