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My quest to write the book that your kids'll have to read in eighth grade.

The poverty and evanescence of literary acclaim in SF

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 12, 2011

I’ve been reading Samuel R. Delany’s essay collection Shorter Views, which is fairly disparate, but still has some focus on science fiction. One of the essays reprinted herein* is “Zelazny / Varley / Gibson”, which uses the three named authors to discuss the whole phenomenon of the worshipful fan attention given to the bright, exciting new authors who burst onto the scene in every decade. It’s a very interesting essay, particularly as it the intense adulation given to these authors by SF’s core opinionmakers (a few thousand writers, editors, and fans), to discuss the ways in which high quality writing is rewarded within the genre (much more has been said, of course, about the ways in which poor quality writing is frequently rewarded).

One of his points is that “high quality” is a social construct. It has some meaning, but that meaning is an agreed-upon thing, and it is the product of many different discussions and many different judgments by many different people, so it can be confusing to interpret when a work is being lauded for high quality and when a work is being lauded for something else. In different cases, the same acclaim can mean “high quality” or something else.

One of his examples is that moderate sales can either be the result of disinterested buying by a few scattered people (the shreds of a fading fanbase), or they can be the result of very excited, frenzied buying by a small fanbase. Another example (which he touches on less heavily, so at this point I am probably putting words in his mouth) is literary awards, which can in some cases signify literary quality and in other cases signify political considerations, or a desire to reward a certain type of story, or a certain creator.

This got me thinking about the wunderkinds** who I’ve seen burst onto the SF scene even during my short reading life, like David Marusek, Kelly Link, Vandana Singh, Margo Lanagan, Kij Johnson, Brian Francis Slattery, Charles Yu, and Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s interesting that in a lot of these cases, the ardor surrounding these authors has cooled. But for each of them, that ardor was excited by a small subset of very literate people acting through very disinterested motives, talking about their stories on blogs, mostly.

None of these authors are at the fringes of SF. The people who acclaimed them are largely the editors, writers, and fans who constitute the core of SF. The other readers, the ones at the fringes, are–unless they read with a special sensitivity or insight–largely irrelevant to the dialogue within the genre and, in some way, their opinion is neither noteworthy nor flattering.

I think one mark of the worth of this sort of literary acclaim (and the way that it responds very sensitively to the actual quality of the work) is the way that it is so quick to evaporate. For instance, the excitement and acclaim that surrounded many of these authors one upon a time (five years ago) has largely died away (for the older among them, the newer are still somewhere within the ascending part of their arc of fame). For most of them, the spark of newness that they contributed to the genre has been assimilated, and even though these authors continue to produce work and that work is often very good and very capable of providing pleasure to literate readers, it is not seen as necessary that they continue to work. That exciting thing they were doing has already been done, and no purpose is served by continuing to do it.

It’s interesting that the accolades given to high quality work are so much more marginal than those given to work which is craftsmanlike and entertaining. For instance, I don’t think many of these people has had more than very moderate commercial succession, with the exception of maybe Kelly Link and Paolo Bacigalupi (and even they can’t be selling that well). Even the literary acclaim itself is very evanescent.

I’m not sure that this poverty and evanescence is bad. From a reader’s standpoint, the rigorousness of achieving this sort of fame seems to make it more trustworthy and desirable. One knows that one isn’t being hawked a book just because this author wrote something good once upon a time. One knows that one isn’t being hawked a book just because so many more people have read it, and the noise of those people is overpowering any criticism.

Nor does it seem that the paucity of these rewards is doing much to prevent people from writing high quality SF.

Perhaps the only damage comes from the confusion of symbols. Sometimes (often?) a book will sell many, many copies and is read by everyone because it is good. It will win awards both because it is good and because everyone read it. But it seems that a very popular book which is of high quality will have an easier time achieving literary acclaim eventually, if only because it will stay in print longer and be so much more visible, than a high quality book which is not very popular. And it is for that reason, I think, that all the tools for generating literary acclaim (which are pretty much restricted to blog posts and word of mouth), are focused on the latter.

It’s frightening for an aspiring writer to contemplate these mechanisms and realize the flimsiness of the formal gatekeepers we’ve struggled with for so long (the editors and agents). Every story has been vetted and accepted by an editor. Most will vanish. The only story that will last is the one that compels another human being–a disinterested person who is not at all economically entangled with your success or failure–to go out and tell other people that you’re the coolest thing since the invention of ice cubes.

*This essay is also included in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which I blogged about last year.

**Michael Swanwick calls them the Kumquat Haagendasz, in this blog post. But the people he names are, in most cases, much more successful than the people I think of when I think of SF’s “wunderkinds”.

The Kumquat Haagendasz, similarly, is a literary messiah, the new kid on the block who’s going to save science fiction from boredom, irrelevance, and whatever other sins it’s currently suffering from.  The title is necessarily held by a new writer who suddenly bursts out of obscurity with work that dazzles and impresses other writers.  It’s an evanescent honor which quickly fades as the writer becomes generally known and turns into a Name.

