Matt Arnold (matt_arnold) wrote,
Matt Arnold
matt_arnold

Good Prose Fiction: Solution Or Problem?

There are two ways in which the high quality of writing has become a problem for readers.

The first way is that there are too many good books to read, and editors are telling us they don't want to filter any more narrowly than that. Let us be candid. Many of us do not care enough about books to read that many, so we ask magazine editors to narrow down the field for us to those that match our tastes. Instead, Mike Resnick tells us that as editor of Jim Baen's Universe he'll give us any fiction he thinks possesses generic goodness. In today's information overload, we wish for more specific literary filters in the torrent of work that has already passed through the "is it generically good?" filter.

This is far too broad a criteria given that different works of fiction provide different mental experiences for which we might have a hankering at various times. Examples include:
  • Tear-jerking sentimentality.
  • Romantic feelings.
  • Intellectual stimulation about philosophy, business, politics, science, engineering, or other ideas.
  • Laughter.
  • Exciting action.
  • Mythopoeia.
  • Feelings of horror.
  • A puzzle to be solved.

A murder and a detective are just a setting, but the puzzle is the reading experience you have in your head. Fantasy and science fiction are also just settings, and can provide any of those experiences, although there are good reasons that they tend to specialize. I think mental experiences make more useful categories than settings. When fans complain to Escape Pod that Mike Resnick's well-written tear-jerkers are "not Science Fiction", they are complaining wrong. They really were dissatisfied because they were expecting something else which is either on the above list, or belongs there and is missing due to my oversight. (Given that they named SF, good odds are that it's the intellectual one.) Hence Mr. Resnick hears them wrong and doesn't know what they want. People don't need one magazine full of detectives and murders, another full of outer space, and another full of swords and sorcery. Those are settings. Readers need a filter based on the mental experiences they find rewarding. How much does a work trigger fear, humor, tears, romance, intellectual stimulation, or let us work out whodunit? Those are happening in the reader's head independent of props like wands and rayguns.

The second way good writing can be a problem is when it gets out of its place and becomes an exclusionary idolatry. It's a little awkward and uncomfortable to say this, but some of us are unwashed ruffians who read prose fiction specifically to find out the fiddly details and explanations, rather than for the right reasons preached to us by Real Literature. We are the kind of readers who can be educated to appreciate the prose fiction writer's craftmanship, but who unapologetically continue to enjoy reading encyclopedic recountings in a GURPS Transhuman Space setting sourcebook.

It's understandable that many prose fiction authors become obsessed with wordcraft and dramacraft to the point that they can no longer see the rewards of a more polymath set of mental experiences. They wouldn't have gone into the job if they didn't love literature's particular subset of rewards. They're specialists, after all, and reading their livejournals about their writing process, I'm amazed at the depth of their insight into how it works. I just don't care as much as they do. Of course I don't... that's why they're writers and I'm not. Hey, somebody's got to read the stuff.

A polymath, such as a hard science fiction writer, is a jack of at least two trades. His or her work is divided in its loyalties, between the joy of narrative and the stimulation of ideas about our empirical world. Each enriches the other.

That's what fans of specifically science fiction like about it. Slavish totalistic loyalty to literary values like plot and characterization are an artificial limitation on written SF in a way comparable to film's prosthetic makeup limitations and gravity on the set. Carry it too far and pretty soon everybody's writing Dandelion Wine and Farewell Summer just because that sort of book is "well-written" by a supposed universal standard we are all supposed to appreciate.

When it reaches the point that good writing and good books have been set up in opposition to the polymath's enjoyment-- not only ignoring but denigrating-- good writing and good books lose that fight. Readers don't cease to exist when we put the book down. Some of us value other things in the life of the active mind in addition to wordcraft and dramacraft. Philosophy, politics, business, engineering, science. That's why when we go to the bookshelf with the limited time we have allotted for fiction, we specifically pull science fiction off the shelf.

A minority of authors love their skill set so much that it is difficult for them to fit this concept into their world. They find it necessary to narrowly denigrate enjoyment of cleverness more than emotional depth, or denigrate enjoyment of imaginative and fully-realized setting. Loyalty must be given over to literary values wholly. They can tell when an author, and by extension a reader, is serving two masters, enjoying a book for reasons not entirely related to books. For them the Good Book is a jealous god.

Insulting enjoyment is counterproductive. The reaction will not be to properly balance emotional depth. It will be to devalue prose fiction as not interested in giving them what they want, and simply read Popular Science, WIRED Magazine, or Ray Kurzweil instead. That is not necessary, as there can be rapprochement and coexistence on their bookshelves.

Go ahead, write a good book. But please, when you're done writing a book that's good by book standards, release a supplement for the dunces in which you tell-- not show-- the implications we didn't catch. Then we will ooh and aah along with the literary sophisticates.

Tags: literature, science fiction, sf
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