“Litfic: Literary Science Fiction and Recent Hugo Winners” – Jeb Kinnison
I’m one of those people who straddles STEM and the literate arts with reasonable skills and interest in both. I took time off to study literature-type writing with a crew at Harvard, and John Updike visited one day. He made it clear he was a craftsman aiming at a specific audience, highly-literate Northeastern upper class sorts, but I doubt he would have looked down on someone writing for readers who like adventure stories. Dickens and Stephen King wrote for mass audiences and were looked down on by the literati of their day, but over time they became respectable and suitable for PhD theses.
The definition of “literary” is fuzzy. It’s confused with “inaccessible” and often the most obscurantist works are lionized mostly because only a few people can appreciate them, since they require study not enjoyment — e.g., James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon. Modern art became a thing because commercial, mass-produced representational art had flooded the world with photographs and advertising that made art accessible to everyone, so artists set out for new territory, fleeing the old world of representational art and pioneering obscure abstractions and art-as-statement. Wealthy patrons had to be persuaded that paying more for art that was impossible for them to actually appreciate was going to give them higher status. Pretending to appreciate the avant-garde became another class signifier. Modern literature similarly fled the masses and accessibility to keep exclusivity and high status.
But “literary” in the sense of complex, deep characterizations and prose that uses the full vocabulary available to the very well-read is still with us, and valuable. It is satisfying to read a story that is not only emotionally powerful but challenges you to learn new ideas, words, and phrases. Go too far in that direction, and your appreciative audience shrinks to nothing (and if you do get critics’ support and New York Times book reviews, your book will be bought by many but finished by few.) Too light, and you have grade-school pulp, which can be satisfying and gain you big sales, but isn’t challenging readers.
The problem with the Hugos is partly a lack of good material. My ideal science fiction leads readers through an involving story that also explains and projects new science and technology’s effects on the future. Many of the greats of the past were a little weak in characterization (Asimov, Clarke), but they were keenly interested in explaining the ideas that molded their fictional worlds. Recent literary science fiction tends to lack that emphasis on explaining new ideas, partly because there simply aren’t as many good writers as there were, and the younger ones tend to lack scientific backgrounds. And in fantasy, so much has been done that new ideas are rare.
A recent online discussion of “The Windup Girl” (2010 Hugo and Nebula awards) had many criticizing its implausible science and economics. If I’ve studied literature and come into science fiction and fantasy to write colorful, elaborate stories without much background knowledge, my stories may fall flat because people who understand science and reality see them as implausible. If one good literary value is complex and realistic characters, one good science fiction value is complex and believable science, and a good worldbuilding value is plausible economics and government. And there aren’t enough new science fiction books that have all of those these days, which is one of the reasons I read less.
“There were giants in the earth in those days…” Has the field been exhausted? I think not. The thinness of the last decade of SF&F is a consequence of the lack of money for writers now compared to several decades ago — if you want to be commercially successful now, you have to be willing to go into growing subgenres where a less literate population with reduced attention spans are buying. Comics, movies, and games satisfy the impulse for cool speculative stories and provide pre-marketed platforms for new work, while a standalone science fiction novel is trying to create a world all by itself and has to overcome the flood of new products set in worlds that have already satisfied millions. Both Hollywood and publishing are now finding marketing the key bottleneck, which explains the flood of reboots and copycat stories. Talented writers have left for the more fertile fields of Hollywood and games, leaving academics and part-time authors to fight over a declining pie.
When a field stops growing, it stagnates. The mainstream literary fiction market is deathly ill, with the green shoots of flash fiction on cell phones too minor to make up for the loss of millions of readers to other entertainments. The legacy publishers are now staffed with underpaid graduates of literary programs, not the war veterans and market-conscious editors with varied backgrounds of the post-WW2 era. Meanwhile, the funding of higher education by loans and subsidies exploded, producing excess graduates in English and literature who dream of writing for a living. Supported by grants, fellowships, and low-paid adjunct teaching jobs, they write part-time and flood the few remaining markets for short fiction hoping to get recognition and a “real” publishing contract. Many have invaded SF&F where there is still a better chance of getting published. An entire ecosystem of virtue-signalling self-congratulatory nonprofit writers now validate each other’s work and denigrate “popular” work. While there were always trust-fund babies writing for little literary magazines and being made fun of by successful writers, there are now more of them than there are self-supporting writers.
Being a writer was tough and never a good way to get rich before this happened. Now it is almost impossible for even some of the best to survive on only writing earnings. And that’s where self-publishing has helped — by routing around the right-thinking gatekeepers and the high costs of legacy publishing, self-directed writers can package and sell their own work quickly and cheaply. If it’s entertaining, a few years of writing can build enough of an audience to support full-time writing with the higher royalty rates self-publishing allows.
Jeb Kinnison writes on science, politics and relationships at JebKinnison.com
. In his three-novel series The Substrate Wars
, a band of liberty-loving college students rebel against an oppressive near-future security state after they discover quantum transport.