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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.