Genre. In my case Science Fiction. In some other peoples cases: Horror and Fantasy. And it does not end there.
The past week again, the discussion rose in my writer-circles: “should ‘genre’ adhere to (quality) rules and standards of literature?” “Should genre-writers apply the same quality-standards of Literature?” And the underlying (in some cases maybe) desperate question or desperate cry: “why are we not taken serious?” Not being taken serious by Dutch press, by renowned Dutch reviewers and so on. “Why do we not receive the same kind of attention and the same opportunities as mainstream literature, as mainstream novels?”
It is a very tired discussion. It is tired and it is still actual. It is actual as works of genre like Science Fiction in The Netherlands still suffers from a stigma that maintains 1930’s SF as a default baseline for everything SF. Rockets, space, crazy scientists, poorly written material, pure pulp, with no narrative or literary qualities what so ever. It ignores the 1950’s, where Theodore Sturgeon, Philip Dick, Alfred Bester and others started to explore and integrate literary themes because recycling the classic themes, tropes and story lines of “old school SF” started to become repetitive and boring.
Next came “New Wave”, where almost every and all rules of the genre were tossed in the garbage bin by writers like Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Norman Spinrad (in the US). Followed by ecological, sociological, feminist and spiritual SF in the 1970’s, focusing more deliberate on topics like climate change, alternative religious experiences, more stories inspired by experiences from drugs like LSD, and new shifts caused by cultural movements from the decade before.
Failed attempts to lift things up
A few years ago, the relatively new, Dutch, “Stichting ter bevordering van de fantastische literatuur” made several attempts to mix literature and mainstream with SF and Fantasy, by inviting writers of literary stories to write SF, by inviting renowned and awarded mainstream writers to judge short stories admitted to the yearly “Paul Harland” short story contest and organizing other things. The intention was good: lifting things up by introducing literary influences into the circles of SF and Fantasy writers.
Things went south when the first award for the “Best genre novels of the year” was kind of cancelled “due to a lack of (literary) quality” in the submitted novels. This caused a shitstorm with a strong anti-Literature sentiment.
Why most things are shit. Probably
The reasons I see are several. Not all points are new. And a note for the frail reader: this part is not going to be nice. As a consolence: these issues are present anywhere.
- There is a significant lack of ambition with many writers in the field: to read as much as possible, learn as much as possible (about the craft), to push boundaries of anything and everything as much as possible.
- Many works written by the writers I know are derivative, shallow, colorless and simplistic in many aspects; levels of what and where depending on the individual writer. This shallownes, colorlessness and simplicity ranges from plot-devices, to plot, to dialog, to the described conflicts and events, to motives driving the characters, to the characters themselves, to the decisions made by each of those characters, to the events bringing everything in motion, to the story worlds described and so on.
- Not many writers are willing to work and work hard on technique, style and quality. And most of them (including me) get stuck at some level, due to a lack of something or another. Most writers simply produce one or two stories per year, or simply just write what they feel like writing, hardly take time or effort to redact or revise what they have produced, to move to the next story. And the next. And the next.
I will just mention the delusion of almost narcissistic self-declared-awesomeness some writers are hampered with as a side-note here, because it is mostly boring, it exists everywhere and the genre is not some sort of a special magnet for misguided idiots.
Quality and the high price of awesomeness
Why is quality so important? And from whom? And what are the criteria? Do we need to produce stuff that is in favor of literary critics? Is it true that when we get the same favors as literature and works of literature, things will be better?
As you might have expected, there is no simple answer and no simple solution.
First of all: to produce work of quality requires a specific mindset, that is borderline obsessive-compulsive regarding certain quality standards for bodies of written work.
The starting points and segments for these quality standards are labelled and documented in currently over more than 100 different books on writing, by various authors and published by various publishers. But not all writers who aim high, know how to focus their mind on the things that really work. It is really difficult to see everything in the entire landscape of so many directions and possibilities. And many writers, instead, get lost in unproductive side tracks, wasting endless hours on shit that will not really lead to any serious improvement, and/or get stuck in murderous trauma-fed self-doubt leading to things like extreme defensive behavior and/or countless writing blocks.
