Friday, 17 July 2009

Hugos 2009


Dear Science Fiction Fandom

I wanted to have a word about the Hugos. Science Fiction Fandom, these are your awards: the shortlists chosen and voted for by you. And because I too am a fan (though without Hugo voting privileges) they are my awards. They reflect upon us all. They remain one of the most prestigious awards for SF in the world. These lists say something about SF to the world.

Science Fiction Fandom: your shortlists aren’t very good.

I'm not saying the works you have shortlisted are terrible. They're not terrible, mostly, as it goes. But they aren’t exceptionally good either. They’re in the middle. There’s a word for that. The word is mediocre.

Widely publicised shortlists of mediocre art are a bad thing. What do these lists say about SF to the multitude in the world—to the people who don’t know any better? It says that SF is old-fashioned, an aesthetically, stylistically and formally small-c conservative thing. It says that SF fans do not like works that are too challenging, or unnerving; that they prefer to stay inside their comfort zone.

This is bad because the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing. And if this true of literature, it is doubly or trebly true of science fiction. For what is the point of SF if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?

Take the novel shortlist. The novels on the novel shortlist are all mediocre novels, with the exception of Anathem, which isn’t so much mediocre as enormous and deranged and so boring it goes through boring into some strange condition on the far side. They are not terrible hopeless novels; and they are not outstanding, excellent, life-changing, brilliant novels. They are somewhere in the middle. Fandom, I would like the blue-riband shortlist on the genre’s most prestigious award to list some novels that are better than mediocre.

You've plumped for a list that's all YA. Nothing wrong with YA, of course; but is it really the case that all the best long fiction in our genre last year was YA? Does it seem likely to you that this could be the case? Now, I know the Stross title is a ‘late period Heinlein’ pastiche, that it’s about a sexbot, that it has oodles of sex in it. But it’s true enough to its Heinleinisch sources to be YA for all that; in the sense that its understanding of sexual desire and praxis at no point goes beyond that of a smart, randy teenager—which is as far as Heinlein’s understanding of sexual desire and praxis ever went, of course. So, I’ll call Saturn’s Children YA; and I’ll go on from there to note that everything on the novel list is YA. Here are a couple of paragraphs from blogs, one relating to this list, one not. Firstly, from Abigail Nussbaum, who has already said many of the things about the disappointing novel shortlist that I’d have liked to:
Though it might be tempting to conclude that the shoddy state of this year's shortlist is the result of the infantilization of the genre, to my mind the problem isn't that YA books are being nominated, but that the wrong YA books have been. How much stronger would this year's best novel shortlist have been if Terry Pratchett's Nation, Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, or even Allegra Goodman's The Other Side of the Island had been on it? (This is not even to mention books that have received a great deal of critical attention … Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, Kristin Cashore's Graceling, or Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.)
And this, not specifically related to the Hugos, but a suggestive quotation nevertheless: the excellent Blogographia Literaria quotes Leslie Fiedler:

There is a real sense in which our prose fiction is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe, though this is a fact that is difficult for Americans to confess. In this sense, our novels seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile. The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children's section of the library, their level of sentimentality precisely that of a pre-adolescent. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the incapacity of the American novelist to develop; in a compulsive way he returns to a limited world of experience, usually associated with his childhood, writing the same book over and over again until he lapses into silence of self-parody.
Fandom, look at the 2009 Clarke novel shortlist. Do you know why that list is better than yours? It’s not that its every novel is a masterpiece—far from it (although it seems to me regretable that you couldn’t you vote books as good as The Quiet War, House of Sons or Song of Time onto your shortlist.) But some of the books on that list fail, no question. Martin Martin's on the Other Side, for instance, is a mediocre novel. But (and this is the crucial thing) it’s a mediocre novel trying to do something a little new with the form of the novel. It’s an experiment in voice and tone, and ambitious in its way. The novels on the Hugo shortlist—except Anathem, as I mentioned—try nothing new: they are all old-fashioned: formally, stylistically and conceptually unadventurous.

Let me put it this way: Fandom, when you voted Scalzi’s mediocre Zoe’s Tale onto the shortlist, did you really do so because you thought it one of the six best genre novels published in 2008? I mean—honestly? Or did you, on the contrary, think: ‘I like Scalzi; I like Scalzi’s blog; and although maybe his novel’s not, you know, Tolstoy or anything, I enjoyed it plenty, and I reckon Scalzi deserves the egoboo.’ Because I can believe the latter explanation much more readily than the former, and the problem with it is that none of those things are reasons to vote Zoe’s Tale onto a best novel shortlist. Those are corrupting reasons, because every time you vote a mediocre book onto a shortlist that exists to celebrate the very best in our genre you devalue not only the award but the genre too. Please don’t devalue my genre, fandom. I love my genre. Don’t vote mediocre books onto the Hugo novel shortlist; vote good books; and excellent books. There’s plenty of them about, you know.

Of course, there’s always the possibility, of course, that you genuinely feel Zoe’s Tale is one of the best novels published last year. If that’s what you believe—if you actually think Zoe’s Tale is the best the novel can aspire to—then you really, really, really, really, really need to broaden your aesthetic horizons. You need to read more widely, to look at a greater selection of writers and modes of writing; to stretch yourself; to venture out of your comfort zone. Not just for the health of this award, and SF; but for the sanity of your soul. Because if you can actually read the excellent The Quiet War and then read the pleasant but mediocre Zoe’s Tale, and not see that the former is a much much better novel than the latter, there must be something wrong with you.

Little Brother? Part of me feels bad saying this, since Doctorow’s novel is in the fullest sense a righteous book—it contains a whole bunch of stuff that people, especially young people, really ought to know. And it’s been really successful, and a lot of young people are reading it, which is superb. And Doctorow is a lovely, lovely human being. But as a novel Little Brother is a mediocre piece of writing: stylistically dull; too formally stilted in execution; too monologic tonally. The novel’s drama is construed in a fatally one-sided a manner, with nothing to suggest why the bad guys do what they do apart from the fact that they are bad guys. The torture sequence at the end pulls it punches. Orwell’s Big-Bro bad guys are a thousand times nastier than anything here, no punches are pulled, and yet Orwell’s villains have a comprehensible, if repellent, rationale. It’s not good enough to say ‘but this is a YA novel’. The best YA novels are more than capable of covering all this stuff; and most young adults know the world is not a 2-D cartoon. I read Nineteen Eighty-Four when I was a teenager, for instance, like a great many people. I loved it. So Little Brother’s righteousness—and I’m not being snarky when I use that phrase—does not save it from being mediocre as a novel. Or—Gaiman’s Jungle Book retread, The Graveyard Book. This is better-made than some of Gaiman’s other novels, and it melts a little corner of my belief that Gaiman is a great writer of graphic novels but an indifferent novelist. But The Graveyard Book is too twee, too cosy, especially given that its theme is Death which is, in reality, neither twee or cosy, as some children, and all of us eventually, grievously discover. So that leaves Anathem, and it seems a strange thing to say given how little I like this book, but it’s seems to me the only title here whose presence is deserved. I think it fails, but I think it fails in heroic, mad, reader-stretching, you’ve-never-come-across-anything-like-this-before ways. Saturn’s Children is as scattershot a novel as any Stross has written, and the proportion of shot that hits the target is as it’s always been. I suppose it could be argued that Saturn’s Children’s take on late Heinlein tries something new with the form of the novel, if rattling the form to pieces with a hail of bolts and screws counts as new. But it’s pretty weak fare compared even to Anathem.

Guys, we can do better. Why not make next year’s list a thing of excellence, rather than competence and mediocrity? Why not think about listing genuinely good books? Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit; Lee Konstantinou’s Pop Apocalypse, China Mieville, The City and The City;, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream, Catherynne M Valente, Palimpsest. [18 July 09: I'm wrong! Someone more clued-in than I reminds me that Lavinia won't be eligible for next year's Hugos; but adds that, with Pyr's reissue of The Quiet War, McAuley's novel will be ...] They’re not all of them completely perfect; but they all of them, in various ways, push the envelope, try new stuff, shake you up. That’s six titles right there better than the 09 shortlist, and the year’s only half over. Who knows what genius, brilliant, startling, unnerving, wonderful fiction is coming in the next six months?

Fandom, the thing is that all your 2009 shortlists are like this: one or perhaps two choices that are not embarrassing, thrown in with four or five choices that are wincingly bad. Best related book? Two titles that deserve to be there (Mendelsohn, Kincaid) and three makeweights. Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: is there any person not suffering serious imbalances in their brain chemistry who really thinks Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Iron Man and the when-I-go-to-hell-for-my-sins-this-will-be-being-played-on-continuous-loop-on-the-tannoy METAtropolis comes within a parsec of WALL-E and The Dark Knight in terms of beauty, cultural significance or quality? And given that this is so, what's the other stuff even doing on the shortlist?

Or take a look at the best professional artist shortlist. You see it, there? Daniel Dos Santos; Bob Eggleton; Donato Giancola; John Picacio; Shaun Tan. All of these artists produce work that is professional, technically accomplished, polished, brightly coloured, realist and jesus, dull, dull, dull. Dull—excepting only Shaun Tan (the only one name there that seems to me to deserve to be there). Conventional; all surface technique and no soul; artworks exactly like and in not one quarter-degree superior to pretty much every SFF novel or magazine cover printed since 1966. Remember, Fandom, my question is not: are these artists competent, because clearly they all are. But are they the best? What are they doing that is new? That stands out? That shakes or moves or inspires us? The moleskin-notebook doodlers on Skine-art produce more interesting art than this in their spare time every day. We can do better. Or—and this is the angle that worries me, Fandom: or you really think that these images are the best that visual art can be?

Here's what I'd like. If it isn't going to inconvenience you, I'd be enormously grateful, when it comes to next year's shortlists, if you could remember to come up with shortlists of excellent, brilliant and genius things; not shortlists of mediocre things. Because if you do that, it will be saying: SF is brilliant, which IT IS, instead of saying, as you are this year, with occasional exceptions SF is mediocre.

Sincerely &c.

349 comments:

1 – 200 of 349   Newer›   Newest»
Ian Sales said...

Hear, hear.

Bob Blough said...

You wrote my incoherant thoughts down beautifully. Thank you!

Walt said...

I prefer entertainment to experimentation.

Alison said...

This is not new; it is the normal difference between awards that are popular votes and awards that are juried. You're essentially saying 'Dear Hugos, you'd be better if you were a juried award'. And that may be true, but seems irrelevant to me.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Alison has beat me to it. I wasn't at all pleased by this year's shortlist, but that's not because I had expected it to feature experimental, avant garde nominees. The Hugos are a popular vote award selected by a very small fandom in-group whose nature and membership rules self-select for old-fashioned, conservative tastes. That the resulting nominees are middle-of-the-road is to be expected, but my problem is that this year they were also mediocre. I wasn't being particularly revolutionary when I suggested Pratchett or Le Guin (whose Lavinia was a 2008 publication in the US and has thus had its shot at the award) as substitutes for some of the current nominees. To paraphrase myself, the problem isn't that the nominees are predictable and conservative - that's the nature of the award - but that the wrong predictable, conservative choices were made.

Adam Roberts said...

Alison, Abigail: good points, of course. But my experience of SF Fandom is that it is, mostly, populated with intelligent, interested people. I'd say the problem is not with popular votes as such, but with the cultural inertia that results in the same names over and over again, and that steers towards comfortable mediocrity. Cultural inertia can be overcome: a rush and a push and the land could be ours. SF Fans aren't sheep. They can rise, like lions, after slumber.

Adam Roberts said...

Walt: 'I prefer entertainment to experimentation.'

