There is a well-night unanswerable question that “progressives” ask in every arena. Say, for instance that politicians in Chicago are beyond corrupt and this has a lot to do with the Chicago machine and in turn is responsible for the raging violence on the streets (because elected officials know it won’t wash back on them) and they’ll come back with “yeah, and if there wasn’t a machine, who should have been elected?”
The same thing with the Hugos, where over and over the bright enough to be stupid puppy-kickers ask “Oh, yeah, who should have won the Hugo instead, then? If the process hadn’t been the playground of insiders and whisper lists this whole time?” (And please, don’t try to deny it. When Gerrold told Brad that he’d never win a Hugo it was an admission. And besides, we saw the effects of it.)
This is their “defense.” It amounts to “If you have no knowledge of a better parallel world, then your argument is invalid” but they’re very happy with it because the question is unanswerable, and therefore they presume that the best work won, and can strut around about how fair they are.
Dave Freer did a post on Monday on the “quality” of quality in writing. He writes better than I do, so I won’t repeat his argument, just give you a link to it.
The take away for TL/DR readers is “you can’t say ‘this is good’ because humans have individual tastes and enjoyment of a book as a work of art has nothing to do with the minimal requirements of “Words and grammar are used properly.”
I’ve known this for a long time, because my tastes are, to put it mildly, weird. I read just about everything, but rarely (except in some romance subgenres) do I like the bestsellers in the genre. The books that leave me resonating like a bell are often things the world didn’t notice. When I joined the Don Camillo fan group on line 10 years ago I was the only person there under eighty. I might still be.
It extends to other media too. For instance, in movies, I like Second Hand Lions, a movie almost no one ever heard of.
This is so prevalent for me, that usually when a friend pushes a book at me, I know I’m going to hate it. I read Harry Potter at last when I was too sick to leave my big armchair and those books were the only ones within reach.
So I’ve known for a long time that “won an award” was almost an anti-recommendation for me, since the mid-nineties at least. I still liked Connie Willis’ books, but most of the others that won awards left me going “Say the what?”
And here I need to qualify that notwithstanding the typos in these posts (I write them very fast and don’t proof, since I don’t really get paid for them – yes, the donations help, but it’s not the rate I get for books – and today is probably speshul because I’m slammed under raging allergies and con crud acquired via husband. So I had to take Benadryl and I’m extremely sleepy) I have a natural fluency with words.
When it comes to writing, words are what I do. Maybe words and characters, and yep, still working on plot, but words I get for completely free. I came at writing via poetry and come from a long line of poets, so perhaps there’s something hereditary there.
For years, at least since I’ve been aware of awards and what is considered “quality” in the field, it seems to revolve around wording and how beautifully ideas are framed. There is a reason for this, I think, in that since only certain writers/ideas were acceptable to award committees and publishing push teams, the competition was in “how beautifully it’s written.” Which is fine. It’s like the court painters in France before the revolution, all copying the same casts and competing on how realistic they could make the drawing.
Unfortunately, because this was the way to get awards, which are often all a book can get in the way of publicity (The Prometheus Award did wonder for my career, for instance) in these days of declining print runs and premium shelf space, it meant that the entire field oriented towards “more prestige/beautiful prose” books.
Now before someone misunderstands me (rolls eyes) this doesn’t mean nothing else got published. No one can accuse the 10th incarnation of werewolf romance of being a prestige book.
What it means though is that if you had it in you to write beautiful prose, both your agents and publishers tried to push you towards doing just that. The only way this makes sense – literary fantasy sells way worse than adventure fantasy – is if they’re chasing awards and the boost of credibility they give.
Sure, you might burn ten author’s careers by pushing them towards the literary end of the spectrum, but if you hit the award-and-recognition jackpot with the eleventh, you’re going to be collecting for text book excerpts and such for a long, long time.
I got pushed to write literary fantasy and by and large avoided it, because the Shakespeare trilogy had taught me I became very unhappy working in that vineyard.
However most people who got pushed that way probably didn’t feel as strongly about lit fic as I do and just went along and did it, limiting their audience and sometimes (because bad numbers are always the writer’s fault) losing their career along the way.
So, what does that have to do with the question of “What should have won instead?”
The same thing that if I said “If we’d spent less on the war on drugs and channeled that money to space exploration we’d be much better off now” and someone said “like how? What would we have?”
To which the only answer is “Squid farms on Mars.” And then your interlocutor can point out how ridiculous that is, since Mars has never had squid and probably can’t be colonized by even humans.
To which the answer is “Sure. Now. But if we had started 40 years ago…”
Because you can visualize a pathway of incremental improvements in science that would lead to thriving squid farms on Mars if we hadn’t used the money on the war on drugs or the great society or any of the other boondogles into which we’ve poured our money and effort.
In the same way, if there hadn’t been an unspoken push towards “literary” in the awards, a lot of writers who tanked their careers might still be around and writing (almost anything sells better than lit. fic.) And a lot of people who are writing the “bit words, safe ideas” branch of our field might be writing something far more exciting, something that brought print runs out of the doldrums. Something that would engage the public, restore the value of the award as a signal, and in general be good for all writers of sf/f.
Is this sure? No. How could it be. We might have come up with another way to sink the field.
The sad truth is that those squid farms on Mars never existed, so I can’t point at them and go “See what you killed?” (Though there are a ton better books than those that won the Hugo every year, too, but that’s part of how the awards were oriented. I can answer with some, but mostly I’ll trip up in not knowing WHEN they were published. For instance, F. Paul Wilson’s Hosts should have won in that year. I just don’t remember what the year was. And it’s possible if the win went to Connie Willis, I’d be divided.)
BUT the most important effect of a corrupt award, that is given to right-think told in beautiful words is not that some books will be ignored for the award. It’s that many books will never get written, or never get that boost of attention that makes the author successful and allows for more, better books written in the future. (For instance, I found out about Ender’s Game when OSC won.)
The field, little by little, becomes diminished. Long before the award becomes meaningless for sales, the field has become narrow enough to not attract a broad slice of readers. And the print runs fall.
The tragedy of the commons is nothing to the tragedy of the squid farms on Mars. At least the commons got to exist.
Instead what we have here is a field in which masterpieces were never written or – as Dave Freer puts it – are moldering in a drawer.
Life isn’t fair, and we’ll never have a perfectly fair process. Some brilliant writers (maybe most) are bassawkwards on how to promote, let alone how to submit books for publication. But breaking up the “academic” and “lit crit” idea of what is good in sf/f might at least allow us to reorient the thrust of the field towards one that is likely to attract newer and more abundant readers.
And we’d all be better for it.
After all, squid farms on Mars could feed a hungry world.