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From an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson by Terry Bisson, published in the Outspoken Authors book The Lucky Strike:

Someone once described your Mars books as an infodump tunneled by narrative moles. I think it was a compliment. What do you think?

No, not a compliment. I reject the word "infodump" categorically -- that's a smartass word out of the cyberpunks' workshop culture, them thinking that they knew how fiction works, as if it were a tinker toy they could disassemble and label superciliously, as if they knew what they were doing. Not true in any way. I reject "expository lump" also, which is another way of saying it. All these are attacks on the idea that fiction can have any kind of writing included in it. It's an attempt to say "fiction can only be stage business" which is a stupid position I abhor and find all too common in responses on amazon.com and the like. All these people who think they know what fiction is, where do they come from? I've been writing it for thirty years and I don't know what it is, but what I do know is that the novel in particular is a very big and flexible form, and I say, or sing: Don't fence me in!

I say, what's interesting is whatever you can make interesting. And the world is interesting beyond our silly stage business. So "exposition" creeps in. What is it anyway? It's just another kind of narrative. One thing I believe: it's all narrative. Once you get out of the phone book anyway, it's all narrative.

And in science fiction, you need some science sometimes; and science is expository; and so science fiction without exposition is like science fiction without science, and we have a lot of that, but it's not good. So the word "infodump" is like a red flag to me, it's a Thought Police command saying "Dumb it down, quit talking about the world, people don't have attention spans, blah blah blah." No. I say, go read Moby Dick, Dostoevsky Garcia Marquez, Jameson, Bakhtin, Joyce, Sterne -- learn a little bit about what fiction can do and come back to me when you're done. That would be never and I could go about my work in peace.

(Back to mythpunk later.)



Niall Harrison is a reader and fan.
17 comments on “Quote of the Day”

[W]hat's interesting is whatever you can make interesting.
Yes, I'll agree with that.

There is something faintly pejorative about the term... no denying it. Bisson is quite correct to challenge the assumption that there is something fundamentally wrong with descriptive prose.
Strip out the descriptive prose and what you're left with are works like Willis' Blackout/All Clear and the works of Laurel K. Hamilton. Works that are nothing but dialogue. Works full of people telling people stuff they already know or endlessly re-iterating ideas to themselves in horrific internal monologues. "Stage Business" is a good way of describing that approach to writing.

Paul Kincaid

Well, 'infodump' goes back well before the cyberpunks, in fact I remember far more discussion about the problem of 'infodumps' in the 1970s than at any time since then. And the problem of the balance between information and story is one of the abiding problems of science fiction. But then, it's one of the abiding problems of all fiction. The simple response is that there are many many ways of telling a story and providing the reader with the information they require, and it's the author's job to work out what works for them and for their particular fiction. Infodumping and 'expository lumps' got a bad press simply because they were being used indiscriminately, and were all too often getting between the reader and the story. But then, in response to Jonathan, I'd regard the fact-stuffed dialogue and the spelling out of what the character is presumed to know already is just another form of infodump.

Abigail:
The next question in the interview is "But I thought you liked infodumps!", to which Robinson's response (I don't have the book to hand now) is something like, "I do, but I want people to think about them differently." So he's saying it's a pejorative, or more precisely that it's usually an unthinking pejorative -- I don't think he'd have any argument with someone who prefers action/dialogue-driven fiction, it's the notion that that is how fiction should be that's getting up his nose.
Paul:
"were all too often getting between the reader and the story."
I take KSR's argument to be that infodumps are just another kind of story. Again, IIRC he says that more explicitly later in the interview -- that the Mars novels are the story of the colonisation of Mars, and sometimes that means they're the story of the geology, and not the humans. I'm very sympathetic to the notion that there are more stories to tell than just the human ones, and that science fiction in particular should be conscious of that fact.

I think he makes an excellent wider point about the state of writing.
"... the word "infodump" is like a red flag to me, it's a Thought Police command saying 'Dumb it down, quit talking about the world, people don't have attention spans, blah blah blah.'"
The thinking he's talking about is a threat to critical thinking. I see the approach plenty in wandering the blogosphere and worry especially when it's advice given to young adult writers. It's what sells, therefore it's what must be written. That this is nonsense may be invisible unless there's space to step back, and to some extent there isn't; with the interest in publishing and the ability to publish both seemingly up there's a crush from the back.
As an aside, some professional writers seem to have cottoned on to the potential in the rising number of competitors and have set themselves up as gurus, intensifying the propagation of the one true approach.

After years of at least trying to eschew infodumps for incluing, and recommending that approach to beginning writers, I've noticed that mainstream literary fiction has a lot of infodumps. Example off the top of my head: Ian McEwan's Saturday.
So reading this quote from KSR sort of opens my mind to new possibilities. It's like the door dilated.

Ian McDonald

The above: also, the blogospheric tendency to anaylse narrative purely in terms of televison or screenplay structure, which, as any fule kno, is quite quite different from novel structure, and not necessarily better or the perfect narrative formula. But wah! they cry, it's not like a movie, with clear cut pro/antagonist, and 'pacing issues' (not running around and shooting every eight pages) and Obvious Plot Points where you are Told What The Plot Is (I suspect that most of the online comments along the lines of 'doesn't have a plot' mean 'it wasn't explicity told to me what The Plot was supposed to be doing'. Paul McAuley stoutly defended this point when The Quiet War was up for discussion on IO9 last year or so; he politely and rightly pointed out that Hollywood movie structure is not the only narrative. Certainly, the geekisphere's cultural valuing of Being Clever About --in this case, Being Clever About writing by playing TV Tropes bingo-- has left a lot of people thinking that they know what narrative is. And it's a broad church. I'm with KSR here --I've spent twentysomething writing years trying to find out what narrative and I'm still discovering new things. It's certainly different from rattling off 'snappy dialogue' and calling it a novel-if you want to write that, try a play not a novel. Is this sounding ranty? Time to revisit Nick Lowe's 'Well-Tempered Plot Device' ( I see 'Plot Coupons' has made it into the damnable TV Tropes.)