I'll tell you what, Walt, respectfully and without snark: I don't buy the distinction you're making there. 'Experimentation' and entertainment are not opposites; quite the reverse. The one is predicated upon the other. If what you're saying is that you prefer the familiar, the comfortable, the reassuring to unfamiliar, unnerving and mind-expanding stuff, well that's fair enough, although I'd say that that's kind-of missing the point of SF. But for a reader who really does prefer the familiar, comfortable and reassuring, then this is the perfect shortlist.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Adam, you're assuming that SF fandom = Hugo voters. It's clearly in the Hugo administrators' interests to maintain the perception that Worldcon membership is representative of fandom at large, but that hasn't been the case for some time, and the subset of fandom that is most strongly represented among Worldcon attendees is one that tends to nominate the same old names and the same types of books. These aren't people who are interested in overcoming cultural inertia.

Jonathan M said...

Well said Adam.

It was a very weak year for the Hugos.

Adam Roberts said...

Abigail: yes, I take the force of that.

David B. Ellis said...

Regarding the artist shortlist I strongly disagree. Bob Eggleton and Donato Giancola are producing magnificent works of art. If you find their work just technically accomplished but uninspired then I have to conclude the problem is in you and not the artists.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

Forgetting the easy argument of "one man's garbage is another's gold" for the moment (you are, after all, arguing about entirely subjective issues), I'll just say this:

if the Hugos were voted for by a larger number of the fans who are eligible to vote (not to mention if a wider cross-section of fandom made themselves eligible to vote) you would undoubtedly see a better short list.

The problem does not lie with the Hugos, it lies with the fans who don't take the time to participate, leaving the voting to a small group who regularly do and who obviously do not share your tastes.

Pants said...

Minor correction: you have "Zoe's War" in place of "Zoe's Tale" in your post.

Antipaganda said...

You say that you tend to think Neil Gaiman is not a great novelist.

Have you read American Gods? Or Good Omens? I'm not point-scoring, I just think that you might not be working with full information.

Adam Roberts said...

Pants: you're quite right. I'm a d'oh ... conflating the novel with the previous. Fixed now.

Adam Roberts said...

Antipaganda: Gaiman is a great writer of graphic novels; and some great films have been made from his novels. I don't think he orchestrates all the things necessary to make a novel very well though, and citing one baggy, intermittent piece of fiction and one novel co-written with a much more (technically) accomplished novelist doesn't seem to me to work as evidence for the contrary.

Nicholas Whyte said...

I completely agree with the original post; and Crotchety Old Fan rather gloriously both misses and illustrates the point.

Abigail puts it well: "The Hugos are a popular vote award selected by a very small fandom in-group whose nature and membership rules self-select for old-fashioned, conservative tastes." Yes, of course fans who like the good stuff that doesn't get Hugo nominations will have to start nominating and voting if the Hugos are to become more meaningful; but primary responsibility lies with those who currently run and promote the Hugos to entice those potential voters to participate.

Otherwise, all we can do is point to the (demonstrable) low participation rate in the Hugo process among Worldcon members, and the (less demonstrable but clear for those with eyes to see) poor quality of the books and stories nominated, and mourn the fact that the genre's premier award isn't in fact going to the good stuff.

Nicholas Whyte said...

Antipaganda - you may be interested to read my own comments on American Gods.

SEK said...

When I tabbed this for future comment yesterday, I figured you'd catch some random flack, but now I feel like I'm speaking to a roomful of strangers. Such is the internet.

Which was sorta gonna be my point yesterday. Popular awards like the Hugos are being disproportionately skewed by the internet, such that every second-rate Gaiman and ideologically crisp, but prosodically offensive, Doctorow novel will be nominated irrespective of merit. Little Brother suffers from its proximity to Doctorow's interests as a blogger: its rhetorical urgency, borrowed from BoingBoing, makes it read like a tract that went out looking for a narrative and accepted the first one it found. Gaiman's blog is about Gaiman's life as Gaiman, so it doesn't influence his work in the same way; but its popularity means that his readers are regularly reminded of the fact that they are his readers, that they someone belong to him in a way that precludes them from not voting for him. No one thinks that way about Doctorow---at least, I don't see much evidence that that's happened---so I think we can say that the Hugos have been warped by two very different kinds of online popularity, neither of which has any bearing of the quality of their work: everyone's fellow-traveler, Doctorow, and the cult of Gaiman.

Both of those roles are self-perpetuating, but their fans seem to think that they'll lose their standing as gatekeepers if they happen to fail as artists, and that's just not the case. Glenn Reynolds is still relevant despite years of proudly documented mental decline. I suspect Gaiman and Doctorow would both benefit from a pricklier relation with their base: if they had a more critically engaged audience, they might be pushed, but because they can't escape the fact of their own popularity, they can't be bothered to push themselves.

All of which is only to say, I don't think you need to fear for the taste of fandom generally, you just need to spend more time blaming the internet.

Walt said...

Adam,
I dislike literary experimentation, such as odd formatting or nonstandard or missing punctuation and extensive use of second person narration. Any text that calls attention to itself rather than to the mind expanding concepts and the characters tends to draw me away from the story.
In general I'd prefer experimentation be confined to ideas and not format.
Of course great writers can break these rules and make me like it but as you point out, great writers are in short supply this year.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

Nicholas,

I didn't miss the point.
If you want to change the awards - join WSFS and fill out the nominating ballot, it's as simple as that.
We're talking under a thousand ballots filled out. Complaining about it from the outside does nothing except share your personal tastes with the rest of the world.
And as some other comments here illustrate, those tastes are not universal.
WSFS is not in the business of promoting the award - their in the business of administering the World Con. Membership is open to anyone who ponies up the bucks and takes the time to fill out a ballot.
Do it already instead of complaining about the nominations of those who did go to the trouble.

Kevin Standlee said...

To repeat some of what Crotchety said: Nobody is stopping you from buying a WSFS membership and voting. (You don't have to attend; a supporting membership that includes voting rights costs around $40 or so per year.) Nobody is stopping you from publicizing works before the nominations close in February that you think deserve a Hugo. There's no shadowy cabal that Controls The Hugos.

I will differ with him on one point, however, where he says "WSFS is not in the business of promoting the award," because for the past few years WSFS has been trying to do do more to promote the Hugo Awards. It set up the Hugo Awards Marketing Committee, which launched the official Hugo Awards web site. It ran a contest this year to design an official logo for the Hugo Awards (results to be announced at this year's Worldcon). But the committee consists of a small number of volunteers, and in fact the lion's share of the work has been done by a tiny number of people.

WSFS doesn't really have a huge amount of resources. Every year's Worldcon is a brand new, built-from-scratch organization, and that organization is mainly interested in running a Worldcon, with the Hugo Awards being only a relatively small part of the million-dollar job. So it's not really surprising that we aren't that great at marketing SF's highest award. We're getting better, but there is a long way to go. It would help if more people stepped forward to do the necessary work to improve the award rather than sitting back and complaining that the voters are all stupid because they don't vote the way you would if you could be bothered to vote.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Yay, I get to troll Adam's blog. Well, I'll call it "being honest", but, you know...

Has there ever been a good year for Hugos? Has there ever been a good year for fandom as such, in which SF fans recognized actually good writing? I'd say no. Go ahead and look back at the lists of Hugo winners for just about any year, and think "are those really the great works of SF from that period?" And really, no.

I'm not dissing SF as a whole with this comment. I read large amounts of SF, it's my favorite genre, and has been so for more than 30 years. But during that time I've never really thought of myself as a fan, because fanship has always seemed to equate to a boring refusal to develop past what people liked as 13 year olds.

So this seems to me to be nothing new. Ever since Gravity's Rainbow, there's been this mythos around the Hugos that somehow they might have acknowledged great works, or that somehow fans might have developed. Not going to happen, never was. The Hugos are irrelevant to consideration of SF as literature, and it's vaguely puzzling that you're treating them seriously.

Kevin Standlee said...

Rich Puchalsky said:

Has there ever been a good year for Hugos?...

So you're saying that there isn't a single good work among the past Hugo Award winners? That's just absurd. You're saying Dune, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stand on Zanzibar, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Ringworld (to name a few past Hugo Award winners) are bad works of SF/F? Good grief, what the heck do you read, anyway?

Rich Puchalsky said...

Kevin, that's my exact point, right there. No, those aren't good works of SF, leaving The Left Hand of Darkness to one side. They appeal to the same fan culture that was/ is enthralled by Star Wars. I mean, they are perfectly competent, so I shouldn't really write that "they aren't good", but in the context of literary quality, much less literary experimentation, that Adam is writing about, they aren't good.

And I'm not saying that no book that ever won a Hugo is good. The Hugos can hardly avoid occasionally, accidentally having a good book win sometime -- PKD's The Man in the High Castle, say, from 1963, if you're into that time period. But it's accidental. The Hugos as a whole do not describe or represent the good writing in the genre, and they never did.

Kevin Standlee said...

Rich:

Oh, I see. Popular is Bad. Common feeling among self-defined elites.

JourneyPlanet said...

I usually care little little for the Pro categories (yes, I may be the only guy who thinks the Fan Categories are more interesting than the Pro ones!) but this year I had a little more take to them.

The Novels are all good, and I can see having Anathem (which I thought was pretty damned good), Saturn's Children and Little Brother, but I really didn't care for The Graveyard Book nor Zoe's Tale, but I wouldn't say that the category is awful. If Anathem wins, it'll all be for the best, really.

And I find it odd that I can't really get into Livinia.

Some of the shorter categories are much weaker. The Short stories have two great stories, one very good, one good, and one actively bad story. It's slightly better for the Novelas and slightly worse of the Novelettes.

I think the artists are a good bunch. I can't think of a piece from the year that I came across and can recall that wasn't done by one of those guys.

My big problem is never with the nominations, but with the voting at the end. The way you vote, and I've voted the last few years (and not just because I was on the ballot), is that it actually rewards the play-it-safe stuff. A One Vote system means you have to vote for the one you think is the Best, and not this system of ranking which has a tendancy to produce winners that are Meh instead of truly spectacular works that might turn off a fair segment of the traditionalists.

The best thing about the Hugos is that anyone can vote, so long as they buy a membership of one sort or another, but the worst thing is that means we have to put up with that sort of voting pattern.
Chris

-Tim said...

So can it be assumed that all you who are decrying the mediocrity of the shortlists, went out and voted for something better this year? I'm just saying that I sure hope that no one here is throwing stones without being willing to step up and take a few for your own selections.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"Common feeling among self-defined elites"? No, Kevin, it is possible to distinguish good writing from bad without being elite. It's just something that most fans never bother to or want to learn how to do. Some good books are popular, some not.

But it's beside the point for Adam to address those who don't. Why should they care? Without connotations of elite-ness -- most experimental writers within pop genres were and are staggeringly poor, by both monetary and high-cultural social status standards -- the Hugos aren't about literary quality, and the people who are interested in literary quality should have no real expectation that the Hugos will be about it.

Kevin Standlee said...

Rich Puchalsky: But you have basically said, "Anything popular can't be good," because you've rubbished the Hugo Awards, which are popularly-voted award, as uniformly bad and only capable of selecting "good" works (whatever that means) by sheer random chance.

Could it possibly be that you've defined "good" as "anything I personally like" and decided that there's something magical about your own tastes?

More to the point: Could you name some works of SF/F that you consider "good" so that the rest of us can have some idea of what sort of measurement you're using? Otherwise, we're in a position of arguing distance where you're measuring in rods while I'm using meters.

Kevin Standlee said...

JourneyPlanet:

Chris, you and I have of course differed on this before, and I doubt we'll ever convince each other of the rightness of our respective positions, but I do understand your reasoning. I just think you're mistaken that a bullet-vote, "first past the post" (vote for one and only one candidate; candidate with highest number of votes wins) system would achieve the effect you describe.

What I think would happen in the case you describe is a lot of works "winning" with only about 25% of the vote, with the remainder split amongst the other four candidates. This would rapidly lead to Mass Outrage when the process produced "winners" that were despised by three-quarters of the electorate.

This isn't the same thing as the usual Silly Season carping such as we see in this thread, which is mostly grumbling by people who don't vote and never will and look down their noses at any award system that chooses anything except their personal favorites. When the voters start complaining about who is winning the election, you know there's something actually wrong.

Rich Puchalsky said...