When we talk about quality, we talk about the quality of story, plot, character description and character development. We talk about the quality of prose and variation and skill in the use of language. We talk about the quality of world-building and expression, the quality of writing in exposing crucial information and the quality of dialog. With quality we talk about focus. We talk of pace and rhythm, of consistency in the presentation and development of characters and the story itself. We talk about the awareness, use and abuse of tropes and clichés, of repetitiveness and freshness, of flatness and vigor, of knowing what is new and old, of what is old and can be revived and remixed, of mastery of voice and style, and much, much, much more.
Each writer can educate themselves, can develop their skills, can work to improve on each and every aspect of what makes a story even better. But not all writers are interested in making this effort, as you need to have that borderline obsessive-compulsive focus to climb and explore those endless series of stairs and rooms for years and years and years with no real end in sight: reading books, doing endless study; endlessly reworking and rewriting each and every chapter, each and every scene, each and every interaction, each and every conflict until they are “perfect enough” for that moment in time. It requires the same kind of endless dedication that makes a difference between a top-athlete who dedicates every available hour to their sports and an amateur who sports for fun or leasure. And even with this dedication you can still cripple yourself with bullshit and still deliver poor results: books and stories so boring or disconnected or mundane that hardly anybody cares about reading them.
As with high-demanding sports, writers will get stuck against a personal ceiling several times during their career, where improvement stops and the quality of the output might even start to drop. Mostly due to blind-spots and a lack of push in certain directions still unknown and undiscovered. And like sportspeople, writers need others to push them beyond those points, to push them beyond their own resistance and fears, to push them in new states of mind, where the impossible at some point becomes the foundation from which they can work and grow even further.
It is bullshit to say: “a good writer does not need this kind of support”. One does. Because the mind is lazy. Because any person, including me and you, will only push yourself up to a certain limit. Because we simply do not know all and everything and tend to resist things that might cost us more than they seem to deliver. Because sometimes other people see more clearly what we need to do or overcome to up the level than we do.
It is just to be careful. Next to the people who might actually be able to help writers to reach and go higher, there are many assholes and idiots who claim or think they “know” how to lead a writer on that fast road to awesomeness, but in the end will mostly send that writer into one swamp or another.
Most readers don’t give a shit
In reality, most consumers really don’t give that many shits about these levels of quality: where everything is elevated to genius levels of carefully constructed, healthy awesomeness. If they did, Pringles would not exist as a “food item” and fast-food would be dead. A story needs to be engaging and gripping. It needs to appeal to certain and personal reading-preferences and who gives a fuck (except for critics and critical readers) that the writing is not brilliantly poetic, most characters are mostly caricatures and the story is laced by countless plotholes, big enough to make the whole structure fall apart the moment you start touching them. As long as it is interesting. And engaging. And stimulating.
Most readers really don’t give any single fuck that the books and stories they love are not considered “literature”. Most bestsellers are mainstream easy-reads. Page turners stilling a hunger for something else to read within the realms of personal interest: to stimulate, distract and soothe the mind. To escape. To laugh, to be electrified by something. Whatever it is.
Over countless decades, this type of escapism and easy reads has been torched to ashes by Literary Critics, as these kind of stories do not really challenge the mind. Nor do they challenge our world-view (to mention only two reasons of many). There is nothing to learn from easy-reads. Nothing to learn about the self and nothing to learn about the world. Nothing to ponder about. Nothing that will elevate the mind to higher levels of awareness.
Science fiction, Fantasy, Horror are labelled as “too low” in these regards, as their roots lie in pulp and that pulp was –in most cases– really low quality and most critics never adapted their view on this. The thing is: easy reading, as well as pulp, can be as good as the writer makes it. Even pulp can elevate people, start processes of new awareness, challenge our mind, challenge our world view. Even page turners can offer merit, quality and depth.
This could become a rant about the incestuous narrowmindedness of Literary Critics and Literary Circles. A rant about many writers in their specific niche, who are as dull and superficial and inane as many genre-writers. A lecture where I tell you how SF, Fantasy and Horror has been used, over and over again, as a vehicle to expose certain things about our individual and collective realities in our present and past in ways Literature with the Big L will never be able to. I can write about genre being used for several centuries as an incredible rich form to write political criticism and political satire (think of “Gullivers Travels” and Dante’s “Inferno” as only two examples). But the matter today is quality. Literature versus Genre.
Stuff you like to sell to others, probably sucks more than you think
I am bored by the discussion. Not because it is irrelevant, but because the discussion always circles back on the same items. To be brief: who gives a shit about what Literary Critics think about Genre? If you want to improve the imago of Genre in general, begin by accepting that over 90% of everything that is being produced and offered is –indeed– shit not worth reading for most other people outside of your circles. Acknowledge this. “Yes: most of it is garbage.”
