Trope vs. Tripe: the Sincerest Form of Failure

Genre fiction has been built on a foundation of pulp. Pulp has been built on a foundation of modern myth. When a writer takes to genre writing, one of the first impulses is to see if their work looks like other genre writing to see if it fits comfortably into that stable. Depending on the writer’s level of familiarity and comfort with genre, this will mean either a.) they will try to see if their work looks like their favorite author in the genre or b.) they will see if it looks like the most popular author currently working in the genre. These two might be one and the same in some lucky cases but that’s exceedingly rare and is rarer depending upon how well read the author is in said genre. For example, there are very few contemporary crime writers who will tell you that James Patterson is their favorite crime novelist of all time. Some will say Donald Westlake, some will say Raymond Chandler, others will say Ed McBain or occasionally even Mickey Spillane.

What happens next is what separates a lot of good writing from a lot of bad writing. The reactions to passing or failing this test can determine the trajectory of a writer’s work for some time to come. If a writer sees that their work looks like their favorite writer in the genre, how they decide to react can change how they approach fiction. The writer has two options here: 1.) continuing imitating author x because author x is awesome or 2.) see how their work differentiates from author x and work with that. The writer who has chosen choice number 1 has a set of challenges ahead. The biggest of these challenges is that when they submit to anyone who has read author x, they will be compared to author x and the editor will know that author x did it first and probably better. If the author imitating author x chooses self publishing, readers will know the same thing but the author can try to bet on the populace not being well read enough to recognize their influences. This gets very difficult when their influences are Harry Potter or Underworld.  If you want to base your well-being on whether somebody has never seen a McDonald’s or had coffee at Starbucks, you will probably not win that bet. There are some readers that wlll not care that you look exactly like author x and will think “oh boy, more Tolkien!” And this might look like a blessing, until you realize that if author x is that popular, then a lot of authors will be imitating author x, and you are not just competing with author x for readership but with several other people whose work looks exactly like yours.

The author who takes the second road risks people not recognizing them as a disciple of author x. Is this a problem? Only if you were trying to bank on your brand being “I’m just like author x”. They have to figure out what their fanbase will look like and whether their unique take on the genre does not knock them outside of its hallowed halls. There is still a chance that people will say “this is like author x” but they are more likely to use the term favorably. If the author on the road of differentiation stretches genre too far, he meets up with the author who has failed the genre test in an awkward but potentially wonderful place. These authors meet at the place where they either change the genre or become their own genre.

The writer whose work looks nothing like the rest of his genre risks rejection a lot. Editors might look at the work and say “dude, this is a horror magazine. I don’t know what this is but it ain’t horror.” But this author has two of the three weapons of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition at their disposal: fear and surprise (devotion to the pope optional). They get the benefit of an editor saying “hmm, this horror story looks like no other horror story. I am trying to edit a publication that stands out from other publications. I will take this because it will help me stand out.” Depending on how driven the writer is, how ready the market is and how competent their allies are, this can lead to either a series of rewarding small victories or long term changes in the genre they want to work in.

Imitation is the sincerest way to flatter, yeah. Tolkien and Stephen King don’t need to be flattered though. You’re the one who needs to look good.

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