Science Fiction's Hugo Nominations: I Think Abigail Nussbaum Asks the Wrong Questions: Live From La Farine CXLVII: April 23 2014
Abigail Nussbaum goes someplace that I think her best possible self would not:
Abigail Nussbaum: Asking the Wrong Questions: The 2014 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Nominees: "I am nominated...
...in the Best Fan Writer category! I want to congratulate my fellow nominees, Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley, Foz Meadows, and Mark Oshiro.... I also want to thank everyone who nominated me and encouraged others to.... It's terribly gratifying to receive this nomination, especially at the end of a nominating period in which so many wonderful, smart people said such lovely things about me and my writing....
The 2014 Hugo ballot is weirdly bifurcated. The "bottom half," of the ballot, comprising the publishing, fan, and Campbell categories, seems made up, for the most part, of online fandom's dream nominees.... But then you come to the fiction categories. Though best short story is solid, the other three categories are not simply dispiriting or embarrassing, but downright infuriating.... Vox Day [Opera Vita Aeterna] is a despicable person whose repeated racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior towards specific members of the genre community as well as the community as a whole should make all decent human beings recoil from his presence. That I received my first Hugo nomination on the same ballot that bears his name leaves a vile taste in my mouth. That the rest of the fiction ballot feels, as several people have noted, as if it's recapitulating the culture wars only makes this nomination worse....
One can only sigh at Larry Correia's Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles (serious, sigh) making it onto the best novel ballot, or Toni Weisskopf's best editor, long form nomination. (As for the Wheel of Time series making it onto the best novel ballot, I'd just like to say to anyone who voted for this: feel ashamed, because you don't even have the excuse of being a reactionary troll to justify your bad taste.)
All of which leaves me feeling very conflicted.... The inherent problems of both the award's system and the ways in which it is being increasingly gamed, to a far greater degree than ever before...
Let's talk first about Warbound and the Wheel of Time. Warbound was not to my taste. Noir is very hard to do, and alternate history is very hard to do, and I bored out of Warbound 10% through the Kindle version: I didn't believe this was an AH Roosevelt administration, and so I could no longer make myself care. Maybe it is because I know too much about the history--but when AH is done well and properly, the more the reader knows about the real history the more rewarding the AH is. But I do not doubt that a lot of people found it to their taste, and voted for it because they thought it was really good.
Similarly for Wheel of Time: after the third book I looked forward and saw no narrative closure anywhere, only an uncountable number of pages on which pairs of breasts would fold their arms... But I have no doubt that a lot of people love the Wheel of Time. I have met some of them. I find them scary. But they are people, and people who like a good many other things that I happen to like too...
And they are not wrong to do so. They are just different from Abigail Nussbaum (and from me).
Now I could see Abigail trying to convince those who nominated Warbound and the Wheel of Time that they should not have--that they should read more carefully and more wisely, and that if they did so they would enjoy books like Parasite, Neptune's Brood, and Ancillary Justice much more than they enjoyed Warbound and Wheel of Time. But that is not what she is doing.
What I think she should be doing is trying to figure out why people who like many of the things she likes like Warbound and the Wheel of Time more than she does: what is going on in their brains when they read these that is not going on in hers?
And I think Lois McMaster Bujold puts her finger on it:
Lois McMaster Bujold: "The Unsung Collaborator": "Two early rejection slips of mine...
...both for the same story. Let me quote:
Some of the writing is clumsy, especially at the front, but this is overall a striking story.
And the second:
Although it is nicely written I really don't think you have much of a story here.
And I said, "Huh?"
Well, the story eventually sold. The tale is still one of my personal favorites. But what made the difference in the responses of my two editor-readers? They both read exactly the same words....
I first had this blinding insight while watching a Star Trek rerun a while back. Now, you must understand, I was an ST fan back before Trekkies were ever invented, when it was all brand new.... I and about six of my girlfriends would gather every Thursday evening for what my parents called "the prayer meeting," and we would enjoy the show vociferously. My parents were baffled, and it was only lately, watching the show in very cold blood, that I have realized why.
They thought that what they were seeing on the screen, the plot and effects and dialogue, was all there was. They had no conception of how much work our willing brains were doing on the initial stimulus after our senses took it all in. We took in the show and fixed it, and it was to this fixed-up version that we gave our passionate response.
