11.18.2006

Miss Snark is not informed on this

Dear Dame Snark,

I've noticed that the speculative fiction winning the big awards these days seem to be thinly disguised literary pieces. I keep reading stories about silent characters who softly reflect on their lives as they sip tea. At some point, something mildly otherworldly happens to qualify the story as sf or fantasy. Then it ends. But the stories I love to read (and write) have Action! Suspense! Adventure! They're heaped in either technology or magic but anchored with realistic and complex characters. Not pulp by any means, but far more exciting than "literary" work.

Please tell me, O High Priestess of Words, what is the state of today's speculative fiction? Will high action win out in the end? Or must I learn to write riveting prose about contemplating the wild stalks growing on the edge of a rippling lake if I'm ever to be published?


You're asking the wrong person. The only thing speculative in the fiction I read is whether someone will set their hair on fire or kill someone in chapter one or wait too long and do it in chapter two.

I don't read anything remotely resembling speculative fiction as far as I know. I'm cleansing my palate for Against The Day (St. Marks, Monday, midnight, be there!) right now, but normally you can see what I read by looking at my Library Thing list on the right.


If anyone cares to weigh in on this, have at it.

41 comments:

The Unpretentious Writer said...

Action and adventure are conflict, and conflict is good and sells books. We can only be interested in some 30-something's introspection on their lives for so long before we throw up our hands and give up, reaching for the remote.

I suggest a bumpersticker campaign:

I <3 literary conflict.

Maria said...

Spec fiction has always had a literary angle--an entire branch or subgenre if you will. (Sort of like in mystery fiction, you have cozy, thriller, police procedural, amateur sleuth, etc.

Some magazines specifically publish and specify in their guidelines that they want literary sci/fi--stuff that deals with the human condition and strange internal musings. Then there's pulp spec fiction, adventure, mixes of any and all...

Why the lit stuff is winning the awards lately, I can't tell you. I'm afraid I don't read based on the awards. :>)

I just finished reading "Goblin Quest" by Jim C. Hines--good, solid adventure! It's a hoot.

Intergalactic Medicine Show (online magazine 2.50 an issue) has a mix of everything.

www.TheTownDrunk.org has funny, eclectic stuff (it's free shorts).

Baen has Great adventure, traditional sci/fi, you name it in their magazine (it's subscription only.) Obviously their books cover the spectrum.

Like everything else, you gotta filter to find what you like!!!!

KingM said...

There's plenty of action left in fantasy, and some plot-driven sf comes out as techno-thriller, but I agree that literary has killed sf.

I blame a lot of this on the magazines. Even though they have miniscule readership these days, they nurture a lot of the budding sf writers and they publish almost exclusively literary stuff.

Also, some of the blame has to go to the disappointing realization that we won't have flying cars or colonies on Mars anytime soon. There was a real speculative, look-at-the-future feel to Golden Age science fiction.

Kat said...

Depends on what you call the "big awards". The Hugos may have been won by more literary stuff (I haven't read "Spin", so it's hard to say for sure) but with stuff like "Accelerando" and "Old Man's War" making it onto the nominations list, I don't see that action is really a problem.

The World Fantasy awards tend to go both to more literary works and to stuff no one's ever heard of.

Nebula-wise, I haven't read "Camouflage", but it's hard to imagine Haldeman writing something tea-party-esque; "Polaris" and "Going Postal" were most certainly page-turners. The year before that was "Paladin of Souls" -- Bujold's rightfully famous for her transparent prose.

The Campbell award went to Scalzi for "Old Man's War", once again a fast-paced book. Never read the Philip K. Dick award winners but judging from past winners and the authors they didn't write slow thoughtful books. Tiptree awards are mixed, but as it's an award specifically for feminist sf that's not surprising.

Those are the big-name awards I can think of. I don't know what you were looking at, but really? When it comes down to it? Write what you want. Awards are pretty but they do not reflect sales, and writing to the market will only drive you mad anyway.

Sherry D said...

