Thursday, August 6, 2009

An online kerfuffle over the Hugo slate in which lines are drawn and people get all wound up

This topic is getting to be a couple weeks old and has probably run its course already, but I thought maybe some readers of this page might be unaware of it and would like to check it out. Perhaps you are aware of the Recent Unpleasantness incited by novelist and professor Adam Roberts on his Punkadiddle blog. I won't rehash the whole thing since you can go there and read it for yourself, but to summarize, he asserts that the slate of novels from which Hugo voters will choose a winner this year is a rather mediocre lot, perhaps somewhat wanting in literary merit. Someone will always have a problem with any group of nominees for any award, but what has gotten folks particularly wound up in the case Roberts' broadside is that he implies that the readership of sf and fantasy novels is too undiscriminating, too unaware of what qualities a truly "great" novel ought to have.

This drew lengthy replies from The Crotchety Old Fan (Steve Davidson, also of the Classic Science Fiction Channel site) and novelist John Scalzi , among others. The former focuses more on the Literary vs. Popular theme, while Scalzi spends more time on the Insulting the Readership matter.

It appears that Roberts doesn't like the system of selecting the Hugos--popular vote by the convention members, and would rather it be a juried award. Well, it's not. Don't get me wrong: I can work up an Elitist Bad Humor in no time and spend an hour ranting and raving about all the mistakes the Dumb Masses can make when they have the vote on something. But in the case of the Hugos, the voters are hardly the common rabble. There is only a thin wedge of people who even read books, much less fiction at all, much less sf/f. The audience for great, even "literary," genre fiction is there, and I think there a lot of other reasons aside from the voters just going for what's popular that explain why a lot of these other great books go un-nominated. A lot of great books get tiny print runs or they don't show up at all in North America (where a majority of the voters are) or their authors or publishers don't do enough to promote themselves.

I think the Crotchety Old Fan's reply makes an interesting case, but I'm not sure that I quite buy all the assumptions inherent in the Traditional SF vs. Literary SF comparison. Also, I find it regrettable that he uses movies to make the argument. SF films have frak-all to do with sf as a written form. Also, I would argue that if one must use Forbidden Planet and Star Wars in a comparison/contrast, then the COF has it somewhat in reverse. I'd argue that Forbidden Planet, while maybe "traditional" in the COF's view of it, is also the more "literary" of the two by far. I understand that he is saying that Star Wars shows everything and keeps nothing hidden in the way that literary fiction can get (too) deeply into detail of character and emotion. But I don't think that's always true of "Literature" either, and I don't see the line being so sharply drawn. A lot of writers that I would consider to have written "traditional" sf are also fantastic literary stylists (such as LeGuin, Sturgeon, Delany, Ballard). I think a more apt comparison that would perhaps make the COF's point better would be between a writer like Asimov or Heinlein or Haldeman or Niven and one of those High Literature writers who use genre devices but still get counted as Serious Artists, such as Cormac McCarthy or Michael Chabon.

[The image is of Adam Roberts from his Wikipedia page. Aside from being a prof and a lit crit, he is the author a number of well-regarded sf novels such as Salt and Gradisil; he has also penned a number of those goofy parody novels (Star Warped, The Soddit, etc.) that I think one needs to be either English or a super-dork to want to spend time with. But, ya know, whatever turns your crank...]

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derekjgoodman said...

I think the true measure of this argument was revealed in Mr. Roberts comments on his page, where a fan asked him if the past winners like Heinlein and such represented the best of what sci-fi had to offer and Roberts said that no, they didn't. What this tells me is that Roberts just plain has a different definition of what sf/f should be. To me, and probably to many readers, the past Hugos DO represent our ideas of the best of the best in sf/f, and a genre is defined less, I believe by what people think it should become and more by what the readers and fans expect it to be.

My personal opinion on this years Hugo nominees is that this is the first year I was truly happy with the selection. I saw the list of nominated novels and was thrilled, saying to myself that these exactly the sort of novels I wanted to be given respect and recognition. In the end, that's simply because they conform to my idea of what sci-fi should be. Mr. Roberts is perfectly welcome to his own definitions of what sci-fi is, I just don't agree with him.

Nithska said...

I read Robert's post, and much --but not all-- of the posts in reply and comments on each.

I love to see an approach to SF that simply takes for granted the legitimacy of the genre and sets about telling a story as literary as any mainstream novel. What is disappointing, in most instances, is the mainstream work that attempts to ape genre tropes or conventions without a deep understanding of them. The result usually lacks the payoff of either form.

While Roberts seems sincere in his opinion, the whole thing smacks of simply disagreeing with the selection. Which is fine. It is what it is. I looked recently and it is not so difficult to qualify for Hugo voting. I wish I had realized this earlier due to my interest in the Semiprozine Hugo, but ah well. The point, though, is get involved and vote your heart out.

Criticism is a fine thing too. Roberts crosses the lines when he denigrates the readers who voted for these books, though. I can offer my assessment of a given work and why I believe it is or isn't worthy of Hugo Nomination. That is fine, even so far as stating that a work is mediocre. Though there's probably a better way to communicate this. What does the word mean? What was the author's intent? If we are discussing a YA novel, then offering examples and excerpts to contrast it with a superior current or past example of the form is useful and makes sense.

Simply calling it mediocre is intellectually lazy.

On one hand, Anathem is boring because it is too long and tries to much. But you say that SF tends not to try enough or to experiment. Roberts seems to have a very specific definition for what is acceptable SF that is both legitimate genre and literary. Good for him. But that's just called personal taste. Zoe's Tale is a YA space opera 'in' to Scalzi's existing series of books that a teen might then go on to read. OK. Does it intend to be more than that?

I haven't read either book so I have no opinion. But anyone who thinks that a space opera has no place on the Hugo ballot wants SF to be something other than SF. I'm all for grand experimentation in subject and form. I'm all for stories that belong to established tradition. And I'll take a superior work of traditional SF over a marginal work of experimentation any day.

The saddest thing about this is the attention the man has gotten due to these condescending remarks. M-Brane deserves those hundreds of hits. Not so sure about Mr. Roberts.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Derek and Brandon;

I concur with pretty much everything both of you said. I think the definition of the genre is always (and always will be) a thing that readers and writers debate. As someone who has actually read very few of the books in question this year (either on the Hugo slate or the alternate titles that Roberts suggests) I can't really make a credible case one way or another that this or that should or should not get an award. In fact, the only novel on the Hugo ballot that I did read was Stephenson's ANATHEM, and I wouldn't disagree much with what Roberts said about it, though I think I enjoyed it more than he did because I sometimes like the raw gluttonous geekiness that it embodies. But sure, it was dull as hell in many many places and I sure as hell wouldn't tell anyone else that they MUST read it unless they get off on being tortured half-to-death by a 900-page-novel like I sometimes do.

I guess I think that the Hugo ballot is probably a pretty good barometer is what's considered good and current in the genre. And it changes over time. And that seems to be the way it should work, so while I may myself have a little bit of sympathy for some of what Roberts says, I think we need to never discount the readers. Because without readers--and there are fewer of them all the time--there's no point to any of this. No one is writing novels and short stories just for the pure fun of it (no matter what that TWILIGHT author says--"oh yeah, I never even wanted to be an author, I just wrote down my dream, blah, blah, blah..."). Everyone who writes wants to get read. It needs to be fun, of course, but I bet that if there were no readers giving their opinions, then far fewer people would bother writing anything.


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