On the Subject of to Whom to Address Your Literary Kvetch

People, you can stop sending me Adam Roberts’ broadside against this year’s Hugo slate. Yes, I’ve seen it, and no, I don’t see any particular reason to get worked up about the fact he thinks the slate — which in case you’re somehow not aware, a novel of mine is on — is mediocre. Adam Roberts is perfectly entitled to his own opinion, and in any event if the annual Hugo slate didn’t cause someone to get his tighty whities into a twist, where would be the fun of that? Shortlists of every description perform exactly two social functions: To let you know what some people think is the year’s best something or other, and to give other people an opportunity to roll their eyes at what some people think is the year’s best something or other. Roberts has simply provided us This Year’s Model of the Annual Hugo Kvetch, and like the Hugo slate itself it can be judged on content, form and execution, both in itself and in context of other Annual Hugo Kvetches over the years.

In that respect, it’s fairly standard: A little exasperated, a little pedantic, a little condescending, and, thankfully, not too long. You can get in and out of it fairly quickly. If I were an Amazon reviewer, I’d give it three out of five stars: It’s not everything it could be, but it hits all the usual bases with a degree of competence and leaves the impression that once the author really masters the form, he’ll be able to bat out some real fireworks. So keep at it, Adam Roberts! We’re all hoping for great things from next year’s Hugo kvetch.

That said, Roberts makes a major unforced error by addressing his kvetch to science fiction fandom, since what essentially what’s he’s written comes across like so:

Dear Science Fiction Fandom:

Hey, you know those books you loved enough this year to nominate for awards? The ones that made you happy or made you cry or made you think or had characters you liked, in situations that thrilled you? Yes, well, they actually kinda suck. So, despite the fact that you’ve made science fiction a foundational part of your life, follow and support the genre, and are grown-up, accomplished people who are on average both smarter and better read than the average Joe, you are somewhat full of FAIL. Please try to be less fail-tastic in the future, or I will be forced to once again assume that the reason you select the Hugo nominees you do has in fact nothing to do with the fact you actually like the books, because that would just be silly.

KTHXBYE,

Adam Roberts

What makes this an error is the tangential fact Mr. Roberts is a science fiction author himself. Here’s something that we in the kvetching industry like to call a “pro tip”: If you take the time to squat and pinch off a steaming ass-loaf of condescension onto the heads of  the people most committed to the genre of literature you happen to write in, you may find they will remember that fact when they see your books in the stores. As in “oh, here’s the book of that guy who thinks my taste in literature sucks.” How motivated does that make the average science fiction fan to buy a book? Well, you know: How motivated would it make you?

Now, I assume Mr. Roberts didn’t intend to come across as arrogant and hectoring to his primary audience, because very few people so willfully attempt to ankle-shoot their own career, even the ones with an academic aerie such as Mr. Roberts possesses. I suspect he believed he was being stern but fair. However, I also suspect that science fiction fandom, not in fact being comprised of students who have to sit for a lecture in order to graduate, may have its own opinions on the matter. In the real world, people don’t like being told, while being gently and paternalistically patted on the head, that they’re goddamned idiots. Especially from someone who then turns around and hopes to sell them a book.

The short form of this is to say that it’s one thing to believe a book on the Hugo shortlist (or, as is the case of Mr. Roberts, all the books on the shortlist) is or are mediocre. It’s another thing entirely as a writer to criticize a reader (and someone you’d presumably like to make your reader) for his or her taste in books. The first of these is perfectly valid; taste is subjective. The second of these makes you look like a jerk to the people upon whom you presumably hope to build your career.

Which is of course perfectly fine, if that’s what you intend to do. I’d just make sure that it is, in fact, what you intend to do.

(Update, 11:21 am: John Picacio addresses Mr. Roberts’ drive-by hit on the Best Artist Hugo nominees in the same entry discussed above.)

249 thoughts on “On the Subject of to Whom to Address Your Literary Kvetch

  1. Before you begin commenting, things to note:

    1. As I am on this year’s Hugo short-list, it should be noted I’m not an impartial observer to this Kvetch of Mr. Roberts’. That said, I reiterate: Mr. Roberts’ opinion of my book (and the other books on the short list) is perfectly fine with me. I’m not under the impression everyone likes (or should like) what I write or what others write. Please don’t feel the need to defend me (or attack Mr. Roberts) on these grounds; I’m a big boy, I can take it.

