"New" as the Enemy of Excellence

For some time as a writer I’ve wondered why so many books that I and others have found good or even excellent seldom ever get discussed by the critics and reviewers within the F&SF field, and why so many of those books that get praised are demonstrably weaker than all too many of those that are never mentioned. The most obvious answer, and the one that comes up the most often, is that it’s just a matter of taste. That’s certainly a factor, and one that can’t be discounted, but I don’t think it’s the only factor and not even the dominant one.

What first got me to thinking about this was a conversation I had several months ago with several of the noted and leading reviewers of a magazine that publishes a great number of reviews every month. The magazine reviewers explained that they liked to concentrate on “newer” writers and books that readers might not have seen or heard about. That’s a reason with thought behind it, and one that has a certain validity.

Then, the other day I read a review column about the “best” works of 2009 by one of the newer “flavor-de-jour” reviewers who’s currently everyone’s darling, so to speak. Rather than explain, I’m just going to lift a few phrases from the column, each phrase about a different book: “fearless deep dive into worlds of fantasy and of sex…avant garde fantasy elements”; “wonderful ability to be utterly modern”; “strange scenes involving bizarre fish and other monstrosities”; “never blinks in its depiction of horrors of the mind and the body”; “gleefully subvert most of heroic fantasy’s tropes”; “strange creations and enchanters”; “beyond the idea of cyberpunk or the New Wave in its approach”; “kinetic energy and hard-to-define originality”; “potent sampling of the author’s Southern-tinged dual gonzo and horror impulses”; “most experimental and formally daring genre fiction of the year”; “interesting fantasy experiments”; “extraordinary credit for publishing an anthology with few marketable names.”

I understand the appeal of the new, especially to critics and reviewers. After all, who wants to write reviews, year after year, that say something like, “XXX provides another well-crafted, well-plotted, and well-written work with virtually no flaws… sure to please those who have followed…” Even writing a review that states “YYY offers yet another well-designed and enchantingly written experimental novel whose plot and characters are based on the musical motifs of…” gets old after a well-established author achieves yet another milestone or artistic triumph, particularly if he or she does so without excessive sex or rhetorical fireworks.

Coupled with the praise of newness is also, so far as I’m concerned, far too much praise for the violent violation of taboos and the equating of explicit and often vulgar sexual episodes to excellence or insight or being daring. As I think Marion Zimmer Bradley once said (and she should have known, having written pornography under pseudonyms), “Describing sex in detail is like describing plumbing.” Technical manuals and descriptions, whether about technology or sex, should definitely be limited in good fiction.

Seeing newer or unrecognized writers getting exposure and praise doesn’t bother me in the slightest (although I do admit to a bit of jealousy because I would have liked a share of that when I was new and unrecognized), but what does bother me — a lot! — is that all this gushing over newness and shock value is equated with excellence, and all too many excellent works are overlooked in the critical pursuit of “newness.” But then, I suppose I should remember that the very term “novel” comes from the Latin, through French, term for “new.”

4 Responses to “"New" as the Enemy of Excellence”

  1. christoph says:

    From my point of view what's even more frustrating about this phenomenon is that there really isn't anything new to be presented by breaking the taboos of Judeo-Christian society. It's all been done already.

    I have a theory that reviewers and consumers of art and entertainment have transitioned from the appreciation of greatness achievable by few to a narcissistic pretense of seeing greatness in what (deep down) the reviewers and consumers know they could personally eclipse . . . if they "really wanted to."

  2. Val says:

    I wouldn't underestimate the effect of a good marketing department. It's probably not as reliable as publishers would wish but they can certainly, to an extend, influence what gets sent out to reviewers and therefore what gets reviewed and eventually what ends up on the best of year X lists.

    The right amount of publicity or 'buzz' can give a book that is short of excellent (but not by too much) that extra boost it needs to make those lists.

  3. christoph says:

    If only there were unified simple causes for . . . well, anything. I am sure there is much truth in what you say, Val. (Sigh)

  4. Max says:

    I had to Google the quoted sentence to find the review Mr. Modesitt is talking about: here . Author seems to have some hidden obsession with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as on of main attributes he considers in books he reviewed is how "gonzo" each book is, whatever it means.

    As on the subject of newness / breaking taboos variety is a spice of life, and I actually enjoyed a few "not your standard fantasy" books such as Abercrombie First Law series. Of course many new authors try to get on that "dark/gritty" bandwagon, but few succeed resulting in weird pulp horror books set in fantasy setting.

    While I enjoy Recluse series and its regular "well crafted" installments, which I hope will continue coming, it would be great to have a book written in a different style or about a different kind of protagonist then regular Recluce book.. For example a protagonist that is less dutiful/correct and that gets battered upside the head by the cruel world and gets into many "and thats just when the turret fell of" type of situations.