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What You Like vs. What Is Good - The Motive Center
May 15th, 2005
10:50 pm


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What You Like vs. What Is Good
I was going to discuss a few things like "multiple motives" and the differences between the motivation to write and the motivation to read, but I found out about something that not only angered me, but illustrates another important point about motivation and writing--indeed, literary criticism.

Having been involved in many genres as a reader and a professional, I have frequently encountered what the classical Greeks might have called a paradoxical conflict, summed up as "which is better?" Pick your labels--"fantasy vs. hard SF," "comics vs. text," "Hulk vs. the Thing," "Regency vs. modern," "sexy vs. romantic," "Star Wars vs. Star Trek," etc., etc., ad infinitum. Often much emotional energy is invested in these battles, which are waged in newsletters, magazines, award ceremonies, and of course online in various fora. One such in crime fiction (a.k.a. mysteries) is the "cozy versus hard-boiled" conflict.

A "cozy," also known as a traditional mystery or "malice domestic," is normally an amateur sleuth, with a distinctive and often a small-town setting, largely offstage violence, often personal or romantic relationships as a driver of the story, with an emphasis on the puzzle in the plot and/or the characters as individuals. Agatha Christie is usually cited as an exemplar of the cozy writer, but Arthur Conan Doyle could be considered one as well.

A "hard-boiled," also known as the Private-Eye (PI) novel and sometimes a "modern" mystery, is normally a professional private detective in a big city with connections to and conflicts with the establishment (police and politicians) and the underworld (mob bosses). The protagonist is normally a cynical but ultimately noble loner fighting for the truth and justice in the face of a system rigged against him. Visibly bloody violence, drinking, and sexual relationships are often drivers of the story. Dashiell Hammett is usually cited as an exemplar.

Recently, a new organization has formed, calling itself the International Thriller Writers. This is fine, more power to them. But one well-known figure in crime fiction, Otto Penzler, has chosen to introduce them in a public forum by contrasting them--strongly--with cozies. He is a public cozy-hater, which I have no problem with in principle, but he has foolishly allowed his emotional distaste to lead him to a public and sweeping condemnation of all cozies as, and I quote, "literarily negligible works." Besides ticking off a lot of people, he has demonstrated beautifully the danger of allowing your emotions to dictate to your brain. So I'll use him as an illustration of how motives can work against you, and WHY people like some subgenres and not others, for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with literary quality. (For his article, see http://www.thrillerwriters.org/Press/clippings.htm, at least until it gets taken off by cooler heads in the ITW.)

I've noted in my book that motives correlate with preferred reading matter. This is no accident! Why do people spontaneously read one thing rather than another? Because they enjoy it. What people enjoy is what aligns with their motivation, generally speaking. Obviously there is more to it than that, but that is enough to help identify preferred genres and subgenres. Here's how it usually works:

Achievement motive: How-to books (to get better), nonfiction books, "puzzle" mysteries. Why the latter? Because solving problems is fun for those with Achievement motive, as well as trying to outperform the writer in some sense. Hence they tend to prefer the Agatha Christie-style cozy, where characters are actually pretty minimal, the puzzle is the story.

Affiliation motive: stories with characters and strong relationships, romances. Those with this motive like reading about personal relationships. That includes most modern literary "novels of character," Jane Austen, or romances of various stripes.

Influence motive: stories about leaders (biographies), psychology (when you learn about people, you can influence them better, right?), theology (the ultimate power relationship), and stories with more sexual and violent content. They don't do it, they just like reading about it. And they like crime fiction, too, but more of the PI novel style--with violence, political conflict, drinking, and sex. Not to mention political thrillers, for obvious reasons, or spy novels.

Kicker #1: since motives are nonconscious, you don't know why you like what you do, you just do. When you say "I don't know why I'm doing this, I've got better things to do, but I just can't stop," that's usually a sign that you are acting out of motivation. That means if you just plain like some form of writing (or movies or whatever) better than another, it might be simply because you have a certain motive pattern.

Kicker #2: When you don't like something, that, too, can be motivated. Again, it is not conscious.

