Everything Is Nice

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Inferiority Complex

with 15 comments

Yesterday Niall Alexander put forward a reasonable point of view:

But I’d go one further. Put what the consensus has deemed a “well-written” fantasy beside an acclaimed non-genre work, and I’d bet good money that the latter is of a significantly higher quality than the former. I mean technically… artistically… narratively – every which way, ultimately… I can see this being a divisive subject, but let’s not everyone lose our literary lunches at once.

Needless to say, everybody lost their lunch. I posted a comment in the thread in agreement but I think I was pretty much the only one. Usually, I would say that was a reason for me and Niall to re-examine our belief – and it is – but there is also something to the nature of a lot the responses which makes me think they aren’t engaging with him in good faith. Niall is a speculative fiction fan, he writes a speculative fiction blog, he prefaces this very post with a comment about who much of a fan he is; the comments, however, quickly assume the affronted defensiveness typical of the genre fan who feels they have been personally insulted.

Not all of them though. If we ignore Sam Sykes’s typically unhelpful pseudo-aphorism, Simon asks the key question: what do we mean by genre? The problem here is that fantasy can mean two things and I think this distinction gets lost later on in the thread. As a general mode of writing, the whole of literature can be split into the fantastic and the mimetic. However, as a genre, fantasy refers to something more specific. So yes, Jorge Luis Borges and Salman Rushdie write fantasy but no, it doesn’t make sense to consider them genre fantasy authors in the same way, say, Gene Wolfe or China Mieville are. It is true that this border is porous (and perhaps becoming more so) and that someone like Michael Chabon can have a foot in both camps but I still think it is clearly enough defined to be meaningful.

So Niall’s comparison is between genre fantasy and non-genre literary fiction (which will include non-genre fantastic fiction). Isn’t this an unfair comparison though? Putting your thumb on the scales? Another case of if it’s good then it’s not SF? No. If non-genre fantasy does tend to be better than genre fantasy then this gets right to the heart of what Niall is saying. The point of his post is not to cheerlead for non-genre literary fiction but to pose a question: could the fantasy genre raise its game? I think it could. There are brilliant examples of genre fantasy that certainly don’t – many of them listed in the comments – but these individual counter-examples don’t invalidate the argument. As Niall says: “But can a handful of truly worthwhile instances of speculative fiction be said to be representative of the genre entire?”

Mark Charan Newton raises a couple of related points. The first is that “mainstream literature doesn’t have to deal with heavy plot and weird worlds” and “secondary world writing is inherently restrictive”. This is an explanation for the gap so I don’t want to explore it further here but I will say that whilst it is an interesting idea I’m not sure I buy it. The second is that there is a question of perspective here: “mainstream fiction tends to get judged on the 10% good writers, whereas secondary world fiction is judged on the 90% of dross.” I’ve said before that people need to remember that Sturgeon’s Revelation isn’t a natural law and I think that applies here too. I don’t think what Mark is saying is true at all, I think people tend judge different types of fiction on the average example (the same way they judge most things). And I would say that the average example of genre fantasy is going to be worse than the average example of non-genre fiction; I think this would be true if I went into a bookshop and true if I applied it to my own bookshelves. (Someone raised the fact that, as a genre, fantasy is much than non-genre fiction. True enough but again, this is an explanation for the gap rather than a refutation.)

So, if the average non-genre book is better than average genre fantasy, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean you a fool for liking genre fantasy. It doesn’t mean you a fool for preferring genre fantasy to non-genre literary fiction. It isn’t about you at all. It just means that perhaps there is a conversation to be had about pushing the genre forward. If you want more, you have to stand up and shout for it.

The problem seems to be that a lot of fans want it both ways. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve been told that I’m over-thinking a genre book or a critical approach is too deep or inappropriate or pretentious. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen other people told the same. Equally, as Eric M Edwards say:

Very often I hear the argument that readers of genre novels are often “just wanting to be entertained” not challenged by what they find between the covers. Summer reads, after work books, familiar formulas and series, something to while away the time on a long train journey. In other words, these readers and there are many it seems, look first for uncomplicated stories told plainly and quickly. They are then, in the market for light reading. Unsurprising then, if much of what is produced is exactly this sort of book.

Yet when people point out this unsurprising fact there is uproar. I’m reminded of the recent spat between Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult and the New York Times. Why is it covering Jonathan Frazen and not them? Well, here’s why:

While Weiner admits she is not a literary fiction novelist and while Picoult argues that the themes of her work and Franzen’s, for example, are the same, even if she is a “commercial” writer and he’s not, both writers feel unduly dissed that critics don’t seem to take them as seriously as they do Franzen. Yet neither of them see the disconnect.