Acknowledge that most of the stuff you like is probably not that good either. “Dune”, “Null-A”, “The stars my destination”, “Neuromancer”, “Babel 17”. While each of these works have their merits, and rightfully inspired many generations that followed, they are also old and flawed and really not that good when you start dissecting them. Heinlein –considered by many boomers to be a master– is really a very poor and naive writer, hacking together novels with –sometimes– borderline-brilliant ideas, being poorly executed. Arthur C. Clarke is fucking boring in most of his work, and far from a literary master. I haven’t re-read Asimov recently. But probably I am not going to be that mild on him either.
Taken more recent works, in the top 5-s of several SF/F awards like the Hugo and the Nebula from the past 2 decades is either very derivative, or poorly written, or not much more than evolved fan-fiction, or flat, or boring, or all of the above.
“Literary SF” is in most cases fucking mundane, unless it gets trippy. But in most cases it is about boring people with boring issues in a boring story-world, going through boring events. Very much like Real Literature does. Magic Realism is –in most cases I have read– mostly empty symbolism, a nice parlor trick performed in front of a gullible audience that is hungry for something different, but scared for things going too deep or moving too far from home: stories usually based on one single idea, without any real depth or any real content in the story world, or in the events that unroll.
“We need to fix this”
I understand the sentiment “to fix this”, where “this” is, among other things:
- The poor reputation of SF, Fantasy and Horror due to preconceptions and a limited view on the different genres
- The lack of ambition or lust for quality with the writers
- Being excluded from specific (Literary) parties and awards
- Being shunned by professional publishers (because the genre itself is not taken seriously, or the publisher thinks the market is not big enough for that specific kind of work)
I had similar sentiments. It is one of the reasons why I started to publish a magazine for short stories in the 1990’s. It is why I support Edge.Zero financially and why I built the software to sluhs-read the stories submitted to Edge.Zero. It is why I made a new (and failed) attempt with Edge.01 for a more professional platform for short stories a few years ago.
Skip this part if you want to, as I am fucking bored by it
The problems are several and most of them boil down to money, networks, people, goals, ambitions, professionals platforms and visibility. More concretely:
- Money — if there is no budget, you can’t pay people. If you can’t pay people, you are stuck with what is available on voluntary basis. This goes for stories, for illustrations and for editors. No money als means: no budget for promotion on different relevant platforms, means that you are almost invisible.
- Network — you need to know people who know people. You need people around you who can do things, move things, make things happen. It helps to know publishers who are open to publish certain authors. It helps to know people who can review and push and promote books and stories. It helps to know people who can help writers to redact and revise their work.
- People who create — you need good people to make quality products. While there is enough talent in the Netherlands and Belgium, this talent is not given much room or support or stimulans to develop itself. For that support and stimulans you need people who are capable, knowledgable and available.
- Goal and ambition — it helps to have a clear goal and ambition. For instance: to reach higher, to help other people to reach higher.
- Platforms and visibility — it helps to have several platforms to present yourself on, like a proper website and space for presence on review-sites and being visible on several events where many people visit, and advertisement and presence on as many different, relevant platforms –including radio, television, newspapers, magazines, social media sites, magazine stands and book shops– as possible. So people can see you and find you.
- Professionals — it helps to have people in your team who know how to effectively make use of all platforms and possibilities: to get maximum effect from minimal budgets, to produce high-quality results with as little money as possible. People who know how to transform ideas into products and concepts that can generate more money that can be invested in people, products, and so on. People with a professional attitude who can help writers and creators to improve on their own work, to boost what is already there to higher levels.
- Products with commercial value — it helps to have work that has commercial value, that people are willing to pay money for. These can be stories, illustrations, books, access to specific services and content, and so on.
But where would you start?
First: professionals: people who know how to get things moving from nothing more than what is there already and that is good enough to start earning money. People with networks. People who create works with potential and a certain commercial value (even if that commercial value is attention that can be transferred into visibility). From there: professionals who can help artists boost their work. Platforms to present oneselves on, to become visible on. And so on.
Somewhere in this setup is money. If the people instigating this have a startup-mentality, the product comes first and money comes later.
