Flash and Substance in F&SF

As some of you know, I’ve been involved in fantasy and science fiction for some time — otherwise known as “too long” by those who don’t like what I write and “please keep writing” by those who do. For almost as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve wondered why a number of good solid, inventive, and talented writers failed to be recognized — or when recognized, were essentially “under-recognized” or recognized late. That’s not to take away from some who were recognized, like Jim Rigney [Robert Jordan], but to point out that sometimes recognition is not necessarily fair or just.

One of them was, of course, Fred Saberhagen. Another, I believe, was Gordy Dickson, as was Murray Leinster. Among writers still living and writing who haven’t received their due, in my opinion, I might include Sheri Tepper. There are certainly others; my examples are far from all-inclusive.

But why has this happened, and why has it continued to go on?

One of the problems in the F&SF genre and, indeed, in every field of writing — and, as I discovered over nearly 20 years in Washington, D.C., also in politics — is that the extremists among the fans, reviewers, academics, and critics have a tendency to monopolize both the dialogue and the critical studies. And, for better or worse, extremists generally tend to praise and support, naturally, the extremes. In writing, from what I’ve seen, the extremes tend to be, on one end, extra-ordinary skill in crafting the individual sentence and paragraph, usually to the detriment of the work as a whole and, on the other, incredible action and pseudo-technical detail and devices and/or magical applications in totally unworkable societies and situations.

While I can certainly appreciate the care and diligence involved in the construction of the Gormenghast trilogy, books whose “action” moves at the speed of jellied consume, uphill — and that may overstate the pacing — that trilogy is not a work of literature, regardless of all the raves by the extremists. Likewise, month after month, I see blogs and reviews which praise books, which, when I read them, seem not to have much depth and rely on action and clever prose to disguise that lack; or on well-crafted words and not much else; or almost totally on humor, often at such basic levels as to be embarrassing; or… the list of sins is long. What I don’t see much of is reviews which note books with deep and quiet crafting, relying neither too much nor too little upon words, actions, inventions, or humor, but balancing all in a way to create a realistic world with people and situations which draw in the reader in a way to engage both emotion and thought and provoke a reconsideration of some aspect of what we call reality.

Now… I have no problem with brilliant unrealism, or incredibly moving prose. I do have great difficulty with books being termed good or great solely on such criteria, particularly when the critics of the extremes often tend to overlook excellent prose, plotting, and even incredibly credible devices and societies because the author has presented them so quietly and convincingly.

In a determined but comparatively quiet way, by creating Jim Baen’s Universe, Jim and Eric Flint attempted to create a sold-paying market for good stories that appealed to a wide range of readers, and not primarily to the extremists. Will this effort work? I hope so, and it looks promising, but it’s still too early to tell.

Shock value and novelty do indeed attract readers. Sometimes they even sell books. I won’t contest that. Nor will I contest the fact that much of what doesn’t appeal to me is obviously very appealing to others. What I will point out is that work which engages readers on all levels and raises fundamental issues tends to sell and stay in print over the years [so… maybe I was wrong about Gormenghast… or maybe it’s the exception that proves the point].