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From Nick Mamatas (nihilistic_kid)

Are you saying, Nick, that other magazines aren't committed to quality writing and a wide variety of stories.

Yes, that is exactly what I'm saying. I know this, because I read the magazines. Most of the stories are utterly dreadful. The prose is workmanlike (and often laughable) in most SF magazines, and the stories themselves generally read as though they have been written for retarded children with an interest in either the visual artifacts of their cough syrup hallucinations or advanced modes of transportation.

(This, incidentally, is a major reason why SF mags are now dying. Forget the decline of the distribution system — that was a decade ago. That is NO LONGER an excuse. SF essentially appeals to too small a market. Plenty of people like to read books, but SF does not offer what most readers want to read: sentences that don't treat them like morons. SF as a whole has been dedicated to appealing to the non-reader — generally fans of movies — for decades; it's everyone's secret recipe for success, except not one person or venue has actually succeeded with it. It's only been tried for the length of an entire generation of readers, maybe next time it'll work!)

Quality of writing is not valorized in SF, with rare exception. The Asimovian "pane of glass" metaphor predominates, and "literary" is most frequently used as an epithet. Indeed, the same fanzine editor who now has a berth at F&SF's website to write about pussy previously complained that "metrosexuals" were ruining SF and by metrosexual he apparently meant well-written. You know, unlike his essay. And when, of all the would-be pundits from whom you could possibly solicit commentaries, you choose some random semi-literate, that just means you're NOT actually interested in high-quality material.

What most SF magazines instead are interested in are in satisfying their declining pool of readers. Their declining pool of readers want not-very-well-written stories about the same themes they were entranced by as children.

And when this pool finishes dying off, those magazines will be gone.


It's a bit of a lengthy quote, but I dug it.

I find myself, these days, amused when people talk about how speculative fiction--to use the umbrella term--is getting more mainstream acceptance, when authors such as Michael Chabon and Cormac McCarthy, to name two, start writing in 'the genre'. Firstly, I hate it when people say 'in the genre' as if there is only one genre, rather than hundreds, but that's neither here nor there. A side track. But. But the simple fact is, long before McCarthy wrote The Road and won Oprah's love, there were authors using the fantastical. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Peter Carey, George Orwell, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Haruki Murakami: each one of them has work that can sit firmly and comfortably within the speculative fiction barriers, and each of them sells well, is respected, has been around for years and, in some cases, is considered part of the canon in various literature movements and historical periods. There hasn't--and will never be--a sudden grasp for respectability by authors who look at 'the trash genre' for ideas. There isn't a transition going on. The status quo hasn't been altered. The divide has always been and always will be artificial.

When I see this conversation pop up--or I hear it--I think, "Someone isn't well read," which is an interesting thought, because I know I'm not well read. But after that, I also tend to think that main difference between the above 'mainstream' authors and 'the genre' big names is simple writing skill. That's a fairly blanket statement, and there are, of course, exceptions, but the prose level that Mamatas comments on, and which I tend to lump in a general conservativism of form, concept, and thought within speculative fiction, is slowly becoming the true division in the popular and respected ends of spec fic and the mainstream.

Anyhow, there's a thought for the morning. Off to do some work now.

Comments

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kaolinfire
May. 8th, 2007 01:37 am (UTC)
When I see this conversation pop up--or I hear it--I think, "Someone isn't well read," which is an interesting thought, because I know I'm not well read. But after that, I also tend to think that main difference between the above 'mainstream' authors and 'the genre' big names is simple writing skill.

Both thoughts I can appreciate. I think the genre divide is more intricate than that, though--many people who flock to genre _want_ simpler sentences. So those who write for them do so not because they can't write any other way, but because they don't want to; or at least, that's another dimension to "blame". I do agree that that's the division, though.

And I do like me some easy reading, now and then, too. I think the world would be a poorer place without it. I just think it's a shame things aren't more balanced. Or perhaps that's just because I want my literary genre magazine to sell better. ;)
benpeek
May. 8th, 2007 03:41 am (UTC)
So those who write for them do so not because they can't write any other way, but because they don't want to

i dunno, man--how many writers have you met? most of them would be kinda offended if people thought they were dumbing down their work.

another side of it is this: most writing is done on instinct. now, instinct can be altered, grown, modified, and so forth, but a lot of writers aren't very calculated when they sit down to write. at least in my experience. in addition to that, a large portion of authors work in one voice--it's especially found in SF, for example.

in my experience--and it's limited, i guess--but in my experience, most authors in SF are trying to capture that moment in their childhood where there was this buzz, this amazing sense of fantastic wonder. which is fair enough, i suppose, but as a motivation for writing, isn't one that results in things i particularly dig.
kaolinfire
May. 8th, 2007 03:47 am (UTC)
in my experience--and it's limited, i guess--but in my experience, most authors in SF are trying to capture that moment in their childhood where there was this buzz, this amazing sense of fantastic wonder. -- yeah, this is more what I was trying to say than implying they were specifically trying write to a certain "grade level". And in that, there's generally a certain simplicity and ease of presentation. Not that things can't be very complex under that, but that's a separate issue.

