Hooray For Cliches
Donald H Sullivan
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Pick up any book on how to write fiction, and you'll find instructions advising you to avoid cliches. Avoid them like the plague, they'll tell you.
Likewise, the rule to avoid cliches will be found in the writer's guidelines of many speculative fiction magazines. If you're a writer of speculative fiction, it's a good bet that you've received a rejection slip or two with the reason listed as "too many cliches," or something similar.
Avoid cliched characters, we're told. Avoid cliched plots. Avoid cliched storylines. Don't use the same tired old ideas that have been beaten to death and used so often that it's impossible to add a new twist (as if there's an end to the new twists that can be added to old ideas).
Some fantasy magazines (fantasy magazines!) tell us to beware of cliched subjects such as dragons, elves, unicorns, wizards, vampires, witches, ghosts, sea serpents, super warriors, sorcerers/sorceresses, fairies, werewolves, and so on. They go on to tell us to send them something new and truly unusual.
But do cliched subjects and oft-used ideas really matter that much to the average reader? Before I got into writing, I never gave cliches or over-used ideas a thought. When I sat down to read, I looked to enjoy a good, well written story that would hold my interest--that's all. Most of the SF fans that I know are no different.
If I read fantasy, I enjoy being in a world of wizards, dragons, unicorns, etc. If I read horror, I'm not surprised to find zombies, werewolves, vampires, and such. If I read science fiction I expect time machines, robots, and alien monsters. I've read hundreds of stories on these subjects, enjoyed them all, and I don't recall any two of them being alike.
It may well be that some SF editors cater to nitpicking readers that look for cliches, worn out plots and such, and thus end up with a readership made up largely of said nitpickers. These editors are apparently satisfied to hold the readership they have and don't bother to attract many new readers.
Eventually, these editors may come to think that all readers share the same quirks as the nitpickers.(When these nitpickers were kids, they probably looked for a glimpse of modern power lines in the B westerns, or a wristwatch on a Roman soldier, rather than relaxing and enjoying the movie.
Like many other novice writers, I've ordered sample copies from magazines in order to improve my writing and to get an idea of what they're looking for. After reading some of the magazines that seek fresh and unusual stuff, I had to agree that the story ideas in those magazines were indeed fresh and unusual--but most of the stories were just so much superficial, boring nonsense.
This obsession with cliches seems to be limited to speculative fiction zines for the most part. Are there any mystery magazines that don't want cops, private eyes, or murderers in their stories? Are there westerns that don't want gunfighters or horses? Are there romances that don't want love triangles, unfaithful lovers, or passionate embraces?
It seems there are some speculative fiction editors (not all, thank goodness) who are so obsessed with new and unusual ideas that they will reject a truly good story if they deem it to be trite or cliched, but will accept a lousy story if they deem it to be fresh and unusual.
We've all probably had stories rejected where the editor scrawled a note on the rejection slip to the effect that she "really thought this was a great story and enjoyed it very much, but..." The fact that those editors enjoyed the story seemingly didn't carry much weight.
Does the ultimate worth of a story depend on whether or not the story idea is overused? Or does the ultimate worth of a story simply depend on whether or not the story is an interesting, enjoyable tale that keeps the reader turning pages?
Hal Clement's science fiction classic, "Mission of Gravity," has been cited as a good example of a great story with a fresh and unusual idea. It's a great story, but actually it's based on an old idea: humans meet and deal with a different kind of life form while exploring space. But Clement gives this tired old idea a remarkable twist.
Don't get me wrong--I'm not against fresh and unusual ideas. If a writer (like Stephen King, for example) can spin a good yarn from an unusual idea, that's great. But what I am against is fresh and unusual ideas merely for the sake of fresh and unusual ideas.
If we forsake every idea and storyline that's been used before, and grope around in our minds for something truly new and unusual, chances are we'll come up with something that's just plain silly. But there's also a fair chance that some editor will buy it from us just because it's a new and unusual idea.
Lots of small press speculative fiction magazines have short life spans, and recently, even a couple of the big zines have folded. Several more of the big ones are reported to be experiencing a significant drop in sales and subscriptions of late. Could it be that their obsession with truly new and unusual (but silly) ideas is at least part of the reason?
I've always been a great fan of speculative fiction, and I've been happy to see the genre enjoying great popularity for the past few decades. It all started with the pulp era, peaked during the Golden Age of SF, but is in a slow but steady decline at present. Today, there are still a lot of good stories to be found, but I fear that some of the silly fluff now being published may kill the popularity of speculative fiction. Perhaps one day in the future SF will come to stand for Silly Fiction rather than Speculative Fiction.
In many of the stories in today's zines, there is little action, adventure, or suspense to be found. No real conflict. A mere trace of sense of wonder can be found. Some of the stories are probably intended to be funny, but only succeed in being silly. Funny SF can be enjoyable, but there's a sharp line between funny SF and silly SF. Apparently, some readers actually enjoy these silly stories. And some readers probably enjoy reading labels on soup cans.
I love writing and I also love reading. As both a writer and a reader, I'll take good old cliched stories about the likes of wizards, fairies, zombies, time machines, and space aliens any day of the week and twice on Sunday. And I'll end it on that cliched note.
Note: Having said all that, I would advise that when submitting to a scifi publication, follow their guidelines. Send 'em what they want, even if it's a trifle silly.
This article was published in the Jan/Feb 03 issue of Calliope, a publication of American Mensa, Ltd.