It is useless to convince critics they are wrong
Critics are not as powerful or influential as you might think. For sure they are less powerful than new initiatives like a weekly spot on the radio, or on TV focusing specifically on SF/F & H in the Netherlands. It will probably more easy and more effective to sell a solid and fun format (a formula for things like a TV show) to a public station like BNN.
Literature ≠ quality
We have come to confuse literature with quality, maybe because that is the pedestal it is placed on when by the teachers that talk about literature. As if an random concept can also –almost exclusively– claim certain properties.
Quality is a multi-pronged thing. With stories and even more with novels, there are thousands of items and elements shaping the narrative. All fabricated. All imagined and then placed into words. Producing works of quality is a personal thing, based on personal choices, personal drives and personal handicaps. Certain things come natural. Certain aspects of “writing works of structural quality” can be taught, studied, learned, exercised, refined, mastered as enough of those elements have been studied and dissected by other writers and their findings can be transferred to many other people. And when applied properly, they show a clear and undeniable positive effect.
But it is the individual artist who decides what is relevant for their own pleasure, their own mental health, their own personal writing goals and their own wellbeing as an artist. It is the individual artist who will decide how much ego stands in the way between themselves and the people who can teach them to surpass their current limits. Pushing yourself up to higher levels can be mentally and emotionally taxing. Pushing yourself beyond your current limits can become a fucking nightmare. Assuming you know better than others can be an important defense mechanism for other issues unaddressed.
Pissing down on others, while you yourself are full of shit
It is easy to piss on people who are not willing to change and easy to piss on people you think are less than yourself. And I have heard and read the sneering comments on writers unwilling to change, and how “they” continue to make bad examples “out of us”.
Sure, some people, who are vocal for- and against elevating the quality levels of genre in The Netherlands, are full of shit. Having a lot to say, but eventually putting no skin in the game and either not doing one single thing to change their own game for the better, or using their own “protest” as a poorly dressed smoke-screen to “cover” their own lack of skills and their own lack of willingness to do the work needed. But that is not the issue.
Calimero has been mentioned more than once in discussions like this: the bird that has become a placeholder for a towering inferiority-complex, based on self-diminishing and self-proclamation of victimhood. And it derails the conversation. The issue is that we all suck. Some more than others. But we all suck. At the same time, we are in many aspects at similar levels als many writers elsewhere, who suck as much and even more.
Amateur soccer remains amateur soccer until you start organizing stuff and amateur writing remains amateur writing until you start organizing stuff.
Things DO suck. And there ARE factors slowing our development down as writers in this country. And it is not a lack of love for the genre, or the average mentality of “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg”, or a decline in readership. All those “issues” are mostly bullshit excuses to cover another more real problem, which is our own lack of professionalism, our own lack of access to networks of powerful people and to shitloads of money and our own lack of initiative to thoroughly and deliberately organize serious shit to make other serious shit happen in our own interest.
How bad is it really?
Actually not that bad at all. So many things are happening. And so many things will someday lead to other things. And yes: shitty writers will always continue to exist. But they are not that relevant.
Several publishers in the past 2 decades have been able to survive their first years and seem to be able to sustain in the current markets. Roughly 100 writers are producing series of novels in their own story worlds, that find audiences. And each of those writers help shape the future. They help reach a growing audience. They help making that audience more and more aware of what is going on here. With writers that are on same and comparable levels of many other mainstream-writers from other places. Not the best ones, in most cases, but for sure writers who are loved and consumed by many and whose work find their ways translated as (sometimes blockbuster-)movies in cinemas.
To find and produce writers of high quality, you need this total landscape where everyone and anything has a chance to become published. It is, in the end, a numbers-game, where you need to reach as many people as possible, need to give as many writers as possible a chance to become published and need as many people as you can produce to help them on their personal roads to wherever they want to go, so that those on higher levels can find their ways to publishers and magazines and an audience that is eager to read them and others.
Som much has already happend from the desolate, dried out wastelands where SF/F & H from The Netherlands started decades ago: with hardly no chances for publication what so ever. And we tend to forget that the handful of super-writers we could have, can only be there, because there is- and was a fertile landscape for the work they created, and a proper support network (by editors and agents and other people) for the personal roads of development other people took before them.
No single writer was born a fully developed genius. Many, if not all authors who reached (relatively) stellar highs, had people supporting and pushing and coaching them along the roads that led there.
Where to now?
I really don’t give a fuck. Things will fall into place at some point. And if they don’t, they don’t.