Hugos, literary merit, and the cool bits

piles of books

Okay, the Hugos are over, which most of the world has not noticed, but in the always-boiling teapot of SF and F, it’s been a long, tense year. The only mention of Sad Puppies (and not-sad puppies) is right here, when I say I’m not going to talk about either of them.

The months of discussion have had me pondering the impetus behind this award, as well as others: lauding literary merit in the genre.

What does that mean to you, literary merit? Do you think it exclusive or inclusive of genre tropes, spec fic elements, or story patterns usually found in genre?

On some lists, Anne Rice is now listed as a writer of literature, and not genre, but (speaking just for me) I find her fiction unreadably awful. What does it mean that the closest to a Hugo she came was the screenplay for Interview With the Vampire being nominated in 1995?

Sometimes what gets nominated, and what gets left out, for any given year is a head scratcher for me. But others are more sure about the literary merit of nominees and winners—though (as the recent controversy proved) definitions can deviate dramatically.

We know awards are supposed to signal works with merit superior to other types of reading. But what does that really mean, especially in a genre context, literary merit?

the snob

Definitions I see most often include the words Serious. Critically acclaimed. Dealing with universal dilemmas. And in the case of science fiction, there used to be an expectation of progressive extrapolation, whether progress = good or progress = cautionary.

Writers can, and do, set out to write novels with those aims.

They are published, they win awards.

Some are going to equate literary greatness with success, as in copies sold. Rather than unleash the howls about best sellers not equating greatness, I’ll just mention some past mega-sellers who seem to be unheard of now, such as Jean de Meun, or Louis-Sebastien Mercier, or L.E.L.—or even Max Beerbohm, all huge names during their time.

I think that goal (“ I am going to write my masterpiece”) can work against a writer when the urge to say something important supersedes the story. And this isn’t an issue confined to new writers; I can think of many authors who, on finding themselves famed and acclaimed (or completely overlooked in spite of their passion), could not resist writing their one serious, important work that would stand as their greatest achievement.

Again, resorting to authors already safely dead who at the time were regarded as genre writers: Anthony Hope, who was known for his witty Ruritanian adventures, set out to write something great in The King’s Mirror, which even at the time was considered turgid and unreadable, and is doubly so now. Whereas The Prisoner of Zenda is still read and loved.

writer at work

Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham had such a stunning impact on his time (though he wrote it at twenty-four) he not only had a strong effect on one strand of literature, he changed male fashions for the next century. But his Meaningful stuff, which explored not only historical fiction, adventure, and science fiction? Crickets.

And it’s not just the guys. Fanny Burney’s romance Evelina, written when she was young, is still a wonderful read—but each succeeding novel became more artificial and convoluted as she labored harder and harder for “greatness.”

Even Georgette Heyer, who according to biographies, intended her medieval book about John of Lancaster to be her one great work, at which she labored for many years, unlike the novels she considered fluff and wrote more swiftly. She died before it was finished, and it was duly published . . . and promptly sank, as what little there is of it is too lifeless to rate even as turgid.

The intention to write great literature seems to skew firmly toward the hortatory, an earnest instinct which seems to overwhelm the enjoyable part—the part that brings most readers to books in the first place. The writer, in order to make dead sure the reader gets the important message, interposes him or herself between the reader and the world of the text, either in the form of narrative device, plot that is broken up by long speeches, or by a consciously ‘elevated’ or ‘lyrical’ style.

moby dick

Then again, someone can set out to write their one great novel, and it might languish at its time, but it ends up speaking to another generation. That certainly happened to Herman Melville, with Moby-Dick.

Some writers will insist they are not writing a message at all, but their goal is to write only “the cool stuff.” That is, they are skipping the boring parts.

One week I read a blog by an author who claimed that their success was due to their conviction that they only wrote the cool bits, but that very week I read a review from a major blogger that talked about this author’s latest book as being “Well written, but boring.” And not an hour later, I saw another review accusing a popular writer of urban fantasy (whose blog was full of posts about her passion for her writing) of writing hackwork that panders to publishers.

Yet neither of these writers sat down to their desk saying, “Well, time to write a boring hack job.”

What are the cool bits?

There are so many definitions of that! “Witty and stylish action.” “The ultimate stakes.” “Character moments.” “Dramatic tension.” “Insight that changes everything.” Sometimes I think that defining cool bits is about as easy as sculpting water. But still, I believe that thinking about it and discussing it with others is worthwhile if for no other reason than stirring an exchange of ideas.

One of the prettier Hugo Awards

One of the prettier Hugo Awards

One of the reasons most of us read is the fun of trying on different mental states and exploring different places, or by outguessing the characters. The expectation of resolution.

I don’t mean just the plot resolution—the case is solved, wedding bells for hero and heroine, the ring gets tossed into the volcano—but emotional resolution, sometimes philosophical resolution, intellectual resolution, answers to the questions raised, even if the answers turn out to be more questions. It’s that sense of completeness, heightened by the snap of the real.

I think the question gets vexing when trying to quantify which resolution is important, and why. A book can be criticized by one reader for being full of boring monster fights when the next reader is loaning the book to his best friend, and standing over his shoulder to watch the friend read those pulse-pounding monster fights.

Moby Dick is considered boring by some readers for its many side trips into the details of the whaling industry, but that’s the best part of the book for other readers. Jane Austen’s work is constrained and frivolous for some, deeply ironic in its sharp observations about human beings and emotionally satisfying for others.