The popular debate re: Style vs Substance goes on and on. There will always be readers with no stomach for action - and readers with no patience for page after page of stylistic prose. If I must choose, I'll take the action because my mind is capable of filling in the pretty details on its own. I don't think it's advisable to 'try' to write either. Write what you are good at and enjoy writing. When you're doing what you love, it's usually better material.

nir said...

I don't tend to read Big Awards books much (well, except I do have a few Nebula award winners on my shelf but I don't buy them for that reason) so I can't make many comments on that. Maybe the judging panels have been in an introspective mood lately.

If you can't find the books you want, write them. Worked for Lewis and Tolkien, works for me.

elaine said...

Can the writer of the letter be more specific? What big awards has literary spec fiction won lately?

Anonymous said...

To the original poster: What awards? Which books? I have to admit that I'm puzzled; as kat mentioned above, there are a good number of SF books and short stories that have won major awards in the last couple of years that don't fit your description at all.

I'm not thrilled by a lot of the stuff getting published in the Big Three magazines these days, and sometimes I scratch my head at why a certain book is getting rave reviews, but I hardly see a plethora of tea-sipping award winners. Can you be more explicit?

Aconite

waylander said...

The World Fantasy Award for Best Novel would be one very recent example of literary spec fiction triumphing

green ray said...

I enjoyed that letter - and its comments on contemplative literary fiction. How boring. And yet, I've been told that my writing is literary. Will someone please define for me what speculative fiction is? Thanks.

LadyBronco said...

Lord, I hope the book trend isn't towards watching stalks grow along the edge of a rippling lake. Not only will I lose my breakfast ~ I will never be published.

Nikki said...

Something I've noticed in the UK that's kind of connected to the original issue - lots of SF classics, from John Wyndham through to David Eddings, are being re-packaged as books for older teens.

Older teens have all the best action adventure SF, that's where you should look.

Patrick Samphire said...

The more literary fantasy and sf may win the awards, but the stuff with action, adventure, tension and fun is what sells. Look at the fantasy that hits the best-sellers' lists: George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, David Gemmell, J.K. Rowling...

Just write what you really want to write, what you have a passion and love for, and if you're good enough, you'll get there. But if you try and write what you don't like, you don't have a chance.

whitemouse said...

I'll just commiserate. I grabbed one of the recent "Best Fantasy and Horror of 200X" anthologies out of the library, and it was all literary in tone.

Anyone familiar with my comments over on Evil Editor's blog can guess how well that went over with me. I! Want! Action! And! Adventure! Too! Preferably right from page one, especially in a short story. Some of these stories shouldn't even have been called fantasy or horror, IMO.

Since I write fantasy and science fiction too, I was a bit horrified - but not daunted. I think a strong narrative is always going to be popular with the general population. They don't have awards they can give you, but they are known to hand over, y'know, money.

Write well and write what you love. The rest will work itself out.

Bernita said...

Lit Agent X quoted a comment at some get-together recently by an agent or editor ( unspecified), to wit:
"I LOVE fantasy projects with a literary style."
A new trend?

Rick said...

What wins awards isn't necessarily what sells best - and therefore may not be what editors are mainly looking for (though "award potential" might be a plus).

SF/F still suffers from a bit of inferiority complex, and so tends to whore after respectability when awards time comes around. There's also a more general tendency in all genres for reviewers' tastes to differ somewhat from the general audience's tastes. You see this with movie reviews - the best reviews often go to "small," quirky films, probably because reviewers see so many movies that one blockbuster blurs into the next.

So don't worry about what is winning awards. It may also be selling well, but so is a lot of other work you'll never hear about at awards ceremonies.

Harry Connolly said...

For God's sake.

Apparently the questioner has never been to a bookstore or a library, and has never read a sff review website or looked at the Locus bestseller list.

If only there were some way to know what sorts of books are being published! If only the questioner had some way of sampling those new books and of finding out what readers like! Then they wouldn't have to make up a bunch of crap and pretend the genre was turning its back on its readers.