    2. I’ve taken some pains to focus on Mr. Roberts’ entry, not Mr. Roberts himself, who I am sure is a personally lovely man. Please do the same.

    3. For the record, I own Mr. Roberts’ novel Gradisil and thought it was pretty good, although not 100% my own cup of tea.

  2. Brooks, when I want to be sure I have the first comment, I’ll put a “.” there and then go into the edit tool and write the fuller comment. As I have done.

  3. I have slogged completely through at least four of Adam Robert’s novels, and hoo boy…
    He is a more than competent writer- heck, even brilliant at times- but I have never encountered a character of his that was even remotely likable. This sentiment seems to carry over into the living, breathing , cash-toting world of the actual reading public.
    Pardon me, Mr. Roberts, for being an knuckle-dragging mouthbreather not sufficiently advanced enough to recognize True Art, but I’ll stick with books I enjoy.

  4. I haven’t seen Mr. Roberts’ screed, nor, I admit, do I particularly care, since I’ve had issues with most Hugo and all Nebula lists for years.

    I am writing this to say I think YOUR screed deserves an EPIC SUCCESS tag for sheer logic, reasonableness, and objectivity.

    May the sword of your writing always stay keen and bright through use.

  5. “a smart, randy teenager—which is as far as Heinlein’s understanding of sexual desire and praxis ever went, of course.”

    …oh, *Adam*. Had you read Heinlein (especially early Heinlein–in later life he was almost incoherent and meta-wanky to the extreme) as an actual adult, you wouldn’t have said this. But I have a sinking feeling you tossed aside your Stranger in a Strange Land and your Time Enough For Love well before you hit uni–which means you couldn’t appreciate it for what it was.

    Not that I’m saying Heinlein was some type of all-knowing sexual god, mind. I’m just saying he did indeed go beyond the mind of a teenager in that respect.

    What is this, the Insult Hour? Seriously. Shut-in plus Strong Opinions plus Audience equals Internet Asshole…isn’t that how the equation goes?

  6. I think the last person whose advice I would seek on literary merit is an English professor.

  7. Mr. Robert’s post makes me believe that he is one of the types of people that are very involved in the idea of Arts vs crafts. That art advances culture in some way while crafts do not and are therefore not worth as much. Personally, I have never understood that distinction since it seems to be a matter of opinion where the dividing line is between the two.

    He also seems to me to be of the school of thought that Art needs to be “challenging, or unnerving”. And people that don’t like the shock value of Art are degenerated by saying that “they prefer to stay inside their comfort zone.”

    While I suppose there is nothing necessarily wrong with these opinions, it always seems to me that it’s inherently limiting the definition of “art” and “advancing culture” to a definition that elevates a certain style or group.

    And the calling something mediocre rather than something else seems to me to be a measure to placate people that may have a different opinion than him. “Hey, it’s not bad! It just isn’t edgy enough to be true art!”

    I’m not saying that I thought everything on the shortlist was spectacular but not everyone shares the same limited ideas of what good books are supposed to do. Or that there’s a difference between books that are art and books that are merely craft.

  8. Sorry but anyone who dismisses the achievements of his colleagues so easily does not take much note from me. Gaiman as an indifferent novelist Did he actually read American Gods? Or Anansi Boys? Sorry but I quite liked this years list on nominees.

  9. He’s welcome to his opinion of the books, but I personally have a very different take on what art and literature should be about. He thinks literature’s first purpose should be to challenge or edify, and I think those may be nice things, but its first purpose is to entertain. If you can entertain me and also do all that other stuff, well that’s just brilliant. But if you fail to entertain me, you just fail.

    So, for instance, I’ll take Cory Doctorow over James Joyce any day and twice on Tuesday.

  10. I’m sure you had no intentions that come even close to this direction, John, but has it occurred to you that using a megaphone as large as yours to say ‘look, SF fandom! Adam Roberts is calling you a bunch of poopieheads! Bet that’ll adversely affect his sales!’ is an action that could quite easily be misinterpreted?