Kevin, just because I say that SF fans specifically are incapable of picking out good work doesn't mean that I am rubbishing the public in general, or popularity in general.

It shouldn't be necessary to define what I mean by "good" here. Adam has already written that what he's talking about is literary quality, especially literary experimentation. That's clear enough. Obviously people's judgments about literary quality will differ, but they don't differ to the extent that you seem to think they do, where all I'm talking about is simply my personal preference. People can argue about whether a literary work is better or not as good as someone else thinks that it is, but there's a wide agreement (culturally defined, of course) on whether it's literary. (Or, as Adam writes, at least trying to have some sort of literary quality.)

If we're talking my personal preference, I think that books that deserve to be taken seriously have been written by John Crowley, Iain Banks, Alasdair Gray, Adam himself, for a few living authors. Let's see: Ursula K. LeGuin, China Mieville, M. John Harrison, PKD, Stanislaw Lem -- I'm not going in any particular order. For fantasy, James Branch Cabell, Mervyn Peake. Those are just some examples. I'm purposefully not getting into the area of non-genre-identified writers having written SF books.

Kevin Standlee said...

Rich Puchalsky:

Kevin, just because I say that SF fans specifically are incapable of picking out good work doesn't mean that I am rubbishing the public in general, or popularity in general.

Oh, I see, you're saying that anyone who likes SF is stupid. Except you or anyone who agrees with your tastes, of course.

It shouldn't be necessary to define what I mean by "good" here.

Why not? Or is it simply self-evident that to you "good" means "anything I like?"

Adam has already written that what he's talking about is literary quality, especially literary experimentation. That's clear enough.

So the only way you can be good is to be "experimental"? It still sounds to me like you're saying, "Anything popular can't possibly be good."

Obviously people's judgments about literary quality will differ, but they don't differ to the extent that you seem to think they do,...

Of course they do! If they didn't, then all book reviewers would have exactly the same review of every single work. Unless you've just decided that any review that disagrees with your opinion of a work is rubbish and must be defined out of existence. ("That doesn't count; everyone knows LOCUS reviewers don't know anything," or "that's only a fanzine; it can't possibly be right.")

People can argue about whether a literary work is better or not as good as someone else thinks that it is, but there's a wide agreement (culturally defined, of course) on whether it's literary. (Or, as Adam writes, at least trying to have some sort of literary quality.)

So you say. I can't say as I agree with you at all. It really seems to me that you've defined "literary" as "whatever I point at when I say 'literary.'"

If we're talking my personal preference,...

Watch out! Some of those people have actually written works that lots of people like and that have won popular awards! That's dangerous! Nothing popular can possibly be good, ever. Only inaccessible, impossible to understand "experimental" work can possibly be good, right? And as it happens, you've named some authors whose work I happen to like as well. And some of them have been Hugo Award nominees or winners. But that's sheer random chance, right?

I look forward to seeing the Rich Puchalsky Awards for science fiction.

Ryk said...

Rich Puchalsky:
"it is possible to distinguish good writing from bad without being elite. It's just something that most fans never bother to or want to learn how to do. Some good books are popular, some not."

Sure it is. (That's, I say, that's sarcasm, son) I've had that discussion multiple times, and in fact it all boils down to "My Opinion". Aside from the most basic aspects of grammar and spelling, the elements on which "good" can be judged -- characters, plot, etc. -- are subjective in almost all aspects. So yeah, it's probably possible to learn to "distinguish good writing from bad". You just find out what whoever you're talking to thinks is good, and point to that along with them.

I generally agree with you about the average Hugo nominee... but for quite different reasons. For which you may be grateful that I generally do not vote for Hugos.

SEK said...

So the only way you can be good is to be "experimental"? It still sounds to me like you're saying, "Anything popular can't possibly be good."

It shouldn't, because there's no logic to your logic there. The relationship between popularity and quality is unrelated to the question of formal experimentation. There are many terrible experimental novels which are also, not surprisingly, not at all popular. But there are also many terrible conventional novels which are, quite surprisingly, very popular. I'll even go so far as to say that there's one novel by our humble host that I'd considered a failed experiment; but as a novel, it's more interesting than a failed conventional work, because when someone knows exactly how to please an audience and fails, there's absolutely nothing interesting about the reading experience. It's just terribleness all the way down.

SEK said...

Oh, I see, you're saying that anyone who likes SF is stupid.

I have a strong suspicion that's not true, and an even stronger one that that link won't help Rich make his case that it isn't. (But as Blogger doesn't seem to like links to Google searches, I can't link to Puchalsky, Acephalous, and Iain Banks to further make his case. You, however, are free to.)

Ryk said...

SEK:
"...when someone knows exactly how to please an audience..."

Then, with very limited exceptions, they would be God On Earth. I'd like to know the answer to that question. So would a lot of other authors. But no one really KNOWS.

King Rat said...

"Best Novel" and "good writing" aren't necessarily synonymous. Little Brother may be a great novel for entirely different reasons than the quality of it's prose. I'm not saying it's a great novel. I thought it was a piece of wishful thinking. Philip K. Dick stories are pretty clunky writing, but are great stories nonetheless because of their paranoid dystopic vision.

But yeah, you are right that listing a bunch of YA novels really devalues the Hugo as an award. Of course, it's a popularity contest and isn't something I valued highly for a long time.

As to those who say "buy yourself a membership and fix the Hugos instead of complaining" you are kind of missing all sorts of points.

SEK said...

Then, with very limited exceptions, they would be God On Earth. I'd like to know the answer to that question. So would a lot of other authors. But no one really KNOWS.

Just because you know how to write a formally conventional novel doesn't mean your execution will be flawless. That's one of the many ways a formally conventional novel can be terrible. There are many others. In short, I don't want to seem to have said that there is a single formula that pleases readers. That doesn't mean that there aren't formal devices that aren't more, rather than less, conventional, or that the more conventional are more conventional for a reason; namely, that success breeds imitation, imitation breeds familiarity, and familiarity eventually turns into transparency (i.e. a novel that can be read without having to "work"), at which point literature is the intellectual equivalent of junk food. Which isn't to say that space operas aren't compelling the first fifty times you read slight variations on the theme . . .

Kevin Standlee said...

King Rat said:

As to those who say "buy yourself a membership and fix the Hugos instead of complaining" you are kind of missing all sorts of points.

Oh, please enlighten us with your great wisdom, O King. Otherwise, your argument boils down to, "You people have bad taste and you should change the way you vote to suit me, although of course I'm much too important to actually do anything about it other than complain about how stupid you are."

I have similar disdain for people who don't vote in mundane elections and then complain about the results, effectively saying, "the world should adjust to my benefit, and I shouldn't have to do anything at all to make it change."

Yes, I'm sarcastic and irritable about this. Twenty-five years ago, when I attended my first Worldcon, I saw things I wanted to change, and realized that nobody was going to change them for me, so I got out there, joined, and worked to make change happen.

If you can't even be troubled to buy a WSFS membership and vote, you don't have a lot of credibility in my opinion. You're just a whiner.

buddykat said...

If you don't like what ended up on the short list, then get a supporting membership in next year's Worldcon (currently US $50) and nominate what you think should be on the ballot. Then VOTE.

If you don't participate, you really have no room to bitch about what IS on the ballot.

SEK said...

If you don't participate, you really have no room to bitch about what IS on the ballot.

When there's a poll tax of $50 in this economy, I'm not sure your complaint has quite the rhetorical force you think it does.

buddykat said...

SEK:

The Hugos are an award given out by a CLUB. To join the club, you have to pay the dues. The dues are set by each year's individual Worldcon.

What was your excuse when the economy was good?

If you want a "people's choice" award, start your own. The Hugos are not a "people's choice" award, they are an award of the World Science Fiction Society.

Lisa Hertel said...

The Hugos are not a literary award; they are an award for literature that people enjoy. It's a subtle distinction, but one that generally yields a list of books that are "fun reads." There are plenty of literary awards out there.

If you don't like the nominees, either vote, or shut up & go look at another, more literary list.

Kevin Standlee said...

SEK:

And what would your excuse be if there was no cost to join? That it was too populist?

Have you ever voted in the Locus Awards? They don't charge to vote there.

Or is it so much easier to moan about how everyone else but you has bad taste?

Nicholas Whyte said...

Crotchety and Kevin,

I am in fact a supporting member of this year's Worldcon, as I have been for the last few. Is it OK for me to express my thoughts now? By the way, I have written 25 blog posts about this year's Hugo nominations. How many have you written?

Kevin,

I'm glad to hear that the HAMC exists. I think there is room for improvement in the way it deals with external commentary, as this exchange and others have demonstrated.

Kevin Standlee said...

Nicholas Whyte:

I am in fact a supporting member of this year's Worldcon, as I have been for the last few. Is it OK for me to express my thoughts now?

Your opinions certainly have a lot more credibility than those of people who think that the Awards should adjust to suit them without them having to lift a finger.

By the way, I have written 25 blog posts about this year's Hugo nominations. How many have you written?

I'm not sure; I didn't keep track of them separately, and they're all over the place. You can find some of them on my own LiveJournal, some on the Hugo Recommendations LiveJournal Commuinty, and I do some of the minor maintenance work on the Hugo Awards Web Site, which includes links to those third party recommendation sites that maintain a sufficiently stable presence (and about which we know) that we can point to them.

In addition, I have for the past several years organized a three-week long series of Hugo Recommendation Nights at meetings of the Bay Area Science Fiction Association in January, where members (even those who haven't bought Worldcon memberships) go through the Hugo Awards Nominating Ballot and talk with each other about those works they've read/seen in the past year that they would suggest for other people's Hugo ballots. This has proved to be a great way to remind people of stuff that they may have read/seen in the previous year but forgot was eligible.

So yes, I do put my money, and my efforts, where my mouth is. If more people did the same, the Hugo Awards would be the better for it.

Stephen Deas said...

In the words of Iggy Pop, there's nothing more important than fun. Can't speak for the books because I have read more than half of them, but Hellboy II and Ironman were more fun that WALL-E and The Dark Knight. While the former offered no real food for thought at all, what the latter offered were stale crumbs. Most stories these days are offered up as entertainment, not enlightenment; moreover, you can succeed with entertainment by treading familiar paths. With enlightenment, pretty much by definition, you can't.

I say again, I don't mean to pass judgement on books I haven't read, but on the movies, yes, I'll argue with you as long as you like. Heath Ledger's performance aside, The Dark Knight was pretty dull. WALL-EE was pretty *and* dull. Maybe Hellboy II and Ironman had nothing at all to say (as opposed to next to nothing), but they at least got on with it.

No, all other things being equal then stale crumbs are better than nothing, but they're no substitute for either fun or real substance.

Stephen Deas said...

In the words of Iggy Pop, there's nothing more important than fun. Can't speak for the books because I have read more than half of them, but Hellboy II and Ironman were more fun that WALL-E and The Dark Knight. While the former offered no real food for thought at all, what the latter offered were stale crumbs. Most stories these days are offered up as entertainment, not enlightenment; moreover, you can succeed with entertainment by treading familiar paths. With enlightenment, pretty much by definition, you can't.

I say again, I don't mean to pass judgement on books I haven't read, but on the movies, yes, I'll argue with you as long as you like. Heath Ledger's performance aside, The Dark Knight was pretty dull. WALL-EE was pretty *and* dull. Maybe Hellboy II and Ironman had nothing at all to say (as opposed to next to nothing), but they at least got on with it.

No, all other things being equal then stale crumbs are better than nothing, but they're no substitute for either fun or real substance.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

Nicholas:

If you go to the discussion threads on several of the sites Kevin listed, you'll find pieces of commentary on the subject by me.
You'll also find numerous blog posts on the blog that deal with the subject.
I've reviewed a few of the works that are on the ballot this year - but have NOT commented or written about the appropriateness of the works on the list because - A: I do not have a membership this year and am not able to vote and B: what would be the point of complaining about or praising the list? Shoulda, woulda, coulda by the time the short list comes out.
The time to do that sort of thing is prior to and during the nominating process. You know - so-and-so really produced a great piece of work here and it ought to get nominated...

