Genre needs to stop applauding crap, and respect its best writers

Sarah Crown has started a fascinating discussion on the resurgence of fabulism in literary fiction over on The Guardian book blog, brought on by Tea Obreht’s surprise win in the Orange prize.

I didn’t need to read the comments to know there would be at least half a dozen from irate members of fantasy fandom, complaining that we in the world of genre have been writing such novels for rather a long time. And of course it’s a valid point. There are writers within genre producing amazing examples of fabulism of exactly the kind highlighted as emerging within Lit.Fic by the article. One or two are tremendously famous, like Neil Gaiman. Many more are less known but equally good – John Crowley, Kelly Link, Nalo Hopkinson, Elizabeth Hand – to give just a few examples.

(I’m looking through my copy of Conjunction 39: The New Wave Fabulists as I write. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a starting point to understanding fantasy and fabulism.)

Sturgeons Law predicts that 70% (or 80% or 90%, depending on the version) of everything is crap. It’s a law that stands for all kinds of writing, Lit.Fic, SF or otherwise. And genre produces its measure of crap, no doubt. Some of that crap is just bad writing by bad writers. Some of it is writing that does one thing well – explores a niffty scientific concept or creates a cool new monster – but fails in most other ways as fiction.

And some of that crap is very popular. Some of the crappest books in genre are some of the most popular. They may well be fun crap, or effectively escapist crap, or crap branded with the latest sci-fi franchise, but they are still crap. Crap sells.

But if genre wants to gain the respect it deserves in the world at large, we need to get better at telling the world who our best and brightest are. We need our major awards like the Hugo’s and Nebula’s to really reflect the best writing, not just the most popular writers. We need more reviews and criticism that talk seriously about our best books. And most of all we need to vote with our feet. The next time you’re browsing the Sci-Fi section, skip volume 33 of whatever entertaining saga you happen to be reading and pick up something less crap instead.

Because genre is not a cohesive entity. It’s a few million fans of the weird and speculative and the writers we love. But if we want the best of those writers to get the respect they deserve then we, each of us as individuals, need to make that happen.

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

26 thoughts on “Genre needs to stop applauding crap, and respect its best writers

    1. @SamStrong – I mean respect from the ‘world at large’ as people who would find great joy and meaning in the best writers in genre, if their view was not obscured by crap. Secondarily, that means gatekeepers like editors, reviewers, critics.

      @Zebulum – Farmville is an excellent, excellent analogy.


  1. I would be happy if SF&F sought respect just from itself. Which is to say that as a reader, embracing a terrible book because it makes me feel happy is not respecting myself. Promoting such things does not respect you as a reader.

    It’s like Farmville in book form. Quick impulses are rewarded, but the bigger scope of the “game” is depressing as hell.


  2. The people who read crap don’t think it’s crap. Or am I wrong? I met a fan once who started analysing the Galactic Lensman series. He was deadly serious! I hadn’t the heart to tell him it was crap. He wouldn’t have understood.
    So long as low IQ people read SF, crap will sell. They have a right to enjoy themselves too.


    1. @Stephen Wylie – I’m not objecting to the existence, or even popularity, of crap. Just to the raising up of crap in awards and critical writing, which should be about excellence.


    2. I’ve never encountered that. I have encountered college profs who go to a great deal to study “crap” books, because crap can be an academically interesting thing. But, there’s never a doubt about the fact that it is crap.

      I have encountered adamant fans that think their crap is not crap. In the same way that my farts don’t stink, to me, I see it as something psychological about them, that this crap they love to eat meets some strange criteria their heads desire due to some illness or low-IQ issue. In this case, the solution is either counselling and exposure to better books.

      I don’t particularly care that someone is reading crap in much the same way I don’t care that someone is eating at McDonald’s instead of cooking locally-sourced, organic gourmet fare at home. What bothers me is how little interest there is in promoting the fine food among reviewers and awards.

      McDonald’s does not really deserve a Michelin star. In SF/F, too often, McDonald’s-level authors win awards that should be going to Gordon Ramseys.


  3. I write in the crime genre and Damien’s observation “We need more reviews and criticism that talk seriously about our best books” rings just as true. All too often the genre review consists of a quick plot summary, pretty much the back of book blurb, slightly fleshed out.

    Of course, a reviewer can only write about what’s there and if the book, (crime SF/Fantasy whatever genre), offers little else to consider other than plot, then that’s a good indication that it’s not approaching the levels of excellence deserving of an award.


  4. While your central point is a kind of “no duh” thing i can agree with, let’s examine what just happened here. Somebody you identify as outside of genre–outside of your tribe–wrote a by-all-accounts ambitious and interesting novel with elements of fabulism in it. It wins a prize. Your response is TO LOSE YOUR SHIT and frame that win in the context of “this thing that’s not us won so I’m not going to focus on it–I’m going to tear my hair out about the lack of respect for other books. Soooo instead of this being a good thing for fabulism it’s a very, very bad thing because it’s not someone you grok as one of your own–because obviously this win meant that all of these other writers you mention were denied something this year…oh wait! None of them had anything up for it this year, or as far as I can tell *wrote* a book published in the year in question.

    Let me be quite clear about this: you buying into the “divide” between genre and mainstream fabulism, or any similar divide, is antithetical to your purpose and antithetical to the health of fabulist fiction. If you continue to concentrate on this divide, to in a sense fixate on it, then you’re going to do much less good for non-realistic fiction than you could. It’s beginning to become the thing that gnaws at you, and reduces you rather than makes you more interesting or more useful.