  11. He’s an Englishman with a PhD in English Literature. Mark the gravity of my words, Adam Roberts will make a fine literary critic in the mid-to-late 2010s. But as for winning a Hugo in the twenty-first century, well . . . let’s just say that he’s quite fortunate to have landed himself a paying gig in the quagmires of academia. Ah, many a fine thirty-something writer has been lost to such stuffy places. Adam Roberts would do well to drop everything and retire to some other Isle with nothing more than a hoard of old science fiction novels, an old 1984 Macintosh computer, and a sharp pencil. The pencil is certainly not for writing, Constant Reader. It’s for the ad astra per alia porci lobotomy, of course. There, in the hills of Scotland with a goat named Eve Scalzi, he would reboot his brain and begin anew. The Reincarnation of an Uninspired Mind, his first Hugo award-winning novel in the fall of 2023.

  12. As in “oh, here’s the book of that guy who thinks my taste in literature sucks.” How motivated does that make the average science fiction fan to buy a book? Well, you know: How motivated would it make you?

    This is a cheat: he isn’t critiquing my taste, he’s critiquing the taste of science fiction fandom as a group. So the question is, how motivated does this critique of the taste of science fiction fandom as a group make me to buy its author’s next book? And the answer is: quite a bit more motivated, thanks. It is a critique that treats me as an intelligent adult and invites me to engage with its arguments, which holds out the promise that its author’s fiction will do the same. As opposed to, say, your post, which presumes to speak on my behalf — as a Hugo-voting science fiction fan — and gets my position entirely wrong.

    As for sales: I think-but-can’t-prove that the set of people who are going to take exception to this sort of critique of this Best Novel list and the set of people who would enjoy and appreciate an Adam Roberts novel do not much overlap. And conversely, I suspect the set of people who enjoy this sort of critique and the set of people who would appreciate an Adam Roberts novel do overlap. So I’m sceptical that it’s as much of an own goal as you suggest.

  13. It’s another thing entirely as a writer to criticize a reader (and someone you’d presumably like to make your reader) for his or her taste in books. The first of these is perfectly valid; taste is subjective. The second of these makes you look like a jerk to the people upon whom you presumably hope to build your career.

    Hang on, is this *John Scalzi* saying “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”? Since when did *you* pull your punches for the sake of not alienating potential readers? ;-D

  14. It’s too bad the tone of this critique was so condescending. We might have been able to focus on some of the better points burried in there. It’s reasonable to think that, maybe, people that vote are largely only reading the authors they already like, who have better visibility.

    I admit, for the most part, to having followed authors I know I like this year. That mostly has to do with the fact that I’m a picky eater when it comes to SciFi/Fantasy, and can’t get through a book if the writing style doesn’t agree with me.

    Also want to agree with Joe Iriarte. I read SciFi largely for different reasons than I read (or don’t read) literature. If all the science fiction books hitting the shelves read like pride and prejudice I’d cut my losses and go start in on some of that Urban Fantasy you kids seem to like so much these days.

  15. Having read the original venting of unhappiness, and then read the guy’s CV, Roberts seems to have a serious lack of irony for a man who writes parodies.

  16. Primo taunting, indeed. More power to Mr Roberts for showing up!

    (Now, I happen to be somewhat of a cynic. Do fans really nominate only their favorite books of the year, or also books by writers they admire for their former books, even if the one they published year is not really on the same level… Or books by people whose blog they read, whose ideas they admire… I don’t know, fans I human beings, aren’t they?)

  17. “Yes, I’ve seen it, and no, I don’t see any particular reason to get worked up about the fact he thinks the slate — which in case you’re somehow not aware, a novel of mine is on — is mediocre.”

    In fact, I’m so not worked up, I’m going to devote several paragraphs to calling him names and telling him is doomed to failure in life!

  18. an academic aerie such as Mr. Roberts possesses.

    Wow… when did you start channelling Sarah Palin at her whiny ‘you elitists hate me’ worse, Scalzi?

  19. Well, for the record, I hadn’t heard of Adam Roberts until he popped up on Whatever. But he’s on my radar now, as probably thousands of other Whatever readers by day’s end. So it appears you went long with that last shuttlecock, Abigail. Care to serve again? In fact, Adam Roberts’s Gradisil may very well find itself on my next Amazon order.

    All this critiquing had made me realize something: I want to be a Hugo voter, to serve as a counter balance to the more conservative midwestern reader out there. There are many reasons, the first one being, Cory Doctorow. I still don’t know what all the fuss is about this glorified nerd. He’s certainly NOT a writer of science fiction. I don’t know why the Hugo voters are so awestruck with his writings . . . yes, his sf writings. Not his gift of gab. Do Hugo voters get easily spellbound by people who can rifle off hour-long speeches about Creative Commons?