Kevin: I should have been more specific with my statement about WSFS business, but wanted to address the primary issue here, not get into parsing out detail on everything WSFS does. I probably should have said that WSFS's primary business, etc., etc. Kind of moot now though.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I'm not saying that the Hugos would be better if they picked out literary works. I'm saying that they should just be ignored. They only have meaning to a small subculture of SF fans, by which I do not mean literate people who read SF. Adam would like them to be a recommendation to the larger world of readers, but they aren't and never have been, so he might as well give up on them.

That's not me going out and complaining that the Hugos don't follow my rules. It's me responding directly to Adam's post. If you comment on a thread to a post that complains about the Hugos, and then get all surprised that some people don't agree with you about the value of the Hugos ...

Crotchety Old Fan said...

Well then Rich - ignore them. It really is as simple as that.
(Unfortunately) the Hugos are not covered by a television special, few, if any magazines or newspapers outside the field bother to mention them and, even despite my own efforts, there are very few t-shirts available that you might run into at the mall.
Ignoring the Hugos is EASY. Getting involved with them and effecting some change for the better is the hard part.

Dr Plokta said...

I have no idea how you can keep a straight face while you imply that Little Brother is not ambitious; it's probably the most ambitious work of scienc fiction published in this century. It aims for no less than to politicise and radicalise an entire generation. It certainly has it's faults -- it's ambition is unlikely to be achievable, and one can certainly question whether Cory has the technical skill as a writer to bring it off, but lack of ambition is the very last thing you can accuse it of. I suspect that you meant that it is ambitious in ways that do not interest you, from which starting point it's easy to move on and spot the problem with the rest of this article.

Noah said...

Anathem (the only one of the shortlist I've read) is damn good. Yes, it's extremely slow and nerdy, but some people like that and don't think it's boring at all. Nerds, for example. Like me.

Noah said...

I would add that those who expect SF fans to suddenly turn from science nerds into lit-crit nerds can expect to be sorely disappointed.

"an experiment in voice and tone"? Am I in a Comparative Lit class here?

Adam Roberts said...

A thousand flowers blooming, yes; and schools of thought also.

Noah "I in a Comparative Lit class here?"

That would be a bad thing, would it?

C.O.F. "Well then Rich - ignore them. It really is as simple as that. (Unfortunately) the Hugos are not covered by a television special, few, if any magazines or newspapers outside the field bother to mention them and, even despite my own efforts, there are very few t-shirts available that you might run into at the mall.
Ignoring the Hugos is EASY.
"

I can't speak for Rich, obviously, but I rather suspect this misses the point of what he says. My original post is predicated precisely upon the Hugo's prestige as an award, not the voting protocols. Being the genre's blue riband prize seems to me to entail certain responsibilities. Rich, I take it, is saying: rather than criticize the genre's blue riband prize for putting mediocre sf in the shop-window, we could simply stop regarding the Hugos as the blue riband prize. It is, as several commentators have pointed out here, not a public institution, after all; its the voting profile of a particular sff-oriented private club.

As for the line, taken by a couple of commentators here, that I do not have the right to voice these criticisms because I have not paid the Worldcon dues and signed up ... well, that baffles me somewhat. On point of fact it's wrong, since the right I have to voice my views, like the right of commentators to voice their earnest disagreement, is inalienable. And, you know, important. I suppose the intention is to encourage me and people like me into the fold, but the effect is rather the reverse, as if to close down debate and the articulation of negative views. Hmm.

Adam Roberts said...

Stephen ... good of you to drop by.

"In the words of Iggy Pop, there's nothing more important than fun. Can't speak for the books because I have read more than half of them, but Hellboy II and Ironman were more fun that WALL-E and The Dark Knight. While the former offered no real food for thought at all, what the latter offered were stale crumbs. Most stories these days are offered up as entertainment, not enlightenment; moreover, you can succeed with entertainment by treading familiar paths. With enlightenment, pretty much by definition, you can't.

I say again, I don't mean to pass judgement on books I haven't read, but on the movies, yes, I'll argue with you as long as you like. Heath Ledger's performance aside, The Dark Knight was pretty dull. WALL-EE was pretty *and* dull. Maybe Hellboy II and Ironman had nothing at all to say (as opposed to next to nothing), but they at least got on with it.
"

Not everybody has the same sense of fun, of course; which is a good thing I think. I enjoyed Iron Man plenty, and the Hell Boy film, though pretty incoherent, put some nicely bling set, costume and creature design on display. But neither of them seemed to me to do enough to lift them out of the general pack of big-budget cinematic offerings. Neither really excelled.

As for Dark Knight; well, I genuinely do think that in fifty years time people will still be saying 'why so serious?' to one another in Ledger-Joker voices. I'm not sure anything else out this year will be as enduring. WALL-E was pretty, I agree; but the first half hour was something more ... a much more visually extraordinary and bleakly beautiful visual text than anything on the professional artists' shortlist.

Jonathan M said...

I think that the "join or STFU" criticism can be interpreted in two ways.

First, as a blanket moral assertion that people who are not members of Worldcon should not be allowed to criticise it. As Adam suggests, this ignores the right to free speech and is monstrously illiberal to boot.

However, there's also a second argument that I think is stronger and more interesting.

Namely that Worldcon and its members has no duty to listen to the concerns of anyone other than its members.

This is a stronger argument because Worldcon is ultimately a club. However, the argument also displays a level of insularity that is precisely what motivated the first set of criticisms.

The hugos claim an authoritativeness that is utterly out of synch with their status as awards voted for by the membership of a club.

If the Hugos want to remain an award that is little more than a bauble given out by the SF equivalent of the Rotarian society then fine... good for them. But the second they want to claim any kind of mass credibility or kudos then that insularity of taste and of outlook becomes a problem and a problem that needs to be remedied.

Kevin Standlee said...

Jonathan M:

But the second they want to claim any kind of mass credibility or kudos then that insularity of taste and of outlook becomes a problem and a problem that needs to be remedied.

And your suggested solution is?

Kevin Standlee said...

Jonathan M:

My previous comment may sound like I'm being sarcastic. I'm not. Pretend for a moment that you are now king of WSFS. You can make all the rules you want by decree, instead of actually having to go through a messy democratic process where you have to get consensus from the other members and all that stuff.

Now you can change the Hugo Award process to what you want. What do you do?

Kevin Standlee said...

BTW:

First, as a blanket moral assertion that people who are not members of Worldcon should not be allowed to criticise it.

I have never said that, and if anyone has the impression that I did so, I deny it. Everyone has the right to say what they want. What they don't necessarily have is the right to be taken seriously. There's a big distinction there.

Jonathan M said...

Yes, but that's assuming that my problem with the Hugos is something to do with the codes governing them.

I only have the vaguest of notions of what those codes are. The problem isn't with the hugos themselves but our perceptions of them as a sub-culture :

The Hugos are voted for by a sub-section of Fandom and that sub-section are fully entitled to their rules and their opinions. I agree... it's none of my business as I'm not a member of that sub-section.

Unfortunately, partly because of tradition and partly because of the semiotics of the Hugos and Worldcon themselves, the awards have knock on effects that out-weigh their status as awards granted on the basis of the opinions of a small sub-section of fandom.

Kevin Standlee said...

Jonathan M:

I only have the vaguest of notions of what those codes are.

The details are complex, but for this purpose, you need not worry about more than the summary: If you join the current World Science Fiction Convention, you get to nominate works for the Hugo Awards and then vote on the final slate of candidates.

(You don't have to attend the convention. There is a less-expensive "supporting membership" that amounts to an annual membership in the World Science Fiction Society, while the difference between that and the attending membership is what some organizations call the "convention supplement.")

The longer version is on the Hugo Awards Web Site. Note that WSFS has a long tradition of attempting to make the process as transparent as possible to anyone who wants to know the details.

The problem isn't with the Hugos themselves but our perceptions of them as a sub-culture

If you had the unlimited ability to do so, how would you change this?

...the awards have knock on effects that out-weigh their status as awards...

Possibly because the community involved has significant historical and cultural ties to the field, including the publishing industry? Remember that "fan" and "pro" aren't opposites -- they're check boxes. One can by both, either, nor neither. To that extent, they are sort of what would happen if you crossed the Academy Awards with the People's Choice Awards.

(Basically, a whole lot of the people voting on the Hugos are also professionals in the field. It's not exclusively so like the Nebulas, but the impact seems obvious to me.)

...granted on the basis of the opinions of a small sub-section of fandom.

And this is different from any other popularly-voted award in what way?

Kevin Standlee said...

Rats: I meant "You can be both, either, or neither" of course. Missed it when I previewed the message.

Rich Puchalsky said...

"Rich, I take it, is saying: rather than criticize the genre's blue riband prize for putting mediocre sf in the shop-window, we could simply stop regarding the Hugos as the blue riband prize,"

Yes. But there's an added objection that I have, too, and that's that the narrative of "they used to be great, and now they have fallen" -- which your original post seems to imply, in some sense -- itself pumps up the Hugos. They never were great, never did what you seem to want them to do. So if you're asking them to recognize literary quality you're asking them to do a wholly new thing.

To make my argument far too serious by comparison with a serious issue, but I can't resist the structure of the comparison -- it's like the people who objected to official torture by America during the Bush administration (or after) by saying "We're better than that. America doesn't torture." Well, America does torture, and it always did. It's an appeal to do better that is implicitly based on falsifying the past.

Kevin Standlee said...

Well, then: I suggest you set up the Rich Puchalsky Prize for Genre Literature that's done Your Way. If your assumptions are correct, people will doubtless flock to your banner and start faunching for a Richie the way they look longingly over chrome-plated rocketships today.

And despite how that sounds, I'm not being sarcastic. Nobody is preventing anyone else from setting up any other sort of award they want. The field is simply littered with them. Just look at SF AwardsWatch, and which I am a junior editor. And that's just the ones we know about. There are doubtless dozens if not hundreds of other awards that we simply haven't learned about yet.

It's a free market of ideas. You don't need a license to set up your own awards; you just can't call them "Hugo Awards" any more than you could start brewing beverages and selling them as "Coca-Cola."

Rich Puchalsky said...

"Now you can change the Hugo Award process to what you want. What do you do?"

If you want the Hugo awards to do what Adam seems to want them to do, you get a panel of literary critics, and you have them vote. Perhaps you have two sets of Hugos, one the literary awards, and one the fan favorites. But... why bother? There are already juried awards of various types.

Really, what's more important is the question of why SF fans remain so proudly ignorant of what literature is. You can see it right in this thread. It's like the teenager sneering at adult music. And sure, I understand SF's subcultural pulp pride and all that. But, you know, when you're still doing that in middle age, it seems a little ridiculous.

Adam Roberts said...

Rich is a friend of mine, so obviously I'm a little biased; but I must say, I like the sound of 'The Richies'.

Damien G Walter said...

There isn't any problem with the Hugo's, other than the problems that are endemic to all awards. Taken all in all, the Hugo shortlist are among the most significant SF books of the year. They are the most successful novels of the year, by the most successful authors of the era. Its perfectly natural that the Hugo's, as the biggest SF award, recognise them as such.

I hope The Graveyard Book takes the award. Clearly its not to your taste Adam, but its a beautiful book and fully deserved the Newbery Medal and the Hugo nomination.

Damien
http://damiengwalter.wordpress.com

Rich Puchalsky said...

The people objecting always seem to come back to some variant of "well, maybe this year's books weren't to your taste" or "why don't you give your own awards to the kind of books you like". And it shows what's wrong with the whole thing. It's not merely a matter of personal taste. Fans consider their likes and dislikes to be personal and, mostly, unexplainable. One really likes author X, another author Y, and all they can really do is say how incredibly great each is and how good their ideas are and maybe give a plot summary of one of their books. It's an incredibly impoverished conversation.