KSR: "I say, what's interesting is whatever you can make interesting."
Well said. The work in a nutshell, as it were...

That is an interestingly visceral response from Robinson and I'd love to know what inspired it. I'm certainly sympathetic to his view that the novel is a very big and flexible form but, at the same time, I think he is attacking a strawman.
Paul points out that infodumping isn't a cyberpunk term and if there has been time when it was a cry for dumbing down, I've never heard it used that way. In fact, I've only ever heard it used in exactly the opposite way. I'd second Niall that there are more stories to tell than just the human ones but those stories are just as hard to tell as ones involving humans. Just as characterisation can be poorly done so too can exposition.
I'm a bit baffled by Robinson's suggestion that science is expository. What does that even mean? We might use science to explain our world but that doesn't mean it is expository in and of itself.
Finally, Ian, you knock people for not thinking deeply about novels but then you are equally thoughtless toward other media. Film and television do not automatically mean clear cut pro/antagonist and Obvious Plot Points and conversely you find those in plenty of novels. It is the creator, not the medium. So yes, perhaps the blogosphere does tend to analyse novels in simplistic terms but this stems from their limited horizons not the pernicious influence of the idiot box.

Vicki

It may not be a perfect word, but I think "this story has a lot of exposition" is as valid a statement as "this story is almost all dialogue" or "this story is told entirely in diary entries."
None of those tells me whether the story is good. One or more of them may tell some people whether they are likely to enjoy the story. But "don't talk about the amount of exposition" is about as useful as "don't talk about first versus third person."

I just wanted to second what Martin said and add that at a time when many 'thriller' -type novels clearly owe more to the traditions of cinematic action films than they do to the decidedly different literary thrillers produced by the likes of Ruth Rendell, it strikes me as entirely fitting to port across components from a cinematic critical lexicon.
If your book presents itself as a kick-arse action adventure story and yet it is bogged down in endless exposition about how brutality of a certain planet's ecosystem then it strikes me as entirely salient to criticise the book on the grounds of pacing.
Live by the sword, die by the relevant critical lexicon.

Put your hands up if you've read Red Plenty! I'd say that's series of entirely expositiory essays nestled in bits of character and drama. It's not impossible to do, but it's easy to do badly. Interestingly, Francis Spufford has said he had KSR explicitly in mind while writing that.
My feeling is that the phrase "plot dump" - with its excretory implications - is an inherently negative term to what we might more positively describe as "an expository passage". Which has its own worrying double entendre... I'm sorry, it's a Friday afternoon and I get a bit like this...

"I'm a bit baffled by Robinson's suggestion that science is expository. What does that even mean?"
I suspect it means that science writing tends to be expository. Cf. any scientific journal.
Flip it the other way: What's an example of non-expository science writing that's been published in a journal?
I see this all as KSR inveighing against that trendy fad of the late 20th Century, "Show, don't tell." Someday that catchphrase may well be as hoary as the Three Unities. (I'd argue it already is, but hey.)
Every soliloquy violates it. Through no coincidence, every soliloquy is an infodump. {shrug}

Ken: "After years of at least trying to eschew infodumps for incluing, and recommending that approach to beginning writers, I've noticed that mainstream literary fiction has a lot of infodumps. Example off the top of my head: Ian McEwan's Saturday."
Saturday is infodumpy, yes. But Saturday is really not a very good novel. The point of purchase implicit in the critical term 'infodump' is the 'dump' part, not the 'info' part. Nothing wrong with info. Red Plenty, also mentioned in this thread, manages to be information-dense and fascinating without ever resorting to the clumping, undigested here-unrevised-are-the-notes-I-made-after-chatting-to-my-surgeon-friend clots of hair blocking the drain of McEwan's text. Spufford is a much defter, cannier, and (as far as info is concerned) more nuanced writer than McEwan.

Ian McDonald

netherworks: er, no. I work in telly, and have both written for screen and script-edited. What I'm grumbling about is the tick-box application of screen 'tropes' (a horrible expression) to all forms of writing.

"I'm grumbling about is the tick-box application of screen 'tropes' (a horrible expression)..."
Now it's my turn to be confused. In the sense of, "A significant or recurrent theme; a motif," the OED both a) has it, and b) traces it back to at least 1975.
So, "horrible" how?

It occurs to me that Red Plenty is a book that seeks to impart information rather than tell a story, in a traditional novellistic sense. It's a story of events, rather than a story of people. I came to that book expecting something somewhat drier and was delighted by witty and characterful book that it is.
On the other hand, if you come to another book - perhaps by an author whose initials include S, R and K - expecting a more familiarly novellistic narrative, you might be disturbed to find yourself reading a different type of book and think "what's all this info dump hoo ha? Why aren't these folks doing shit and that?" So, reader expectations maybe form a part of the disconnect here.
As for tropes, I don't much like it either. It's common use seems to be as a dignified replacement for "genre clichés". "The trope of the bold star ship captain blah blah blah..." I thought it had a more nuanced meaning than that: "the frontier" is a trope of westerns, eg, while the dastardly black hat villain is a cliché. The distinction seems to have become murky in internet-based discourse.

 

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