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June 17, 2008 / Jake Seliger

Literature and science fiction redux, with taste as a bonus

Science Fiction, literature, and the haters spawned great comments and e-mails, including responses from both the agents I referenced. The one who gave a minimum word count said that the agency he and a partner founded is relatively new, and the advice regarding word count and sequels comes from editors, and until they have more experience, they’re hewing to those guidelines. The other agent said that calling Pearle Transit “too literary” was a poor choice of words and that, although he admired aspects of it, the novel didn’t get him excited. Both replies, in other words, were reasonable and show that the agents care. Other would-be authors might want to take note: rejection is rarely as personal as it might seem. In addition, I’m reminded of this passage from Orwell, who discussed the problems with book reviewing:

[...] the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in [the reviewer] the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless, and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every care the only truthful review he could write would be: “This book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.”

Most agents probably feel like that about most books. I just wrote a post expressing how Doctor Faustus roused nothing it me, though I perceive its technical merits. The latter can’t even be said of A Confederacy of Dunces, though it’s widely admired.

In other reactions, several people, including Big Dumb Object and agent Colleen Lindsay, pointed out the Clarke Awards shortlists. Thanks for the tip, and I’ll be reading some of them, although 2008 winner Richard Morgan’s first book, Altered Carbon, embodied some of the negative qualities discussed in my post. Still, very few authors write first books that are their best, and Thirteen is in my queue. I also noticed that Cryptonomicon was on the shortlist for 2000, but it’s not really science fiction.

One other thing I noted was the absence of any correspondents who said, “This is a great book that deserves a spot in the literary pantheon.” Likewise, I’d hoped for citations or links to essays that get deep inside great books. Where is the James Wood (see here too) of science fiction? Perhaps he already exists in Stanislaw Lem—his book Microworlds should arrive soon—but if the genre has as much material as some of the commenters and e-mailers say, it should also have its great critics. To paraphrase Saul Bellow without his racial connotations, I’d love to read them.

One commenter went in the opposite direction and said: “The reason as I see it that almost all science fiction writing falls short of literary merit is that its audience wants it that way.” I’m not convinced: although I pointed out a general trend toward the lack of literary merit in science fiction, it’s a law, and if it is, I’m wary of making correlation into causation. Furthermore, plenty of bad literary fiction exists, just like bad science fiction—but the literary canon pushes the upper bounds of knowledge and language in ways and volumes that science fiction hasn’t, at least to my knowledge so far. That’s in part why I’m writing these posts: it’s a process of searching, and I’m trying not to assume the very opinions I’m asking about it.

A few correspondents wrote that I had no idea what I was talking about and, implicitly, that there is no such thing as literary merit. I suppose both are possible, but they seem highly improbable; stating that there is an element of opinion in every artistic judgment is not the same as believing that every opinion is the same, and I also referred those writers to the “big three” books I’d mentioned about art and writing, which are the best reflections on what makes great literature and what makes great literature great I’ve found. Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel belongs there too. Alas, there is no short checklist that can be easily explained, and so the stack of reading necessary to really enter this conversation is intimidatingly high, and many of the accusers do not appear to have done it; such correspondents might not see the river because they’re in a valley and don’t have the fortitude to climb the mountain. Granted, at the top of the mountain they might look in the opposite direction I do, in which case I’d like to hear their opinions. Along these “everything is relative” lines, I once argued to a professor that Shakespeare and Joyce were way overrated and only read for historical reasons and because other people had read them.

Oh, how I want to take that back.

In Richard Feynman’s hilarious Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he writes about his lessons in art and his visit to the Sistine Chapel, when he recognizes the masterpieces and the lesser works without a guide:

This was a terrific excitement to me, that I also could tell the difference between a beautiful work of art and one that’s not, without being able to define it. As a scientist you always think you know what you’re doing, so you tend to distrust the artist who says, “It’s great,” or “It’s no good,” and then is not able to explain why, as Jerry did with those drawings I took him. But here I was, sunk: I could do it too!*

To be sure, there is an element of opinion in virtually any form of art and criticism, and just as there is in some fields more scientific: in economics, should we value making the resource pie larger through public policy like lower tax rates and flatter tax rates, or should we try and distribute what we have more evenly? Nonetheless, some people simply know much more about the trade-offs involved, and by the same token, some know far more about books and literature than others. The closer you get to hard sciences that are describing rather than interpreting the world—math, physics, chemistry, and the like—the farther you get from pure opinion, but as soon as you reach the application phase, judgment calls arise again: what would be more useful to sell—product derived from X or from Y? What would be a more useful use of physicists during World War II: having them build mechanical calculators and the like, or having them work on the atomic bomb? Someone had to make those decisions, and they’re closer in some respects to artistic choices than to ones regarding proof and experimentation.

