If you're a science fiction and fantasy writer - and possibly even if you're not; I've heard that it was discussed in a story in the Wall Street Journal - you probably know something about the tumult over the Hugo awards: Sad Puppies, Rabid Puppies, Dancing Aardvarks ... wait, not the last one? It's hard to keep track.
For those of you utterly burned out on the topic, I want to assure you that I'm not going to talk about the events themselves. For one thing, with my last quarter of school devouring me whole, I couldn't devote the mental energy to untangling it. You may know more about it than I do. Secondly, I was more intrigued by the questions around the issues, the squishy, subjective uncertainties that make it possible (alas!) to have controversy in the first place.
For those of you not familiar with the issue, let me explain briefly: the Sad Puppies campaign was created a few years ago because a group felt that more traditional, adventure-style SF was being pushed out of the Hugo awards in favor of more liberal (in the US political meaning of the term) viewpoints. It completed exploded this year when Rabid Puppies decided to hijack it for their own purposes. (Please forgive if my summary is inaccurate: I did say I didn't follow it too closely.)
Behind all this kerfluffle is a tension between the idea that the quality of fiction, like all art, is subjective; and the action of presenting an award, which gives the veneer of some objective quality. Let's add one more statement to the narrative: diversity is a good thing and necessary in a genre that builds upon possibilities, but we don't want to set up a forced, artificial diversity. (Already, you can see the questions bubbling up.) What am I thinking of when I say "artificial" diversity? It's when a work rises to the top not because of merit, but because its author or subject matter checks a particular box. It would be like saying that every novel awards slate has to include one urban fantasy, two epic fantasies, one hard science fiction novel and one soft science fiction novel ... even if there were three amazing soft SF books that year.
But this all circles right back around to the subjectivity of art. Who gets to say those three SF books were more worthy, anyway? Can you cry foul, point to an agenda, on an intrinsically subjective choice? On the other hand, can you expect anyone to make a subjective choice without bias, whether intentional or not? In critique groups, writers often learn to distinguish between "not my taste" and "bad" when reviewing stories, but that separation of self only goes so far.
Clearly there is some objective quality to fiction: grammar, style, clear sentence structure, avoidance of cliches. From there, though, the slippery slope resumes. It was once the fashion for the writer to address the reader directly in the narrative; this was part of good writing. This fell out of favor and became a big no-no. And nowadays? I haven't seen one recently, but I'm sure you can find stories that include or even hinge on the writer talking to the reader. (Then there's Simon Hawke's books where the villain confronts the author directly, but that's another story.) Much of what is "good writing" is part of evolving cultural standards.
So what about popularity as our objective standard? I think most of us would agree that some of the most popular books - the Twilight series; Eragon - are not in any way good literature. This isn't even pure snobbery: when I read The DaVinci Code, I kept thinking, "This is bad writing. Why am I still reading this?" Even if it isn't a "quality" book, the pacing in The DaVinci Code pulls you on, and it's easy to see the source of its addictive spread.
At this point, I think I have successfully concluded that I know nothing.
Back to the idea of cultural framework, in a larger sense. Through fiction, television and other storytelling mediums, we are conditioned practically from birth with specific expectations of how a story will progress. Goodness knows, these have changed: again, in earlier periods, writers (and readers) had no problems with characters spontaneously discovering they had rich parents; Greek plays had literally deus ex machina, where a god would be lowered / brought in by machine to fix plot problems. Writers walk a fine line between satisfying expectations - but boring the reader, who (even subconsciously) knows what is going to happen - and changing things up - stray too far from the conventions, and the reader is unsettled, angry, rejects the story. (Oh, and everyone's tolerance is a little different, too. What, you thought it would be easy?)
Even within western society, however, we don't all absorb the same narrative sensibilities. Our personal experience and upbringing influences what we take from the stories we encounter. Imagine a child raised on a space station. (Hey, this IS a post about SF/F.) She probably would have a different reaction to the setting of the movie Alien, just to start. If she were a writer, how would she use the quiet of space as a metaphor?
Back to the problem and the question: if a work doesn't jive with our narrative sensibilities, does that make it poorly written? Is it an author's job to be universal? Or does quality mean decoding?
Now we run into the old problem that literature has always had, and SF/F has more recently acquired: we're afraid to admit that we don't understand, to say that we don't like something because we don't "get" it, for fear of being labeled dim or unimaginative. That little voice in the back of our head murmurs: if I don't understand it, it must be deep.
You'll notice a lot of questions here and not a lot of answers. I don't have answers; I'm still looking for them. One thing I do know for sure: the paradox of quality being both subjective and objective means that controversy, accusations of favoritism, conspiracy and collusion, are always only a breath away ... but hopefully, before we react in anger, it gets us thinking.