    I must be missing something about Doctorow because I just don’t get it. Like, how do you compare Doctorow’s Little Brother with Varley’s Steel Beach? You can’t. Varley is light years ahead of Doctorow. Why? Because Varley lives in isolation, on an island. He commits to his books. He soaks every Joule of inspiration into his books. And his readers bask in it. John Varley is an sf writer. Little Brother reads like the debut novel of some aspiring nineteen year old working at a Starbucks in Seattle.

    In the same breath, however, I do enjoy listening to Doctorow speak about whatever. He’s articulate and well prepared for his appearances. But just because he has the gift of the gab doesn’t mean we should honor him with all these sf writing awards. Does it? I mean, come on! Isn’t it kind of like tossing the shuttlecock BEHIND the racket?

    Are the Hugo awards for best novel awarded to the best book or the most eloquent reading of said book. It just seems like the awards are going to the more amiable and well-spoken writers nowadays. It seems like the Hugo awards actually have nothing to do with the writing of science fiction, but rather the fan-gawking book-reading tour. It’s morphing into the political sphere, actually, politicians and their photo-ops.

  20. Deep down inside, what he really should have said is, “There’s some better books out there, but unfortunately, the mathematics of such a list means it’s basically a popuilarity contest. These books got read, so they got voted for. It’s a shame the publishers didn’t do a better job of promoting X, Y and Z.”

    I’m pretty darn happy with the list. Graveyard Book is one of Gaiman’s best (though perhaps a smidge below American Gods). I do have to say that the Stross, Doctorow and Scalzi books on the list are not my favorites by each. Does that mean they’re not the best *this year*? Not at all.

    Anathem, I haven’t read yet. It’s sitting on the shelf alongside Regenesis, daring me to find the time to dig into it.

  21. I think my favorite part is where he notes with distaste that all of this year’s nominees are YA (not that there’s anything wrong with YA, he hastens to add, it’s just that you awful American writers are too juvenile to write anything else).

    Because jeeze, those young readers. The ones that are going to be keeping institutions like the Hugos alive. Who needs them? Gosh knows they never read anything good.

  22. 22: I’m pretty sure that Scalzi was being sarcastic, given that the eyrie in question is perched on one of the dreaming spires of, er, Royal Holloway…

  23. #19: Indeed; props to Adam Roberts.

    As to the second point, when you look at how few votes it takes to get a novel on the ballot, I think that people DO nominate the books they like. It’s simply that so many novels get published that it’s hard for any novel to get critical mass.

    I also suspect that with the near demise of the digests that it’s going to be hard for someone to make a reputation with their short fiction and then win a Hugo for their first novel the way that William Gibson did with “Neuromancer.”

  24. “… the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing.”

    Oh, and don’t forget to give me your $25 for the ride, thank you.

    As a graphic designer, I’ve heard that argument before. It’s why most people don’t go to modern art exhibits, and many that do are posers hoping some of the “kewl” will slosh over on to them.

  25. There was an author (who shall remain nameless) who had a bad habit of slamming other writers on panels (usually while said writers were seated next to him) to the point where Bouchercon organizers started encouraging him to stay home.

    This sort of reminds me of that.

  26. As someone who admittedly is not really a part of sci-fi fandom, it looks like many people are treating YA the way many people in the ‘hardcore’ gaming community treat ‘casual’ games — that it, a blanket excuse to dismiss things that aren’t aimed at them as somehow less valid.

  27. Deep down inside, what he really should have said is, “There’s some better books out there, but unfortunately, the mathematics of such a list means it’s basically a popuilarity contest. These books got read, so they got voted for. It’s a shame the publishers didn’t do a better job of promoting X, Y and Z.”

    You see, that’s OK as long as it doesn’t come across as “if only everyone else was as well-read as me, they’d know that there was better stuff out there”. Saying “there’s better stuff out there that I only ran across by chance, and it should have been better publicised” is fine. But that’s not actually what AR was trying to say, because his suggested alternatives were really well marketed.

