[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?