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25 April 2009 @ 10:39 pm
Looking for "Quality" -- A Debate Prompt  
I like to start debates, when I can get people to play.

I've been thinking about the issue of "quality" in literature, or heck, even in SFF by itself.

I once heard an interview with Orson Scott Card, in which he suggested that SFF magazines and publishers, except for those that focussed on YA, were becoming too "artsy" and failing to tell good stories. By cooincidence, about three weeks later I met the literary novelist Alexander Chee, who said that Ender's Game was terribly written because it wasn't full of rich description or complex imagery. I thought they were both speaking nonsense.

I don't really believe in genre distinctions, and I especially don't believe in a genre (or "anti-genre") called "literary" fiction. The tools that so-called literary writers use are the same tools we all use (metaphor, rich description, theme, surprising characterization). There are some writers who use these tools to the exclusion of telling a story, and, to my mind, they are neither craftsmen nor artists. But there are others who think that a good plot-line excuses a complete lack of beauty or subtlety; they might as well be selling beer.

Now take, just as an example, the nineteen novels that have won both the Hugo and the Nebula:

    • Dune
    • The Left Hand of Darkness
    • Ringworld
    • The Gods Themselves
    • Rendezvous with Rama
    • The Dispossessed
    • The Forever War
    • Gateway
    • Dreamsnake
    • The Fountains of Paradise
    • Startide Rising
    • Neuromancer
    • Ender's Game
    • Speaker for the Dead
    • Doomsday Book
    • Forever Peace
    • American Gods
    • Paladin of Souls
    • The Yiddish Policemen's Union

I've read only ten of these (the other nine are on my "to do" list), but as a group they present a nice little puzzle. We can probably postulate that a book that has received the enthusiastic approbation of both fans (the Hugo) and writers (the Nebula) has something like "quality." Yet, in many ways, you couldn't find a more dissimilar group of stories: in theme, style, use of language, characterization, pacing, plot, etc., they are utterly different. I love the ideas and settings behind Dune, for example, but I think its prose stinks. Doomsday Book didn't hook me until I was more than halfway through the novel, but once it got its teeth into me I was a goner. The epic sweep of The Left Hand of Darkness contrasts with the claustrophobia of Gateway. Paladin of Souls gleefully subverts the tropes of both fantasy and romance, but doesn't let on that that's what its doing until you're deeply into the book.

Now, we can look at all this diversity and contradiction, and sit back and say something comfortingly neutral, like, "It's all a matter of taste," or "There are many roads to Rome," but I call that making excuses for not having an opinion.

So, how about it? Where do we locate quality? What do we mean by it? Feel free to use examples from the list, or from elsewhere.
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The Patternless Manneoguardian on April 26th, 2009 03:32 am (UTC)
I tend to sit more in OSC's camp, probably because my writing is pretty spare like his. For me, characters, dialogue and plot are the essentials. Description has its purpose, but I think description is better suited to unusual phenomena or perceptions than, say, what kind of wood the floor is made of or what color pants the bad guy is wearing.

Overall, though, I'd say quality is measured by what captures a significant chunk of the reading population's awe in one way or another.
Kenken_schneyer on April 28th, 2009 02:28 am (UTC)
Nancy Kress says that dialogue is at the core of every scene, and it's easily my favorite thing to read or write. Description, though -- when it's done well, it's almost a character onto itself. I keep thinking of how Tolkien could describe a bloody landscape and make me choke up.

Hm, a quantitative quality measure? It depends on the size of the population that's moved by the story?
girlspell: dangling the carrotgirlspell on April 26th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
I think writers are sometimes orchestrated by publishers. They want writers to strike "gold" again, not to write a literary masterpiece. Their interest is financial. So they're encouraged to write in a certain way. That's how genres within genres are born. Which in turn smothers creativity. Each of those books you listed have a built in audience. In the succeeding book, each writer will rewrite the first book. They won't cross over to other readers. There is nothing wrong with it. Jane Austen wrote the same book over and over. There is a "comfort" zone in writing what you know.

