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Reading Snobbery, Part 2

[Note: This has been sitting on my computer for a while now and I recently rediscovered it. So if you’re wondering why this links back to old posts on other blogs, there you go.]

A couple of months ago, Grumpy Old Bookman gave a not-so-nice review of Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. I’m not picking on the book here; I just call it out because the post is fertile ground for some discussions on the sf/f genre. Grumpy Old Bookman posits (and I’m summarizing) that in order to become more respectable in publishing circles, the sf community has been quietly giving unwarranted kudos to literary science fiction instead of more deserving books:

So what they have begun to do, consciously or unconsciously, is award prizes to work which could, on a dark night, be mistaken for literary stuff. They are doing this in the hope that, if they do it often enough, and shout loudly about it, they might one day be admitted to the Groucho club and get to meet Marty and Salman and all those other guys. Then they will be able to hold their heads up high in decent company.

This is an intriguing notion partly because it affirms my belief that awards do not necessarily point one towards books they’d enjoy. Certainly my recent experiences reading the Nebula and Hugo short fiction nominees also support this idea. My own track record of reading award-winning sf is spotty at best. I couldn’t finish The Left Hand of Darkness, for example.

Which is not to say award winners stink, of course. Many, if not most, are quite enjoyable so they can point someone looking for a good read in the right direction. There’s also a distinction that exists between “good” and enjoyable, I think. A book can be well-written, tackle tough issues, have complex plots and characters – and still be a mediocre read.

This reminds me of the Literary Snob post and where I sit in the literary spectrum. While I like a literary book once in a while, I find I like reading things on the other side of spectrum more because it best provides what I’m looking for in a book: entertainment. Grumpy Old Bookman feels the same…

If I have to choose between skiffy with literary pretensions and skiffy with bug-eyed monsters, I will gladly choose the latter, any day of the week.

As does David Goodman

I read a lot of science fiction, some of it mind-bogglingly complex and filled with ideas that make my head hurt (in a good way). The last thing it needs is impenetrable, plotless storylines, author-clone characters and rambling stream-of-consciousness dirges (I generalise, sorry).

Goodman also goes on to say what he likes so much about sf and why the idea that sf genre is a literary ghetto is hogwash.

People might think science fiction and its sister genres are literary ghettoes, but in my opinion they’re the last reserves of the key elements of quality fiction – a damn good story that makes you think and the wherewithal to tell it well. For example, how many people still read Booker prize winners from the fifties, apart from obscure academics? Now, compare that to how many people read Heinlein, Pohl, Asimov and the rest. Printed fiction is our version of the Norse sagas, tribal stories around a campfire. And just like the sagas, the boring, uninspired or pointless tales die a death after their first telling, whereas the adventures that keep us riveted keep coming back.

I think the bottom line here is that different people like different things. Who’s to say that your literary novel is better than my sf pulp? Can’t we just all get along?

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

6 Comments on Reading Snobbery, Part 2

  1. joshua corning // September 6, 2006 at 12:18 am //

    I just want to point out that the characters in Oryx and Crake are two dimensional.

    Tools, in fact almost obsticals, in Attwood’s campaign of hatred toward James Watson.

  2. The reason why we cannot all get along, is that even those of us whose taste range from high to low (I remember reading Milton’s PARADISE LOST at the same time I was reading Jack Kirby’s MACHINE MAN) even if we do not look down our noses at other fanboys, the mere fact that we make any distinction at all between high and low offends those who make no such distinction.

    And, again, those who cannot or will not make the distinction between high and low, between books we enjoy because they are touched with divine greatness, and books we enjoy because they are Way Cool action-splattered pulp, offend those of us who think it admirable and necessary to maintain standards in art, even in popular art like SF.

    WAR AND PEACE is simply a deeper book than WAR OF THE WORLDS; for it speaks more insightfully about the human condition. And WAR OF THE WORLDS is simply deeper than OPERATOR #5 THE PURPLE INVASION. A person might read HG Wells and change his mind about the nature of Darwinian evolution, for example; but they read Tolstoy and their life can change.

    I do think great books are better than potboilers, but I would not call this snobbery, bcause it is no crime to like something light and shallow if you are in the mood for light and shallow. Not all swimming needs to be deep sea diving. Sometimes you are not in the mood for profound. Sometimes you are in the mood for a luxurious feast, and sometimes you want a McBurger meat-flavored patty.

    I am a snob on one issue, though: Kyle Rainer is not the real Green Lantern!

  3. I find myself in alignment with JCW on this one. Great works, really regardless of genre, should be celebrated. When they happen to be a sci-fi book – so much the better. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a pulp novel – far from it. I just recognize that there is something beyond that (where I find Gene Wolfe.)

    That doesn’t mean I think the sci-fi genre awards should be restricted to works that lean that way. If they are awarding Hugo’s to novel that have supposed ‘literary elements’ and ignoring the years best sci-fi to do it, then they are making a mistake.

  4. Personally, I find myself at the opposite end of the spectrum. I am more of an anti-snob and will tend to avoid things that are labelled literary or award winning. I won’t apologize for my stance, and I fully understand why these things are listed in that way, but I do not feel that I should read them just because they are considered “classics” or “literature” or won awards. For me reading is about escapism and enjoyment – if a book fits that role then I will read it. My experience with most books that fit that role of literary tended to be required reading and maybe that explains my desire to avoid them. I don’t know, but sufficed to say I won’t read something because it won some award.

    Now I am sure somebody will come along and state that I am so mistaken in my stance since I am missing out on so much. But, I don’t think so, and if I stumble into something that fits the category of literary and I enjoy it so be it. I just don’t seek these things out and select my books based on other criteria.

  5. Hi, thanks for the quote John. It’s kind of weird for an old post to reappear like that, but cool also. Strangely, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as my first book is about to go out to publishers, and I find myself wondering what I’ll write next. SF is my chosen field, and it bugs me constantly that thousands of people won’t give SF or fantasy a chance purely based on their preconceptions of what lies in that genre.

    Here’s hoping we have some more genre-busting success stories that both show those not involved in the genre that pulp isn’t always unreadable tripe, and hopefully draw them in to expanding their experience of our genre. And lets hope the attitude that genre fiction that draws critical or public attention has somehow transcended its murky roots is shot down in flames every time it raises its ugly head.

  6. “I would not call this snobbery, because it is no crime to like something light and shallow if you are in the mood for light and shallow.”

    I range all over the place, from “the canon” to pulp fiction. Heck, I love space opera, the pulpier the better.

    The problem is, however, there are those to whom The Canon is Sacred. If you don’t read The Canon and understand and appreciate The Canon, then you are less than a bug.

    I run into these folks all the time. They are cousins to those who like a certain kind of movie, or a certain kind of music, or a certain restaurant.

    Me, I’d rather be inclusive. I’ll read Moby Dick one week and Skylark of Space the next.


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