Though I think there are also a number of writers who are more than happy to write something dumbed down because it's fast, easy, and fun. Popcorn writers to match the popcorn readers. ((Admittedly, I can only speak for one that is both that conscious of and blunt about it, who I know personally))
experimeditor
May. 8th, 2007 02:01 am (UTC)
to add to your list of "mainstreamers" who have done "SF":

Italo Calvino
Steven Millhauser
Jorge Luis Borges
Angela Carter
Rikki Ducornet
Brian Evenson

And there are some "genre" writers who are also recognized for their "literary" merit, such as Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, and M. John Harrison.

I'd love to see the labels just go away, but they won't. No amount of griping will fix the book marketing mindset. But if it makes you feel better, gripe away - no one's listening. I know, I've been that voice shouting into the wind. As of now, I simply don't care anymore. I write what I write and people either like it or they don't. If I think the story feels more "genre," I send it to a "genre" market, if not, I don't. I'm awfully proud of my mongrel-bibliography.
benpeek
May. 8th, 2007 03:34 am (UTC)
But if it makes you feel better, gripe away - no one's listening. I know, I've been that voice shouting into the wind.

that's not true, dude. look how you heard :)
experimeditor
May. 8th, 2007 12:37 pm (UTC)
yeah, but you're preaching to the choir, man! I guess I think that a lot of energy is wasted on these exchanges when we all could be writing great stuff. If you want to change the literary landscape, don't complain about it, do something about it, write something that bucks the trend (if that's your thing). Complaining about the state of publishing distracts me from my writing. I'm not trying to be accusatory or anything, ben, it's just that I don't want to use my energy griping when I could be writing. Life's too short. Of course if I can integrate my complaining into writing, interviews, etc, then it does double duty. But I still don't think anyone is really listening except those who are already converted. Then it just becomes one big bitch fest while the marketing people look at our little crowd and say "who is that bunch of people complaining over there?" "Ah, nevermind, they're just a small group. Let's turn our attention back to where the big money is." Seems like swimming upstream to me.
benpeek
May. 8th, 2007 12:45 pm (UTC)
heh. ah, man, i don't get on the bandwagon for this one often, but every now and then i pull it out for a run. it's not really about trying to convert anyone--i figure people will convert or not as they will. but talking aloud maps my thoughts, pushes a notion i've had, or i'm having, and i go off that way or not. every now and then it influences the kind of writing i'm doing.

either way, i figure it can't hurt to talk it.
experimeditor
May. 8th, 2007 03:35 pm (UTC)
You're right. I don't want to imply any ill-intent on your part or anyone elses. I understand about processing out-loud. I do the same thing sometimes.
buymeaclue
May. 8th, 2007 12:29 pm (UTC)
>who have done "SF":

Man. SF gets around!
experimeditor
May. 8th, 2007 03:36 pm (UTC)
:)

You should see it at the conventions! No shame, no shame at all.
(Deleted comment)
benpeek
May. 8th, 2007 03:23 am (UTC)
you know i love a good name calling ;)
lucius_t
May. 8th, 2007 02:57 am (UTC)
Dave Truesdale, the critic (that's hardly the term I'd apply) of whom Nick speaks, is so fabulously thick, so relentlessly boring, as to be a form of novocaine. His campaign regarding reverse sexism would be fucking hilarious were he capable of writing a sentence that didn't send me scrambling for caffein pills.

Squire Aguirre, I'd make a comment but I've sworn off kicking puppies. :) See you at WFC, man. Looking forward to it.
benpeek
May. 8th, 2007 03:30 am (UTC)
there's not many i'd use the term for critic...

i might bring myself a bag of puppies to america :)
lucius_t
May. 8th, 2007 03:42 am (UTC)
They'll be safe from the foot. :)

benpeek
May. 8th, 2007 03:43 am (UTC)
but won't that whole bag be such a temptation ;)
lucius_t
May. 8th, 2007 03:56 am (UTC)
Maybe just a little nudge, :)
benpeek
May. 8th, 2007 04:03 am (UTC)
poor puppies ;)
nballingrud
May. 8th, 2007 04:15 am (UTC)
No more fucking smileys! >(
benpeek
May. 8th, 2007 04:19 am (UTC)
:P
strangedave
May. 8th, 2007 07:20 am (UTC)
I was wondering who at F&Sf had so unimpressed Nick. I agree - if you are going to take up the tired and embarrasing banner of reverse sexism, you need to at least entertain those resistant to buying the premise.
strangedave
May. 8th, 2007 07:38 am (UTC)
the metrosexual essay in question

