Alternate Views?

One author’s viewpoint of the future, of society, of technology, of anything, in fact, should not preclude another’s view, or the views of a number of other authors. Nor should authors be condemned for whether they incorporate and impose a new or “better” view of matters such as gender, ethnicity, and social mores on a past society, or whether they fail to do that. What should be questioned is their accuracy in depicting the past as it was, and, if the work is F&SF, whether the society, technology, cultures, etc., they are depicting are workable and believable, and, also, for me, anyway, whether such a culture could actually evolve into what is persented.

Now, that doesn’t mean anyone has to like what an author does. I don’t particularly like the world of Game of Thrones, but as more than a few historians have pointed out, George R. R. Martin’s use of the War of the Roses as a model of sorts for his world certainly does capture the brutality and the almost total lack of morality rampant in that type of culture. I can admire the craft, but I don’t have to like the result.

That would seem obvious, or it should be, but it clearly isn’t to all too many in the F&SF field. Like it or not, in the past, and still in some societies, most positions of power and prestige and most of those in science were and are held by men, regardless of culture or ethnicity. This isn’t good for a great number of reasons, first and foremost being the fact that any society that does this is wasting at least half of its intelligence and abilities, if not a great deal more. But it did happen, and it continues to happen in some places, and likely will for a long time in others.

If an author wants to write in that kind of world, that’s his or her business, but that doesn’t mean that anyone should be required to like what such authors write or grant them awards. Nor does it mean that they should be denied readers or awards, either. Nor should it mean that writers who depict worlds with diverse populations and cultures should automatically expect readers or awards for merely pointing out what hasn’t yet happened in most societies, particularly if their talent in telling the story is submerged by the “message.” I understand this very well, since every so often some reader or reviewer critiques me for being too pedantic, and, in retrospect, at times I may have been. At other times, I suspect the readers and reviewers in question simply didn’t like considering what was behind what I wrote, but that’s a danger all writers face.

Readers largely buy what entertains them, and what entertains the bulk of readers bears less and less resemblance to reality [as I learned more than 20 years ago by publishing a very “real” book that was incredibly unpopular while watching authors who depicted the same milieu most unrealistically rake in millions]. Often what is entertaining not only has little accuracy in depicting human behavior, politics, and technology, etc., but also isn’t even that well-written, but it still sells.

Various literary awards aren’t all that much better in reflecting excellence, either, because they’re either popularity contests, as in the case of the F&SF Hugo awards, or they reflect the tastes of a small panel of judges, as in the World Fantasy Awards or the Pulitzer Prizes or even the Nobel Prize for literature. While such awards may reflect excellence, that view of excellence is highly influenced by the tastes of those doing the judging.

So…all the stone-throwing because authors do or don’t depict something in a given way seems to me irrelevant to how popular a book is or how technically and artistically good it may be.

But then, some people revel in throwing stones, either figuratively or actually.

4 thoughts on “Alternate Views?”

  1. Arin Komins says:

    Thank you! Nice to see a voice of moderation and realism.

  2. JakeB says:

    I’ve always been tickled that authors from Scandinavian countries (not counting Finland) have won 14% of the Nobel prizes in literature, while their countries comprise about .2% of the world’s population. Not that I can read all the languages that stories are written in myself . . . .

    I’ll observe also that while the older I get, the more I dislike obvious solecisms in writing — usually because they seem to occur primarily because of laziness or even worse ineptitude on the part of the author — I don’t think your comment regarding fantasy is entirely correct.

    There’s a strain of fantasy — in fact, the original strain — that is fundamentally dissociated from these questions of realism. Someone may or may not like Dunsany or Tolkien or Vance or Eddison’s works, but they belong in fantasy too. (In fact, I think Ursula LeGuin would argue they have more right to be there than anything else does, even though her story’s societies tend to run much closer to the realistic side. If you take the view that fantasy is a way of writing about archetypes a la Jung by way of Joseph Campbell, then these questions of realism don’t come up, except inasmuch as whether the characters’ actions remain believable within the story. Or so it seems to me.)

    Not that I don’t enjoy both types. I just finished rereading _Madness in Solidar_ and am greatly looking forward to the new book this fall.

  3. darcherd says:

    I’ve noticed the phenomenon with critical reviews of movies and I suppose the same must be true of book reviews: If a work of art is universally panned, then the odds are that it’s crap; however, if a work receives a large number of positive reviews, all that is likely is that the work is well done, not that I will like it.

  4. John Prigent says:

    I’ve always worked on the principle that if a book features in the ‘literary’ review sections or wins a ‘serious’ book prise like the Booker it will almost certainly be unreadable so I ignore it. If it features in almost any other review section I’ll read the review and decide if the story might appeal to my own tastes.

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