Therefore: because people don't always have good self-awareness, they tend to confuse strong emotional attachment or repulsion with logical argument, especially in something as complex and subtle as writing! In other words, they rationalize (consciously) after the fact that things they like are better than things they don't like. They might come up with all sorts of reasons, but the bottom line is just that they don't like it. That's the real reason you get many of these conflicts--because they are actually conflicts of motives.

People who love achievement-motivated literature don't understand or like novels that spend all their time dealing with politics -- "all smoke and mirrors" -- or relationships; they want a good, challenging puzzle. As William James put it "I need resistance to cerebrate!" (Yes, that's cerebrate, not celebrate.) People who love power-motivated literature aren't interested in intellectual puzzles -- "gimmicks" -- and would prefer a good, solid conflict to drive the story, or perhaps battling the establishment or some cosmic evil. Motives tune your vision to what you like, but by the same token a narrow motive pattern (just one strong) can also place blinders on you. Since it is all nonconscious, people rationalize that the stuff that does not resonate with them is, by definition, bad. "Good writers are supposed to excite me, so if they don't, it's their fault!" Well, that can be true, but not in all cases.

A professional literary critic, an acquisitions editor, a publisher, an agent should ideally be able to distinguish between things that are good (even if they don't like it) from something that is enjoyable or resonates with one's motives, because that's the job! An acquisitions editor should be looking for what is good (or for that matter what will sell), not just what he or she likes. There are lots of books that I am convinced are excellent--but I don't happen to like them, and don't read them. That's fine--but I for one try not to mix up my emotions with my head. If I were in the job of trying to spot bestsellers, there are a lot of books I would choose that I wouldn't want to read myself--which is one reason why I am not in that job. I'd have to read too much that I don't like! I have nothing but respect for the professional critic, who must live with Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap. They live for the good 10%. I don't have to do that, thank God.

Agents should also know the difference, but are entitled to choose what they like, because they need to be energetic on their author's behalf. In my opinion, this is one reason why editors often become agents--so they can go from being professionally objective to being an unabashed fan, promoting someone (or something) they like!

Penzler has stated, repeatedly and publicly, that he hates cozies. Here's a paragraph from his essay:

We all have our prejudices (yes, you too). I admit that if I were on the Best Novel committee, books with cutesy pun titles would be eliminated before I read the first page. They may be fun, they may have their charm, but they are not serious literature and don't deserve an Edgar. Which is why someone had the bright idea to create Malice Domestic, a conference devoted to fiction so lightweight that an anvil on top of it is the only way to prevent it from floating off to the great library in the sky. Other readers might eliminate espionage novels, feeling they are not "mysteries," or books with dirty words and nasty sex scenes because they think these things have no place in a nice mystery.

He starts out admitting that there are prejudices, but then goes on to selectively condemn the entire subgenre of Malice Domestic. "They are not serious literature" is not a statement of preference or prejudice, but a flat literary judgment. His gratuitous comment that cozies are "fiction so lightweight" is a gross generalization at best. Note his slanted language: "other readers might eliminate espionage novels," mildly noting "feeling that they are not 'mysteries,'" but then he goes on to say that others feel "books with dirty words and nasty sex scenes...have no place in a nice mystery." One is a mild statement that people don't feel they are mysteries; the other is a snide commentary on people's views. Why is one so mild and one so vicious? I propose this is an emotional bias that I strongly suspect he has not owned up to.

Even Penzler says "There are many types of thrillers: spy, legal, police, medical, action-adventure, historical, romantic, political, religious, high-tech. As the organization states, what people mainly want from a thriller is, well, a thrill." The ITW notes: "Thrillers are known for their pace, the force with which they hurtle the reader along. They are an obstacle race in which an objective is achieved at great heroic cost. The objective can be personal (trying to save a spouse or a long-lost relative) or global (trying to avert a world war) and often is both."

Not all cozies are thrillers in the sense that they "hurtle," but some do. And note that they are often driven by personal objectives, such as ITW's specifically mentioned "save a spouse or a long-lost relative" criterion. Penzler's willful ignorance of this hints at his emotional dislike of cozies, not to mention that he specifically works up a mean comment about cozies to introduce the ITW! Are thrillers to be defined solely by their being "not cozy"? That's not fair to either subgenre!