Anonymous said...

whitemouse, the stories in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror are chosen by the editors for inclusion in the volume. There's no award involved. There are several other "Year's Best" anthologies out there, each reflecting the tastes of the individual editors. It's always been that way.

I'd still like to hear what people are considering "literary" SF, and to look at what percentage of recent award-winners are "literary" as opposed to "action-based." For example, to the best of my knowledge, at least two of the authors Patrick Samphire included in his list of fun and action-based have won major awards (Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowling). George R. R. Martin won major awards in the past, as well, although I'd have to doublecheck to see how recently he's done it.

Aconite

j h woodyatt said...

I have recently read Spin, this year's Hugo winner. From start to finish, it's packed with all the weird you should expect to find in any Hugo winner. I see no new trend here. I'm reading John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar now. Highly "literary" (which is one of those qualifiers like "pornographic," in that I don't know how to define it in law, but I know it when I see it), and it was written before I was born. The querier has me all confused with their premises.

Writerious said...

For those who are wondering what qualifies a story as "literary," writer David Lubar has this useful guide:

http://www.davidlubar.com/litfic.html

Anonymous said...

Greenray - as near as I can translate, "speculative fiction" is just a high-toned way of saying Scifi/Fantasy. Sort of like calling the garbage man a "sanitation disposal engineer". *G*

As for literary fantasy ... hm, I guess I've never read it. I certainly don't pay attention to awards. I just read what I want to read, which is always fantasy adventure, and I've never noticed a shortage of that.

When I read Fantasy, I want things to happen: I want buckles swashed and bad guys vanquished and heroes to rise up in the name of justice and Doing What's Right. If someone can achieve all that in a "literary" style ... go for it! I love an elegant turn of phrase, and I get all swimmy in the knees when someone can present a common thing in an uncommon way that makes me sit up and go, "Wow!"

But I will close the book within 5 pages if all I see is reeds swaying above a mirrored pond on the breathe of a perfumed breeze ... *yawn*.
Cheers ~

G. Atwater

I Said said...

Here's a link to a real attempt at an explanation of lit fic: http://www.conknet.com/~fullerlibrary/ReadersAdvisory/A GUIDE TO LITERARY FICTION.htm And believe me, a definition is no easy matter.

Though genre is often a consideration, literary fiction is more defined by depth of character and what is left up to the reader to ponder and explore. Stephen King, H. G. Wells, are certainly examples of both genre (horror, sci fi) and because of their handling of their stories, classic literary fiction as well.

The problem is the insistence of some readers to classify literary as a highbrow enterprise, and the immediate defensive stance taken by genre devotees to this seeming snub.

For every genre there are great writers and an audience who appreciates them.

Anonymous said...

There's hard SF that focuses more on technology and there's writing with less focus on the SF-part. Both is SF -- just slightly different. Neither of them needs to win.

Simon Haynes said...

I wrote an adult SF adventure series and my publisher marketed it as adult and YA/teen. Doesn't worry me - double the market and I get to visit schools to talk about writing.
A lot of action/adventure appeals to reluctant readers. Me, I'm a reluctant writer, so I need something exciting to keep me bashing away on the ol' laptop.

Catja (green_knight) said...

The writers of sword-and-sorcery type of fantasy, with somewhat flat characters and lots of bangs but little substance are finding it more difficult to get published simply because the bar hangs much higher than thirty years ago - there are more writers with an ability to write good, solid, in-depth stories. I fail to see why that is a bad thing.

The best of fantasy writing does not, in any way, lag behind writers like Joanne Harris in ability. When you take a close look at Terry Pratchett, for instance - yes, they're laugh-out-funny books, *but* the prose is polished until it sparkled _and_ he writes thought-provoking and deeply philosophical books. They're just enjoyable on more than one level, and to me, that makes them indefinitely better than the sort of action/adventure or mysteries like the Cadfael books that you read once and forget about because they have no substance.

Marlo said...

Literary crap will always be literary crap. That some people aspire and beg to be crappy is the real mystery.

