Oh, no, this isn’t a post about the Hugos. It feeds into it, sort of, but it’s not, not really.
I have for sometime now been meaning to write a series of posts about what constitutes “Good” fiction. You see, it’s a much abused term, and a much abused idea, and most of the time what people perceive as “good” is somewhat of a positional good.
I once found myself in a panel on YA literature at a con, and one of the authors, to be prepared, had put up a question on her blog as to what the YA readers were reading. The answers had surprised her. She brought forth, as proof that we had YA taste all wrong things like The Handmaiden’s Tale and Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
My colleague, I am afraid, had no kids in K-12. She was surprised, but didn’t change course when I told her that those were ASSIGNED books. Her attitude was “Well, but they must like them, or why would they mention them?”
Unless these kids are very different from those — mine, friends’, their circles — whom I heard talk about these turkeys (yeah, it’s a turkey, sorry. The Handmaiden’s Tale is passable world building if you don’t actually know very much about people. As for Chronicle of a Death Foretold, bah. Borges is a tough act to follow and people so soul dead as to be personal friends with Fidel Castro have issues with the “magic” part of magic realism. They are — or this one is — however really good with PR and con artistry.) no, uh, not so much.
The kids mentioned them because these are the books approved of. In fact the books the teachers approve of, and teachers are the greatest authority and hold the most power in kids’ lives. Even if the kids’ are a contrary sort (me, me, me — or okay, younger son) who like scratching up freshly painted walls, they are conscious of a need to pass the class. Or, as happened whenever younger son ran his mouth “to play the game” as more than one teacher enjoined him to.
And in fact, that’s what it boils down to. Humans are social apes, and as such we are always looking for ways to ‘play the game’. The reading preferences expressed in public have the same issue.
This doesn’t extend just to what people read but the format. When I attended Superstars Writing Seminar, I listened to a researcher telling us people overwhelmingly prefer paper over ebooks. He didn’t seem aware that this is the “prestige” answer, the answer pushed by “taste leaders” ranging from tv talking heads to “intellectuals.” And if ti’s true of the man on the street, my readers must be a very odd lot, as I sell 100 ebooks for every print one. (Though because it’s a status thing, it’s still important to have a print one for sale, to lend it gravitas.)
As you can see, then, it becomes pretty hard to think of “good” fiction.
Oh, we could go with what sells and sells well, but everyone I know is very much sure that that is no indication of quality.
I think part of this is poppycock. We were all of us raised on the idea of true genius ignored and living in a garret. Part of this is that some writers/artists/painters did have that trajectory, though that’s usually predicated more on the writers/etc failings of personality or sheer insanity than on no one appreciating their art. When you dig into their history you find people were trying to buy them, but the creator was too nuts to make a thriving business. Because — to my chagrin, since I suck at it — the side of selling your art is still a business.
The other part is that in recent years at least we all had the experience in things like books and music of being totally turned off by mega million sellers and then finding something no one ever heard of that knocks your socks off.
That is a result of top down marketing and Dave has talked about it extensively in his posts. When people in NYC decide what gets all the publicity, they might not get to set everyone’s tastes, but they can markedly affect a lot of purchasing.
Not that much, though. Consider in my field, right now, iirc to make a “bestseller” in hard cover you need less than 20k books. Now consider all the people who watch and play sf and think of the potential market of even 10% of that who also like to read. You’re looking more at a million or so.
And that’s part of it, not only does from-above push marketing bring about a distortion in what people buy, but it makes people think this is “the most popular” and when they read it “not good.” Which means they discount popular taste.
What I’ve found is that discounting for the push a book got, looked at just in terms of who found it and liked it, bestsellers are not any worse than any other books. Take Larry Correia’s stuff — he’s sneaky with it and will probably laugh at me for pointing it out in public — but he is a master craftsman who knows his tools and evokes emotion with his words as well or better than most “literary darlings.”
Also I found that my taste is not that different from most people. Take Barry Hughart. Never sold much. Lousy marketing. BUT everyone who finds him and reads him agrees it’s top notch stuff, even if there’s no social benes to admitting it.
However, even in a conservative-libertarian group, if you ask for recommendations for good literature, what you get is the same names that make the college/high school reading lists, most of these set up by cultural Marxists with an agenda. (No, trust me.)
I mean, if you look at the Hugos in recent years from the perspective of cultural Marxism, or even of dialectical Marxist literary analysis (what? This is my degree, guys) then you think the best won.
But that’s sort of like saying if you look at hammers from the perspective of confectioners, then a chocolate hammer is your best bet.
The game, in other words, is rigged, and you need to reject the rigging and the phony standards that yield the expected answers.
Unfortunately that leaves us, after 100 years or so of Marxism being a positional good (mostly because it’s a self-coherent, seemingly logical system. Intellectuals love those even when they have relation to reality. It’s the same thing that made a lot of Catholic theology — the more convoluted medieval kind — so popular with the educated classes of the time) with no way to judge what is good.
At which point we must return to the fundamentals.
What is art? It seems as though our species has always had art. Story and carving, painting and acting. Perhaps that is the thing that distinguishes us most from our closest cousins in the animal world.
So what is it? Why do we have it?
Go back and look at the earliest stories we have. Or even the best cave paintings. You’ll feel something, if you allow yourself to. Across the eons, and past countless changes not just in the society around us but in what IS man, you’ll sense an echo of what people felt about this.
And that leads to my theory: good art and good literature is that which allows you to port living emotion to another person’s brain.
I understand that people mourned for Romeo and Juliet. Beyond the message, beyond what the author tried to say, they felt the tragedy. I know there are books that have bared me to the core and left me shaking with joy or grief.
The subject is too long for one post, and I will not presume to close it here.
But for now I’ll propose — ignore the sales or lack thereof. Ignore the buzz. Ignore the approval of the elites. Most of all, ignore the feeling that to be good you have to WORK at it.
Instead view “good books” as those that allowed you for a moment to live the experiences of the characters, to be the characters, and to port their lived experience and emotion into your own mind and being as a sort of experience that took place outside that space behind your eyes.
Now, what are some good books?