(which tired collection of standard right-wing complaints would be enough to convince me NOT to give him a column)
ataxi
May. 8th, 2007 01:07 pm (UTC)
Wow. That essay was super-crap.
ataxi
May. 8th, 2007 04:26 am (UTC)
Nice quote, but:
It's not just quality-of-prose that marks the genre boundary. It's content as well. Many readers habituated to "literary fiction" aren't interested in reading books with speculative themes, or dwarves, magic and fencing, regardless of how well they're written.

Likewise James Ellroy's always going to be first and foremost a crime writer, even though he's a superb, distinctive fiction writer whose prose knocks the pants off most "literary fiction" without breaking a sweat. Sure, the quality of his work will be tacitly acknowledged, but that won't make him a J.M. Coetzee or an Ian McEwan in the eyes of Booker Prize judges.
strangedave
May. 8th, 2007 07:30 am (UTC)
Re: Nice quote, but:
I was just reading some Ellroy today, an astonishing stylist.

Yes, there is more to the genre boundaries. Hard SF is generally written to presume a fair level of science literacy, for example, as well as a number of speculative science ideas that are well established in the literature (AI, nanotech, etc).

There is something in the writing standard, though -- there is a particular idealised version of SF that says it is a literature of ideas, and praises the 'sense of wonder', and to that school of SF criticism, literary flourishes that obscure the clear big ideas are counter productive. Better to have a Niven who sets out his big concept ideas in clear language, than a Wolfe who leads you through a maze of obscure language, unreliable narrators and sly hints before you can really work out what is going on, they say. Its not a viewpoint I take myself, nor is it really fair to generalise it to SF overall, but its certainly true that its influential (and particularly in US commercial SF publishing).
ataxi
May. 8th, 2007 12:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Nice quote, but:
Don't try that illeism crap on me :-)

I re-read American Tabloid over the weekend and was just about set to shoot up on The Cold Six Thousand for the second time as well, but I don't think I can handle it. But yeah, slack-jawed in admiration. First time through, a few years ago, I remember thinking "wow this is relentlessly charged", this time I couldn't stop noticing all the brilliant nuances of character. Anyway.
"Better to have a Niven who sets out his big concept ideas in clear language, than a Wolfe who leads you through a maze of obscure language, unreliable narrators and sly hints"
Obviously you're writing those words from the perspective of an sf-fan persona with taste other than your own, but we may as well lay it out anyway: what some people "clear and readable" in Niven, others (like me) find highly unpalatable. There are different communities of appreciation, and they tend to straddle genre boundaries as often as not.

The big issue seems to be that the terms we have tend to connote varying and often inaccurate characteristics, sometimes undesirably so. "Fantasy" carries a de facto association of "poorly written" in the wider world.
ataxi
May. 8th, 2007 12:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Nice quote, but:
Sorry; hallucinating. No illeism to complain about there.
benpeek
May. 8th, 2007 11:03 am (UTC)
Re: Nice quote, but:
Many readers habituated to "literary fiction" aren't interested in reading books with speculative themes, or dwarves, magic and fencing, regardless of how well they're written.

i'm not sure--i think the crossover with a lot of readers is there. sure, you're going to find people who have no interest in it, but i think a large portion of people crossover.

as for awards... well, dude, you know me--it's never been a way to measure worth. nice money if you can get it, but that is that.
ataxi
May. 8th, 2007 01:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Nice quote, but:
The reference to an award was incidental except in so far as it's a fairly standard way to promote a subjective judgement as authoritative, and the discussion as a whole touches on judgement, evaluation and categorisation, but heck yeah fuck 'em and the horse they rode in on brother. Testify. Awards. Who needs 'em. Free Tibet.

On the main point, I think we agree. We're just respectively peddling the glass half full, glass half empty versions - you say "well, there's a lot of crossover readers" and I say "yeah well, there's a lot of people who wouldn't touch your steenking fantasy and spec fic with a bargepole".

Speaking as someone who has frequently proselytised on behalf of "literary" fantasy and sf to people who don't read genre.
benpeek
May. 8th, 2007 01:07 pm (UTC)
Re: Nice quote, but:
yeah, i know. i'm the glass is half full guy. you know me and my optimistic attitude on life ;)
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