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March 2017

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Being an open letter to Jeff VanderMeer

Oh, look, I'm going to get into another fight with Jeff VanderMeer.

We're all shocked, I'm sure.

Here's the money shot of what Jeff says, for me:

What I seemed to find in those old magazines sometimes overreached, or crashed into and sank on the rocks of evangelical experimentalism…but, at its best, that fiction was altogether more adult than much of what I’ve read recently. It seemed sharper and more balanced between intellect and emotion. There was ample intelligence behind it, sometimes a cruel and frightening intelligence. It was often bracing, unexpected, and jagged. 



Dear Jeff,

Yep. The old "compare the best of the old stuff to the vast majority of the new stuff and then declare the current state of the field culturally bankrupt trick."

Jeff, I gotta tell you. The sheer illogic of your post boggles me.

First, it assumes that the majority of writers are not in fact sweating everything they produce. I dunno if this means that you're not sweating everything you produce, but I assure you, many writers are. Working their butts off, sweating blood, taking things apart and putting them together repeatedly, doing multiple drafts and a good deal of hard thinking, fussing over every sentence, putting their blood and sweat and painful hard-earned experience into every character detail--broken hearts, and broken bones.

I know. I watch some of them do it.

One's dignity as an artist requires that one keep pushing. Trying harder, digging in, going to the wall. Writing what it hurts you to write.

You know, most art, even earnest art, will be pretty bad. And a whole hell of a lot will be competent but average. And the reason for that is that not everything can be above average. You might look up the definition of the word average if you need a refresher course on why.

Second, you assume that hard work equals excellent stories.

Now, does hard work mean every story is going to be a great one?

Alas. That's where the heartbreak comes in.

No.

You can work your ass off, and kind of suck. You can work your ass off, and be just barely good enough. You can work your ass off, and be mediocre.

You can, in fact, work your ass off for fifty years, and be mediocre.

Yeah.

Scary, isn't it?

But you only get one R.A. Lafferty, one James Tiptree, one Chip Delany, one Kelly Link, and not all of us can be him, or her. Sorry.

Ooo. Yeah. It smarts.

Lemme tell you. It smarts the hell out of me, too.


Third, you assume that the best work is going to be edgy and political and dark. And it's not, my friend. Or, at least, not edgy and political and dark the way you want it to be. Sometimes the best stories are edgy as hell, challenging and uncomfortable and right where it hurts and big and sweeping and savage. And sometimes they're tiny little perfect painful things, sweet and sharp and life-changing as a splinter of glass lodged in the soft pink swollen tissues of your throat, or as a a kiss from somebody you thought would never love you.

That assumption that the significant things in life are always dark and edgy? That's a comfort zone too, and a comforting--and I would honestly say adolescent--fixation.

John Gardner calls it "disPollyanna Syndrome," the cynical fallacy that the real world is unrelievedly bleak.

But it's not. Sorry. Sometimes, the real world--and art--are shockingly perfect. Sometimes the truth is a jewel.


Fourth, of course, SFF writers are universally engaged in writing highly commercial, derivative short fiction for the big bucks it offers. It's all comfort-food tripe, but it's what the market wants, and the short fiction scene isn't essentially a club scene consisting of writers writing for and to other writers and the most hard-core oh, five or ten thousand genre fans.

That was sarcasm, if you missed it.


Fifth, not everybody gets a great story. And even people who do, eventually, get one great story may not get two. And the vast majority of writers who get even one great story serve out a long and gruelling apprenticeship learning their craft first. Writing well is not a talent. It is not a gift. It is not an act of will. You don't get to get up in the morning, click your heels, and say, "Today I am going to write a classic story."

Believe me. If that worked? I would know by now, because I've tried it.


Sixth, once you've had your great story? You are stuck with it for the rest of your life. And you will have to get up every morning and wonder how you're going to top "Scanners Live In Vain," and realize that everything you write from now on is probably going to be a let-down.


Seventh, my great story is not necessarily your great story. Most of what the genre conversation as a whole praises highly falls flat for me for one reason or another.


Eighth, I have to point out that small stories can be important, too. Tiny little personal stories are no less worthy than big sweeping ones. And there are any number of writers who are engaged in the subversive activity of telling stories about the sorts of people SFF has traditonally found uninteresting. Unworthy. Beneath notice.

Midwives. Chimney sweeps. Beat cops. Orcs. Failing small businessmen. Mothers of sick children. Struggling hacks. Second-stringers.

Like the vast majority of writers.

Sorry, Jeff, to have to deliver the bad news. But it's okay; I understand not being good enough. (And hey, I mean, if you were a girl, you could have the added filip of having to be about twice as good as a male author to get the same amount of respect. I mean, do you honestly think Chris Moriarty is a worse writer than Richard Morgan? Or that Cat Valente is a worse writer than China Mieville? Because, um, with all due respect, and all respect due to Richard and China--I think Chris and Cat are every bit as good as the boys. And I know which writers I hear discussed more frequently.)

See, here's the problem. No matter how ferociously we hate our own inadequacies, no matter how much we will ourselves to genius, we each of us still struggle painfully with the fact that every morning we wake the hell up, and we still haven't turned into Theodore Sturgeon*.

God dammit.

To hell.

Your friend,

Bear




ETA:

In tangentially related matters, go read this:

http://nineweaving.livejournal.com/106450.html

and this:

http://cristalia.livejournal.com/192124.html

and this:

http://llygoden.livejournal.com/295112.html?view=547784

and this:

http://benpeek.livejournal.com/609355.html



Here. Have some pictures of Tornado Intercept Vehicles.


*Sturgeon probably had somebody he struggled painfully with not being too, I would guess, knowing writers.

