“Downers,” Stereotypes, and Literary Quality

Yesterday, when I was flying back from the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, I read through two “best-of-the-year” anthologies… and landed in Cedar City thoroughly depressed… somewhat disgusted… and more than a little irritated.  No… I wasn’t irritated that the anthologists hadn’t picked one of my infrequent short stories.  In the first place, I know that it’s unlikely anything I write will find favor with most anthologists [although there have been exceptions].  In the second place, I hadn’t published any short fiction for the year in question.

My anger, irritation, and depression came from the same root cause.  Out of something like fifty stories, all but perhaps ten were downers.  Out of the ten that weren’t, eight were perhaps neutral or bitter-sweet, and only two could be called upbeat.  Now… I don’t have anything against downbeat or depressing stories.  I don’t even have anything against them being singled out as good stories.  Certainly they were all at least better than competently written, and some were indeed superbly written.  And I definitely don’t think a story has to be upbeat to be great or “best-of-the-year,” but after many, many years of writing professionally, and even more of reading all manner of books and stories, ranging from “genre” fiction to the acclaimed classics, it’s clear to me that the excessive citation of literarily depressing stories as classics and excellence is hardly a mark of intellectual distinction, let alone impartial judgment.

All this, of course, reinforces my feelings about those critics and anthologists who seem to dismiss anything with any upbeat feel or positive aspects… or anything that isn’t “literary mainstream.”

The latest New York Times book section contains a review with an opening along the line of “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.”  Supposedly, reviewers who write about books should be able to transcend stereotypes, not reinforce them, but then, snobbery is often based on the enshrinement of stereotypes contrary to the snob’s world view, and all too many critics, reviewers, and even some anthologists are little more than snobs.

A good story is a good story, and a bad story is a bad story, whether it’s “literary” or genre.

4 thoughts on ““Downers,” Stereotypes, and Literary Quality”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Music does it too. I’ve become quite charmed with the work of a young rapidly rising “classical-crossover” singer. But that’s a genre that both elements have problems with: not enough popular content to be popular, using a microphone (a good idea for a young singer with still growing vocal cords that shouldn’t be trying to fill a hall unaided) doesn’t please the classical purists.

    And reviewers…until she performed to a home-town audience, the reviews were few and far between. Those at home of course were favorable, if one or two were a bit patronizing. I don’t understand that – someone that was 35 or so and sounded the same wouldn’t be treated that way, but take a once-in-a-century talent that can sound like that at 11, and some only see the novelty. I hope the young lady keeps it up, and politely rubs their noses in it that she’s got a lot more than novelty going for her.

    Whether they measure influence or compliance to a strict standard, reviewers (and apparently anthologists) are seldom measuring excellence.

  2. Joe says:

    @L.E.Modesitt : The New Scientist has a special report about America’s retreat from reason and science, and the strange view that there is no objective truth… Everything being a matter of opinion. Care to write a blog post about this subject?

  3. Argent says:

    “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.”

    So genre novels can’t be literature? What a pathetic snob. The “cultural elite” in this country are rapidly devolving into a “we’re better than you” club, even more so than in the past.

  4. Alison Hamway says:

    I totally agree with your assessment of “best of” short story “literary” collections! Unrelenting dreariness is not rewarding reading, even if one admires the writers style and wording. I believe the editors of these fine literature collections have an innate bias toward negative/depressing writing that turns off most readers. However I think the science fiction collections for the most part are very good — varied writers and styles, and a chance to read new writers.

    There is HUGE prejudice against “genre” writers, but some of the best books ever written fall within these categories.

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