It's increasingly clear to me that the reader and viewer--the active reader or viewer--does a lot more than he or she is ever given credit for. They fill in the blanks. From hope and charity, they explain away plot-holes to their own satisfaction. They add background from the slimmest of clues. They work. They work so hard, in fact, that they end up remembering not the actual words on the page, but the events described as if they had been there.
Twenty years after reading the passage, I can remember sitting behind the Grey Mouser's eyes on the deck of a sailing ship, spearing sun-warmed plums with his dirk. I remember with clarity details I don't think the author described anywhere on that page, the smell of the sun-heated deck planking, the exact sound of water bubbling from under the hull--pulled, I believe, from my own sailing experiences. True, I have never been able to find, in a grocery store ever after, plums to match the melting perfection of those the Mouser was eating. Nasty cold sour things all. Yet I keep buying them out of hope.
So for me, this sheaf of inked paper with the gaudy cover glued to the spine is not the book. The book is not an object on the table; it is an event in the reader's mind. It's a process, through which an idea in my mind triggers an idea, more-or-less corresponding, in yours. The words on the page are merely the means to that end, a think-by-numbers set, a bottled daydream. The book, therefore, is only finished when somebody reads it. Hence my personal addiction to test readers. I am not one of those authors who clutches the manuscript close to their chest until it's finished; in fact, I have to restrain myself from running out after every paragraph to find someone to try it on and see if it works.
The book, if you like, is not the story but merely the blueprint of the story, like the architect's drawings of a house. The reader, then, is the contractor, the guy who does the actual sweat-work of building the dwelling. From the materials in his or her head, the ideas, the images, the previous knowledge, each one actively reconstructs the story-experience—each according to his measure, knowledge, gifts. And charity. Sometimes a very fascinating thing happens. Sometimes the reader doesn't stop with one's provided blueprint. Sometimes they continue building. The characters go on talking in their heads even after the book's covers are closed; the universe continues to build around the edges. This is a creative event I've never heard discussed in any literature class. And yet it seems to be a common factor in all the great, truly beloved literature of the world. It's not sterile. It doesn't stop with the printed page.
Ideas, and idea-people, do have a kind of real existence. They live because someone gives them brain-room, feeds them with his or her personal psychic energy. And so they grow, leaping from mind to mind. That's something very close to being alive. One of the prime examples of a character who has taken on this sort of independent existence is Sherlock Holmes. He transcends the bounds of literature. His author, Conan Doyle, was almost ashamed of Holmes, insisting he wanted to be remembered for his serious novels like The White Company. It's possible, I suppose, that he didn't realize the immense power reserve he had tapped into--that he thought the Holmes in his head, and the Holmes on the printed page, was all there was, the only true Holmes. Seeing only what he had done, h head failed to see how much energy was pouring into his creation from the reader's side of the page, and so he underestimated Holmes's power. In the end his creation escaped the author's control: even Conan Doyle himself couldn't kill Holmes off.
The ability to call up this immense creative power is usually defined a "literary merit". Star Trek is certainly a recent example. Few claim or defend ST as "great literature". I think this means that there is something missing from the definition of literature, and what's missing is the recognition of the reader's part in it all. Narrow critics mistake the book as only something the writer is doing. And so they miss at least half of what is going on.
So ors this mean that all books are created equal? That it is impossible by any measure to separate the good from the bad? Literary criticism doomed to be totally subjective, all judgment meaningless? Style is nothing, content all?
I don't think so. Certainly content may be judged, by the same measures we bring to events in real life. We are certainly free to say: This content is objectionable, it pushes life-denying values—violence, pornography, racism, what you will—That content is commendable, it is likely to inspire people to try to be better persons. And we can surely argue, critically, for whatever values we happen to espouse. (We surely cannot, however, deny works the right to be published and argued about.)
But what about style? What the devil is style, anyway, that we should be mindful of it? Certainly there are profound differences of style. I recall noticing this when I was reading the late novels of Henry James and the Doc Savage series more-or-less simultaneously. Happens I enjoyed both, but I reflected at the time that if only these two could have collaborated, they would have been the perfect writer, James for characterization, the Doc Savage author Lester Dent and his stable of minions (whose characters were absolute cardboard, but who got off some lovely vivid landscape now and then despite their medium) for ingenious lively plots. So was James's style "better" than the Doc's? College professors (well, most of them) would certainly say so.