Mary Higgins Clark more or less created the modern concept of the "woman-in-jeopardy" novel, which is absolutely a thriller--a woman, usually an ordinary person rather than a professional PI or cop--who for whatever reason is racing to preserve her life and those of her family. She is normally cited as a paramount example of a modern cozy. She is, in fact, a thriller writer and a cozy writer. You could argue that Harry Potter is a fantasy-thriller, with that "trying to avert a world war" thing. But surely an English boarding school set near a small village is about as cozy as it gets! Agatha Christie could do no less.

I'd like to believe that Penzler is simply unaware of his prejudice. On the other hand, as a sometime publisher, editor, and bookseller, it's his job to know better. And a number of people have commented that they think he writes something like this deliberately near the awarding of the Edgars by the Mystery Writers of America to get attention for himself and his store (he wrote something even more vicious last year). He has stated clearly that cozies should not be eligible for Edgars, but admits to carrying them in his store. Why? Indeed, why shouldn't the best cozy be as good as anything else? Shakespeare wrote only one original play--the rest were rehashing history or were hackneyed thrillers or romances or even fantasies which he took and rewrote into masterpieces. Can't that be true of cozies as well?

For those debating literary merit, I will only say this: The ITW claims Edgar Allen Poe as an inventor of the genre. But so do cozy writers! And mystery writers in general! And for that matter SF writers! And horror writers! That boy sure did get around...if he didn't care, why should we?

There is every reason to believe that Penzler, like many in publishing, is very high on the Influence motive; in addition, I suspect he is low on the other two, which may explain his remarkable rudeness, along with, perhaps a lower Activity Inhibition than is found in most of the writers he maligns.

I don't care what people like or dislike--that's up to them. I do care when a public figure who should know better is willfully and publicly obtuse. Penzler is entitled to his dislikes--but he is fortunately not entitled to exclude his dislikes (which incidentally seems to include most women writers) from a general award for writing. It strikes me as an interesting example of someone thinking with his glands--excuse me, his emotions--rather than with his head.

Please note that I have nothing against the ITW; many thriller writers have been excluded unfairly from mystery arenas, and I know for a fact that a number of charter members want nothing to do with Mr. Penzler's position on cozies. (A few write cozies!)

It is my belief that in fact a great writer is one who can appeal to many motives at once. Otherwise you're excluding two-thirds of the audience by definition! Dorothy L. Sayers, to take one of my favorite writers, is a highly literary crime fiction writer (she did one of the finest translations of Dante), who wrote books ranging from highly achievement-motivated puzzles (Five Red Herrings) to "a romance with detective interruptions" (Busman's Honeymoon). J. K. Rowling, bless her, has issues of puzzles, relationships, and conflict--all three motives bundled together. Shakespeare wrote romances, histories, tragedies, and comedies, and is the source of the term "malice domestic." There's a reason he's hung on so long...

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(11 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2005 08:59 pm (UTC)
This has a specific parallel in the visual arts, too; the supposed need to label something as "art" or not. The argument is to me, pointless. Discuss the art itself. One calling something "not art" doesn't make it so, nor does it truly diminish the impact of the piece. It's merely a device to elevate one's self at the expense of someone or something else. It sounds like this Penzler chap is up to the same thing. Obviously his statements are based on emotion and not logic or clear thought. His very conclusion is flawed by its very emotion and subjectivity. I hope he's not making things too hard for the cozy lover and writer. Why spoil someone else's parade when it doesn't really impact your own?
[User Picture]
Date:May 16th, 2005 06:42 am (UTC)

Why spoil someone else's parade?

I agree completely. It's the raw emotion that troubles me here--and the negativity. You can dislike something personally and still acknowledge that it is just you!
[User Picture]
Date:May 15th, 2005 09:34 pm (UTC)
Genre wars...interesting. It seems that some people are unable to say they like something without bashing the thing that's the "opposite" of what they like. We see this in fandom as well, when you have opposing views of who a certain character should be with. "Spike's a rapist; Buffy should be with Angel!" "Angel's a pedophile; Buffy should be with Spike!"