In art and literature, there aren’t experiments, but taste exists. Not everyone’s is the same but not everyone’s is equal, either. Mine is well-developed enough to have some opinions of at least some validity, I hope, and I’m looking for others who can say the same, and who know something of science fiction—hence my appreciation of those who pointed out the Clarke Awards and made other suggestions. If I read through the Clarke books and decide I’m wrong, you’ll probably hear about it in a year or two. Although I’m not a scientist, I do have interest in all intellectually honest fields and all intellectually honest practitioners in those fields, and so I turn again to Feynman, who described what he wants to instill in Caltech grads and what they should inculcate in themselves: “It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.” Literary critics should hold themselves to the same standards, and I strive to. How well I succeed I will leave to others to argue.


* Although I quote poetry sometimes, I almost never analyze it here because I’m like the person without a real sense of what great visual art is: not having read widely and deeply enough in poetry to have developed my sense for what makes it bad, mediocre, good, and great poetry, I’m mostly silent, though appreciative.


EDIT: Added Feynman quote to the last paragraph.

8 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Niall / Jun 18 2008 3:54 am

    Still, very few authors write first books that are their best, and Thirteen is in my queue.

    While I think Black Man is an excellent novel, I suspect the previous two winners — M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing and Geoff Ryman’s Air — would be more to your taste. You may also want to try Ian McDonald’s work, particularly River of Gods.

    Where is the James Wood (see here too) of science fiction?

    His name is John Clute, and he writes a monthly column at Sci-Fi Weekly (eg). You may also wish to look for books and reviews by Gary K. Wolfe (eg), Adam Roberts (eg) and Graham Sleight (eg), or for a historical perspective Joanna Russ and William Atheling Jr.

  2. downtodakota / Jun 19 2008 12:43 pm

    Really enjoyed your articles. I would classify my work as science fiction, and though I have a long way to go before I can consider my work of real literary merit, it’s good to think that, perhaps, such a label is achievable within the realm of sci-fi. That is, if “literary” is what the science fiction author is striving for.

  3. Anonymous / Jun 25 2008 1:42 pm

    A very candid, yet informative blog!

  4. MiGrant / Aug 5 2008 10:00 pm

    May I nominate Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun as “a great book that deserves a spot in the literary pantheon”? I think one of the commenters on your earlier SF post did mention it, so, well, it’s always nice to have one’s taste corroborated. :-)

  5. CrucibleofWords / Sep 25 2012 1:58 am

    Hi, sorry if this is gravedigging, but I just felt that I needed to express my opinion on these two very thoughtful articles, as they’ve stirred some thoughts of my own about the topic. That and I’m new to the blogsphere, so I feel I can make faux pas and then claim “I didn’t know”. Apologies if that is the case.

    The first point I noticed is that you never define “literary merit” in these posts, and nor does anyone you cite. It might be easier to find sci-fi/fantasy that has it if we have some goalposts. Although I appreciate that this is a tricksy beast, I’d imagine it has something to do with full characterisations, lush descriptions and flowing phrases.

    None of which your typical sci-fi novel has, because they’re working on an entirely different enterprise, that of creating a world for the reader. While I’ve heard it said that every author is worldbuilding to an extent, sci-fi/fantasy authors have to do it much more, and more explicitly, than authors of other genres. This almost always leads to clunky expository dialogue or prose, which it’s hard to make flow well unless you do have lots of words to play with. Tolkien, Howard and Pullman are (possibly thanks to your articles…) the only authors I can think of that do this smoothly, but they had multiple books with which to do this, and Pullman has his moments where the exposition is given in chunks, like Lord Asriel’s lecture in the first chapter of Northern Lights. It’s a well-written expository chunk, but it’s still an expository chunk. This limits the freedom of the author to play with modes of expression and characterisation, limiting the potential for literary merit.

