“Good” Fiction Writing

There’s currently a kerfuffle over the “Hugos,” otherwise known as the World Science Fiction convention’s annual awards for best writing, art, etc. The uproar lies in the fact that one group agreed on a “slate” of novels, short stories, novellas, editors, artists, etc., eligible for the award and legitimately used social media and the rules for nomination to essentially overwhelm the traditional members. The upstart “Sad Puppies” movement did this because, if I understand the matter accurately, they felt that the “traditional” voters were more interested in diversity and social issues than story itself, which is apparently why they labelled those traditional members/voters as SJWs [social justice warriors].

From where I stand on the fringe of this literary internecine kerfuffle, the conflict boils down to the contention by the Sad Puppies that the SJWs have essentially marginalized “story” in F&SF fiction writing while giving awards for non-story concerns such as multi-culturalism, gender diversity, and other liberal beliefs. The so-called traditionalists seem to believe that “good” fiction requires more than merely plot and action.

That’s probably a simplistic summary, but I think that’s the gist of the conflict, in which case the issue is really over just what it takes for fiction to be really good.

As often occurs, I find myself firmly in the middle, because I find straight “action” stories or novels, no matter how intricate the plot, and no matter how clean the style, rather shallow. On the other hand, I find anything that is used that overshadows the characters and the story to be excessive. Yes, there is a place for multi-culturalism, diversity, sexual/gender issues, or any number of environmental and political issues – but only if they’re an integral part of what affects the characters and the development and resolution of story and plot.

I also don’t think that writing an issue-oriented novel for the sake of the issue usually results in the best fiction. I write about women and their issues because, with my background, I’ve been surrounded by intelligent and highly competent women with stories to tell. Likewise, with a long history in politics and environment, I know the stories to be told there, but I never set out with “an issue” as the main focus of a book. The issues arise because of the characters and the story, not the other way around.

So my feeling is that issues shouldn’t drive the story, nor is a novel or a story that ignores the issues that would arise in such a setting anything more than wish-fulfillment escapism – and there’s nothing wrong with that… except that escapism that ignores the issues that should be there if the whole story were told usually fails to be the best fiction, perhaps the best escapism, but not the best fiction.

13 thoughts on ““Good” Fiction Writing”

  1. PresN says:

    I’d be a bit more sympathetic to the idea that the Hugos aren’t focusing enough on the story itself, and thus ignoring popular works, if the result of the Sad Puppy/Rabid Puppy slates wasn’t to nominate Vox Day (Theodore Beale) as editor (both long and short form) and quite a few works he edited and published through his Castalia House company. The effect of this is that a writer he edits and publishes, John C. Wright, has 6 nominations… but his stories are not very popular, and the bits I’ve read are objectively not very good.

    With the goals as described, I would have expected the slate(s) to be a rundown of the best-selling authors of the year, perhaps weighted towards military sci-fi since the organizers seem to be fans. The Jim Butchers and Kevin J. Andersons of the other categories, in other words. To see it instead weighted heavily towards their own works and those of their friends, regardless of general popularity, is disquieting, no matter how one feels about the fairness of promoting “slates” of nominees.

    1. I have the same concerns, particularly about Mr. Wright, but I would note that Vox Day [Dei] published his own list of proposed nominees for the Hugos. On the Sad Puppies’ list, Wright was only slated for two nominations, once for best novella and once for an essay. So the Sad Puppies list didn’t propose him six times; Vox Day[Dei] did. The original Sad Puppies’ listing for novels was for Kevin J. Anderson, Charles E. Gannon, Jim Butcher, Marko Kloos, and Larry Correia [but Correia immediately withdrew his nomination].

      1. Nathaniel says:

        They were separate lists, though Vox Day was on Correia’s slate last year and the lists do overlap heavily. Oh well.

        I have very little good to say about Correia turning down his nomination. He has stated that he did so to avoid politicizing the other nominees since he ran the Sad Puppy list the prior two years, which strikes me as a good reason… to not be on the list in the first place. The fact that he was on the slate – a slate he originally created and was heavily involved in, a slate that let people decline to be on said slate – but did not remove himself until after he got his Hugo nomination reeks of disingenuous award-grasping. Campaigning for your own nomination only to turn it down once you receive it so that you can’t be voted on by the general public is quite classless, in my opinion.

  2. Thom says:

    I think neither side can be counted on to give an accurate summation of the other’s views, and I think both sides end up arguing the same point without ever admitting it. I think the “traditionalists” as you call them believe the Sad Puppies are motivated by racism and sexism (even though their slate represented significant diversity) and a desire to ‘dumb-down’ sf/f, while the Sad Puppies are convinced the “traditionalists” push diversity for the sake of diversity over story while being elitist in their definition of who is a true fan.