    And, yes, I didn’t think “Saturn’s Children” wasn’t very good, and I thought “Little Brother” was worse, and “House of Suns” should definitely have been on the list. (Haven’t read Zoe’s Tale or The Graveyard Book).

    But if the Hugos end up being awarded for a body of work rather than a single novel – so what? It happened to the Oscars. Dame Judi Dench got an Oscar for eight minutes of screen time in “Shakespeare in Love”. She didn’t deserve it for that – but she deserved it for all the other stuff she’d done over the years, no question.

  28. Well, as a Hugo voter, I could have taken Mr. Robert’s screed personally.

    I did not.

    I did suggest (on his blog and here) that he spend the bucks to get his very own ballot and start making suggestions.

  29. Forgive me, but this is a dead horse I really like to beat:

    This guy’s rant is exactly why I think so many artists are leftists. They find it utterly distasteful that their financial success is dependent on fandom – the unwashed, uneducated masses who are allowed to love Transformers and hate challenging art. So much better if art were completely state-supported so “true artists” would be free of the clamorous demands of the hoi polloi.

  30. I only note that Mr. Roberts says he is not eligible to vote for the Hugo. But that is not an incurable condition….all he needed to do was buy a cheap supporting membership to the WorldCon, and he could have assisted in creating that shortlist, and then voted on the winner.

    I don’t mind kvetching, god knows. But it comes across more grounded if the eye-roller participated in the process.

  31. This discussion seems to be getting mean-spirited fast.
    Everyone get your shot glasses and scotch, I get the feeling we’re in for Godwin’s drinking game.

  32. Speaking as someone who as read most of Roberts’ work, I would recommend Salt,/i> or On over Gradisil any day to perspective readers… But as we are also fans of Scalzi obviously, expect a different style of writing. Both a great, but in completely different ways.

    Then again, as we have just learned, tastes are subjective and recommendations for popularity, not valid. :-)

  33. @35 I think that would be because you confuse “leftist” with “elitist.”

    I’ve seen the Hugo grousing all over the net, some of it intelligent, others not so much. In the end, though, taste is subjective and I’d rather avoid thinking of folks as elitist or neanderthals over a popularity contest.

  34. Annalee Flower Horne @ 25 – Roberts, whatever the merits of his open letter (and I haven’t read any of the books on the Hugo list), can’t be said to be having a go specifically at American writers: Stross and Gaiman are British, Doctorow is Canadian (and lives in Britain married to a Brit) and only Stephenson and Mr S here are American.

  35. Abagail:

    “has it occurred to you that using a megaphone as large as yours to say ‘look, SF fandom! Adam Roberts is calling you a bunch of poopieheads! Bet that’ll adversely affect his sales!’ is an action that could quite easily be misinterpreted?”

    1. Given the wide range of places Mr. Roberts’ post has already been noted — including io9, not to mention the blogs/LJs of several prominent SMOFs — I would suggest fandom was already well aware of the post before I got to it.

    2. If you saw the many e-mails I had on the subject — and there were many, considering the post went up last week, and I was largely out of circulation until yesterday — you’d understand when I say that my post is in the wake of people being annoyed at Mr. Roberts to the point of changing their opinion, not the instigation it.

    Also and more to the point, I give my readers credit for having the intelligence to recognize that this is me saying “insulting fans is not a smart way to gain them as readers,” not “NEVER BUY AN ADAM ROBERTS BOOK.” Because, you know. Based on my long experience with them, I believe my readers here are a sophisticated bunch, able to parse the difference.

    Niall:

    “This is a cheat: he isn’t critiquing my taste, he’s critiquing the taste of science fiction fandom as a group.”

    And this is a cheat — or if not a cheat then a misapprehension — because the group is not a single entity, it’s comprised of individuals. Fandom is not like General Motors; it’s not a corporation. You can criticize General Motors for making uninspiring cars without directly criticizing the skill of guy on the floor who puts in the bucket seats, but when you criticize fandom’s taste in Hugo nominations, you’re directly criticizing the individual taste of that nominator; likewise the taste of anyone who thinks any of those books are better than mediocre.

    The difference between saying “I don’t like this book” and “You chose poorly in making your nominations” is both real and a dismissive judgment against another person. As noted, Mr. Roberts is free to do that if he chooses; I just wonder why he chose to do it that way.