Kenken_schneyer on April 28th, 2009 02:32 am (UTC)
Perhaps, perhaps. Pohl certainly did that with the books following Gateway, and so did Herbert with Dune, and I guess Ananzi Boys is a sort of sequel to American Gods. (And actually some of those books are sequels -- both Speaker for the Dead and Forever Peace are sequels to other books on that list, and Paladin of Souls is certainly a sequel. But if Chabon ever writes a sequal to YPU,, I'll eat my hat.
mishellbakermishellbaker on May 29th, 2009 07:56 pm (UTC)
Probably coming to the party late, but I'm developing a greater and greater resentment toward "literary" short stories. I subscribe to Glimmer Train, but it's been many months since I could bring myself to read it. Regardless of content, every story I read in it just seems to say, "Look, I have an advanced degree and have lived in exotic lands and I am better than you are. I dare middle-class white people to understand what I've written, and furthermore I dare them to admit it if they don't, because it makes them Bad People."

I am not stupid. I'm not the lowest common denominator. My reading experience is not limited to cereal boxes. I adored Moby Dick and Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment and The Sound and the Fury. But I can't stand most modern short fiction. Absolutely can't stand it. And the major sf magazines are starting to read a lot more like Glimmer Train than I'd like. Every story seems to be either someone showing off their detailed insider knowledge of some obscure historical/scientific topic or else trying to obfuscate the actual events they're describing as much as possible behind weird gimmicks of vocabulary, POV, chronology, etc. No one just wants to tell me a story anymore.

I have been more moved by "simple yarns" in my time than by most attempts at "literature." I can name a few exceptions, but the stories that have stuck with me the most have been clear, potent ideas, told simply and in chronological order, without gimmicks, without ostentation.
Kenken_schneyer on May 30th, 2009 01:31 am (UTC)
I share your feelings about stories that are complicated and obscure for complicated and obscure's sake. They drive me nuts. But many, many SFF short stories are not like that. And even in Glimmer Train you get some beautiful stuff that isn't hifalutin'. And you're not seriously calling Moby Dick a story "simple yarn . . . told simply . . . without gimmicks, without ostentation," are you? With umpteen pages of "Cetology" at the beginning?

Sometimes you need to tell the story out of chronological order, because the point of it gets buried if you stick to the natural sequence. Sometimes the "gimmick" is the key to what makes the story emotionally powerful. I can only speak for myself, but I'm not trying to impress anyone; the stories want to I tell don't always work in the most straightforward way. Is that bad?
mishellbakermishellbaker on May 30th, 2009 01:46 am (UTC)
I would have to see the individual story to form an opinion, of course. In Pulp Fiction (yeah, go ahead and shoot me for blasphemy, 90% of the world), the out-of-chronology storytelling seemed a gimmick, to me. "Ooh, look at me being a visionary storyteller." A way of disguising the lack of story arc and character empathy so that Tarantino could lean more on violence and self-indulgent torrents of dialogue and endless homages to pop culture. In Memento, on the other hand, the odd chronology was crucial to the viewpoint of the story, part of the essential unity of the piece.

Hell, for that matter one of my own Clarion submission pieces is not strictly chronological. But that's because it's told from the limited POV of someone who's suffering from a concussion. And I never submitted it anywhere else because too many people told me it was "gimmicky" and "pretentious." /shrug

P.S. - if I seem harsh on Tarantino, let me say that I am ONLY this rough on artists who don't seem to have the faintest ability to be rough on themselves. Quentin Tarantino is a decent storyteller SOME of the time (Reservoir Dogs) but is vastly overrated, more by himself even than his fans. It's disturbing.
mishellbakermishellbaker on May 30th, 2009 01:48 am (UTC)
Oh and re: Moby Dick, I actually found the whale stuff fascinating! But I'm weird that way. Mostly what I liked about it was how deeply immersed I felt in a completely unfamiliar setting. I was completely transported. But yes, he had serious structural problems, such as simply tossing characters overboard when he decided he'd rather write about someone else.