Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Genre: The Root Of All Decisions

Last week I responded to the confusion one reader of these posts who is also a writer expressed.

In the course of that post I said:

That's right - genre shapes the world of entertainment so that what you may may have access to, or may discover first, depends entirely on what others want rather than on what you want (or really need).  So you learn to be satisfied with what others want - and in a way that's "good" because it allows you to "fit in" and to discuss what others know about. In another way, though, it sows confusion within you about "who" you really are, what your purpose in life is, and how that relates you to everyone else.  

This situation (which is changing so fast it's confusing) has profound consequences for writers, readers, and probably human civilization.

Marketing is based these days on some mathematical principles I discussed in a previous post here:


One principle of marketing I didn't discuss in any depth is information overload.

Way back in the 1970's Alvin Toffler (a journalist) wrote a book titled FUTURE SHOCK, which I urge you to acquire and read.  It's had many printings and you should be able to find it easily.


That is a link to a "study guide" to Future Shock -- on Kindle.  That book is so important it's still being studied, and I think younger people probably need the "guide" because many of the then-contemporary references are now obscure after only 40 years.

In this book, Toffler pointed out to the general reading public something that only SF writers and readers, and some scientists, were discussing.

Remember the World Wide Web only began in 1990 with the creation of HTTP, hypertext, the code for web pages.

In the 1980's, there were Lists and Bulletin Boards proliferated, but only a few neighborhoods had dial-up services that allowed you to get your computer to read these Boards.  Every Christmas, the access to the Boards would clog up and become impossible as the number of people with a modem increased 10-fold or more via gifts.

Through the 1990's fiber optic cables were laid at a frantic pace, all based on a lie deliberately told by a corporation head -- about the rate of increase of the amount of information being transmitted on "the web."

The lie led to the dot-com bubble bursting in 2000's.

Now, in 2011, we're seeing "slowdowns" again as data transmission maxes out what fiber was laid and lit.  (also as corps fight government for control of traffic patterns and volumes)

All of this was foreseeable by Toffler in the 1970's.

The core of the issue, for Romance readers and writers anyway, has two nuclei.

A) The basic hardwired LIMIT of the human brain & emotions for decision making

B) The available strategies that attract the most people trying to deal with those hardwired limits being exceeded

Marketers (who invented genre and continually re-define it) know what neuroscientists discovered around the time Toffler was writing.

The human brain's wiring allows a human to make a certain number of decisions during a wake-period (i.e. per day).

Then you have to sleep. 

Confusion sets in as that limit is reached.

Modern living (cell phones, texting, web-surfing via phone, at work, etc) has an increased number of decisions per day built into the infrastructure.

Agricultural living centuries ago didn't require any such pace of decision making, except maybe when being over-run by invaders.

And then there would be a few days of stark terror, followed by bare survival, followed by resuming the slow pace.

Google saw the opportunity in the information overload situation and has made good sorting information out, and sorting real information from noise (i.e. spam).

But now even Google brings up thousands of pages on almost any search terms.  How do you sort the sort?

Also CNN made good by deploying camera/news crews all over the world, making them satellite broadcast capable, carrying their own batteries, able to report on anything anywhere at any time.  That opened a flood of information sources that was simply overwhelming, in spite of very professional editing.

See my blogs on what is an editor.  This one has a list of the previous ones in the series:


The CNN you see today does not in any way resemble the CNN that dominated cable news for a decade.

There's more reason for that than merely political slant.

The reason, (from an SF writer/ futurologist point of view) is rooted in item B) above -- available strategies that attract people.

The influx of sheer information is causing a whole generation that is now in their 40's to fight back by ignoring information such as CNN specialized in providing.

In the 1990's, information (live visuals from around the world) was a novelty, and the events seemed "important" simply because we never would have known had CNN not had a crew on the spot.

20 years later, world events don't seem so important.  They are on every TV channel -- hundreds of channels that didn't exist in 1990 -- and on the Web newsfeeds (which didn't exist then) -- and now in newspapers delivered to your iPad or Kindle.

What is common, what floods in with force and abundance, becomes "cheap" and therefore uninteresting.

But it's uninteresting for another reason.  The human brain can accept just so much information in one day, and that's it. 

As the limit is reached, each successive incoming item is less interesting.  The nervous system can't respond to being jerked around like that (yes, this is relevant to Romance novels - very relevant).

Bombarded and stressed to actual, inherent, hardwired physical limits, people fight back by ignoring.