One thing for sure: neither of these authors won any award in their lifetime, but their work—whatever their motivation—has stayed with us.

sf books

For the purposes of a blog meant to be read over a cup of coffee, a possible definition: a work of literary merit achieves a role of remembered influence in literature—but is also read with pleasure and interest today. Like Shakespeare. Even though there’s no evidence he got rich off his writing, or was celebrated with any awards.

Works of literary merit furnish insights that not only penetrate past the accepted norms of one’s time, but have  recognizable influence. These works effected actual change in human interaction as well as in literature. And still have meaning for readers today. But they are not awarded at the time.

My own feeling about the Hugos, or other awards, is that they are very like science fiction: saying more about our time than the actual future, because none of us can really predict what our progeny is going to claim has literary merit. Or why.




Hugos, literary merit, and the cool bits — 21 Comments

  1. Picky mode on: Georgette Heyer’s Serious Subject wasn’t King John, but rather John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford. Picky mode off.

    • Thanks! Shows how much I remember of it. (I bought it in hardcover the minute it came out, a rarity for me, and gave it away ten years later when I realized I would never reread it.) Will fix in post.

  2. a) Jean de Meun may not be a bestseller nowadays, but I’m reasonably sure his work has been continuously in print since, well, print. And was so popular in its day that 300 manuscripts still survive, many lavishly illustrated, many viewable on the Web in digital archives.

    b) Georgette Heyer–one of my faves–should have stayed out of the medieval world; she had no feel for it, she couldn’t find the humor in it (too bawdy perhaps), and humor was one of her strengths, even when she had reached the point in her career of repeating plots and characters. She could probably have managed the Elizabethan era, when the whole social milieu she was so comfortable with (hinging on debutantes and the London season, even if only in the background) first got underway.

    • At this late date I think she was even better with the Georgians–she liked the strict social ranking. I totally agree about the medieval era. She had no respect for, or real understanding of, the medieval paradigm. (Which could be said for the authors of a lot of medievoid books now.)

      Thanks for the point about Jean de Meun–a quick look didn’t show me anything but academic interest, not general. Glad to be corrected on that.

      • I didn’t mean to suggest that The Romance of the Rose is currently popular, only that it’s had enviable staying power–nowadays largely because of academic interest, as you say.

    • Actually, Heyer did write one novel set during the Elizabethan era–“Beauvallet.” It has a dashing English hero, but at least 90% of the book takes place in Spain, where he gets mixed up with a feisty young Spanish noblewoman (and closet Protestant heretic–by local Inquisition standards) whose relatives are trying to force her to marry an older cousin she heartily dislikes. (The general tone is somewhat reminiscent of “The Talisman Ring,” with more severe potential consequences.) If the book includes any scenes at Queen Elizabeth’s court, I don’t remember them.

      • Yes, Beauvallet is her one period novel outside of the Georgian/Regency era that I think worked pretty well. It’s an early work (1929). I’d like to have seen what she could have done with the Elizabethan social world later in her career.

  3. It does give hope to the writer of today. Perhaps I could be an Austen, unesteemed in my lifetime but adored forever after.

    As to Heyer, her crucial worldbuilding flaw is that she had no grasp of religion. Without an appreciation of the importance of faith, any book about the medieval period is going to fall down.

    • Well, she despised religion, so she didn’t want to grasp it. Which puts her squarely in the ‘medievaloid’ category–with all the medieval trappings, but no concept of any level of medieval thoughts. (And there are readers who want exactly that in any period of historical fiction.)

  4. There are great works that do get recognized in their own time: for instance, see the Nobels for Literature that were awarded to Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez. There are many others, including George Eliot, and even very lately, Kent Wascom’s novels — and he’s only 26 — and writes literature that is also — like Morrison has done — historical fiction.

  5. I understand that Arthur Conan Doyle’s historical novels aren’t bad–I’ve not read any nor am I aware of anyone who has. Those were his masterpieces. That detective guy? Not so much.

  6. I should have said in Doyle’s opinion those were his masterpieces. If I’m recalling correctly he said that he’d be embarrassed if he were remembered only for Sherlock Holmes.

  7. Awards–and their controversies–certainly do tell something about the era.

    Plus, winning even a Nobel Prize may not end up meaning much for a person’s legacy–some of the early Nobel winners are people I’ve never heard of–for example, Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen (1902) or Paul Johann Ludwig Heyse (1910). Maybe that’s just my ignorance showing, but even if a better informed person recognizes these names, they’d have to admit that someone like Tolstoy, who continued to write into the 1900s, is a bigger figure in world literature. Or Chekhov! Et cetera. But then, an award that’s given out once a year can only choose one writer (or work), so of course it’s going to pass over many worthy folks.

    • This is true. The shifts and tides of culture are so fascinating, and so difficult to predict. (I was just listening to the whistlers of La Gomera. Art is so awesome.)

    • Well, Mommsen and Heyse are still some of the most influential historians in German 19th century “historism” (=”Whiggish”) historiography and still read and valued today at (at least German) universities. Maybe the misunderstanding is that their work isn’t so much literature than historiography? And therefore not relevant to people studying literature today. At least with the early literature Nobel there is this tendency to award the literature award to people not actually writing fiction but all other stuff, too. Like Sigmund Freud who expected the Nobel literature award for his work on dreams (but never got it)… not something we would categorize as “literature” today.

      More interesting are Nobel prizes in the sciences in this respect: There are a lot of them which honour work which later turned out as not only “wrong”, but ethically problematic: I think I remember lobotomy getting a Nobel. And other dubious medical “progress”. It seems to me that mostly wrong stuff was honoured in the medical sciences — thus emphasising your dictum even for the sciences that the awards tell more about their times than lasting relevance.

      • Oh, that is so true. I remember some eyebrow raisers when I read about early awardees in medical sciences.