Depending on where you sit, the word “literary” preceding the words “science fiction” is either a handy descriptor denoting a certain flavour of genre writing, or a pretentious label that denotes tedious over-egging of the writerly pudding.
It’s probably fairly plain that I’m a fan of literary sf, but what the hell does that actually denote, anyway? Where is the line drawn? And is it inherently ‘better’ than other forms?
If sf is “what I point to and call sf”, then the same probably applies to subdivisions of all stripes as well. This is another function of that sub-sub-cultures thing that I’ve gone on about before, i.e. that sets of people will always divide themselves further by one arbitrary factor or another. As the old joke goes, there are only two sorts of people in the world: those who divide the world into two groups of people, and those who don’t.
Andrew ‘SFBC’ Wheeler did a short post the other day, talking about the difference between “literary” and what he calls “beer-money” sf, and it struck a chord with my own categorising impulses:
In a “literary” SF novel, the story begins at the beginning of the actual story, in the middle of whatever milieu the story is set in, and the author drops clues so that the reader can fill in the backstory. In fact, this kind of backfilling is one of the great pleasure of SF, to my mind.
In “beer-money” SF (which I could also call “entry level,” or other things), a book begins with a prologue, generally divided into several short scenes, which collectively pull the reader forward (or outward, or whatever) from the reader’s now into the world of the novel. This can be done well or badly, but the reader’s hand must be held.
Just about hits it on the head for me, and I think most of the readers I talk to about sf would probably go with a similar definition.
The problem is that it’s almost impossible to make such a distinction without sounding like you’re damning the beer-money work. The irony of which is that the beer-money work is the stuff that sells well — maybe not by such a wide gap in sf, but a look at the fantasy scene shows that cookie-cutter plotting and tired tropes are a recipe for publishing success.
And you can’t blame the publishers — they publish. They’re in business to make a profit; if they can put out works that sell well and receive critical acclaim at the same time, so much the better – but the bottom line stops at the accountant’s desk, no matter what the editors may think of the groundbreaking slush-pile manuscript they just received from James X. Nobody.
I personally find beer-money sf pretty dull to read – I like to be challenged by my reading. Luckily, I long ago got over the silly idea that it’s a sin to stop reading a book just because you’re not enjoying it. Life’s too damn short, and there’s loads of other stuff that I want to read. I’m not wasting my time on writing that doesn’t transport me — unless I have to review it of course, but that is a thankfully rare experience.
That doesn’t mean I think beer-money work is inherently bad. It may not be my thing, but it obviously fills the needs of a great number of readers – readers who probably find the stuff I enjoy tedious and impenetrable, and more power to them. Obviously, I’d prefer to see the shelves of bookstores packed with face-on copies of the writers I admire most, and with a lot less TV series tie-in books and obvious fantasy mega-sagas. We all like to see our favourite things do well.
But I think it’s fair to say that there wouldn’t be any literary sf if it weren’t for the beer-money stuff. Using the music industry as an example, the money raked in from music that is (to me at least) obvious pop dross gets used by the record companies to gamble on finding the critically acclaimed genii of tomorrow by digging around for obscure new artists. Granted, it’s a somewhat more slapdash approach than the book world (“throw more mud at the wall, some of it’s bound to stick eventually!”), but the equation is simple enough. Another analogy is the technology world – the mass-produced product brings in money for research and development, which is essential for discovering what the entry level stuff will be in a decade or so. The cutting edge clears a path for the greater, blunter mass of the blade.
Is beer-money sf a sign that the genre is in decline? I don’t think so — certainly no more than any other genre. If anything, the same thing has happened elsewhere — sex’n’shopping novels are just the beer-money work of a group of authors with different interests, and there’s still decent chick lit being written.* I think that, now books have so much more competition for people’s time, books aimed at people who aren’t obsessive about books have by necessity become rather more visceral, and have adapted to the by-the-nose narratives of television because of market forces. Beer-money writing sells. People enjoy it. It needs no further justification for its own existence.
It would be easy to bemoan this state of affairs, but I think to do so is to miss the point. The point being that the beer money writers of the world, in addition to supplying entertainment to a far less fussy and critical group of people than ourselves, form the base of the pyramid that holds aloft the less-read literary giants we more obsessive fans (read as “geeks”) so admire – writers who otherwise wouldn’t be published, thanks to the magic of profit margins. And if that is the case, beer-money writers and readers are providing a service of incalculable value, not just for me personally, but for culture in general.
*That’s an assumption, to be honest — I don’t think I’ve ever read any chick-lit in my life, but I’m sure there must be people still reading and writing it.