All of this flood of information has been added on top of what we are hardwired to prioritize -- child-care, getting money, food, shelter, and paying attention to those intimate individuals inside our lives more than the faceless strangers outside our lives.

So TV news has become soap opera, a hard-news story such as the tornados in the central USA in April/May gives a few facts then cuts away to quotes from victims giving personal "color" to the story, making it a story rather than an information dump.

Those who want to make headlines (politicians, ax grinders) start squabbles and sling insults at each other.  So-and-so said such-and-such about whoever.  Whoever answered by trashing So-and-so.

Since when is name-calling news?

And what has that to do with Romance?

Oh, it has everything to do with Romance. 

Readers of novels seek out a novel to GET AWAY FROM the information dump, the stress of being required to learn stuff (yes, neuroscientists have measured the number of things a human brain can learn between sleeps, too, and it's a hardwired limit)

But what is the process of "seeking out a novel" these days?

Well, that process has changed markedly, and will change even more.

But here's one clue quantified by marketers.

As with the fight to be at the top of Google's search results page for your keyword, the fight for your attention pervades e-space.

Marketers have discovered that most people (probably not you, if you're over 40 and an SF reader) will CHOOSE FROM the first 3 to 5 items they come across.

A purchase will be made if there are 3 or 4 choices.  If there are more than 5 choices offered, the customer will more likely wander off into confusion, unable to MAKE A DECISION.

There you are, 10 novels almost identical (all labeled Romance) -- choose one.  Most people won't choose.

There you are facing 3 Romance novels.  Pick.  Flip-flip, oh, that's interesting, CLICK BUY NOW.

People act decisively when there are fewer things to compare.

That's hardwired into the basic human brain, and remember the fog of confusion that sets in when an individual is reaching a decision-limit for the day.

These days, with all the influx of information, the demand for decisions, the need to learn new procedures for doing things you always used to do without thinking -- (I have to discuss my adventures with my new iPod as a Kindle reader, but that's another topic, yet intimately related) -- each and every one of us is walking around maxed out by noon every day.

Yeah, by noon or halfway through your day whenever you started, you've pretty much learned as many things as you can for the day, made as many decisions as you can, and the "fog" begins to set in.  By 3PM or the equivalent for you, forget it.

Now, I've been reading a whole lot of urban fantasy with contemporary settings, lots of fantasy (a few really good SF novels I have to talk about in my review column), and just lots of fiction.

I can't even scratch the surface.  There are more books than ever on my to-read stack, and I can't DECIDE to discard unread ones!!!  Too many decisions. What if I miss something important.

Yet no way can I read it all.

So I can't say my cross-section analysis is as good as it has ever been.  I know I'm missing out on some things.

But -- I think I've found something that may exemplify a trend.

We all know the social analysts have compiled statistics on the changes sexual mores in the USA, maybe the world.  These trends among readers show up in what editors demand of writers -- the way they promulgate a formula for a Romance line.  That is, so many sex scenes of such and so length, such and so amount of graphic language, and various situations that must be there and others that must not.

Westerns used to have some of that kind of formula behind them, but that formulaic approach is one reason the Romance Genre as a whole does not acquire more respect. 

But it's also one of the reasons Romance sells so much better than most other genres.

After the relentless pounding our nerves take in a day, when we're totally maxed out on learning and deciding, we want to read something that's predictable while fresh and new, and that soothes the nerves rather than challenges.

So what's the trend?

With Romance genre reading as a background, readers are venturing into other sub-genres such as Fantasy-Romance or SF-Romance, or Paranormal Romance (all of which I devour ravenously).

And what I'm seeing in the way writers are crafting the romance branch of the plot parallels what we see in everyday life, the way people conduct their "real" lives.

The trend I want to point out here is one about how writers depict Relationships forming in a Romance.

It must be 20 years now since the moral standard emerged that says serial monogamy is not "sleeping around." 

The standard has become to test drive a boyfriend before getting really serious.

Triangle Situation Romances are bleeding into SF and Paranormal sub-genres with these assumptions firmly in place. 

And of course the plot revolves around the woman making a choice between boyfriends.

Do you see where I'm going?


Test drive your guys until you find "the right one" -- the one who delivers the best sex, or the best sense of self-worth, or security, or sense of danger, or whatever you're looking for or need in a guy.

But our exterior, non-relationship, world floods us with more information than we can tolerate, and our defense is to ignore most and depend entirely on "editors" to select what we really need to know and present it in 90-second bytes called "news."

We have to ignore even those 90-second news items in order to have the capacity to evaluate all the information gathered on test-driven guys.