Many people fail to see that disconnect. If you don’t have high expectations for your own work, you can’t complain if others don’t either. And if you don’t have high expectations for what you read, you can’t complain if others do.

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Written by Martin

27 August 2010 at 07:30

Posted in criticism, genre wars, sf

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15 Responses

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  1. It doesn’t seem surprising that an mainstream book will be better than an acclaimed fantasy book when judged by the standards of mainstream books. But one might equally say something along the lines of “Put what the consensus has deemed a ‘well-written’ fantasy beside an acclaimed non-genre work, and I’d bet good money that the former is of a significantly higher quality than the former. I mean in terms of world-building, sense of wonder, …”

    But then I don’t read fantasy so I don’t even know what the criteria might be!

    Rich

    27 August 2010 at 07:40

  2. I don’t think that his post was in any way unreasonable. I think that he’s right to suggest that genre can raise its game. I like to read excellent fiction, be it “literary” or genre.

    That said, I will freely admit that I like (and, indeed) love a lot of genre stuff that is unquestionably sub-par, because it pushes the right buttons.

    I think the opprobrium heaped on Niall may have been because of a siege mentality within genre. That’s to say that, outside of some grumblings, most genre fans won’t bother if a literary reviewer ignores or even sticks their neck out and criticises their chosen reading material. However, when one that they consider their own sticks their head above that parapet, they feel more threatened.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how it reads to me.

    (When I say “criticises” I mean in the sense of questioning it – and as Niall and you suggest, wanting it to be all it can be).

    Cheers,

    Richard

    Richard

    27 August 2010 at 10:51

  3. Nice summation, Martin.

    Thank you for the mention as well. I have difficulty condensing my arguments into something concise and manageable, but I do try hard to give the whole discussion its fair due. This is partly why I’d much rather write books than discuss them.

    One last word, though: why do they have to be the same thing?

    I still feel that the bulk of fantasy fulfills a slightly different mission statement than much of the literary fare we’re talking about here. And I’m alright with that, even though I’d like to see more quality speculative fiction. Of course I would, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some differences typically to be found between them aside from the quality of their writing.

    The influence of general market forces, the origins of the genre, preconceptions (mistaken or otherwise) among just about everyone involved, and the inescapable presence in the room of talking wolves (though you could certainly counter this by citing books like Animal Farm and the Life of Pi) could all be culprits in this separation.

    I love literary fantasy, it’s my favourite kind and close to being my favourte sort of literature full stop. Yet, even I often look judge a work of fantasy by different standards than I might a new book by Umberto Eco, and despite the fact that they might very well contain similar themes.

    In the end I don’t have ready answers for this, but I do think that getting offended about it, on either side of the debate, doesn’t help to find them.

    Best wishes,

    Eric

    E. M. Edwards

    27 August 2010 at 10:55

  4. One last word, though: why do they have to be the same thing?

    They don’t but nor should they be entirely estranged. Rich says: “It doesn’t seem surprising that an mainstream book will be better than an acclaimed fantasy book when judged by the standards of mainstream books.” Well, I consider a fantasy novel to be a novel first and a fantasy second. I don’t see genre fantasy and non-genre literary fiction as operating against two entirely seperate sets of artistic criteria; rather there are somethings that all novels should do and there are also specific things that specific types of novels should do. It seems to me that a lot of readers and writers of genre fantasy consider it fantasy first and only a novel second which I think is what leads to the quality gap.

    Martin

    27 August 2010 at 11:08

  5. Good point.

    Lots to think on.

    Cheers,

    E.

    E. M. Edwards

    27 August 2010 at 11:31

  6. “I don’t see genre fantasy and non-genre literary fiction as operating against two entirely seperate sets of artistic criteria; rather there are somethings that all novels should do and there are also specific things that specific types of novels should do.”

    Perhaps the problem is that it’s harder to write a good fantasy — or a good sf or historical novel — than to write a good novel with a contemporary, non-fantastical setting because the writer has to keep more balls in the air: not only does the style need to be good, and the characters, narrative and mood convincing, but the writer has to put effort into not breaking suspension of disbelief and conveying the non-mundane aspects of the world without stylistically displeasing infodumps or drifting into incomprehensibility and so forth.

    I like to think, perhaps despite the data from sales, that readers of fantasy would prefer fantasies with conventional literary merit if they could get them, but will take a fantasy that falls short in those regards over a mainstream novel that doesn’t if that’s the only choice they have.

    Rich

    27 August 2010 at 12:51

  7. Mark Charan Newton raises a couple of related points. The first is that “mainstream literature doesn’t have to deal with heavy plot and weird worlds” and “secondary world writing is inherently restrictive”.

