Musical Story Modelling

My major operating metaphors about fiction are all about making equivalences between music and stories. For instance in my general scheme of thinking, short stories are singles and short story magazines are compilation albums.

There is a spectrum of different kinds of singles which has at one end pop music and pulp fiction. This the realm of the two and a half minute single with a strict adherence to traditional song structures and of squids in space with plot and conflict at the heart of every scene. It isn’t the smartest music out there, but it is made to be danced to while pissed. Here we are all about the chorus and surface story, and what that makes the audience feel in their heart.

At the other end of this spectrum there’s the high art: stories and music which force the audience to question the very nature of what stories and music are. Normal rules of engagement are abandoned and the audience’s enjoyment comes not from instant gratuitous enjoyment, but from adjusting over time to the flavour of the work, in much the same way that for many people coffee and beer taste horrible the first time they drink it, but overtime they learn to love the taste and identify the differences between beers and coffees.

I mentioned that fiction magazines are broadly like compilation album. With science fiction magazines and other genre magazines roughly occupying the same shelf space as “Now That’s What I Call Music” or wherever the latest Ministry of Sound or Kerrang disc is put. The songs/stories are selected to appeal to their respective audiences who are expecting a certain and repeatable effect from the album/magazine. I tend also to think of magazines at the less professional end of the market as being akin to play lists made by individuals. There’s no shame in this.

The magazines that publish avant-garde fiction along with notable failed literary experiments are like play lists made by mad and talented DJs working along in their bedrooms late into the night. People who are real aficionados and doing it out of love instead of for mass appeal. Think of the Moon Wiring Club’s mixes or the mixes you can downloaded from

In case you are wondering when I’m going to attack or stand up for literary fiction and its troubled relationship to genre fiction, I’m not. Most of today’s literary fiction deals in the same vice of giving a repeatable emotional experience to an expectant audience in much the same way that other, more pulpy, forms of genre fiction do. The precise qualities in the text that the audience is looking for might differ, but they’re both fictions being written for audiences. That debate to me is like arguing the merits of Smooth Jazz verses Heavy Metal: both have their audiences and both are written and performed for that audience. Rarely are they commercially made with the intention of discovering anything radically new about their forms.

Novels, I tend to think of them as like a regular album put out by a single artist or band. A sequence of ideas composed and put out in one unit. There may be a story and we may be looking at something like a concept album, but we may just be we as easily be looking at some episodes in a characters life.

The role of editors in this schema of thought is interesting. I think there is a direct parallel with music producers. In a healthy relationship between writer and editor, the editor is there to give constructive feedback to the writer and if necessary make technical adjustments to the text. In music production, as far as I understand, the role of a producer is often a similar relationship. When thinking about compilation albums, mixes and magazines then the role of the producer is obviously to select what material makes it to the final product and what order the material is presented in.

The purpose of this set of metaphors might be unclear. For me, this is a way of having a model to reason about fiction by thinking about something else I love. If I have to think about short fiction or a publication of some sort then I can find a single track or an album or mix that gives me an object to use as a model. It provides some often necessary distance between me and my subject.

However, I rarely think about music in terms of fiction, except for Muse. Muse are a band who I wish would release a chapbook of original or reprinted fiction with each album. Also, as a model this is imperfect and doesn’t capture all the nuanced detail. It does however work for me in at least 80% of cases.

It is after all only a model of reality and not actually real.

(This essay was written while listening to the The Beatles’s “Red Album” and Clearsignals’s “Stars Lost Your Name”.)

One Comment

  1. Jim Worrad December 15, 2010

    Its a metaphor I’ve often used meself, though I’ve never layed it out so comprehensively and eloquently.

    It can also work the other way around. Bowie’s Diamond Dogs is defintely an SF near-future ‘novel’ while Aladdin Sane is an SF author’s short story collection.

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