There's a wide degree of agreement, among people who read literary works, about which are literary and which aren't. Or, in terms that Adam is using, which are good and which aren't. It's not 100% agreement, but there are qualities that readers can detect in works that make them literary. It's not just that you like Niven, let's say, and I don't. The entire literary readership can pick up a Niven book and see that it's pleasant enough junk. It's a matter of writing quality, technique, ambition, brilliance that goes into the medium rather than the top-level ideas expressed in the medium.

And when you keep saying that there's no difference, or that you don't care, you're like someone who thinks that it's fine for a work of hard SF to have spaceships that go "whoosh!" in space. A physicist tells you that sound doesn't happen in a vacuum. And you say "But it's cool! I like the effect!" And then the physicist says OK, if you like what you like, that's fine, but it's not hard SF. And you say "Hey, my opinion about what hard SF is is just as good as yours. Why don't you just pick out the hard SF that you like and let me pick out mine?" And the physicist says, well, why don't you learn something about it? And you reply with a lot of stuff that comes down to you not wanting to and how it's elitist to expect people to learn about that stuff.

It's dull, it's just not very smart. You're smarter than this, people.

Kevin Standlee said...

Rich Puchalsky:

By the "literary readership" definition, there is no such thing as "good science fiction," because anything "good" can't possibly be "science fiction."

Examples can be found in, on the average, every other issue of Ansible.

Rich Puchalsky said...

That's just false, and tired, Kevin. There have been whole journals dedicated to literary analysis of SF. The idea that SF is some degraded subgenre that can't get any respect from the critics is a relic of the '70s, and people should really just give up on it at this point.

I mean, let's take -- Adam for instance. Adam is a high nabob of literary elite high culture haut-ism. He's an English professor, from England, whose first work was on Browning (I think). You simply can't write on his blog and say that the literary community thinks that there is no such thing as good SF by definition.

Kevin Standlee said...

The idea that SF is some degraded subgenre that can't get any respect from the critics is a relic of the '70s, and people should really just give up on it at this point.

Or presumably stop reading (among other places) Ansible, which runs an item quoting the media ringing changes on exactly that theme every other issue or thereabouts.

Matt Smit said...

I've read all but one of this year's Hugo nominees, I've read some of your suggested list (but not all), and I've read dozens of other SF & F novels, too...

and I think the Hugo List works just fine. I think any of the books you named could also be worthy contenders, but by & large I see nothing innately superior about your taste than I do that of the Hugos.

Kevin Standlee said...

You simply can't write on his blog and say that the literary community thinks that there is no such thing as good SF by definition.

Sure I can, when there's proof of it to be read.

Need more proof? Langford collects it. (Note that the link brings up a random selection from the department, so there's no telling exactly which item will hit any given time.)

anti - ethnocentric said...

Adam, I said this elsewhere, and I'll say it again here: Your opinion of Heinlein's take on sex proves you haven't been back to his works since you were a randy teenager yourself. That's sad. Give it a chance sometime.

Scalzi does not need the "egoboo". He's won enough Hugos that it's irrelevant and unnecessary. I'm pretty sure he got on the Hugo list because an adult male writing a very convincing teenage girl without resorting to cliches or nonsense is worthy of at least something. It's called good writing, it's a shame that not only can't you realize it, but you go out of your way to insult the very fandom you want to market your books to.

Having been insulted by you, since I voted for the Hugos this year, I don't think I'll be picking up anything with your name on it in the bookstore in the future. Not terribly anxious to support a fellow who doesn't think I'm capable of making good decisions, and all. I'm sure you'll retort with the standard "Well, I don't NEED your patronage"...yes, well. I have friends, we all like SF books of various stripes and genres, and we can put our combined money behind authors who don't engage in petty flailing on the Internet.

Jonathan M said...

"Or presumably stop reading (among other places) Ansible, which runs an item quoting the media ringing changes on exactly that theme every other issue or thereabouts."

Done. Oh sure, I stop in from time to time but I've always been acutely aware that Ansible spoke to a version of the SF experience that I had little interest in or familiarity with.

As for the persecution complex that is "As Others See Us" well, as Rich said, I think that that attitude is of its time and that the time for such an attitude has long-since passed.


It seems that some people are happier living in the ghetto and cursing the walls than simply walking out the front door.

Adam Roberts said...

Anti-ethnocentric: "I'm sure you'll retort with the standard "Well, I don't NEED your patronage"...yes, well. I have friends, we all like SF books of various stripes and genres, and we can put our combined money behind authors who don't engage in petty flailing on the Internet."

Gosh, Anti-E, I wouldn't dream of retorting anything of the sort. Of course I need patronage; my sales are tiny. But I appreciate you and your friends don't want to buy my books, and, actually, since you like the sorts of things on the Hugo list, and since what I write is very much unlike that, there's a good chance you wouldn't like them even if you did.

This rather comes over as: 'you have said something with which I disagree; therefore I shall punish you.' Which is to say: I ought only to say nice things about contemporary SF, whether I believe those things or not -- or at least I ought to say nothing (keep my head down, keep my mouth shut) -- from fear of fannish retaliation and boycott. It's a persuasive case, certainly.

Jonathan M said...

...and if you still insist upon misbehaving he'll get his dad to beat up your dad.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Though Scalzi has been nominated for the best novel Hugo before (and is nominated for best related book and best dramatic presentation, long form, this year), the only Hugo he's won is for best fan writer. He's also the winner of the Campbell award for best new writer, but that is, famously, not a Hugo.

I'm pretty sure he got on the Hugo list because an adult male writing a very convincing teenage girl without resorting to cliches or nonsense is worthy of at least something

So much to quibble with here: is an author successfully mimicking the voice of someone different from him really something to be celebrated? I'd have called it one of the basic necessities of decent writing. And should such an accomplishment be paramount when nominating for a science fiction award? At the very least, I'd think that the novel's SFnal accomplishments would also have to be noteworthy. Most importantly, however, do you really find Zoe Boutin believable as a teenage girl? To my ear she sounds exactly like an adult pretending to be a teenager - too self-assured, too knowing, and brimming with the kind of platitudes about teenagers that only adults bandy about. Or, to put it another way, she sounds exactly like Scalzi himself.

Anne KG Murphy said...

And here my main quibble with Adam's piece is that he keeps saying we 'vote' for the shortlist. There is not voting to create the shortlist (list of nominees who make it to the ballot). That process is called nomination. It would in fact be better if we (somebody) published a list of all sf books, stories, etc. published that are eligible for the award oh, sometime around october or november, so we might peruse the list and consider the breadth of nominees, but that would be a long list, and I doubt anyone will ever take the time, short of someone creating a massive SF database like the one I keep dreaming of making... .

Even without being a WSFS member, you can add your recommendations to the internet and even various lists such as the one Cheryl maintains on sfawardswatch. Publishing your recommendations a month or so *before* the nomination deadline is indeed more helpful than kvetching after the fact - I've put some of the works mentioned here on my 'to read' list, in fact.

As has been mentioned above, very few people participate in nominating, and this is indeed keenly felt. Because those who nominate also have lives, and limited budgets, and cannot necessarily sample the breadth of the previous year's work, especially if they don't hear about a lot of it.

The artist Hugo slate actually looks better this year than a lot of previous years. I hope Tan or Picacio takes it, and I hope next year's slate will be even better. If there are artists you would like people to take note of, I encourage you (any of you) to come over to http://www.sfartistwatch.com and make pages for them. SF has a *lot* of amazing artists illustrating it around the world.

I can't stand Eggleton's artwork but I can see that it's recognizable, so people who like it will remember it. That's something all the artists on the slate have in common. Getting less prolific artists on the shortlist will take some promotional work, but I think it's possible, as we saw with Tan.

torgeaux said...

Well, the problem here lies not with a disparate group of people, but with you, the person who disagrees with a disparate group of people.

Sure, this list wouldn't be MY list. But then, it's not MY list, is it? I agree that a book that you like doesn't mean it's good, and a book you don't like doesn't mean it's bad, but I also don't think that you, or anyone, can state, as categorically as you do, that X book is good, and Y book is mediocre.

What is the standard you apply? It seems to be, "new." Me, I'm not looking for "new" in every book I read. "New" isn't synonymous with "good." Experiments fail, that's their nature. Interesting failures are still failures.

So, think twice before suggesting, even obliquely, that the choices people make about what is "best" to them in a novel or any subjective categoricalization is somehow inferior because it doesn't match your unstated criteria.

Martin said...

By the "literary readership" definition, there is no such thing as "good science fiction," because anything "good" can't possibly be "science fiction."

If you honestly believe that you are a fool and, as Rich points out, you are particularly foolish to suggest it on this blog of all places.

Your idea of what consitutes "proof" of this view is also laughable. Unfortunately you miss out on today's conclusive evidence award because of anti - ethnocentric's brave effort straight after your comment.

This rather comes over as: 'you have said something with which I disagree; therefore I shall punish you.'

Adam: I take it you are familiar with Nick Mamatas's "We'll Never Buy Your Work Again" icon? A useful thing to have, I reckon. Although, of course, your default icon covers rather more bases.

Chris Gerrib said...

I have yet to attend a Worldcon. I have voted on two Hugos, and nominated books for this year's awards.

If you don't like the picks, spend the $40 and put your own suggestions in.

Rich Puchalsky said...

The bit about SF getting no respect is actually the same bit as "I don't care about what literary quality is in SF". The media, or some media, may have a tired narrative -- because the media traffics in tired narratives -- that SF is all childish pulp. But that has no relationship to what critics and literary people in general actually do. In actuality, they now study SF in literary terms, just as they do any other genre that sometimes shows literary quality. And if people don't know that, it's because they're evidently not interested in literariness, so the circle is complete.

But there's actually another circle too -- the media holds on to this narrative in part because fans themselves are eager to boast about their subcultural disdain for good writing. It's like a punker ostentatiously laughing at a well-trained musician and banging on his guitar. Which has its charms, but again, when the punker is in his 50s, you just want to tell him to grow up already.

Lastly there are indeed a number of articles that say that most of what's out there is bad. Well, yes. If you're interesting in literary quality, most of every genre is bad. How many works of actual literary genius are written in all genres put together in a year? One? Some fraction less than 1, if you take an average? The number of books of literary interest is greater, of course, but I could easily imagine a typical year for SF having something like ten.

King Rat said...

Forgot to come back. To answer Kevin's cranky question to me (I have no problem with cranky, I'm pretty cranky myself), here's some points:

a) spending 40 or 50 to be one of 500 is a relatively high cost for relatively little chance at influencing anything.

b) there's a lot of inertia behind the Hugos. i think kvetching about the the standard of "best" for the Hugos as Adam has done is far more effective in getting people to consider something else than simply nominating a different set of works, or even posting his selections. this post has gotten far more notice than most of the "here's my hugo suggestions".

c) you seem to be thinking only about the creation side of the awards, not the consumption side. I, in particular, am an award consumer. you are arguing that to be taken seriously, I must be on the award production side. it's a little (just a little) like saying I have no legitimacy to criticize Starbucks coffee unless I work at Starbucks.

there's a few other points I think i could make if I weren't caffeine deprived and needing to run off. suffice to say i'm pretty dismissive of any argument (in any argument) that tells people they don't have legitimacy ad hominem. if your argument was that Adam Roberts didn't participate and so he's missing some crucial information only available to those who participated, then you might have a point. but i don't think he's working from a lack of inside knowledge.

Kevin Standlee said...

So now we've gone from "not enough [of the right sort of] people participate" to "there's no point in participating because too many people nominate so my contribution won't mean anything."

But to that point: You're not trying to out-vote 500 people. If you look at typical Hugo voting statistics, you'll see that it really doesn't take that many votes to make the ballot. In some categories, your vote could be more than 5% of the total number of nominations needed to make the ballot. It's not uncommon for works to miss the ballot by only one vote. I obviously can't cite this year's figures -- I don't know the numbers myself, not being part of the Hugo Awards Administration Subcommittee this year -- but a quick glance at last year's figures shows that there was one category where a person missed the ballot by one vote and two categories where two votes would have made the difference. So I don't think your "why bother voting; too many other people vote" argument holds much water.

this post has gotten far more notice than most of the "here's my hugo suggestions".

