The Problem With Good SFF Literature
There are a number of events, groups, and people I refer to very obliquely throughout this. I do so not to mask or erase the targets of these events, people, and groups, but to limit the exposure I give to the perpetrators. To all of you who have been the targets of these nameless instigators, my deepest apologies if I cause offence or distress by doing so, and please contact me so that I can make appropriate changes.
For the past few years, I have been dutifully reading the annual Hugo packet, and voting on the Hugo Awards. (If, somehow, you are reading this and don't know what the Hugos are, think something like the Academy Awards for SF&F. Like all such things, this is a loose analogy at best, but it carries the right gravitas.) This is a a substantial task, covering a good half dozen novels, and the same again for novellas, novelettes, short stories, anthologies, fan works, editorial contributions, dramatic presentations, YA entries, new writers... the list goes on.
So how do you end up on The List? You get published in the appropriate year, and have enough people like it enough to nominate it for an award. Of course not just anybody can nominate. To do so you need to do two things. First have a membership the to either that year's WorldCon or the previous year's. Second, you need to pay a voting fee. The former can be quite a bit, even for a supporting membership, but the latter is as much proving that you are serious about it as anything else, and it (in the scheme of things) is really a token fee. To actually vote, you need to be a member of the current WorldCon (and have paid your voting fee).
So, a bunch of people nominate you. The highest (mumble) counted nominees then end up on the final ballot, which is voted on just before the convention runs. This is done through a run-off system, which will be familiar to anyone in Australia or New Zealand as Preferential Voting, although it does vary it a little by allowing you to also vote for No Award, or to simply stop part way - allowing your vote to exhaust itself before it passes on to something you really don't want winning. It is possibly one of the most democratic elections anywhere. Except for the whole paid franchise thing. But it is not like we're electing leaders, or anything like that.
Right so you're three paragraphs in, and are now up to speed on the background that most articles like this simply assume you know.
So what does all of this have to do with a problem in good SFF literature?
In and of itself, nothing. No, no, wait, I do have a point to make, don't feel you've wasted your time getting this far! But the highly democratic nature of the Hugo Awards do not actually cause a problem. Not by themselves.
The problem arises through a series of connected events, and a lot of human nature (both good and bad). And the problem is not even really a problem - depending on your perspective.
The events start with a bunch of individuals who never really grew up, and think the world still revolves around them and no-one else. These sorts of people come in many flavours, and none of them good. In other circles they become any one of a number of groups who think that group A is automatically better than group B (or C, D, or indeed almost any other letter). Sometimes this will be a sliding scale, sometimes simply Us and Them. I don't need to name them.
The particular group in question took umbrage at stories being written by (gasp) women, or (shock) people of colour, or (choke) non-straight-cis-gendered identities, and sometime even all of the above. And that these stories did not feature Good Old Boys Doing Manly Things And Killing the Others.
So they yelled each other into a self-righteous rage, and decided to try to stack the votes. Naturally they did all of this out in the open so that The Like-Minded Masses would join them. Except that the Like-Minded Masses were not, and barring a whole lot of noise and a few rather more dodgy works ending up on a few ballots, they failed to achieve their objectives in any meaningful way. And there a lot of people looking at them going "eeewww", and turning away. This did lead to a whole lot of other unpleasantness, some of it very nasty, with serious real-world consequences - but that is not what I am here to talk about. If you are not au fait with the matters in question, then a very little searching will bring to light the stories I am talking about.
This has resulted in some very positive outcomes, in that we are seeing a lot more variety and representation in the nominees, and in the winners. This is, without any qualifications a Good Thing.
This is where most people would put some sort of "But...". I don't have one. What I have is a "Meanwhile".
And while all this was going on, and for some years prior, there was a slight and gradual pressure to be more serious in SFF. To be more mature in presentation and execution. To become more literature than fiction.
These two have always existed - there have always been SFF tales that are more deep literature than fiction, and there have always been examples of High Literature that have contained SFF themes.
Literature types have always fallen back on the fallacy of exceptionalism to explain away the outliers, but in recent years it has become harder to do so. Why? Because more and more SFF is becoming Literature.
So what is wrong with that?
Think about highschool and all the books that were on The List of Literature That You Were Expected To Read.
What do they all have in common?
They all make your average stereotypical emo goth teenager seem like the height of cheer and good-will. They rarely have an uplifting outcome and often are populated by people you would cross a burning room to avoid.
In short, they have no joy. (Yes, yes, there are exceptions, but work with me here.)
So. Where does this leave us?
On one hand we have this wonderful influx of alternate viewpoints and perspectives, on the other a drive to be serious and of literary significance.
And this leads a problem with the Hugo packets over recent years. They are hard work. There a large numbers of amazingly brilliant stories, told by a wonderful variety of tellers. And all so many of them are so dreadfully downbeat.
There is nothing wrong with a downbeat story - they can be impressively powerful, and provide a means of holding up a harsh mirror to the ills of the world. They can inspire and change the world.
Which brings me, at last, to my "But".
But what happens when all these wonderful new and different ways of looking at the world all look at it through a dark glass? Where do we find the joy of these wonderful and under-represented people?
Now, there are are exceptions - but my issue is one of balance. My reading this year has brought two stories I would like to read again. Two, out of the dozens. Of the rest, many are very, very good, but leave me cold and dark in a world that already has too much of that.
Is it the writers who should shoulder the blame for this? No. Many of these same authors have produced works that are bright and uplifting. It is the nominators who are at fault here, no-one else. Everyone who picks something because it has weight and substance. Everyone who thinks 'Entertainment' is not worthy of celebration. Everyone who does not nominate in the first place, leaving it to someone else.
So, next year, think about what you are nominating. And please, try to find some things that entertaining, not just ones that are important. Not all, just some. A bit more than two. Please. Preferably not by some middle-aged straight white male.