“It just seems to me that, from Ballard to Herbert, SF was on a mission to invent and explore unknown fresh new psychologies. It was a fascinating, daunting task. We were on to something- and we lost the nerve to do it.”
There’s nothing less interesting than something which only exists to please you. And sometimes things of this kind aren’t just dull, but radically off putting and even offensive. Because something that only aims to please is by its nature manipulative, maybe even exploitative. It’s only trying to please you because it wants something from you. And if the thing it wants is money. Well that’s the most boring and offensive thing of all.
The quote at the head of this post was left by my friend Jim Worrad on a Facebook thread sparked by the idea that that Ursula Le Guin would not be published as a debut author today. Jim’s quote really sums up what I’ve felt festering inside for the last few days since publishing my latest Weird Things column on Le Guin’s new selected stories The Real and the Unreal. Thinking about Le Guin’s writing I really found myself wondering why there are so few writers in the fantasy genre producing work of the kind of quality – creatively, intellectually, technically – that Le Guin has produced throughout her career.
Clearly there are some. Lavie Tidhar scooped a World Fantasy Award for his novella Osama today – a book so original and challenging I dedicated a whole column to it back in October 2011. I could list a fair crop of other writers creating high quality fantasy writing, many of them World Fantasy award winners or nominees. Of all the genre awards it is the most consistently focussed on rewarding quality in fantasy fiction.
I’m going to guess that many, many SF & Fantasy readers will be less than pleased by the experience of reading Osama. It is a novel that goes out of its way to challenge its readers. If I was to pin one quality to Lavie’s writing as a whole it would be that. Tidhar is a steampunk author who hates steampunk, and an SF writer who hates SF. But this is exactly why many, many readers of SF & Fantasy enjoy Lavie’s writing. Because they believe that SF & Fantasy are supposed to be original and challenging, not just desperate attempts to please a nebulous mainstream audience.
Many of the current batch of bestsellers, particularly in Epic Fantasy, read exactly like calculated, desperate attempts to please some platonic ideal of a fantasy readership. Brandon Sanderson’s novels read like they were written by a committee of marketing executives, which from the author who sailed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time franchise home is hardly surprising. Trudi Canavan’s books are basically Mary Sue coming of age fantasies. Pat Rothfuss novels are like post-modern simulacra of of fantasy novels, a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a fantasy novel. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series are well described role playing source books with a feint stab at character that misses more often than not.
SF & Fantasy have a self-destructive tendency to behave like eager to please employees at a new job. You want a five part magical quest story with a singing sword? YOU GOT IT! You want a steampunk romance with zeppelins and robot armies? YOU GOT IT! You want a poorly disgusied sex fantasy / power trip? YOU GOT IT! You want a violent mysoginistic romp with some rape and torture scenes? YOU GOT IT! In short order the strategy of giving people what they want conforms to the law of diminishing returns, because actually people don’t know what they want. If they did, they wouldn’t need artists to give it to them. Do you expect to just get what you want from a doctor? Or a teacher? Or a parent? Or a friend? Then why would you carry that expectation in to the deep and complex relationship an author has with a reader?
SF & Fantasy are, in the words of my friend Jim Worrad, on to a good thing. I say that in present tense because I think we’re still far from losing it all together. It’s made the artform that is SF & Fantasy storytelling one of the most powerful in contemporary culture. But SF & Fantasy don’t thrive on being eager to please. They thrive on being challenging. On being original. On describing both reality and unreality in ever more innovative and beautiful ways. So let’s please carry on doing just that.