True, and almost all of it negative, and none of it actually helping to increase the nomination of works that the author of the original post wants nominated.

Besides, complaining in July is not a good time time for an argument to be effective in changing the makeup of the Hugo Awards ballot. You want to change what gets nominated for a Hugo? Start campaigning in December and turn up the volume in January and early February. That's when the nominations are open. That's when you can make a difference by calling more attention to works that you think are award-worthy.

Our field is big. Nobody can read more than a tiny fraction of it. Don't hide the light of good books under a bushel. Tell people, "This book is good; you should read it, and I think it's worthy of a Hugo Award." But time your posts! BASFA holds its Hugo Award Discussion Nights in late January and early February, just a few weeks before the nominating ballot closes, so that people have the information fresh in their minds when filling out their ballot.

May through July is when you start campaigning for structural changes in the Awards, such as adding new categories or changing the voting rules.

Eliza said...

lol posting in epic thread

This rather comes over as: 'you have said something with which I disagree; therefore I shall punish you.'

Seriously, though, what I rather think a-e was saying was "You don't actually know me, but you've just made a blanket generalization about me and my friends that I found awfully insulting. I hope you don't mind if I get just offended enough to remember your name and skip it next time I'm browsing the bookstore shelves - especially since you've given me express instructions to avoid you like the plague."

Which, you have to admit, is not an irrational reaction. I am perfectly free to make statements like "All the English professors I've met are wannabe-writer assholes who love to mainline their own kool-aid regarding the genius of their body of work and the general uncouthness of the public who stubbornly refuse to buy it. Come on, English professors, you're better than this - get your heads out of your own butts!"

At which point you're perfectly free to read it on the internet and, if I'm taking one of your classes, fail me - not just because I insulted you, but because the comment is patently unfair and bizarrely patronizing to an entire large group of which you count yourself a proud member, and obviously I am not benefiting from your efforts to educate me and need to go get a life.

But by all means, continue to insult and talk down to all your potential fans. I'm sure the next literary circlejerk you attend will agree that you've bolstered your street cred enough to take on all the other rappers^H^H^H^H writers. I'll bring popcorn.

Adam Roberts said...

Eliza, I'd ask you to believe me when I say: I would not fail you from one of my courses because you said disobliging things about me personally. That would be not only unprofessional but vindictive. I'd fail you if you failed to submit the required work, or if that work wasn't of passable standard.

hal said...

"Here's what I'd like. If it isn't going to inconvenience you, I'd be enormously grateful, when it comes to next year's shortlists, if you could remember to come up with shortlists of excellent, brilliant and genius things; not shortlists of mediocre things. Because if you do that, it will be saying: SF is brilliant, which IT IS, instead of saying, as you are this year, with occasional exceptions SF is mediocre."

Also, you'd like a pony.

Here's the problem, Mr. Roberts:

With occasional exceptions, everything is mediocre, regardless of genre. Including, alas, shortlists.

Is SF literature and art perpetually stuck in 1966? Perhaps, but that's more up-to-date than the broader world of "high" literature and art, which is perpetually stuck in 1922.

"(T)he thing is that all your 2009 shortlists are like this: one or perhaps two choices that are not embarrassing, thrown in with four or five choices that are wincingly bad."

Just like every other field of human endeavor, and just like every other shortlist.

Basically, this all reads as a plea to replace the mediocrities you don't personally like with mediocrities you do personally like. Whereupon we can all whinge and moan about a completely different set of mediocrities, and some other writer who feels they aren't getting enough attention will slag that Roberts guy for his horribly reactionary and conservative tastes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Adam Roberts said...

Hal: a pony would be nice. Oh, but wait, no ... where would I keep it?

"...slag that Roberts guy ..."

The very idea!

Kevin Standlee said...

Adam:

And -- dead seriously -- if I were administering the Hugo Awards (which I've done three times, most recently in 2002) and you got enough nominations to make the ballot, I certainly would not try to find a way to disqualify you. I don't do that, and neither do any of the other people who have administered the awards. We take pride in keeping the process as open and transparent as possible.

(I don't want to imply that you thought I might do such a thing, but it parallels what you said to Eliza.)

Adam Roberts said...

Kevin: I believe you, absolutely.

Eliza said...

I would not fail you from one of my courses because you said disobliging things about me personally. That would be not only unprofessional but vindictive.

Well, thanks for that, I guess. Perhaps my analogy wasn't very good; I am some years out of academia and still bitter.

How about this: you are researching your next big publication and you need a student to do some of the scutwork. The students in turn need paying work and academic cred. I am sure that you would be much less likely to select a student who wanted in on such work if you knew they were not-so-secretly posting mean things about you and your department on one of those professor-review sites.

Ripping on your readers makes them angry. Ripping on your readers like they're retarded children who don't know what they're supposed to like makes them even angrier. Presenting yourself as the arbiter of what is good after ripping on your readers like they're retarded children makes them angriest.

You've insulted a number of people who might, for their own mystical reasons, enjoy all levels of brow in their reading material. Acting like this is not possible, that anyone who nominates Little Brother or Graveyard Book must lack something in taste, period, is just being a dick, and I really hope that somewhere in your frustrated soul there is a glimmer of understanding that being a dick for no reason is not a positive trait that makes people want to make the effort to read your work or get to know you.

Anne KG Murphy said...

You know, Eliza, I really think you're overstating things. This whole "why don't they make the Hugo Awards list MEAN something!" saw is sufficiently old that I don't expect many sf readers would get very angry at these comments from Adam. Those who think he's off base will pretty much go "oh, another unoriginal guy being a prick" and move on.

Others might say, well, he's saying what others have said before, and it's not entirely without merit, but meh. And move on. Yet others, obviously, have not read what's gone before and are merely thinking "oh thank ghod someone else noticed!" and bully for them.

I would very much like to hear, though, Adam -- what Pro Artists would you rather have seen on the ballot this year?

I noticed you kvetched about that but didn't suggest alternatives, as you did with the novels.

Ulrika O'Brien said...

If you do not have Hugo voting "privileges" it's because you have chosen not to have them. If you didn't buy a supporting membership in this year's worldcon, whose fault is that? Hugo nominators and voters are only an in-group insofar as people who are not in that pool already decide not to join it.

Adam Roberts said...

So: I have a dark, frustrated soul and I'm a dick. I'm still not failing you from my course.

That's not to say that I relinquish the right to disagree with you. Disagreement is good and healthy; dialectic even. For instance, I might not agree that somebody who expresses a view different to yours must necessarily be 'a dick'. As in: I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Or, in some quarters, apparently, well, not.

If I were ever to hire a research assistant (not something I've ever done) I would do it on their abilities to do the research, not on their personal opinions of me, or anything else.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

nice timing with the Nietche piece.

I have two questions and then I'm outta here. I have no desire to feed the traffic quest (though I do admire your willingness to embrace the 'any PR is good PR concept in both word and deed):

1. how much do you think having been on the Clarke shortlist but never the Hugos colours your position?

2. what does the presence of Anathem on the Clarke shortlist say about your position?
influence over your position do you think having been on the Clarke shortlist twice, but never the Hugos

bob said...

“Good fiction sets off a vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind.” John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

Scalzi has it, writers you like don't, simple as that.

Michael Grosberg said...

Others have already commented about literary awards and popular awards. I'd like to add another related factor: the nomination is done by having ~500 people each come up with 5 names. This creates a bias in favor of works that have been read by a large majority. It is nearly impossible for a single fan to read every notable SF novel in a year; there are just too many of them. We no longer have authors who are read by the entirety of fandom like we had in the 50's and 60's. Therefore, Even if a lot of very good but not highly popular works are submitted, they will not make it into the list.

shunn said...

Why are you a fan "without Hugo voting privileges"? True, one needs to buy a at least a supporting Worldcon membership to vote, but your phrasing makes it sound like something more dastardly is keeping you out.

Eric said...

1.
Michael's point is essential. The Hugo shortlist represents, by definition and for good or ill, the five best-marketed goodish novels of the year. Eeeevery now and then a risk-taker makes it big (House of Leaves) or an outlier is nominated, but the shortlist is always going to be populated chiefly by major releases -- and frankly, given the voter makeup, major U.S. releases -- which are of course rarely very experimental.

General awareness of the book is a necessary-but-not-quite sufficient condition for inclusion, and even something by a big name like Lavinia lacks the market penetration of Gaiman, Scalzi, Doctorow, and Stephenson. The body of potential Hugo nominees is always going to be very, very small; even if The Knife of Never Letting Go was objectively superior to every novel on the shortlist (and, you know, it was), its relatively limited exposure meant it simply never had a chance. The issue, insofar as there's an issue, is purely logistical.

All of that said, I like the shortlist well enough and am only really puzzled by Saturn's Children.


2.
It's fairly clear by now that the post was ill-conceived, but a massive percentage of the responses here and across the web are way, way, disproportionately venomous. A bit of poorly-expressed condescension isn't license for a vitriol shootenanny, and I think it takes a bit of willful misreading to understand the post as actually insulting.

Jp said...

My problem with the Hugos, touched upon here somewhat, is less to do with the quality of the book nominated (which is nebulous and in the eye of the beholder, though I personally generally agree with Adam's assessment) and more to do with their basis on the popularity of the author rather than the work itself. By that, I mean that it seems to me that for the past several years, the distinction between the works that are nominate and win and those which don't is primarily that the winners maintain a high community profile-- they are, essentially, the cool kids. Sure, sometimes, they produce quality work (Gaiman, despite the bashing in the crowd, is a personal favorite), but more often, it's generic and difficult to distinguish from the other generic fiction which doesn't go anywhere.

I would love to see a merits based award system that really looks for truly great books, but this just isn't it. I would love to see SF fandom be more focused on innovation and accomplishment than adherence to established formulas that simply stagnate the genre and drive readers away. But if the fandom really wants all their books to be Zoe's Tale, that's their personal preference and who am I to say they're wrong?

What I do feel comfortable saying is wrong is giving people awards because you like them, and not because you like their work. This is, after all, supposed to be about the work, isn't it? Writing awards shouldn't be something you campaign for, as I have seen folks do in recent years. When success is judged by criteria other than the writing, the writing is naturally going to suffer, as does the genre as a whole.

Jp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mewcastle said...

Posted the following on Joe Scalzi's blog. Only seems fair to post it here too:


# Matt on 22 Jul 2009 at 6:44 pm
Interesting comment thread. I’m an occasional SF reader rather than a die-hard fan, and an incidental passer-by on this blog rather than a regular, so sorry if the following is out of order here.
Read one book each of Adam Roberts’ and yours (JS’s)- both impulse buys (in book stores thinking ‘haven’t read any SF in a while’– both had interesting blurbs and engaging first few paragraphs).
I know this is inadequate sample size for drawing proper conclusions, but what the heck. This is the internet.
They were ‘Old Man’s War’ and ‘The Snow’. Both good books I reckon. ‘Old Man’s War’ was a fantastic rip-roaring yarn. Characters easy to identify with, some really nicely executed SF ideas- like the whole rejuvenation bit (though- as I imagine Adam Roberts would argue- nothing way-out radical or boundary-pushing), but fun, solid entertainment the whole way through. It felt like you were holding something back, though- not quite sure what- the military fireworks weren’t quite enough on their own. I know, maybe I should read the others in the sequence.
As for ‘The Snow’- completely captivated by the first half of the book. There’s a great description of the snow coming down- I was reading it on a hot, sunny beach and it still made me shiver. Atmospheric and haunting. Yet somehow, it all fell apart when it came to ‘explication time’ later on. At the start, it seemed like he was shooting for something a bit different and original… Unfortunately he missed, but it was interesting- though ultimately disappointing- reading him try.
Based on this limited exposure– if I was at an airport bookstand and needed something dependable to read on the flight, I would go for ‘Joe Scalzi’ again, without hesitation. If I had a quiet weekend at home, was overdue a SF fix, and had read some good reviews of the book in question, I might give ‘Adam Roberts’ another try. Impossible to say who is ‘best’, or more Hugo-worthy.
In short- you both write different stuff. Your attitudes seem to reflect the kind of stuff you write. I’d say you’re both capable of writing (or maybe have already written?) some really, really great science fiction. But you’ll be approaching it from different directions.
I think I’d prefer it if you SF authors just provided the source material for others to carry on this kind of debate- the most useful way you can respond is by writing the best fiction you possibly can. ‘SF fandom’ (and occasional SF readers) will take care of themselves.
Your published work is very much appreciated, by the way- and not just by those who identify themselves as part of a ‘SF scene’.
(And yes, I probably should have posted this comment on Adam Roberts’ blog, seeing as he started it… but maybe he’ll read this too)

# John Scalzi on 22 Jul 2009 at 6:48 pm
Well, you can always post it there, too.

Lynn said...

is an author successfully mimicking the voice of someone different from him really something to be celebrated? I'd have called it one of the basic necessities of decent writing.