Can't we all just get along? Why is it necessary to bash someone's personal preference to elevate your own?
[User Picture]
Date:May 16th, 2005 06:45 am (UTC)

Fandom wars

Sadly, I agree. Instead of thoughtfully explaining what they do like and why, some people seem only to be able to throw rocks. Being a Buffy fan myself, I've encountered the Angel vs. Spike conflict (among others) and am a bit bemused by the vehemence of the feelings. It's a TV show, for Pete's sake! But clearly something is resonating with the individual, so they project their own feelings into the issue rather than looking at objectively. Which, I could argue, is what a good writer tries to do--enable readers to identify with the protagonist.
[User Picture]
Date:May 16th, 2005 01:59 am (UTC)
Not sure what I can add to or question about this; seems to make pretty logical sense to me! Very interesting to wake up to on a Monday :)

Therefore: because people don't always have good self-awareness, they tend to confuse strong emotional attachment or repulsion with logical argument, especially in something as complex and subtle as writing!

One of the best places to see this, I think, is in university. Sit ten people around a table, give them all the same thing, and some will approach it logically, however good or awful the writing is, and some will focus just on how things are being said. I've come across this a fair bit in the States doing my undergrad degree, but it's rampant over here in the UK.
[User Picture]
Date:May 16th, 2005 06:48 am (UTC)


Odd, isn't it, that at an institution supposedly founded to provoke thought that people still reason from their guts?

Given the emphasis on seminar-style courses in the UK (correct me if I am wrong), I'd guess it is just more visible than in the US with our lecture-plus-section approach. At least judging by my undergraduate and graduate experience...
[User Picture]
Date:May 16th, 2005 06:56 am (UTC)


That's a really good point - and I suppose the level I'm talking about is different as well (between undergrads and postgrads). It was a really odd thing for me to learn and get used to the first few weeks I was here. I was in a few grad-level sems in the US, and they were just...fun. Nothing like spending four hours discussing literary theory! But when I came over to the UK, it became very personal, and although the professors tried to keep sems as laidback as possible, either there was no interest in the discussion topic, or people would argue based on feelings about the writing or the issue, not the actual point the author was trying to get across.

As you can see, it gets me a little perturbed. Sorry to rant! :)
[User Picture]
Date:May 16th, 2005 07:01 am (UTC)

Re: Seminars

Yeah, I loved long seminars in the US dealing with substantive issues. Maybe it's the subject matter? After all, writing is open to many interpretations--even more than psychology sometimes.

Feel free to rant!
[User Picture]
Date:May 16th, 2005 12:45 pm (UTC)
I can't say I've ever heard of Penzler, but he does seem more than I little unaware of his own prejudices. I had to laugh when he implies that while 'cozies' are not serious literature, what he writes on the other hand certainly is.

This type of inter-genre sniping is such a waste of time. The stuff I like is better than the stuff you like, nyah! Grow up, Mr Penzler!
[User Picture]
Date:May 17th, 2005 06:18 pm (UTC)
Well said! I think the big issue regarding the "I don't like it so it sucks" philosophy is the idea that in order to be right about what you like, the other person has to be *wrong*. That one cannot like something or believe in something that is different from other people is we are "all reasoned and critically thinking adults." (Which is how an ex-boyfriend usually put it).

This has gotten so ingrained in our society that nothing can ever be discussed or debated or evalutated (or at least, so it seemed during the last political election). We can only talk about things with people who agree with us, because we've been taught somehow that disagreements mean one person is RIGHT and one is WRONG.

When, as you say, you just like things different from what others like.


One comment you made that I really liked was regarding how great writers are ones who touch more than one motive. I think that's a wonderful observation. Don't have much to add to it, but I made a note of that for later!

(I don't know how familiar you are with roleplaying games and the theories thereof. I posted some random thoughts comparing one model of RPG theory to your motives in my LJ. I'll post more as I have time to ponder the matter).
[User Picture]
Date:May 17th, 2005 08:06 pm (UTC)


I have a lot of experience with RPGs--besides being a major AD&D geek in college, I played various other games, designed one of my own, and did weekend-long LRPGs. I even wrote my sophomore essay as a college psychology student on RPGs. I'm curious!

Thanks for the positive comments.
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