Reviews, Awards and Controversies: A Few Thoughts on the Dynamics of Struggle in the Fantastic Literary Field

I am perpetually fascinated by the social and cultural stuff that is spawned by our engagement with literature. Some of this stuff – the positions, structures, and practices that constitute the literary field of production – is seen as a natural part of the field, while other elements are seen as distractions or problems within the field. But the more I read about and observe how we discuss and share our thoughts and opinions on fantastic literature, how we use our imaginations and communication skills to enjoy and interpret it, the more I see what is exceptional and troubling about how the fields around that literature work. Sociologists, anthropologists, and other academic and scientific analysts have frequently tried to theorize about and explain those workings, but most of those efforts are dense, discursively challenging (in both use of jargon and structuring of argument), and sometimes outright obtuse. One of my own goals as a writer, critic, and observer of the field is to figure out what is useful about some of those theories and explanations and apply them in ways that can get people thinking more critically and creatively about how we bring literature in our lives and what its effects are on us, and how we in turn affect the production and perception of literature.

This week, I want to sketch out some ideas of how the field works and then apply them (too briefly) to the way in which reviews and awards create focal points of struggle through the negotiation of controversy.

I invoke the idea of “the field” quite often, in several different ways. Sometimes it is just the colloquial “field,” sometimes “the literary field” or “the fantastic literary field,” and on occasion I go all-out and talk about “the field of fantastic literary production.” In this context, the general use of this term is “an area of human activity” or a sphere of endeavor. From that usage some social theorists have honed a more specific definition. The one that I use most often comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote several books about the social structure and practices of art. I like specifying the idea of “the field” with his construction of it because it takes the word out of its generic usage and does two things to it. First, it specifies the field as a social formation, and second, it makes the field something that is dynamic, something that we create and perpetuate and elaborate and sometimes alter. We often think of “the field” as something static or formal, when really it is an ongoing enterprise that we all participate in and maintain. We do this by reading, by discussing what we read, by creating and modifying social relations through the literature, and by performing certain activities within the field that reinforce or call into question our ideas about the literature and what we obtain from it.

“The fantastic field of literary production” is a very specific framing of social relations and activities, and it is not a solid, well-bounded thing.  The field of production is neither an object nor a place, but a set of social relationships (in the broadest application of the term) that format and render meaningful human activity. Fields of production are delimited from each other with some artificiality and are sometimes nested within other, broader fields. The field of fantastika lies within the extended field of literary production, bounded off from its relative in some ways but integral to it in others. The boundaries, however, are neither solid nor immutable, because they are dynamic and socially powered by struggle (for a specific meaning of that term). Fields of production are conceptual sites of struggle that people enter by assuming a position or role with one and acting from that standpoint. Fields are constituted by struggle, and “the boundary of a field is the stake of struggle” (p. 42).

“Struggle” in this context does not exclusively mean adversarial contention. “Struggle” is a catch-word for situated actions performed in relation to the actions of others, actions committed in the process of obtaining meaning and symbolic capital (which is whatever economic/political/social/artistic/ontological resources you hope to gain).  Any time we engage in activities within the field, we are creating a potential instance of struggle which can take many forms, including internal ones (something that Bourdieu never really addresses). “Struggles” may be friendly, vicious, cooperative, or may even fizzle out. For Bourdieu, the idea was one of either reproducing or subverting the social order and significance assigned to positions and products within the field. Unfortunately, Bourdieu focused much more on positions than products, and truncated his idea of struggle into a series of fights for dominance within the field. The struggles for him were purely social clashes to change one’s status and access to resources. If I have learned one thing from the fantastic field of production, it is that this is a very limited vision of how the field works, and this perspective obfuscates the importance of the products and diminishes our understanding of literature’s effects in our lives.

In the last several weeks SF Signal has hosted Mind Melds on the utility of reviews and the value of literary rewards. Both of these topics exemplify one way that we participate in the field. Individuals from specific positions in the field (writers, editors, other professionals, and engaged fans) are encouraged to put forth their conceptions of what a specific practice in the field is worth, what it does (or does not do) for the field. In doing so, they create potential instances of struggle. People might agree with their ideas, disagree, dismiss them, or not even engage them. Some of their ideas reiterate the value of the practices, while others challenge them or propose alternative interpretations of their value. But in both cases, the participants and those who read the posts are generating and deploying symbolic capital and assigning meaning to practices in the field, and in doing so are fashioning possible moments of struggle.

What brings reviews and awards together as social practices is the fact that they can create another necessary element of the literary field: controversy. In the process of either validating or questioning a position, product, or other practice of the field, reviews and awards serve as structuring and/or restructuring activities. Reviews are an attempt to enter the conversation about the value and qualities of the literature, while awards are a ritualized process of imbuing actors and products with prestige and additional social capital. These are explicitly practices that categorize  and assign value to the artistic productions of the field.  These practices can both intentionally and incidentally engender controversy as actors create, engage with, and respond to them.

While many people see controversies as negative results, my contention is that they serve several purposes in the field, and are in fact a distinct and necessary element of the field of production, both an engine of and effect of the dynamism of the field. Next week I will outline this idea in more detail and discuss it in relation to the recent controversy created by Christopher Priest.

5 thoughts on “Reviews, Awards and Controversies: A Few Thoughts on the Dynamics of Struggle in the Fantastic Literary Field”

  1. I definitely like the way you’re setting this up: I’ll be curious to see where you take the lexicon you’ve defined for us.

    Also, I think to the ways in which we consume and respond to different social practices depend heavily on the practices themselves. While they share the ability to generate controversy, I am less certain that there is that much commonality between reviews/criticism/awards.

    Reviews and criticism in particular are heavily influenced by their contexts and the intended (vs actual) audience. There’s a world of difference between a one-sentence consumer review, and Kingsley Amis’ book-length investigation of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels, though both might be controversial.

    1. I agree that each practice has a different potential for generating controversy and does so in distinctive ways, although I think there are more parallels between reviews and criticism, often in degree and intensity of attention to the work(s) or authors in questions. What unites them is that they are all judgments about the literature that are articulated in public fora to influence perceptions of the literature. Even a crappy one-line Amazon review can incite an instance of struggle, but I agree that we have to keep in mind the wide range of goals for reviews and criticism. Part of what I am trying to do is keep in mind that the field is more than an array of positions struggling for domination, which I think is the biggest problem with Bourdieu’s formulation. We have to keep going back to the literature and people’s responses to and uses of it.

  2. Interesting that you prefer the term ‘field’ to ‘genre’. Brian Aldiss has always referred to ‘field’ rather than ‘genre’ and it has been one of the points of disagreement between us. Field always felt too open, too ill-defined, to allow a really useful discussion of the subject. But the more sense I have that science fiction, fantasy and horror are nearing the end of their useful lives (Gary Wolfe’s evaporating genres), the more I find myself thinking that field might now actually be the more useful term.

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