Wednesday, 9 October 2013

What the Heck is Supertext?

Short def:  Stuff everyone collectively knows.
Clark Kent's got supertext.

Long def (as required by MFA faculty):  In genre fiction, supertext is the body of information that belongs to that genre.  It is the collective set of rules or conditions or elements that help define that genre.  The more you know about the supertext, the easier it may be to understand any given novel within that genre.  Likewise, the more you know about the supertext, maybe you’ll look at a fresh element in a genre novel and refuse to suspend your disbelief.

Supertexts are living, changing things, dependent on their body of works.  The more elements that are used in more novels, the stronger the supertext becomes.

So, how's it work?

Gonna pick on vampires, as they seem to be in the public conscience of late.  (Vampire fiction is usually a subset of Fantasy, Horror and sometimes Science Fiction.)

So… stuff everyone generally knows about vampires:  they suck blood. They’re afraid of sunlight. They’re undead (or some variant of Not Human).  They’re strong. They’re hypnotic. They have long “lives”.  Sometimes they can turn into bats and fly.

You don’t need all of these elements to define a vampire.  You only need enough to invoke the supertext in a story.

Fr'ex: someone writes a story and says, “This undead character fears sunlight.  At night they turn into a bat.”  You, dear reader, are going to say, “Yup. Vampire.”

Fr'ex2: someone writes a story and says, “This character is a vampire.”  You, dear reader, know there’s gonna be a bit of exsanguination going on.

And that’s roughly how it works.  An author doesn't need to completely invent a new creature from scratch.  They can simply tap into the supertext and go from there.  Even add a few unique twists to make it theirs.

However, if you do go about tinkering with elements of the supertext, it’s gotta make sense within the context.

So.  Edward vs. Lestat.  Sparkly vampires vs N’Orleans undead.   Both are afraid of sunlight.  That element satisfies their vampiric supertextual definition.  Whereas Lestat’s rendered to barbeque upon contact with the gentle rays of good old Sol, Edward turns into a disco ball (or a New Adult at his first Mardi Gras ball).  Both good reasons to avoid the sun.

Some skeptics scoff at the thought of sparkly vampires.   But most people accept it.  They can suspend their disbelief, even though no other mythos features vampires that sparkle (unless you consider bursting into flames a form of ‘sparkling’).

So, why are so many readers saying, “Sparkly vampires. Cool”?   Because Meyer has tapped into another supertext—Fantasy creatures.

In the Fantasy supertext, various supernatural creatures sparkle and shine--namely, fairies.  Think Tinkerbell from Peter Pan.  Think Cherlindria’s fairies in Willow.  Think any kiddie show featuring friendly pixies and elves and wizards etc. (I can think of about four, as I have a plethora of little girls in my life.)

Supernatural sparkly beings is not a new concept. Deep down in our little tutu-wearing, wand-carrying little girly subconsciences, we know this.  That’s why we’re okay with Edward looking like he’s rolled around in K-mart’s teenage makeup section.  Oh yeah, and he drinks blood.

That’s your supertext at work.
In pursuit of higher learning, Her Grace is indulging in relatively useless bits of elemental analysis.  Can't call yourself a grad student without involving a bit of intellectual wankery.

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