    I suppose which side you believe is in the right largely depends on your own hot button issues. I suppose I do get my back up when people try to define who is a true fan and who isn’t, and I do tend to dislike stories that have an obvious agenda. But I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the Sad Puppies’ approach, either.

    It’s true what you say, that ultimately each side views themselves as the defenders of the True Purpose of Story, even though I’ll bet you could find more definitions of just what that means on both sides than you could shake a stick at.

    What’s interesting/sad/funny is that both sides also see the entire sf/f writer community as threatened. One side feels that those who don’t toe the dominant ideological line (ie. liberal) are going to find themselves blackballed and unable to make a living as a writer. The other side feels that they can’t make a living in the field unless they can disguise that they aren’t white males.

    All I know for sure is that I can’t currently make a living as a writer because…well, I don’t write well enough yet. And when it comes to what makes a good story…well, let’s just say I’ve read and enjoyed books by people on both sides of the conflict, so clearly no one side has the monopoly on good writing.

    I’m growing increasingly convinced that on this particular feud the middle (and preferably off to one side out of the line of fire) is probably the best place to be.

  3. AndrewV says:

    Mr. Modesitt,

    The ‘Day’ in Vox Day is intentional. It is not a misspelling of Dei. One needs to be proficient in multiple languages to understand the meaning behind the name. It does not mean “Voice of God” and is designed specifically to fool people into thinking it does. Don’t feel bad for falling for it. Vox is cruel and has a very high intelligence, so I expect this is something he developed to amuse himself.

    You may also be interested to know that you personally are used as an example of someone who should have been recognized by the Hugo Voters years ago. I’ve seen Brad use your name at least half a dozen times as someone who is well past due for your contributions to the genre. There is no “Remember Modesitt!” rallying cry, but you are a good example of how the failed process failed.

    I disagree with your stances on a number of issues, but I agree with Brad here. The Sad Puppies campaign has moved beyond politics, and is now about recognizing quality fiction instead of message fiction.

    1. I never did think it was a misspelling [not with all the years of Latin I took]. I thought it was, and is, a play on words, designed for effect, by someone with intelligence and a high ego. I put “Dei” in brackets because someone who plays loose with words should have it noted. I’m well aware that Brad, especially, has used my name, and I was also aware that any effort using my name would be likely to fail. I don’t have that kind of popularity,besides which none of the books I had published last year, since all were essentially series books, would have made good contenders.

  4. Corwin says:

    Any awards system which hasn’t given Mr Modesitt at least one award is a FAILED system. Imager should have won every award given the year it was published; it’s a brilliant book on many levels.

  5. Country Lawyer says:

    Hear, Hear. Any sf/f award for a novel that hasn’t considered Mr. Modesitt, has a flawed nomination process.

  6. AndrewV says:

    Mr. Modesitt,

    Please keep in mind, the purpose of the campaign was to recognize talented authors who have contributed to the field, have been overlooked, and have put out some of the best fiction of the year. Popularity was not considered, quality was.

    1. Either approach — that of the Sad Puppies or the traditionalists/SJWs — still contains an element of popularity.

      1. R. Hamilton. says:

        Isn’t that to be expected as the intent, to some degree? The WSFS awarding the Hugo is nominally representative of readers, contrasted to the SFWA awarding the Nebula, being nominally representative of authors.

        Behind any collective choice will always be one form of politicking or another; all that strikes me so far is the use of nontraditional methods this time. I share your skepticism with most extremes of agenda one way or the other, but it seems to me that if a coup can be conducted so easily, perhaps the participants needed one to shake them up a little – invite them to consider that more than one definition of merit might exist among them.

      2. Grey says:

        Actually, this really does seem to have its roots in popularity. George Martin did some historical legwork (http://grrm.livejournal.com/418285.html) and it looks like the Sad Puppies movement grew out of people like, e.g., Correia and Torgersen losing Campbells and Hugos back in 2011.*

        This suggests that rather than accepting that maybe someone else really was the ‘Best New Writer’ (Correia lost the Campbell to Lev Grossman), they invented a leftist conspiracy that shut them out; a mental artifice to protect their feelings.

        So, instead of the SP campaign being a noble effort to ‘recognize talented authors who have been overlooked,’ as AndrewV puts it, this has all the hallmarks of people out for revenge against the institution that rejected them (or rather, where they lost a popularity contest).

        *I’m out of the loop on this, so perhaps this isn’t ‘news.’

  7. R. Hamilton. says:

    “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

    Extending that a bit, I’d say that it’s reasonable to include in a story for the characters to contend with, the sorts of problems a reader might relate to or at least see around them if they looked carefully – not to exclude those of “diversity”, etc. But if the result becomes an attempt to indoctrinate the reader, it’s crossed the line into crass and insulting overt propaganda. An example of that sort: “Level 7”, by Mordecai Roshwald. I made the mistake of reading that when I was about 10, and despite knowing that it was manipulative, felt rotten for an entire weekend afterward.

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