Abigail: Haven't read Zoe's Tale, but as a generality I think successful mimicry is rare even in books that are rated a great deal better than decent.

Whether it's something to be celebrated probably depends on what sort of novel it is.

Adam Roberts said...

Eric: 'It's fairly clear by now that the post was ill-conceived.'

Ooh, I don't know.

Thank you, Mewcastle, for reposting your very interesting comment.

Roland said...

I have very little to add to the topic, both because I'm a Bulgarian and have no real knowledge of the Hugo Award process (though I should mention that in my country the Hugo is considered a very good proof of quality) and because I've read none of the books on the shortlist.

I have, however, some things I'd like to say:

1. Rich, I happen to agree with most of your opinions, and especially with your description of the arguing process with the physicist's example (it's an argument I've participated in quite a lot). I do not, however, agree with your assessment of the older Hugo winners. I consider many of them to be both amazing works of SF and literary masterpieces. Therefore I'd like to ask the question someone already asked - which works do you consider superior to those that have won the Hugo in previous years? For example Dune, Stand on Zanzibar, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang? I'm really interested in understanding what you consider good SF/literature. And I'm not being sarcastic.

2. Someone started the "everyone's taste is equal to everybody else's" rant, which I've always found intelectually insulting. No, tastes aren't equal. Some people are worse judges of art than others. It's a fact. Deal with it. There is something else I found very strange though. It seems those people are somehow offended by Adam's post. In what way does "the shortlist is comprised of mediocre works" is equal to "people who like those works obviously suck"? I mean, I am one of those guys who can like an abominably large range of books - from the veeeeery high-brow to the most ridiculous videogame-adaptation. And even though I prefer the former, I still think it's the healthiest mindset to agree that yes - some of the books people like (or even love) are crap. Yes, I too love some REALLY crappy books. That's not a comment on my intellect or of my tastes, it's a comment on their versatility. So, basically, my point is that if anyone feels offended by Adam's post, perhaps deep down they're not really certain of their own tastes. And if that is the case, it's a sad one.

3. Kevin, I really appreciate that you've chosen to actually DO something, and I'm certain you've done a lot (actually I have absolutely no basis for saying that, I'm just being polite). I've had a VERY bad experience, however, with people who think that "DO" and "SPEAK" are opposites and that the latter somehow deserves the scorn and contempt of the former. I know you're not saying that, but you are awfully quick to become aggressively sarcastic in a really infantile way, and I've often found that this sort of offensive is usually a cover for not wanting to actually SEE what the other side is saying. I don't mean to imply that it's the ONLY thing that you do, but you did do it quite a few times in this topic. What I mean to say is, people who SPEAK rather than DO have their place in The Big Plan. SPEAKING is in point of fact DOING. It's just a different form of DOING, but still very much needed.

And yeah, I guess you knew that already.


I apologize for my English. I'm not used to expressing thoughts like these in this language...

Rich Puchalsky said...

Roland, I'll try to answer in part, but it's a long subject, and a complete answer wouldn't fit here.

SF has the self-image that it is "the literature of ideas" -- that what is primarily important for an SF book is the idea, not the writing quality. I think that's a mistake, or at least incomplete. Every subgenre of writing has its particular focus, *plus* -- if the work is to last -- the necessity that the writing be of literary quality. A psychological novel must show psychological insight, *and* it must be well written. A political novel must have something to say about an important political issue, *and* it must strive for literary expression. And so on.

The problem with works like (to choose two of your examples) Dune, or Stand On Zanzibar, is that while their SF ideas may be well enough -- especially before they were imitated -- their writing is, really, pedestrian. I don't really have space here to discuss why I think this is so, but I think it's so.

Dune was published in 1965, which, wiki tells me (and wiki is amusingly over-developed on SF) was also the year that PKD's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch came out. Which, in literary terms, is a much better book. The disjointedness of the prose and plot reinforces the disjointedness of the world that PKD is depicting. Of course, not everyone agrees about PKD -- there are arguments between critics about whether his sentences are an inspired fitting of form to theme, or just clumsy and hasty -- but there are always arguments about literary works, and PKD's works are agreed to be literary.

Stand On Zanzibar has what might qualify as a more experimental form, for SF, but Brunner took it from Dos Passos works published in the 1930s. It was really no longer new, in the wider community. 1968 was also the year that Aldiss' Report on Probability A came out. Now, if you're talking about experimental fiction, about the new -- that book is amazing. Is it anywhere near as amusing as Brunner's? No, nor does it take on current political issues as he did. But in terms of what it does, it's amazing; it's an "anti-novel". I really don't have time to describe it here, though I've written about it on my blog. It may or may not be a successful experiment, but I think that it retains more interest now, for a literary reader, than Brunner's work does.

Roland said...

Thank you for the answer. I completely agree with your first paragraph (part of the reason why I can't stand "hard SF" and "military SF"). And even though I don't agree with the Dune/TTSPE comparison (I think you'd agree that no matter which book you prefer however, it's still a "fight" between two extraordinary works) and I haven't read Aldiss' novel, I appreciate your post. I really enjoy finding someone with my mindset when it comes to writing quality. it doesn't happen often.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I could see someone making a case for Dune, or for Stand On Zanzibar. And, you know, we'd argue about it. But that's far, far different from the rejection of literary values in favor of "I don't care about literature, but I know what I like."

I'd make a case for literary hard SF -- Stanislaw Lem. I think that Solaris was really extraordinary. On the SF level, it was the first SF book I'd read that struck me as being about what science was actually about. And on the literary level, its immense coldness -- Lem's evident distaste for emotion, sexuality, even character -- freezes the narrative in its chilliness even as Lem uses these elements as the ostensible driver of the action. You're left really encountering the mystery of a a non-human, off-scale sentience, because so much of that has seeped into the writing itself.

Jonathan M said...

I think a real problem with contemporary SF is that its formal vocabulary has become incredibly impoverished.

Within that context Zanzibar does actually stand out as something markedly different. In fact, I attended an SF critical masterclass where its formal characteristics were mentioned as particular strengths.

Part of the problem is publisher timidity but I also think that SF critics do not engage sufficiently with the quality of writing.

Adam had a great post the other week about how most SF critics tend to fall into one of a couple of theoretical schools without really thinking about it and I think that "what it is we do when we write about science fiction" (in the non-academic realm at least) is partly a question of doing what everyone else does. And what other people tend to do is focus upon plot consistency and characterisation with the ideas also getting a bit of a look in at times too. The only time writing gets much of a look in is if it is really laughably bad (and even then the focus is on poor syntax and funny word choices).

Wally said...

I think a real problem with contemporary SF is that its formal vocabulary has become incredibly impoverished.

I think a real problem with this thread is that you fucking nerd assholes can't stick to the subject at hand and feel it necessary to bag on the wonderful city of San Francisco, the most beautiful place in the whole universe. You fascist goddamn nerd assholes!

PLEASE TRY AND FOCUS FOR GOD'S SAKE

(Oh, and: it seems to me that fandom is exclusive; that's part of its purpose and its appeal. Secondhand family and so forth. Fan-driven shortlists and other 'look at our neat club!' texts will always fit uncomfortably into an outreach-driven agenda, which seems to be one of Adam's goals/ideals. The Oscars are dumb for this same reason - they reward well-publicized mediocrities that make movie-biz types feel good about their jobs, and poorly represent the industry's intermittent art-making work. Outreach is its own task, separate from mutual back-slapping. And a fandom as socially...limited as (institutional/hardcore) SF fandom will be even less likely to take up outreach in any serious way than Hollywood extroverts. etc., etc., etc.)

(But this was an excellent post, Adam.)

Noah said...

That would be a bad thing, would it?

Well, Mr. Roberts, since there is no way to prove that one book is of objectively higher quality than another, the opinion of a well-read educated academic in a literature dept. on matters of literary quality is just as valid as the opinion of a twelve-year-old geek.

The Wise Men of Literature, IMHO, should spend their time opening fans' minds to new ways of understanding and appreciating literature...instead of just saying "Yr favrit stuf sux, my favrit stuf RULZ, and I'm Right because I'm better educated than you"...

I hereby outsource the rest of my commentary to John Scalzi.

Ruadh said...

Adam,
Thank you for not being indifferent!
As a fan for many years, I also consider Hugo as my award and try to vote every year. This year I also thought about voting until the last moment. And decided not to, becuse the nominations were not the year's best works.
Beside that, I always tend to vote corruptedly, for European (British) authors first of all, since most of interesting developments in sf&f during the last decade come from the UK.
Thank you for trying to pull sf&f out of the morass of mediocrity. One person will not be able to do accomplish that, but fandom, or at least the most active part of fandom can. You started that -- I am with you in your noble initiative.

Olexandr Vasylkivsky
Kiev, Ukraine
ruadh@ukr.net

Kevin Standlee said...

Ruadh:

And decided not to, becuse the nominations were not the year's best works.

If you really felt that way, you also had an outlet: vote for None of the Above. Indeed, if the nominees were that bad, you should have been campaigning for other people to vote for NOTA. This is not academic. Although it doesn't happen often, NOTA has won several times, indicating that the electorate didn't like any of the nominees.

Steve Cooper said...

Rich Puchalsky said..

"The entire literary readership can pick up a Niven book and see that it's pleasant enough junk. It's a matter of writing quality, technique, ambition, brilliance that goes into the medium rather than the top-level ideas expressed in the medium."

Surely this misses the point of SF it is a literature of ideas and not of prose. Yes if I find a well written SF book it can make the reading of that book a more enjoyable experience, but only if the ideas at its heart move me.

An extremely well written book without a great core idea, may be a great piece of literature, but it is not a great piece of SF. It is the idea and the exploration of that idea that make for a great SF novel. It will be a better read if it is written well, but not been a literary masterpiece does not bar it from being an SF masterpiece.

The Hugos are an award for great SF, and not for great literature. The winners may be both, but the awards are there to guide people to find great SF first and foremost.

syrion said...

Gene Wolfe has never won a Hugo.

What does that say about the award?

Robert said...

praise allah, I thought I was the only person who felt that way about Anathem

Roland said...

Gene Wolfe has never won a Hugo.

What does that say about the award?


Many things, none of them - good.


I don't agree that good SF doesn't need to be good literature. True, great ideas can compensate to a degree the lack of literary quality. But only to a degree. A book is ALWAYS better when it's well written and SF is not some strange aberration of literature for which literature's rules do not apply. If style wasn't important, SF-ideas' place would be in science articles, wouldn't it?

redrichie said...

I feel that you've been picked up wrongly by a lot of people, Adam? I missed all this, having been on me hols, but was interested to come across your piece on another blog today.

It seems to me to be fair to complain that the Hugos have a surfeit of "less than great" novels in them, but I don't think you are saying they are irredemebly awful?