    The next point is characterisation. Sci-fi/fantasy authors need to characterise a world as well as characters, and I’ve heard it said that these authors (in this particular case China Mieville) love their ideas more than their characters. There are so many things to describe and explain in fantasy/sci-fi that characters often get short shrift. This may explain the 100,000-word lower limit in your first post; that many words ensures that the author has to at least pay some attention to the characters. But such characters tend to become mere vehicles for either the morality concepts the author wants to play with, or a way to explore the world (Lyra is guilty of being both of these, I feel). Real-world literature can, if it likes, devote almost its entire being to characterisation, resulting in richer characters.This is really observable in the case of Watchmen, which has literary pretensions and structure, and focuses hugely on fleshing out the characters as part of the plot, with only incidental sci-fi features and exposition.

    Part of me wonders if this is what makes literary merit, creating characters that readers and critics can identify with, and whether this is a sham, much like many “oscar fodder” films (e.g The King’s Speech,The Iron Lady, Charlie Wilson’s War) are made explicitly to appeal to the “judge” demographic. But that could just be me lashing out against attacks on a genre I enjoy.

    Loved the thoughts, and will be following from now on!

  6. CrucibleofWords / Sep 25 2012 2:03 am

    Reblogged this on Method in the Mythos and commented:
    This is the second part of a fairly old but fantastic analysis of why so few science fiction and fantasy novels are considered “of literary merit”. I’ve commented, and I’ll regurgitate that comment here:

    The first point I noticed is that you never define “literary merit” in these posts, and nor does anyone you cite. It might be easier to find sci-fi/fantasy that has it if we have some goalposts. Although I appreciate that this is a tricksy beast, I’d imagine it has something to do with full characterisations, lush descriptions and flowing phrases.

    None of which your typical sci-fi novel has, because they’re working on an entirely different enterprise, that of creating a world for the reader. While I’ve heard it said that every author is worldbuilding to an extent, sci-fi/fantasy authors have to do it much more, and more explicitly, than authors of other genres. This almost always leads to clunky expository dialogue or prose, which it’s hard to make flow well unless you do have lots of words to play with. Tolkien, Howard and Pullman are (possibly thanks to your articles…) the only authors I can think of that do this smoothly, but they had multiple books with which to do this, and Pullman has his moments where the exposition is given in chunks, like Lord Asriel’s lecture in the first chapter of Northern Lights. It’s a well-written expository chunk, but it’s still an expository chunk. This limits the freedom of the author to play with modes of expression and characterisation, limiting the potential for literary merit.

    The next point is characterisation. Sci-fi/fantasy authors need to characterise a world as well as characters, and I’ve heard it said that these authors (in this particular case China Mieville) love their ideas more than their characters. There are so many things to describe and explain in fantasy/sci-fi that characters often get short shrift. This may explain the 100,000-word lower limit in your first post; that many words ensures that the author has to at least pay some attention to the characters. But such characters tend to become mere vehicles for either the morality concepts the author wants to play with, or a way to explore the world (Lyra is guilty of being both of these, I feel). Real-world literature can, if it likes, devote almost its entire being to characterisation, resulting in richer characters.This is really observable in the case of Watchmen, which has literary pretensions and structure, and focuses hugely on fleshing out the characters as part of the plot, with only incidental sci-fi features and exposition.

    Part of me wonders if this is what makes literary merit, creating characters that readers and critics can identify with, and whether this is a sham, much like many “oscar fodder” films (e.g The King’s Speech,The Iron Lady, Charlie Wilson’s War) are made explicitly to appeal to the “judge” demographic. But that could just be me lashing out against attacks on a genre I enjoy.

    In summary, I tend to think of sci-fi/fantasy as missing the “literary” label because they’re usually trying to do something different from literature. We’re less interested in the characters and more in the world, which shifts the focus of the writing endeavour. I’ve been inspired to write a short Mists of Albion piece that is an attempt to belie this, which should be up in a few days.

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