Hard SF : About The Genre : SF, Mainstream Success And Literature

SF, Mainstream Success And Literature

I recently read a collection from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers. It included a group of essays discussing the status of SF (and Fantasy) in literary circles, and SF in films.

There were a variety of views as to the real and perceived literary status of SF and how "we" should approach it. One concern that was expressed was the feeling SF and SF writers did not get as much appreciation and awards as writers in some other genres.

Of course, as this publication represented the views of professional writers, that will play a role in their perspectives. There are understandable reasons why they might approach things differently than readers who are not writers.

My personal view is that I have a limited concern for the literary status or whether the author has the writing skills of a Shakespeare. Sure, I'd probably not get much enjoyment out of reading an SF story written by someone with no more knack for writing than I do. What I'd read has to have some minimum requirement in skill. But above that level, I'm more interested in the story premise, the ideas and what themes resonate with me. Add extra writing talent, all the better, but not essential. Give me a story by the world's most proficient writer telling a story about a guy clipping his toe-nails with a hi-tech gadget, and I won't care much about the writing skill.

I don't say everyone should respond the same way. Some people would get great enjoyment out of listening to the person with the world's greatest singing voice doing a rendition of "Mary Had A Little Lamb". If it gives them pleasure, they should go ahead and listen. I'd rather listen to an average professional singer perform a song I liked and cared about. I have a large collection of music. Most of it would definitely not be called "high brow". What little "high brow music" I have does not get played that often. I listen to what gets the right emotional response from me.

When I read SF, I'm generally looking for something with more substance than the music I listen to, but there is still a subconscious preference that influences what I am inclined to read and affects how much a book seemed worth reading to me.

It's easy for me to say to an SF writer, "What's the big deal about getting mainstream literary awards?" -- I'm not a talented writer. It's understandable that a talented SF writer would like to make more money, get more appreciation, etc.

It would be convenient for me if real SF had the readership to be high volume business. In our society, business factors mold cultural outlets (outside of small "underground" communities). In music, the records that sell the most copies are "pop music" in which elements of different genres are strategically mixed and the performer's image is an important part of the promotion. The record industry tries to encourage performers to gravitate towards this sort of music. Most performers don't actually entirely adopt pop music, but many are tempted to make compromises in that direction.

Just as most top-40 pop music albums are largely forgotten within a few years, the novels found in "best seller lists" are rarely the stuff of "greatest-books-ever lists", college literature class reading or other forums for enduring art. A writer or performer should ask themselves how much they want immediate gratification and how much they want to make something that will be remembered for many years.

I see "high brow" literary caliber in writing somewhat like extraordinary accomplishments in structural engineering. Suppose someone designs the longest bridge in the world, using creative and innovative approaches that nobody else has ever thought of and constructed something nobody else was ever able to find a way to do. The bridge goes all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. To engineers, bridge builders and architects this might be an awe-inspiring work of art worthy of the highest awards. Within their community that is reasonable. However, that does not necessarily mean that non-engineers looking at the structure will find it aesthetically pleasing. Travelers may feel it is too long a drive to use the bridge and prefer to travel by plane instead.

So, it doesn't seem to me that simply because a book deserves to be viewed as a true accomplishment within the community of authors, the book has to deserve to be viewed as desirable reading by non-writers. If a person can appreciate both sides and enjoy books that mostly appeal to writers and those that mostly appeal to readers, that is fortunate for him. But to one degree or another, the two groups have separate objectives and personalities. The fact that a member of one group does not appreciate what the other group prefers should not be viewed as a deficiency in that person.

The same may apply within the community of writers, with writers of different genres having different objectives and not being able to appreciate the accomplishments by writers in other genres. It would feel great to have everyone love your book. If it's loved within your genre, but not loved outside your genre, it may be nothing more than this factor.

It's not my intention to suggest one genre, subgenre, style or whatever is inherently superior. We can look at SF from a superficial or deeper approach. One might enjoy reading SF because of a superficial aspect, for instance liking to hear descriptions of what another planet might look like. Some of us will enjoy this aspect, but it does not make a book inherently superior.

I would place writing skill as an aspect at an intermediary kind of depth. Being "well written" may make a washing machine's owner's manual easier to use and maybe even pleasant, but it is of little benefit if the technical information is inaccurate. Fiction can also be "well written" in terms of putting words together, but still lack substance and interesting material. In this sense, a work of fiction can end up like a first-class actor performing a third-rate playwright's material.

For true depth, we are probably talking about ideas. We can divide "idea" SF into 2 groups: those with ideas that can't be expressed in any genre other than SF, and those with ideas which can be expressed in other genres. If the ideas could have been expressed in another genre, it doesn't seem we can say the fact it was in SF makes it inherently superior. The hard question then is what ideas can only be expressed in SF? In any cases the ideas could only be expressed in SF, perhaps those are cases of an SF subgenre that's inherently superior. The rest of the time, SF is simply "superior" to readers who enjoy SF.

I will go so far as to give this much advice to members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association who look wishfully at mainstream awards: If writing for the mainstream makes you happy, maybe that's the right thing for you. But the fact you are spending time and money being a member of an SF writers organization suggests that SF has a special place in your heart. SF does not hold the same place in the hearts of enough people for it to be worth your while to only belong to a mainstream writers organization. The factors that have led you to be involved in an SF group are factors that make it important for you to consider how writing towards the mainstream and mainstream awards would impact you. For you, it may be better to learn to accept the awards within the SF community as what is meaningful to your writing. Of course, a writer can work in more than one genre. One work could be created for the mainstream and another for SF readers. As long as you have mainstream expectations for the first work and SF expectations for the second, you might be able to have the best of both worlds.

Personally, I hope you'll choose to write as much as possible for SF.