The reaction from some quarters seems to be fuelled more by a sort of "zOMG!!!!11 Cory Doctorow (say) is the BEST author EVVAAARRRRR!!!!111 How DARE you insult him!?!?" than any real consideration of the issue that you are raising. Taking "Little Brother" (and the rest I have read of Cory) as an example, it is hard to disagree that it is fairly flat and can hardly make any claims to greatness. For my money (and I'm sure he's a lovely bloke - hell, I frequent BoingBoing and agree with...um...much of what he says) he has a tendency in his fiction to, aside from any other stylistic defects, alienate me (even when I agree with him) by making everything so black and white. Also, was I the only one that thought that the narrator was a ghastly little prick? Not to say that one should always like or identify with characters in fiction, but in this case he was just a noisome little squit who raised the hackles and bile of the contrarian in me. This is where Cory falls for me as a novelist; there's far too much clumsy proselytising from him which I find distracting. And I feel bad about picking on Cory here, as I think he seems like a nice chap overall and I tend to agree with much of what he has to say. Interestingly, though, someone (you?) mention 1984 as an example of something that is eminently readable by yr "YA" demographic (like them/you I first read it in my younger teenage years and re-read it every year for a good number of years). Latterly, I have come to think that Orwell wasn't necessarily the greatest writer ever and that it would perhaps have had a greater impact on someone reading a samizdat edition behind the iron curtain (and it ceratinly wasn't original) but, in spite of Orwell's own deficiencies as a writer, (and he had them) 1984 deserves to be remembered; whereas I'm not sure that Little Brother will stand up quite so well. There's far too much yaboosucks in it and it is too rooted in the here and now to retain any significance into the future beyond describing said here and now. Not to say that other SF isn't writing about the present - of course it is - but LB does it too clumsily for my palate.

Anyway - back to the point I was going to make and away from unfair and unjustified on popular novelists!

Is the Hugo, as a reader nominated award, any different from any other reader nominated award in the books that end up winning? Surely if one took a selection of 900 readers from, say, crime or romantic fiction fandom the stuff that ended up winning wouldn't necessarily be the best representatives of the genre but I bet that they wouldn't worry about it as much as we do in SF?

I think that this all comes back to the inability of many to take SF seriously as an artform and the inferiority complex we, as fans, feel. I've stopped bothering to engage in that discourse, because those that criticise it tend to do so out of hand. And I can't take that seriously. Especially when you then get in to arguments about whether JG Ballard wrote SF or not or if 1984 or Brave New World are SF (they are and not even the best examples of the genre). Or more irritatingly when a revered author (who I can't now be bothered reading) such as Philip Roth complained that there was no literary inspiration for an alternate history novel. Urgh.

My point being - why bother getting wound up about it? You'll struggle hard to convince many people, even supposedly well-read and intellectually curious types, that there is anything of value in SF. This is a shame, the very best SF is unquestionably as good as anything mainstream "literature" throws up.


Anyway...enough of this semi-coherent rambling! Thanks again for the interesting post!

Richard

redrichie said...

Oops!, that should've been "from unfair and unjustified ATTACKS on popular novelists!" of course.

tad said...

Adam: I'm coming 2 this VERY late, but I Njoyed very much yr long post on this yr's Hugo nominees & generally I agree w/ U.
I've bn wondering what's bn going on w/ the Hugos ever since HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE won 1 -- not that I've got NEthing against Harry, I've tried 2 read him but I can't. But I wondered why SF's biggest award went 2 what was so obviously a YoungAdult novel. SF had no better books 4 grown-ups that yr?
There's always room 4 good Ntertainment, but I thot SF was ABOUT complexity & mind-Xpanding concepts & challenges, not about recycling the same themes & approaches over & over.
I have no complaints about the books on this yr's ballot -- haven't read NE of 'em -- but ANATHEM's the only 1 that sounds challenging, & the only 1 I'd consider reading -- 2 bad I'm about 10 yrs past the point where I'd likely make it thru a REALLY LONG book. Got thru Stephenson's SNOW CRASH, but couldn't get in2 his CRYPTONOMICON....
It's pointless arguing matters of taste, but I DO think a lotta Xcitement's gone outta SF. Tho hardcore SF readers lightened-up & got brave during the New Wave days & again during the Cyberpunk era, the resta the time they've bn a pretty conservative bunch. I admit I don't follow the field as rabidly as I used 2, but I miss the days of books like DYING INSIDE, STAND ON ZANZIBAR, DOWNWARD TO THE EARTH, MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, THE SHEEP LOOK UP, DUNE, NEthing by Roger Zelazny or early Samuel R. Delany, or even later stuff like NEUROMANCER, HEAVY WEATHER, THEM BONES, DESOLATION ROAD.... I don't C much in the field these days that intrests me as much as those books did.
On Gene Wolfe: 4 all his talent, I don't think he's ever Xpressed himself very clearly. I got thru SHADOW OF THE TORTURER & Njoyed his Dscriptions & images, but I bogged-down 1/2way thru CLAW OF THE CONCILIATOR. I tried him again w/ SOLDIER OF ARETE, which Cmd at 1st 2 B a lot clearer, but then it Bcame obvious he was playing his old subtle tricks again, & I gave up. His short stories don't work either, Xcept mayB 4 "Seven American Nights." This is probly gonna sound weird coming from some1 w/ my typographical issues, but I value clear communication....
-- TAD.

Jan Vaněk jr. said...

Coming to the party too late, as usual, but thanks for the post and much of the discussion.

With all respect to Rich Puchalsky, I really think that the Hugo shortlist has been relevant/representative for much of its history (which of course isn't the same thing as one's favourite winning, if there's any need of saying this out loud). It was sad to see Nebula losing the literary distinction around 1990; it's certainly disquieting when Hugo teeters on the edge lately (I named some recent winners I consider outrageous, but decided not to get bogged in controversial details) as well.

P. S.: BTW/FYI/FWIW, I indeed read a samizdat of Orwell at 13 shortly after the Communism fell; I was much impressed, but don't rate his SF among the top of the genre OR the form of the novel - and I find the relevant bit of Adam Roberts's argument unpersuasive.

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antispam01 said...

Tad said:
“Adam: I'm coming 2 this VERY late, but I Njoyed very much yr long post on this yr's Hugo nominees & generally I agree w/ U.
I've bn wondering what's bn going on w/ the Hugos ever since HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE won 1 -- not that I've got NEthing against Harry, I've tried 2 read him but I can't. But I wondered why SF's biggest award went 2 what was so obviously a YoungAdult novel. SF had no better books 4 grown-ups that yr?
There's always room 4 good Ntertainment, but I thot SF was ABOUT complexity & mind-Xpanding concepts & challenges, not about recycling the same themes & approaches over & over.
I have no complaints about the books on this yr's ballot -- haven't read NE of 'em -- but ANATHEM's the only 1 that sounds challenging, & the only 1 I'd consider reading -- 2 bad I'm about 10 yrs past the point where I'd likely make it thru a REALLY LONG book. Got thru Stephenson's SNOW CRASH, but couldn't get in2 his CRYPTONOMICON....
It's pointless arguing matters of taste, but I DO think a lotta Xcitement's gone outta SF. Tho hardcore SF readers lightened-up & got brave during the New Wave days & again during the Cyberpunk era, the resta the time they've bn a pretty conservative bunch. I admit I don't follow the field as rabidly as I used 2, but I miss the days of books like DYING INSIDE, STAND ON ZANZIBAR, DOWNWARD TO THE EARTH, MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, THE SHEEP LOOK UP, DUNE, NEthing by Roger Zelazny or early Samuel R. Delany, or even later stuff like NEUROMANCER, HEAVY WEATHER, THEM BONES, DESOLATION ROAD.... I don't C much in the field these days that intrests me as much as those books did.
On Gene Wolfe: 4 all his talent, I don't think he's ever Xpressed himself very clearly. I got thru SHADOW OF THE TORTURER & Njoyed his Dscriptions & images, but I bogged-down 1/2way thru CLAW OF THE CONCILIATOR. I tried him again w/ SOLDIER OF ARETE, which Cmd at 1st 2 B a lot clearer, but then it Bcame obvious he was playing his old subtle tricks again, & I gave up. His short stories don't work either, Xcept mayB 4 "Seven American Nights." This is probly gonna sound weird coming from some1 w/ my typographical issues, but I value clear communication....”

Really? May I suggest a course in how to write coherently? I am not surprised you couldn’t finish any of the more challenging novels on your barely legible list considering your complete lack of grammar, spelling and communication skills.

Curtis said...

Wow,
To live and be schooled by a progressive who asks why fandom votes for comfortable books that they enjoyed reading and wonders why adults don't get to vote for the jagged, edgy, progressive, genuine new and daring works of SF is a rare joy for me. Hardly ever happens!
Me, I'm rather glad that I can still buy books that appeal to me since that is no longer the case in TV or at the movies where it seems that trendy, edgy, jagged, progressive crap purely dominates the medium.
Euro SF is mostly crap and not worth the reading. Been that way since I was in elementary school.
Gaiman writes good stuff. Anathem sucked but I tried it because Stephenson has written so many other books I greatly enjoyed reading.

Tolstoy wrote the most turgid prose imaginable and I cannot believe that anybody who enjoys reading SF can read his stuff. The best thing I ever heard describing his work was, "800 pages of nothing but a dog barking and somebody's aunt dying. Try "Fire on the Steppe. That was excellent.

antispam01 said...

Curtis said:
Euro SF is mostly crap and not worth the reading. Been that way since I was in elementary school.
Gaiman writes good stuff.

You do realize that Gaiman is British, don't you?

Curtis said...

Your point is????

British isn't European.

Kevin Standlee said...

Curtis:

Don't be silly. Britain is part of Europe, just as Hawaii is part of the USA. Are you going to claim that Vancouver Island isn't part of North America next?

Curtis said...

Kevin,
It's an old fashioned term that you may have missed. For generations the British did not believe that they were "Europeans".

Kevin Standlee said...

Curtis:

I'm aware of it. They were wrong. You might as well say that California isn't part of America. I'm aware that there are many Americans who might wish California wasn't part of America, but wishing doesn't make it so.

Cassandra said...

Adam, you are right on.

The Hugos have been eroded by crass commercialism. Authors campaign for the award and the quality of entries has suffered. Gaiman in particular represents this aspect. Gaiman's novels are immature which I suspect is because he has been a Scientologist since birth which is like being home schooled. I don't think the guy has much to say to anyone deeper than a fucked up teen goth. His observations of life are childish. Gaiman has also made a study of throwing together a manuscript with the least amount of effort or thought, every novel reads as if he can't be bothered to do a rewrite, they are disappointing with lame plots and forgettable characters. At this point I just find them annoying.

A great book is philosophically challenging, illuminates aspects of your self and others that you didn't see before and sometimes even shapes your thoughts and therefore your destiny. Then there are bad books, they dress up the cover, do something slightly entertaining or rip off someone else like Gaiman ripped off Dean Koontz (Odd Thomas) of all people and Rudyard Kipling, then promote the shit out of it and hope no one notices how shabby and thoughtless the essence of the work really is.

The Graveyard Book is of the later variety, a twee idea that is in the end, empty and how it won a hugo is beyond me.

The fact that we can look back and see great books like PKDs winning, shows just how anemic the list is now.

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HMS Defiant said...

I'm reviewing my guts at this moment but what I find most unpleasant about the genre is the difference. I buy the books and go there. Go there doesn't mean I'm quaffing the art of the artist. I never liked Gibson or Cory or the other posers. My little sister writes better books than those losers. I do like Weber and Ringo and Gaiman and Pratchett and a thousand others who know how to write interesting stuff but the edgy guys.....not so much.

HMS Defiant said...

Oh, Anathem. I don't know if it sucks totally because I could not read the thing past page 100. One really needs drugs to struggle to be that boring.

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Les Hugo ne sont pas un prix littéraire, ils sont une récompense pour la littérature que les gens apprécient. C'est une distinction subtile, mais qui donne généralement une liste de livres qui sont "fun lit." Il ya beaucoup de prix littéraires là-bas. acheter kamagra

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This is not new; it is the normal difference between awards that are popular votes and awards that are juried. You're essentially saying 'Dear Hugos, you'd be better if you were a juried award'. And that may be true, but seems irrelevant to me.
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