But what's more annoying is that some twits refuse to admit they have written spec-fic, and frantically market fantasy as literary. Genre is so dirty and beneath them. It's pathetic, but it also means I know for certain Miss Snark reads fantasy (aka spec-fic). Most people do, and they watch it too. They just don't call it that.

Fantasy is a wide genre. It includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, alternate history--anything where stuff is a little off, a little weird. Or more than a little. It's not frickin elves sitting in the woods musing about a chalice for 718 pages. At least not the uncrap.

Other than the bookstore floor staff, who have to Push the Booker Prize, nobody knows or cares who wins awards. It just doesn't mean anything. The only award winner I can think of is Bujold, and that's only because 'Hugo award winner' is frickin branded on the cover of every Miles book (which are awesome stories, but also breathless-action and hyper character driven, so ha!).

Seeing 'bestseller' is good, but only in the sense that if you like that author you're happy to know they probably aren't going to have to quit and get a better paying job.

You won't have any luck trying to sell your space opera to an epic fantasy magazine, no matter how good it is, but that's not awards or inside advantages.

BuffySquirrel said...

I recently bought this year's Best SF and have so far read the first story. It had no plot. Makes me reluctant to read the next one. If this is the best...well. Maybe I'll start reading a different genre. Or find a different compiling editor.

Seems to me there's no reason why "literary" has to mean "boring", but then the idea of consciously trying to write great literature has always struck me as ridiculous. The writers whose work we value--Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, etc--weren't writing "literary fiction". They were writing popular fiction. Dickens was a pulp author!

Kat said...

Let's not turn this into the genre wars, guys. Room enough on the shelves for us all. *grin*

Speculative fiction is a catch-all term for when you don't feel like saying "science fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal romance, magic realism..." or when you don't feel like getting into the "is X author really science fiction or really fantasy?" argument. It means fiction with speculative elements in it, e.g. things which are not, by the definitions of current science, real.

Literary fiction is a marketing category. When I describe a work of science fiction as "literary", I mean that if I can get my snobbier friends past the spec-fic odor they might actually like it. Writers of literary spec-fic are not new: they include LeGuin, Delany, Gaimen, and probably Mieville before long. The traditional phrasing for this is that they have "transcended the genre", although LeGuin at least detests this phrase. They tend to be issue-based writers: LeGuin the feminist, Delany the black gay male, Mieville the socialist.

Literary is also a snub term within the genre world, because literary has been famously nasty towards genre and because most genre readers can't stand litfic. I've heard it used to mean too much focus on character development (as Elizabeth Bear puts it, "you're getting girl cooties on my hard sf!"), but mostly it means a very slow story in which plot takes second place to character introspection. Speculative elements are minimal, happy endings and humor are an absolute no-no, and the story usually claims to be wrestling with some Great Question or Eternal Truth.

Such stories are usually quite bad. If one replaced "literary" with "pretentious drivel", it would save a lot of argument. But I read very widely within spec-fic -- novels, not short stories, where they do seem to be making more of an inroad -- and I've seen little evidence that they're taking over the genre.

Can we all relax and go back to writing now?

I Said said...

"Such stories are usually quite bad. If one replaced "literary" with "pretentious drivel", it would save a lot of argument."?????

Unbelievable.

Anonymous said...

I could've written this question. I'm a struggling journeyman writer. Got a little bit of publisher and agent interest in the first novel I've marketed and have been waiting (and waiting) for their decision.

In the interim, I joined this hoity-toity writing group. All pros. I had to audition to get in. Very exciting. Then I started reading their stories.

The craft is perfect. On a technical level the use of language is beautiful, but the stories are boring. I mean, really BORING.

But since I haven't won a Hugo or Nebula and they have, I figure I'm just stupid. Maybe I need an MFA or a PhD because obviously my gray matter isn't measuring up.

My stories, on the other hand, have a life and vitality to them (I think) but lack the polish and understanding of SFF genre history to be of any interest to short markets. I have interesting action and twists on the usual tropes, but I'm not really do anything all that new.

Their stories are getting published, I'm not (but of course I don't know the editors and they do which gives them opportunities I will never have until I'm published in book length).