    1. @JeffV – That’s…actually the opposite of what I’ve done Jeff. I don’t have any particular response to the books win, having not read it. You seem to be responding to a different issue.


  5. Cream will always rise to the top. Other things rise too, of course, like bloated corpses. In the average cup of coffee, I think there’s room for both cream and corpses to float side by side. Most people know the difference.
    (Also, most people never ask me to make them coffee.)


    1. You’ll never get a job with the Mob. There isn’t enough room for a corpse in a cup of coffee.
      The best method is to arrive at a private arrangement with the crematorium guy, a bit of unofficial OT. Don’t wait till it’s bloated.


  6. I guess one problem is that, for those awards with public nominations and voting, the popular/enjoyable books will often rise above those preferred by high(er)brow readers.


    1. Actual popularity would be less of a problem. What we have had this year seems like factionalism…people in fandom voting for the author who they feel the closest link to. I guess it is always bound to happen.


      1. Assuming this year is the first time this has occurred (I’m not aware of the history), I wonder if it can be attributed to marketing people making it very clear to authors that their primary goal should be to form as close a relationship as possible with as many fans as possible. A cult-like effect? I mean I’m sure John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is a decent novel, but best SFF novel of the decade?


      2. It’s not the first time by any means, but it does seem much more pronounced this year. I think its more the case that publishers are choosing to publish writers who already have that ‘cult’ established around them.


      3. Actually? Is that arsehole(ish) of me? Clearly a lot of people loved Old Man’s War book. Am I wrong to make this kind of judgement? I just think the best book of the last decade should have more appeal than just to fans of military SF….


    2. Agree with this, it’s actually what I was trying to say above.

      There is a hidden thing going on here, people seem to have some sort of guilty pleasure. Are crap books enjoyable? If they are enjoyable, why are they deemed to be crap? Yes, I liked Abba, and I’m not ashamed. They were definitely not crap, in fact at times rather profound. I didn’t like Doc Smith, he was really crap imo. But not in the perception of others, and if they want to vote for him and his ilk, I have no objection.

      If you pick up a ‘highbrow book’, and it’s not enjoyable, why are you reading it? Is it possible that it is really crap, like Doris Lessing’s pathetic effort at SF? I looked at that for less than five minutes, but some ‘intellectuals’ will tell you she is a leading SF writer. They are too stupid to know she is crap, right? Just like a Sun reader, but middle class. If you want the acceptance of people like that, you will never get it. They are too thick to appreciate good F&SF, even though they are ‘intellectuals’. They like to post in a sucks-boo fashion on Damien’s Guardian column, looking down their noses from a vast altitude, but unable to reason. They are just snobs, and they will never buy F&SF, they’re hopeless. They couldn’t do maths or science at school, and have decided to look on that as a sign of superiority.

      There’s nothing wrong with Damien wanting to redouble his efforts to promote good stuff, and encourage others to do the same, that is entirely laudable. I can’t go along with the idea of trying to discourage the less bright from praising their favourite writers. If they love it, it’s OK because it has an audience, and yeah, I’m green with envy. How can you create absolute standards in art? In the end, such efforts ineluctably come down to a ghastly elitist put-down of the less well-educated.

      Are there contradictions in what I’ve just written? Of course. Consistency is the bugbear of lesser minds, etc


    3. Duh, My last post looks less than clear…I was trying to agree with Sam Strong’s post:

      “I guess one problem is that, for those awards with public nominations and voting, the popular/enjoyable books will often rise above those preferred by high(er)brow readers.”

      When I wrote ‘Agree with this, it’s actually what I was trying to say above.’


  7. I don’t think there’s a hope in any of the circles of hell. Here’s the thing: it seems as if “marketing” has decided that science fiction and fantasy is what people who watch the syfy channel (or local equivalent) are into – in other words, all of that Margaret Atwood ‘squids in space’ crap.
    However, much to their chagrin, they are discovering that there is a hunger for that ‘kind’ of thing amongst their target markets, so they’re bringing in, promoting and pushing their own version that really, really isn’t ‘squids in space’.

    They’re creating their own separate ‘genre’, in parallel with “genre” and seem to be planning on ignoring the real thing out of existence. “Sci Fi” (and fantasy) will once again be the pejorative.
    Sci Fi only sells to that weird little in-group of people who like crap (obviously) and it will never gain any serious respect (or so the reasoning seems to go). Therefore, create a substitute that they can market as their own, leave all of that explanatory burden behind, ditch those crazy fans (for new ones they can mold in their own image) – just as syfy has done with the television watching genre crowd.

    And as far as the crap label goes? Way, way way too subjective. My dog lives to eat cat crap, which he obviously enjoys with tremendous relish whenever he manages to snag some. To me – it’s utterly disgusting. To him, the height of ecstasy. Who are we to question his choices? As far as I can tell, he’s living a better life, more happily, than at least 99% of the rest of us.


  8. I would try to get worked up over this, but the fact is, if you took a Hugo or a Nebula Award into the street of pretty much any major American city and stopped passersby to ask them what it was, you would probably have to stop a boatload of folks before anyone recognized it. And even if you said, “This is a Nebula Award” or “This is a Hugo Award,” they probably still would not know what that meant.

    But I will say “best” is always going to be a subjective assessment. When Chris Beckett won the Edgehill Prize in 2009. the judges were a little embarrassed about saying a collection of science fiction stories were the best British short stories of that year, but science fiction fans might have argued that there were other science fiction stories that were even better than Beckett’s.



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