I would like to suggest two possible yardsticks for judging style. First, obviously enough, does the style fit the content? Unusual styles can be fully justified by the stories they are used to tell. Two examples spring to mind. One is Roger Zelazny's "Twenty-four Views of Mt. Fuji," which won the Hugo for best novella a few years ago. His choice of first-person present-tense, which at first glance seemed awkward and self-conscious, proved splendidly vindicated by the story's end. An even more stylistically unusual story was Geoffrey Landis's "Vacuum States" (IAFSM, July '88), which used the rare second person to slyly, and effectively, draw the reader into the conundrum at the story's end.
A second yardstick, and one that I have not heard suggested before, is: Does the style act to exclude readers? There are two ways a style can exclude readers.
First, through crudeness. A crude style can drive away that portion of the story's potential readership who are sensitive to language. This group includes many of the finest active readers.
Second, a style might exclude readers by being hyper-stylistic, self-absorbed. An even larger group of readers can be driven off by this sort of thing. The practitioners of this second choice are more likely to complain that their readership base is too small and they're starving because the Philistines don't appreciate True Art. This, I fear, is yet another example of the Blame-the-Victim mentality in action, the victim in this case being the hapless reader. This style choice contains a hidden moral judgment: that some sorts of readers, namely an ill-defined elite, are more worth pleasing than others. (It can also be spotted as a secretly puritanical belief by its covert implication that pain is good for your soul.) It's the sin of spiritual pride, I suppose, and surely as much a sin as the sloth of crude style. But both literary sins share the same bad effect of excluding readers.
The best style, therefore, would be the one that can please the most kinds of readers and exclude the least number. (Though it's equally true that not every story can be right for every reader. Each writer has his or her congregation, and that's why, thank heavens, there's room for more than one book in the bookstore.) My personal prejudice happens to be toward a transparent style, for I feel that it's the story, characters, images, and ideas, not the words, that the majority of my readers will carry away. (Remember the Mouser and his plums.) And yet I also remember much poetry, where style and substance are most firmly interlocked; where the right word, as Mark Twain says, makes all the difference "between the lightning-bug and the lightning."
The best reader, therefore, is also the least exclusive one: exhibiting neither pride nor sloth; able to find delight in both the easy and the difficult; never mistaking simplicity for stupidity or mere obscurity for profundity.
So my author's prayer is: God grant me willing readers. May you continue to brain your energy to my books; may you continue to make space (and a multi-dimensional space it is) in your minds and maybe even your hearts for my brain-children, for that is the only way that kind of child can grow and get more life. You are my invisible partners, always, and I am grateful for you. Thank you.
As for "Opera Vita Aeterna"... It confuses me... "The works live forever" would be "Opera vivet in aeternum". "The works of eternal life" would be "Opera vitae aeternae". "Opera vita aeterna" doesn't seem to me to mean much of anything...
UPDATE: Michael Claiborne writes that the source is probably a sentence in Martin Chemnitz's sixteenth-century Examination of the Council of Trent:
Lindanus enim acriter reprehendit, quod quidam, qui inter Pontificos modestiores videre volunt, dicunt, Deum bona iustorum opera, vita aeterna remunerare, ex gratuita dignatione sua clementiae...
For Lindanus sharply criticizes the fact that some among the more modest of the Popes wish to see, they say, God to mercifully reward the good deeds of the just with eternal life out of his free condescending grace...
in which case "vita aeterna" is a feminine singular ablative absolute (with eternal life) dependent on "remunerate" (to reward) and "opera" is a neuter plural accusative (what God rewards), with the comma included by Chemnitz to inclue readers that "vita aeterna" is not part of the same clause as "opera"...
And the conceit of the story seems to be that an unbelieving elven prince-magician becomes a Thomas Aquinas analogue without believing--it did not grab me.
And here I find myself agreeing with Abigail Nussbaum: I cannot understand how large numbers of people genuinely thinking this was one of the five best SFF stories of 2013, doubt that they did so, and think that the people who nominated it are trying to send some weird kind of message by doing so...