Once upon a time, children, back in 1980 when my first two published stories placed on the Hugo ballot in the same category, I myself was briefly the Kumquat Haagendasz.  After which, if my leaky memory serves me correctly, the title fell vacant for a couple of years before being assumed by William Gibson.  Other Kumquat Haagendaszen (Haagendaszii?) include Neal Stephenson, Somtow Sucharitkul, Karen Joy Fowler, China Miéville, Kelly Link, and Geoff Ryman — though this is by no means an inclusive list.  Hannu Rajaniemi shows early signs of being the next in line.




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2 Responses to “The poverty and evanescence of literary acclaim in SF”

  1. Ben Godby said

    Very interesting post, Rahul. The weird thing about Kumquat Haagendaszii is that post-KHs don’t usually seem that interested in taking risks, or are perhaps unable to extricate themselves from the model of success their once-risk-taking natures caused them to produce. As you say, “the spark of newness that they contributed to the genre has been assimilated, and even though these authors continue to produce work and that work is often very good and very capable of providing pleasure to literate readers, it is not seen as necessary that they continue to work.” Two examples spring to my mind: the Swedish prog/death metal band Opeth, who I really like and who get a lot of acclaim but who effectively solidified a certain sound on their third album and have gone on to produce the same album with slightly different textures for the past decade while calling themselves “progressive” but actually being incredibly static; and Mark Charan Newton, who announced on his blog a little while ago that he was sick of the New Weird and was going to try something new – but that it would definitely be “within the genres” (or, in my opinion – since I think New Weird has already been assimilated by fantasy more or less entirely – he’ll be doing something exactly the same, but with a different texture).

    This can’t be purely because people become professional writers and want to continue doing it full-time and so don’t want to risk alienating their fan base, can it? It seems like so few writers are actually “professional” writers anyway that this doesn’t seem to make sense to me – how worse off will they be if they alienate people, and how much more satisfied artistically? Or maybe agents/editors aren’t willing to let a whole other persona of a writer through? I can’t really say, because I’m not a professional writer and don’t know its possible temptations/obstacles, and because even though I feel like I’m always pushing my own boundaries and trying new things, I’m probably developing the same underlying themes and ideas over and over again every time I write a story and just can’t see it.

    That all said, I think I heard Steven Erikson is publishing a legitimately non-genre novel. I wonder how that will be. Probably okay, because mainstream literature, although it has literary pretensions, doesn’t really have the content-based pretensions of the genres.

    • R. H. Kanakia said

      Probably the reason is just that every step in the publishing process is abysmally difficult. Becoming the KH even once is super-duper hard and only a certain number of people who manage to do it once are going to be able to do it again. Some of the KHs that Swanwick named have managed to be innovative twice. Take, for instance, William Gibson, who kind of did the Neuromancer thing for six or seven novels, and then reinvented himself with Pattern Recognition (which was really exciting when it came out, and gave everyone a whole new way to think about SF: as stories that had a certain relationship with technology, rather than stories that were about technology that doesn’t exist.) China Mieville has, I’m told, done some really different stuff with The City And The City (though I wouldn’t know, since I’ve never read any of his novels), and Karen Joy Fowler, of course, not only reinvented herself but also become a best-seller with the Jane Austen Book Club.

      But that’s just because Michael Swanwick is a jerk and chose his list of people in a different way than I did. None of my KHs have (yet) reinvented themselves (though it seems like Kelly Link is going into young adult fiction and using more traditional narratives, which is interesting).

      I also think that writing something that is really different from one’s former work is a very different (and somewhat unnatural) process for a writer. Until one “breaks out”, one’s whole writing career–often a period of years or decades–is spent continuously refining that thing that you do in order to find that story that only you can write. You acquire your tools piecemeal. In one story, you find the diction that you need. In another story, you find the setting that really excites you. In some other story, you find the plots or situations that you’re going to make yours. Then you work with them again and again, combining and recombining them, and searching for new elements to add to them, and eventually you produce 10 or 20 stories, or 2 or 3 novels, that are really yours.

      I think the natural temptation is to continue this process and continue searching for more elements to add into the mix. But changing directions means dropping elements–things that actually work very well and which you are good at doing–from the mix. In one of his books of essays, WH Auden said something like, “Every poet has a poem that they must not write…not because the poem would not be successful, but because they have already written it.”

      And alot of authors actually do manage to successfully integrate elements into their mix. For instance, Nabokov’s four great works–Pnin, Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada–all seem to mostly be constructed from the same elements: wordplay, genuflection, pitilessness, and, in some cases, sexual obsession, and I’m sure you can think of other authors who kept on refining what they do and produced works that are, even if they are not as great as their initial masterpieces, still loved by a large number of people.

      But….yeah, I don’t really know. I do kind of think that someday I will reach the point where everything I write will get published, and that seems like a pretty scary day. I would not want to be the only one doing quality control on myself. At that point I think I’d have to really start thinking about what I am trying to do, and what stuff I want out there under my name, and maybe that’s the internal dialogue that some people never bother to have.

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