Comments

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Seventh, my great story is not necessarily your great story. Most of what the genre conversation as a whole praises highly falls flat for me for one reason or another.

That's about the gist of what I ended up thinking. My impression is that for him, rising above "mere competence" involves producing a particular type of story . . . that quite frankly is a type of story I get little to nothing out of. I don't actually want to see the genre get broken and stitched back together, because those stories generally leave me feeling uncomfortable in a non-enlightening way.
I love seeing the genre get broken. But I suspect I want different things from my genre breaking than he does.

I want more stories like Hannah Wolf Bowen's "Among the Cedars," say.
Funny; for about the last 5 years or so, I've been increasingly convinced that we're living in (or that I, at least, am reading in) a new Golden Age. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, Brust, Stross, Bull, Monette, and some chick named Bear, are all writing books that do what great books have always done, that is, which use beautiful, smooth, spiky, challenging prose to show me human nature in ways I hadn't considered and which change me for the better.

(The preceding sentence brought to you by the letters P, H, and D.)
Which is not to say, you know, that he's wrong about it being better to overreach and fall on your face than to write the same safe book over and over again.

Because that's lame.

I just question his assumption that people are not trying.
I got nothin' but fangirl for this post.

WERD.
Sturgeon's law always applies.

Sadly, we can't lift ourselves above it via manifestos.
If all it took was hard work and dedication, fully two-thirds of my flist would be rock stars in SF/F/H. I don't know about Jeff's readers, but hte people on my flist, who are at every level of writing ability and success, are some of the hardest working, most dedicated folks I've ever seen.

Most of my stories are about second-stringers: I write what I know.

Thanks for writing this. Jeff's post wasn't sitting well with me, but I couldn't figure out how to articulate what I was feeling and thinking.
In short:

Sturgeon's Law: Why We Listen to Classic Rock Stations.
Wanna know who just MADE MY DAY by getting the Sturgeon reference?

You.

"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is still my favorite science fiction story.

Because it's tiny and perfect and it hurts so much.
After agreeing with a disturbingly large number of points you made here, I have to say that for reasons all my own and held close to my chest, your open letter has been more inspirational to me than anything I've read for quite...a...while.
For perhaps different reasons, the same is true for me.

Apropos of nothing, for a few moments I thought you (=Bear) had written "Tomato Intercept Vehicles", and was at once baffled and desperately interested.
Elizabeth, great post.
Thank you.

Does this mean I'm becoming a grumpy old pawn of the establishment?
It's okay; I hear I'm kind of a bulldyke anyway. :-P
If anyone wants dark, edgy, and political, I suggest reading The Turner Diaries. Happy ending: after much fighting, the Good Guys win and Pure Aryans run what's left of the world. Of course, this is utopian fiction rather than sf.
Great post. Especially this:

That assumption that the significant things in life are always dark and edgy? That's a comfort zone too, and a comforting--and I would honestly say adolescent--fixation.
Oh, God, yes.
Hear hear to all of that, but particularly, this:

(And hey, I mean, if you were a girl, you could have the added filip of having to be about twice as good as a male author to get the same amount of respect. I mean, do you honestly think Chris Moriarty is a worse writer than Richard Morgan? Or that Cat Valente is a worse writer than China Mieville? Because, um, with all due respect, and all respect due to Richard and China--I think Chris and Cat are every bit as good as the boys. And I know which writers I hear discussed more frequently.)

This has really been bothering me (again) of late.

And hey, I was reading a story of yours today and thinking, how come I'm not writing like that?

Ah, don't worry about it. The majority of actual readers, as opposed to internet book-pundits, are women these days.

The chicks are laughing all the way to the bank.
See? You should steal from John Gardner too.

He was pretty smart about some of this here writing stuff.
I don't agree with the Vandermeer thing in general, as I said, but Morgan vs Moriarty is a personal taste thing?

Do I think Morgan is better? Absolutely. (So do the ratings on LT too, perhaps). I have only read one Moriarty book though, maybe her next book is as good as Altered Carbon, which is better than Spin State which is better than Market Forces, etc.

Spin Control's ratings are pretty high though it looks like.

Mieville, too, has produced a capital G Great book. Haven't read one by the other writer you mention to compare, only one ordinary online short story.

Likewise on current evidence if you asked me, I'd say Moriarty is much better than Kelly Link, someone else you mention, even though I liked the Wizards of Perfil story I read, among the others. Heaps of people will of course disagree with this, as well as your Mieville or Morgan comaprisons.
See, I differ. I would far rather read Moriarty and Valente than Morgan and Mieville.

Taste is not absolute, man, much as you would like it to be. *g*

And I wouldn't say that any of the four has produced a capital G great book.
(unlurk)

You know, most art, even earnest art, will be pretty bad. And a whole hell of a lot will be competent but average. And the reason for that is that not everything can be above average. You might look up the definition of the word average if you need a refresher course on why.

The bell curve, let me show you it!

He does seem to expect a lot of writers to fit in the tail a couple of standard deviations above the mean, doesn't he? For that matter, he also expects the readers to be out there, too. Not everyone in the world is a hardcore reader, and certainly not all are caring about art.

The problem isn’t, as some have said, that we don’t have enough stories that try to entertain, but that too much of our entertainment isn’t good enough. “Art” and “entertainment” are not intrinsically at odds, except when put into conflict by those with an agenda or a general misunderstanding of fiction.

Sez he. Isn't good entertainment, or good art, a matter of opinion? "Isn't good enough FOR ME" sounds like what he's getting at here. Demanding that writers adhere to his standards, whatever they really are, is just... the opposite of what he's claiming he wants, actually.
I think his rhetoric got away from him.
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