The literary palate is a spectrum. Harry Potter, for example, is a fun cliche to an editor with an MFA degree who's been reading slush since the age of three, but these 'boring' stories are at the other end of the spectrum--like the difference between a well aged wine and a Miller Light. I think (and I could be wrong) that you only 'get' the more advanced stories through reading both for pleasure and academically. You can't appreciate innovation if you don't know what came before. That kind of thing.

Or maybe I'm just stupid, in which case there is no hope for me.

Anon-in-a-million

yossarian said...

I don't get this animus between litfic and genre. I read both, I like both. I don't think litfic is usually bad, nor pretentious drivel. I don't think genre writing is hack crap with no art in the language. I have great respect for both the literary writers I know, and the genre writers. Writing is hard work no matter where you fall on the spectrum.

Why do we have to throw around these slurs about other people's writing?

Just write, and quit throwing stones at "those other people."

Maria said...

To anon-in-a-million:

You can still learn from those that write different things--just make sure it doesn't negate your own writing. Maybe you need two groups. The one you're in sounds like it could teach you a lot of history and technique concerning sf and its past. But another group might appreciate the drama/action that you crave.

Neither is wrong, but they appeal to different audiences. Sometimes studying what you don't like is as valuable as studying what you do.

Kat said...

I Said:

While it's hard to tell from one word and six punctuation marks, I suspect from tone that I've offended you. Let me try to express myself more clearly.

There is a certain type of story being pushed within the speculative fiction market which is being called, by the writers of such stories, "literary". It is written with the direct end of being literary and meaningful, making it pretentious nearly by definition. I find such stories to be almost universally bad. While I love stories that have a deeper meaning (note my citing of Ursula LeGuin, who is one of my all-time favorite writers), I find stories written only with that end in mind preachy and second-rate at best, and much prefer stories which are written to tell a story.

I see now that I didn't make it clear enough that the two paragraphs were meant to describe two different types of literary -- those who achieve it, and those who merely claim it for their own work. Sorry 'bout that.

BuffySquirrel said...

Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Don't sweat it.

I Said said...

Kat, you haven't offended me. I just feel that everyone's been put on the defensive about the term of literary fiction--which is vague at best--and the response has been attack. I don't put down any form of genre fiction; read or have read all categories and have wandered into the classics and sort of settled there for now. I just don't see how calling it boring (as others did) or bad helps the situation of that perceived division of readers and writers.

It's all good and with good purpose. If we all liked the same thing just think how even more limiting our chances of publishing would be!

BTW, I love LeGuin too!

Happy reading and writing.

Madeline F said...

I imagine the original questioner wants to bitch about "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" and "Spin" without naming names. Perhaps "American Gods" makes the "wild stalks growing on the edge of a rippling lake" cut, too. Dunno about "Hominids" or "The Diamond Age" or "To Say Nothing of the Dog", not having read them, but as for the rest of the Hugos of the past ten years, they're all clearly built on a skeleton of excitement. So, sure, looks like literary stuff is a current fad, but it's not all-encompassing. You have only to glance over the nominations this year to see that people still appreciate word-for-word throwbacks to the 60s ("Old Man's War"), endless epic fantasy series ("Feast for Crows"), and modern space operas ("Learning the World").

So there is still a place for your Adventure! if it doesn't suck. I suspect that people who can't pick out what's attractive in successful books that they don't personally like will have a hard time picking out what in their own stories should be kept and what discarded... Leaping to blame externalities only draws an author further from the solution.

Swordswinger said...

There is no denying that lovers of genre – particularly speculative fiction and fantasy – feel ghetto-ized. Not an undeserved reaction, considering such writers as Margaret Atwood, whom I otherwise admire immensely, stating that they 'don't write science fiction as it's all squids in space’ . Madam, if The Handmaid’s Tale, one of my all time favourite novels and set in an imagined future, isn’t science fiction, I will consume my headgear. (And if anyone can find a novel involving squids in space, I will eat their headgear as well). Also see the 'as others see us' column in Ansible to see how genre is regarded by those with pretensions to ‘serious’ fiction in writing, film, television, ad wearisome infinitum.

