Cumulative Acceptance

     I’ve been watching the trends that run through the various genres of fiction I’ve occasionally produced:

  • Science Fiction,
  • High Fantasy,
  • Urban Fantasy / Horror,
  • Romance,

     …and I believe I’ve deduced a few things about both reader and writer behavior, all of which pertain to the important consideration called willing suspension of disbelief.

     If you write in any of those genres, you need the reader’s cooperation – his willing suspension of disbelief – to please him with your story. That’s because your tale embeds one or more counterfactual premises: assumptions about what is possible that are at odds with contemporary reality. The reader must be willing to accept those premises for the duration of the story. Should he refuse to do so, he might not finish your book. At best, he won’t feel satisfied with it.

     Now, from one standpoint this is nothing new. Writers in the speculative genres have faced this problem for many decades. The willingness to suspend disbelief in some proposition is what determines whether a reader will even peruse the books in those genres. However, marketing trends are closely coupled to particular motifs frequently employed in those genres. And those trends shape the decisions of both readers and writers.

     Consider all the following common motifs:

  • Science Fiction:
    • Warfare in Space,
    • Time travel,
    • Mental powers,
    • Apocalypses and post-apocalypse environments.
  • High Fantasy:
    • Elves, Dwarves, and Trolls,
    • Wizards / Sorcerers,
    • Magical Objects.
  • Urban Fantasy / Horror:
    • Vampires,
    • Werewolves / Shapeshifters,
    • Magicians,
    • Zombies.
  • Romance:
    • Billionaires,
    • SEALs / Special Forces

     These days, those motifs help to define subgenres within which some readers read exclusively. Such a reader knows exactly which shelves in the bookstore (or keywords at Amazon) he’s going to visit. If the fiction being produced today is any indication, writers believe such readers to be numerous.

     A reader who sticks exclusively to a particular subgenre has his willing suspension of disbelief for its characteristic premises already in place. Indeed, part of why he reads exclusively that sort of fiction is his preference for those premises. He’s already accepted them even before he opens the cover. It’s a kind of reader’s labor-saving device. This also applies, of course, to the reader that reads several such subgenres.

     There are many writers, especially in the indie movement, who exploit such preferences in their decisions. They write to the premise-preferences of their chosen subgenre’s readers. That set of already-established decisions is as much a labor-saving device for the writer as for the reader. Add to this the tendency of today’s novelists to write series with an eternally increasing number of segments, and the ready consumption of such series by their readerships, which are often quite large.

     The new writer eager to “break in” will often target one of those trendy subgenres. He reasons that the readership he seeks is already there, ready and waiting for him; he need only meet its expectations. That sometimes turns out to be the case. Whether it’s so most of the time, I cannot say.

     If that new writer’s main concern is getting established, his decision is easy to understand. However, it can carry a price. An existing readership is likely to demand more of the same. The writer can come to feel that he’s trapped himself, unable to break out of his existing series or subgenre without losing a significant fraction of his existing readers. He may face a choice between preserving that readership and exercising his creativity.

     Readers’ cumulative acceptance of particular premises as fictionally plausible is what brought the subgenres into existence and made them viable starting points for aspiring writers. But there is nothing that comes free of cost or risks. Among the risks to the reader, include becoming mentally inflexible. The writer risks even more: being “lost in the thundering herd” of others who cater to his chosen subgenre, and the erosion of his creative powers. And as the number of writers working in a subgenre increases, the effectiveness of that subgenre as a launching point for one’s own career diminishes in proportion.

     Yes, yes, yes: Fran’s mounted his “originality” horse yet again. Chalk it up to having found nothing worth downloading, much less paying for, in quite some time. But that’s the risk that goes with being a reader who demands fresh and original ideas in his fictional diet. As for the frustration it causes the determinedly original writer, resolved never to follow a path already trampled flat by hordes of previous writers, I believe it’s time to close this essay.


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    • Tracy C Coyle on April 25, 2021 at 4:13 PM

    YOU broke me out of my ‘sci-fiction only’ mantra of book genres.  And opened me up to new (to me) fields like music production and….cheerleading!

    But I don’t agree about suspending belief, but rather an acceptance that what I know isn’t all there is to know. That there could, most probably is, things beyond my experience and understanding that are in fact real enough to make sense as long as I am willing to be open to such.

    Like the idea that there are millions of civilizations existing in our galaxy.

    Or that ‘magic’ (a technology so far advanced as to….) exists.  Our brains are mighty beasts we still know so little about.  That said, I’m still not a huge fan of  fantasy – though the Mage books are expanding my mind.

    Thank you for opening my mind rather than forcing me to suspend my brain!

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Tracy. One of the things I find fascinating about the concept of magic is its irresistibility to young people. I once asked a college class “How many of you have ever taken an interest in magic?” A few hands went up — fewer than (I suspect) would have been the case had everyone answered candidly. I then told them “That’s perfectly natural. If magic actually worked, it would be an easier way for us to get what we want — and who wouldn’t be interested in finding out about that?”

  1. Science Fiction:

    Warfare in Space,
    Time travel,
    Mental powers,
    Apocalypses and post-apocalypse environments.


    Nope (time travel is childish wish fulfillment).

    Nope (unless thinking quickly counts).

    Not really; I focus on the recovering city-states of the Breakup, not the Breakup.

    *** Looks like my entire 12-book future history of Machine Civilization fails your test.  Perhaps that is why no one is reading it?


    And my one attempt at urban fantasy/horror?  Cursed Hearts?  Sure, Maya is a psychic vampire, but Chris is just an orphaned synth from Hokkaido.  No money, no military training.  Guess I can call that fail by your standards, as well.

    Yet.  All of my books are, culturally, from “our side of the river,” as TheZMan puts it.  I’m not going to buy a sports team on this revenue stream, but I am reaching minds.  Which is all I ever wanted to do.

    1. (chuckle) It’s not a test, Clayton. It’s more of a roundup of the “soft points” in SF readers’ willing-suspension-of-disbelief requirement. The ones I tabulated appear, from the trends in the SF I’ve seen coming out, to be where indies eager to gain readerships think they can penetrate with the least difficulty.

      Note that I don’t exploit those soft points either. Well, except in the case of the Spooner Federation books, where I did employ psi powers as a necessary coordinated motif to support the larger plot element of ecological crisis. However, I did tie them to a larger idea, which I shan’t spoil for you, and which I’m likely to make further use of in a novel-yet-to-be.

  1. […] After reading this piece, one of the aforementioned writers, Clayton Barnett, commented thus (slightly edited for ease of […]

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