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Thursday, March 12, 2015

On the Raging Child of Science Fiction Neo-Snobbery

On a foundational level, the most visible element of SF awards discussions concern subjective assertions about literary quality.  I have participated in some of these discussions over the years, podcasting about nominees I disliked for whatever reason and otherwise raging against what I perceived as the absence of taste within certain award-giving communities (mostly the Hugos).  The further away from those first instances I become, however, the more I realize how foolish these discussions really are.  Why rage against a difference in literary tastes?  I can no more tell someone what they should like than they can me.  At best, I can make a case for what I consider to be "good," but even then, the most effective arguments are those that explain why a text is interesting, not why it is qualitatively better, since the latter is, for the most part, impossible.  What we consider "of quality" could make for a very confusing, intersecting Venn diagram.

This is not to suggest that there isn't anything of value to discussions about taste.  How we develop our individual literary tastes is influenced by a variety of factors, from our upbringing to our education to our politics and so on and so forth.  Discussions about how these elements influence our perceptions of quality are, I think, quote useful, since they provide us with insight into the way different frames color our literary vision, for good and for bad.  The key word here is "discussion."

Unfortunately, SF still finds itself embroiled in sometimes vicious debate about merit, often to little effect.  Hackles are raised; authors and voters are defended or derided; and the "discussion" inevitably moves to the wrongheadedness and stupidity of those involved.  There are no "solutions" here.  These occasionally rage-feeding arguments do little to advance the discussion; in some cases, they may do more damage than good.

In the last few years, this foundational discussion, which can provide few solutions to the "issues" it raises, has been re-mobilized as a political act, not in the kind of abstract "all awards" or "all voting" or "all literary list are political" everyday but in the manner of a deliberate, directed political act which subverts the narrative of literary taste by exchanging it for literary rectification.  While these political acts might add comfort to one's sensibilities and may serve as rational correctives to historical erasures, they are sometimes bitter assaults on the "awards process" for the purposes not of correcting such erasures, even though such acts may utilize the corrective rhetoric to bolster their claims; rather, these acts project disdain for awards to "stick it" to another group, to hijack, to damage, to create and revel in chaos.  This element might be called the second face of SF's neo-snobbery.

These forms of neo-snobbery are not indicative of a field in growth.  They suggest SF's deep discomfort with the possibility of differing and multimodal tastes, some of them born out of individual political, religious, or social acculturations.  The Hugo Awards are the prime example of this problem.  We all recognize the Hugos as partially-open popular awards which reflect the literary tastes and interests of its registered voters.  Yet, year after year, this community has bitter discussions about the content of the annual ballot, accusing one side of having no taste or another of playing politics or another of committing some other literary sin.  Though some of these charges may be true, the overall feeling is that of bitterness.  That I've participated in these discussions doesn't mean I'm immune, either -- far from it.  And as the last few years have shown, the Hugos are also a battleground of sorts for a cultural war that, quite honestly, only one side believes it is fighting (a side that, as I noted above more generally, revels in chaos).

But the fact that the Hugos are a popular award in which anyone with $40 can participate, the rage over taste or politics seems mostly misplaced.  As John Scalzi noted, you can't take back what you already have.  There's nothing but $40 stopping anyone from participating in the Hugos.  You can vote for whatever you like every year (unless, of course, it's not actually science fiction or fantasy, because them's the rules).  And so deliberately creating chaos or continuously raging over Hugo selections because you don't like how things are run is pretty close to childish -- and I do mean "rage," not simply disagreeing (exceptions for flagrantly unethical practices aside, of course).

In writing this, I hope it becomes apparent that my perspective has changed since I was one of those raging types all those years ago.  I still disagree with selections that appear on the Hugo ballot or other award ballots, but I find myself less interested in fuming about how much I dislike those selections; rather, I want to have a discussion about why these books are interesting (or fail), or why other books that I think are good should still get a little love.  I want to talk about what makes me love SF/F and literature in general.  I want a discussion.  A dialogue.  Not the political gerrymandering.  Not the raging.  Not the anger and vitriol.  Dialogue.

I want this because I think this field needs it.  I want this because this field needs to grow up from one insecure in its own "skin" to one celebrating the diversity of literary interests.  There's too much interesting stuff to talk about to let every Hugo Awards discussion, eligibility post, novel review, etc. end in people screaming from the towers.


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