Genre and MICE

Because I feel not enough people hate me, I thought I'd offer some comments about genre.

Genre is defined by various acknowledged plot devices. Mysteries have a crime to solve. Romance has a relationship to bloom. SF has a future or alternate world to explore. A pedant can get arbitrarily picky about the definitions and go looking for exceptions until it seems no definition fits any genre, but the clear reality is we all know genre when we see it.

The only type of writing which doesn't get boxed into a genre is literary fiction. It's always surprised me that people don't consider literary fiction to be a genre in its own right. Surely literary fiction is the genre in which nothing much happens?

By definition, if something interesting happens -- a murder, a romance, a war, a conspiracy, a plot to destroy the world -- then the book falls into one of the genres, and so it's not "literary", with the implication it's not as well written as if it were literary. Which is ridiculous because I have rarely come across a literary novel I considered as well written as the best genre novels, and when I have it was because the literary was among the best of its own kind. All that means is a top quality book is just as good as any other top quality book irrespective of genre, and a cruddy book can't be saved by being literary.

The SF writer Orson Scott Card talks in his excellent and perceptive books on writing about what he calls the MICE quotient: Milieu, Idea, Character and Event. His idea is these four attributes characterize any given story. Every story carries all four attributes of course, but in differing degree and mix. Mysteries and SF tend to be Idea stories: there's an intellectual problem to solve. Military adventure tends to be driven by the grand event, usually a war. Fantasies often exist only to show off their world: they are predominantly Milieu stories. In fact most books major in one of the MICE attributes, minor in a second, and the remaining two trail along.

In this scheme the mysteries of Agatha Christie are Idea first, Character second, followed by Milieu and Event. Solving the intellectual problem of the crime is always dominant for her, and she peoples her stories with all manner of eccentric characters. The milieu may add to the charm but is much less a consideration. Grand events play almost no part in her stories.

The MICE categorization of my historical mysteries is probably Character first, Milieu second, then Idea, with Event trailing a distant fourth. That's despite me writing a genre in which the mysery to solve would normally be dominant, but I know from reader feedback that my characters steal the show, and the unusual period I'm writing in becomes almost a character in its own right. This is only my own guess and if any of my early readers see this I'd be fascinated to know what MICE quotient you'd give me.

Orson Scott Card's idea makes a great deal of sense to me. Note that it does away with genre altogether and is much more about the style of the book rather than the plot devices.

I suggest most people are consistent in their preference for books with a given MICE categorization, at least by the first two letters. For example an IC book is probably (but not certainly) either SF or a mystery. Is there a strong cross-over between SF and mystery readers? Yes there is.


Amalia T. said...

I'm definitely Character and Idea oriented, followed by event, and Milieu in last place. I have no patience for books where setting becomes the focus. I mean, I love history, but I can't stand reading through blocks of description of the physical surroundings--which is probably why I don't write it. And character isn't just enough for me, either-- I have to feel like I got something more out of the book. Some concept or commentary, or new way of thinking about something. That's what I love to read, and I like to think that it's also what I'm writing...

But, I love SF, and I don't think I've ever in my life read a mystery.

Thanks for sharing the MICE categorization! I may have to go read more about it.

Gary Corby said...

The first thing I'd say is, if you're reading megalithic blocks of description then your dislike is perfectly normal and something's wrong with the story. Milieu is about getting involved in the setting, not reading a dissertation about it.

Good milieu writing means you absorb the setting without even realising it. Try the historical novels of Mary Renault, George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman stories, or the sea stories of Patrick O'Brian.

Okay, you've set me a challenge Amalia: find some mysteries you might like.

Amalia T. said...

Fair enough-- but the way you talk about fantasy being a showcase for setting and milieu heavy puts a finger on something that I've really been missing. Fantasy books can be amazingly well written, but at the end I just feel like I lost hours of my life to something with great form and no substance. You get a lot of depth in the world, but it's still only surface work. Even if I love the world, it isn't enough. Does that make sense?

I'll look forward to your suggestions!

Tabitha Bird said...

Oh Gary, we don't hate you...yet :)

Love your views on 'literary' books. I agree that many of them suck the big one. And like you said the ones that are good were good even though they were literary not because they were literary. I have written a literary memoir. I have it on good advise that stuff happens, so I am okay with it being literary. I did not start out to write it that way. It just kinda happened. Can't explain really.

I hadn't heard of the MICE categorization. But I agree with it.
btw- what literary books did you like and why?

Loretta Ross said...

This is interesting! I hadn't heard of the MICE analysis either. (My cats say, "Mice? Where are nice miceys?")

If Amalia likes Character and Idea best, perhaps she'd like Sayers' The Nine Tailors, Allingham's The Fear Sign (aka Sweet Danger?) or Stout's The Doorbell Rang? Or perhaps Ellis Peter's Cadfael novels, though milieu is also very dominant in those, though not in a lecturing way at all, as you point out it should not be.

Just out of curiosity, how would you break down The Lord of the Rings?

Gary Corby said...

As it happens Loretta, Orson Scott Card uses Lord Of The Rings as one of his examples when he explains MICE in How To Write SF & Fantasy.

Card calls LOTR an Event story. Personally I would have thought Milieu was the major element since I believe he wrote it originally to show off his languages.

I suppose either way it's EM or ME.

Gary Corby said...

Alright, now for the tough question from Tabitha: what literary books do I like and why?

The only traditionally accepted literary author I can think of offhand who I generally like is Thomas Pynchon. My favourite of his is The Crying of Lot 49.

Michael Moorcock would not normally be considered literary, but his Jerry Cornelius stories are very much experimental literature of the seventies. I'm actually very fond of them even though, or maybe because, they're like a Rorschach test for the demented.

Arturo Perez-Reverte is a wonderful Spanish writer who you may know best for The Fencing Master, which was filmed. The Flanders Panel and The Dumas Club (also filmed) are both brilliant. I'm not sure if everyone would consider them mainstream literature, but I do (though Flanders Panel is ostensibly a mystery).

What all these have in common is they're a little off the beaten track. I like weird. Also, none of them are purely character studies.

Amalia T. said...

RE: Tolkien and Lord of the Rings

according to the research I've done (I actually took a class on him in college) Tolkien's purpose in writing the Lord of the Rings was to create a mythology for Britain--the language of the elves was only one facet of that project. I'd definitely have to vote for Event with Card before I went Milieu on those books. But I'd also say they're heavily Idea as well, because of the mythological background. Of course, you could probably argue anything with those books, depending on who is reading them and their personal preference.

C. N. Nevets said...

I love this language for describe elements of fiction. I'm hardcore on CE, interested in I as an undercurrent, and have been known to outright dread M.

My focus (both writing and reading) is mainly on psychological suspense and fast-clipped experimental fiction. Give me rich character but by heavens make something happen and make it happen *now*.

What's neat about this "code" is that it helps me more neatly identify why I like those things in other genres that I do, and why not those I don't.

Thanks for pointing us to this, Gary!