We test-drive so many guys, collect so much information about all of them, we end up not deciding. 

I think the buy-decision research that shows offering a customer too many choices results in the customer wandering off without making a purchase explains the plethora of "ex's" littering so many people's lives.

The "arranged marriage" allows you only one choice.

"Playing the field" drowns you in too much information, resulting in no-decision.

Marrying your High School sweetheart or the boy-next-door may soon come back into fashion, simply because the number of choices are fewer and therefore a decision is made.

Now, what if misery results from a bad choice made too young in life?

That brings us back to what I said at the top here:

So you learn to be satisfied with what others want - and in a way that's "good" because it allows you to "fit in" and to discuss what others know about. In another way, though, it sows confusion within you about "who" you really are, what your purpose in life is, and how that relates you to everyone else.  

"Learn to be satisfied with what others want" -- in choosing a guy, that means succumbing to the social pressure to be married and have kids (or adopt).  You then have to make do with the husband you have, somehow making your peace with the flaws.

Perhaps the Romance genre will revive the scene of the neighborhood kaffee klatches where the mothers sit around minding the kids and bitching about their husbands -- learning thereby that everyone has something to bitch about and that's what binds us together.

In the 1970's, women's lib became the "what others want" that you had to be satisfied with, as it became the norm for married women to work for a living.

In the 1950's, prevailing opinion among working men was that a man ought to be paid more than a woman because a man had a family to support.  If the man wasn't paid more for his work, his wife would have to work, and if she did that his children would not grow up to be happy, well adjusted human beings.

I kid thee not!!!  That was indeed the rationale.

Today I don't know many families where both spouses don't have careers.  These are people raising kids who were raised by two working parents.

OK, today many households have one or the other spouse out of work.  Let's hope that's really temporary! 

SFR premise though - suppose the current hard-recession, double-dip recession or mini-depression the USA is in leads to working spouses being paid double and the other spouse staying home to care for kids?

It might put daycare centers out of work, or shorten school hours depending on non-working parent to do the rest of the schooling.

That could reshape society again. 

Since the real problem shaking the roots of our society is the Information Explosion Alvin Toffler discussed, sheltering one parent (doesn't matter which gender) from the pounding the workplace inflicts could produce the kind of excess decision-making-capacity in that non-working parent that is necessary to have patience with kids.

Now, what would that generation of kids grow up to be like?  More like the adults of the 1980's, pre-web?

Do you suppose Road Rage is the result of Information Overload?

I saw a series of clips from YouTube focusing on fistfights, hair-pulling catfights, and one really horrid shooting the other day. 

In most cases where images of violence between people having an argument over something petty have made it to the top of YouTube, the scene shows many other people just standing around.  No help offered.  No attempt to quell the hitting or bullying.  No interference.  NO DECISION.

We see the general public (via YouTube and handy phone-video) having turned indecisive if not indifferent or ignoring of new information such as "somebody might be hurt."

I can't believe this is because a majority of people just don't care about other people.  I can't believe this is because violence against strangers or even family members in public is approved of. Yes, some of these videos might be staged, but why would anyone watch videos of people ignoring a fight in a public place?  It's amusing because it illustrates how the viewer feels inside.  Apathetic, foggy, due to information overload.

We're just maxed out on decision making all day every day, just as Toffler discussed. 

Being maxed-out is affecting the way we choose a spouse, the way we raise our kids (letting the over-indulge in video games; using the TV as babysitter), and the way we interact with strangers in public (not getting involved because that could lead to even more decisions to make.)

And it affects how marketers market books at us -- limit choices in order to get a sale.

Take the marketer's thinking into account when you decide what genre to write in -- or to mix-n-match, or to invent a totally new genre and hope for your book to become a "market maker" like Harry Potter. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg Unlimited

1 comment:

  1. "Since the real problem shaking the roots of our society is the Information Explosion Alvin Toffler discussed, sheltering one parent (doesn't matter which gender) from the pounding the workplace inflicts could produce the kind of excess decision-making-capacity in that non-working parent that is necessary to have patience with kids."

    I've found this happens, if I don't have the laptop out while my son is awake. The past two days I've kept my laptop in the "entertainment room", rather than on the dining table, and I've noticed that I have more patience for my son, and he behaves better, too.

    If I have the laptop out and I'm using it while he's awake, however, by the information explosion theory I get the same barrage of information just reading my email and all my usual social networking sites, and my patience (and parenting) does suffer as a result, even though I'm a stay-at-home mom.