As a result it’s hardly surprising if there is some writing within genre and some effort within award-giving to push things in the direction of anything that screams (or rather coughs politely but insistently) ‘Look! I’m SERIOUS.’ Unfortunately this can lead to some boring, plotless, up-its-own-backside writing getting more attention than it deserves, in the same way that an awful lot of highly coloured but frankly terrible genre can get published (though still despised) when it’s popular and making money. Look at what happened in the horror genre towards the end of its last big phase of popularity. There is some bad, bad writing in genre - but so there is in 'literary' fiction.

Really good writing, whatever its style, deserves attention. Bad writing doesn’t. I believe the best we can do is pay attention to what we love, whether we’re writing it or reading it, but also be willing to admit that good stuff may exist outside our own preferred styles.

Just my two pence…

I Said said...

Swordswinger, beautifully put.

ap0110 said...

I wonder if the trend is editor-specific. I've been reading "Nebula Awards Showcase 2006" and "Best of Science Fiction" and the editor for both, Gardiner Dozois, seems to cherish literary short fiction that has a slight dash of sf to mix it up a bit.

But then, he has to have something to work with in the first place. Case in point: "Travels with My Cats," 2006 Nebula Award Nominee for short story. Man falls in love with a book. He sits on his porch, overlooking a lake and reads it. The dead author shows up (SEE! SF!!). They chat. "Coming to Terms," 2006 Nebula Award Winner. An author dies. His daughter goes through his books. She sips tea. Something unexplainable happens (SEE! SF!!!) and she comes to appreciate her father.

So maybe if I write a story about someone who sips tea on a porch overlooking the lake, discovering about how wonderful books are, and put a dead author in there somewhere, maybe I can win an award, too?

Sorry - that was a little snarky. My goal as a writer is to hone my craft and tell a damn good story. Period. I really don't care about the awards. I am, however, worried about what I see as the sf industry whoring themselves (as one poster put it) to gain a sense of legitimacy. It reminds me of when I was 9 and kept trying to convince my mom that my comic books were really adult and serious because everyone stood around moping. I just hope this is a short-term fad and not a long-term trend, that's all.

ap0110 said...

I wonder if the trend is editor-specific. I've been reading "Nebula Awards Showcase 2006" and "Best of Science Fiction" and the editor for both, Gardiner Dozois, seems to cherish literary short fiction that has a slight dash of sf to mix it up a bit.

But then, he has to have something to work with in the first place. Case in point: "Travels with My Cats," 2006 Nebula Award Nominee for short story. Man falls in love with a book. He sits on his porch, overlooking a lake and reads it. The dead author shows up (SEE! SF!!). They chat. "Coming to Terms," 2006 Nebula Award Winner. An author dies. His daughter goes through his books. She sips tea. Something unexplainable happens (SEE! SF!!!) and she comes to appreciate her father.

So maybe if I write a story about someone who sips tea on a porch overlooking the lake, discovering about how wonderful books are, and put a dead author in there somewhere, maybe I can win an award, too?

Sorry - that was a little snarky. My goal as a writer is to hone my craft and tell a damn good story. Period. I really don't care about the awards. I am, however, worried about what I see as the sf industry whoring themselves (as one poster put it) to gain a sense of legitimacy. It reminds me of when I was 9 and kept trying to convince my mom that my comic books were really adult and serious because everyone stood around moping. I just hope this is a short-term fad and not a long-term trend, that's all.

Chrystalline said...

"they 'don't write science fiction as it's all squids in space’ . Madam, if The Handmaid’s Tale, one of my all time favourite novels and set in an imagined future, isn’t science fiction, I will consume my headgear. (And if anyone can find a novel involving squids in space, I will eat their headgear as well)"

I haven't checked yet - have they published any spin-off novels for Stargate SG-1 (post season 6) yet?;) With a dismissal like that, though, I almost want to write one, just so I can bring it up when they say things like that.