    Those points seem particularly unpersuasive in light of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. And historical fiction in general.

    Eric

    27 August 2010 at 14:26

  8. “Well, I consider a fantasy novel to be a novel first and a fantasy second. I don’t see genre fantasy and non-genre literary fiction as operating against two entirely seperate sets of artistic criteria; rather there are somethings that all novels should do and there are also specific things that specific types of novels should do.”

    While I do not believe that there should be different standards for each genre, you still can’t use the same measuring stick, because they are simply trying to accomplish different things. War and Peace is an undisputed classic, yet it would (unsurprisingly) fail horribly as a thriller. It is, of course, not trying to be a thriller, so this failure is not counted against it. By the same token, it’s silly to condemn genre fiction for not being literary fiction, because their aims are different (though how different depends on the individual author in question). So, while certain things do carry over (prose, characters), even they are more or less important based on what the author is trying to do. After all, Philip K. Dick is frequently held up as one of the greatest genre authors, yet (from what I’ve read of him) his prose is anything but exemplary.

    The Evil Hat

    27 August 2010 at 15:35

  9. By the same token, it’s silly to condemn genre fiction for not being literary fiction

    My point is that it isn’t the same token at all. It is silly to condemn a fantasy for not being a thriller or a romance for not being a Western but that is comparing genre with genre. I don’t believe literary fiction is a genre unto itself, hence my careful use of non-genre throughout the post. But even if you think it is, the things I think the fantasy genre could benefit from are not specific tropes of literary fiction but rather something much broader and more fundamental; that is to say, a much greater interest in the written word itself. I don’t really buy the idea that prose and character are optional extras.

    After all, Philip K. Dick is frequently held up as one of the greatest genre authors, yet (from what I’ve read of him) his prose is anything but exemplary.

    Dick’s prose isn’t great but it is a lot better than a lot of peope give it credit for and developed over his career. However, I will admit that having a singular vision (as Dick does) carries a lot of weight and leads to critics cutting an author a bit of slack on other fronts. That said, A Scanner Darkly is probably Dick’s finest novel and that benefits from exactly the sort of broader perspective I’m talking about.

    Martin

    27 August 2010 at 16:04

  10. Character and prose are most certainly not extras, but they are pretty much alone in being universal, and even their importance depends on the genre. As for Dick’s prose…really? I’ll admit that I’ve only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but what I read was clunky, at best, on a prose level.

    The Evil Hat

    27 August 2010 at 17:00

  11. Character and prose are most certainly not extras, but they are pretty much alone in being universal, and even their importance depends on the genre.

    I think I should quote Jeff Vandermeer (who has just commented in the original thread) since he’s summed up what I am getting at very well:

    I do worry about one thing in particular: too many genre works where, at the paragraph or sentence level, the book is dead. Which is to say, I see sentences doing only one thing, paragraphs with generic description, and in general the equivalent of a vast kill-off of all of the things that happen at the micro-level that make fiction come alive. This is particularly disturbing in the sense of very little real-world experience appearing to show up on the page. You can argue that mimetic fiction perhaps too much of daily life on the page, but a lot of fantasy seems to be operating at the level of received ideas about life and not expressing much in the way of specific detail from the writer’s own life.

    Martin

    27 August 2010 at 17:21

  12. That Vandermeer quote nails it for me. “At the paragraph or sentence level, the book is dead.”

    Exactly. This is my most common disappointment with everything I pick up nowadays. Not the vibrancy of world, character, or plot, but the turgid straightforwardness of prose.

    We seem to have gotten lost in what genre is capable of at the expense of forgetting what novels need to be more than summary descriptions of action and setting.

    “a lot of fantasy seems to be operating at the level of received ideas about life and not expressing much in the way of specific detail from the writer’s own life.”

    It’s like he’s inside my brain! Agh!

    Casey Samulski

    28 August 2010 at 00:05

  13. But there is a category mistake in the premise anyway: why compare “well written” fantasy book to an “acclaimed” mainstream book.

    Why not compare acclaimed books in both categories?

    Or even reverse it, and compare an acclaimed fantasy book (oh, say Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) to a well written mainstream book such as, My Best Friend’s Girl, by Dorothy Koomson?

    Sloppy premises usually make for pre-determined answers.

    Farah Mendlesohn

    28 August 2010 at 10:45

  14. [...] this one from Martin Lewis (editor of Vector Reviews) over at his blog Everything is Nice, entitled Inferiority Complex in which he agrees with Nial and he says: It just means that perhaps there is a conversation to be [...]

  15. [...] To criticise someone’s writing is not to criticise that person and what I’m saying is “let’s raise our game”. Unfortunately the response is often “why are you putting us down?“ [...]


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