The poverty and evanescence of literary acclaim in SF
I’ve been reading Samuel R. Delany’s essay collection Shorter Views, which is fairly disparate, but still has some focus on science fiction. One of the essays reprinted herein* is “Zelazny / Varley / Gibson”, which uses the three named authors to discuss the whole phenomenon of the worshipful fan attention given to the bright, exciting new authors who burst onto the scene in every decade. It’s a very interesting essay, particularly as it the intense adulation given to these authors by SF’s core opinionmakers (a few thousand writers, editors, and fans), to discuss the ways in which high quality writing is rewarded within the genre (much more has been said, of course, about the ways in which poor quality writing is frequently rewarded).
One of his points is that “high quality” is a social construct. It has some meaning, but that meaning is an agreed-upon thing, and it is the product of many different discussions and many different judgments by many different people, so it can be confusing to interpret when a work is being lauded for high quality and when a work is being lauded for something else. In different cases, the same acclaim can mean “high quality” or something else.
One of his examples is that moderate sales can either be the result of disinterested buying by a few scattered people (the shreds of a fading fanbase), or they can be the result of very excited, frenzied buying by a small fanbase. Another example (which he touches on less heavily, so at this point I am probably putting words in his mouth) is literary awards, which can in some cases signify literary quality and in other cases signify political considerations, or a desire to reward a certain type of story, or a certain creator.
This got me thinking about the wunderkinds** who I’ve seen burst onto the SF scene even during my short reading life, like David Marusek, Kelly Link, Vandana Singh, Margo Lanagan, Kij Johnson, Brian Francis Slattery, Charles Yu, and Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s interesting that in a lot of these cases, the ardor surrounding these authors has cooled. But for each of them, that ardor was excited by a small subset of very literate people acting through very disinterested motives, talking about their stories on blogs, mostly.
None of these authors are at the fringes of SF. The people who acclaimed them are largely the editors, writers, and fans who constitute the core of SF. The other readers, the ones at the fringes, are–unless they read with a special sensitivity or insight–largely irrelevant to the dialogue within the genre and, in some way, their opinion is neither noteworthy nor flattering.
I think one mark of the worth of this sort of literary acclaim (and the way that it responds very sensitively to the actual quality of the work) is the way that it is so quick to evaporate. For instance, the excitement and acclaim that surrounded many of these authors one upon a time (five years ago) has largely died away (for the older among them, the newer are still somewhere within the ascending part of their arc of fame). For most of them, the spark of newness that they contributed to the genre has been assimilated, and even though these authors continue to produce work and that work is often very good and very capable of providing pleasure to literate readers, it is not seen as necessary that they continue to work. That exciting thing they were doing has already been done, and no purpose is served by continuing to do it.
It’s interesting that the accolades given to high quality work are so much more marginal than those given to work which is craftsmanlike and entertaining. For instance, I don’t think many of these people has had more than very moderate commercial succession, with the exception of maybe Kelly Link and Paolo Bacigalupi (and even they can’t be selling that well). Even the literary acclaim itself is very evanescent.
I’m not sure that this poverty and evanescence is bad. From a reader’s standpoint, the rigorousness of achieving this sort of fame seems to make it more trustworthy and desirable. One knows that one isn’t being hawked a book just because this author wrote something good once upon a time. One knows that one isn’t being hawked a book just because so many more people have read it, and the noise of those people is overpowering any criticism.
Nor does it seem that the paucity of these rewards is doing much to prevent people from writing high quality SF.
Perhaps the only damage comes from the confusion of symbols. Sometimes (often?) a book will sell many, many copies and is read by everyone because it is good. It will win awards both because it is good and because everyone read it. But it seems that a very popular book which is of high quality will have an easier time achieving literary acclaim eventually, if only because it will stay in print longer and be so much more visible, than a high quality book which is not very popular. And it is for that reason, I think, that all the tools for generating literary acclaim (which are pretty much restricted to blog posts and word of mouth), are focused on the latter.
It’s frightening for an aspiring writer to contemplate these mechanisms and realize the flimsiness of the formal gatekeepers we’ve struggled with for so long (the editors and agents). Every story has been vetted and accepted by an editor. Most will vanish. The only story that will last is the one that compels another human being–a disinterested person who is not at all economically entangled with your success or failure–to go out and tell other people that you’re the coolest thing since the invention of ice cubes.
*This essay is also included in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which I blogged about last year.
**Michael Swanwick calls them the Kumquat Haagendasz, in this blog post. But the people he names are, in most cases, much more successful than the people I think of when I think of SF’s “wunderkinds”.
The Kumquat Haagendasz, similarly, is a literary messiah, the new kid on the block who’s going to save science fiction from boredom, irrelevance, and whatever other sins it’s currently suffering from. The title is necessarily held by a new writer who suddenly bursts out of obscurity with work that dazzles and impresses other writers. It’s an evanescent honor which quickly fades as the writer becomes generally known and turns into a Name.
Once upon a time, children, back in 1980 when my first two published stories placed on the Hugo ballot in the same category, I myself was briefly the Kumquat Haagendasz. After which, if my leaky memory serves me correctly, the title fell vacant for a couple of years before being assumed by William Gibson. Other Kumquat Haagendaszen (Haagendaszii?) include Neal Stephenson, Somtow Sucharitkul, Karen Joy Fowler, China Miéville, Kelly Link, and Geoff Ryman — though this is by no means an inclusive list. Hannu Rajaniemi shows early signs of being the next in line.