    Adam Roberts:

    Glad you enjoyed the taunting. That said, I do hope you take away the actual message which is: I’m not sure it’s very smart to go out of your way to needlessly antagonize potential readers.

    PJ the Barbarian:

    “This guy’s rant is exactly why I think so many artists are leftists.”

    Literary condescension is abundant on both sides of the political spectrum, PJ.

    That said, I really don’t want the thread drifting into politics, so let’s go ahead an snip off this particular tendril of the conversation thread, shall we? Thanks.

  36. Well, like I said, it’s my dead horse and I’ll stop beating it now – except to apologize to Mr. Buchheit and revise and narrow my original comment to be specific to only the most insufferably egotistical auteurs.

    Moving on, judging by the first 3 comments on the original rant, it has to be said that some writers may find it an acceptable trade to alienate the mainstream SF audience if it makes them a hero in the niche audience that thinks that the mainstream audience is a bunch of morons.

  37. I suspect there may be a disconnect between convention-going readers and people who just read SF. I think both groups are perfectly fine, but they probably have slightly different tastes. I don’t vote for the Hugo, so I don’t complain about what is selected. On the other hand, I don’t take the selections very seriously either, as the Hugo list rarely reflects my particular favorites. I do agree with Beth @36, though, if you are going to get roiled up about it, then you should at least participate in the process if entry is that simple.

  38. English Lit PhDs and academic roosts aren’t necessarily disabling. The late J.I.M. Stewart (“Michael Innes”) and David Lodge are fine novelists.

  39. PrivateIron:

    “I suspect there may be a disconnect between convention-going readers and people who just read SF. I think both groups are perfectly fine, but they probably have slightly different tastes.”

    Judging by general sales numbers, I would suggest the connect between convention-going readers and people who just read SF is generally pretty strong, since all the nominees this year have sold better than the average SF book.

    It’s possibly more accurate to say there’s a disconnect between convention-going readers and a small group of readers, vocal on the Internet. However, as you note, both groups are perfectly fine, but they probably have slightly different tastes.

  40. Scalzi said, “I’m not sure it’s very smart to go out of your way to needlessly antagonize potential readers.”

    Except for the “go out of you way” part, how is this different from some who have commented here over the years about “never buying another Scalzi book” and you cheerfully sending them on their way?

  41. HydrogenGuy @8

    I once received the same bit of advice.

    From an English professor.

    Granted, he tends to think literature should be written like a Tarantino movie, so he has a little bit of cred in that regard.

  42. Although Beth noted that Mr. Roberts could cure his inability to vote for the Hugos, the fact that he is not a voting member of the Worldcon means that the Hugos are not “his” awards, as he claimed. Much like politics, if you are not voting, you are merely a spectator. You get to have an opinion, but it’s pretty much disposable unless the opinionator actually voted.

  43. I’m so sick and tired of these elitist blowhards with doctorates in whatever looking down from their ivy league towers and scoffing at the lowly undergrads working the fields. Dude, so what! You spent three years studying the works of Robert Browning . . . writing a hundred-thousand-word dissertation on his blah, blah, blah. Just what the hell does Robert Browning have to do with twenty-first century science fiction anyway? Do you really, really think that your PhD in poetry makes you the resident genius in the sf community? I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from a reputable university. I published three sf short stories with the undergraduate review, acquired a brick of rejection slips from Asimov et al, won an academic prize in Religion, and have written a sf novel, which I’m now shopping around to the trade publishers. Now, in your world, does this mean that my opinion matters more than some “uneducated” sf fan mucking it out in the real world, but less than yours? Because let’s face it, Roberts. Academia is not the real world. It’s where over-opinionated literary daydreamers like you end up, grinding it out with the nineteen year olds year after year, feeling superior because of the Latin on your wall. Well, I got lots of Latin on my wall too, Bard. Your gravity reminds me of a passage in John C. Wright’s Orphans of Chaos:

    “A farmgirl in a barnyard could play this way, if she were surrounded by dumb animals, piglets and kittens and lambs. Because the farmgirl is still a higher order of being than even the noblest of animal, and she can feel no shame in front of them, no more than a high cloud, or a distant star, can feel shame in front of a human.”

    You are that farmgirl, Adam Roberts.

  44. Because jeeze, those young readers. The ones that are going to be keeping institutions like the Hugos alive. Who needs them? Gosh knows they never read anything good.

    And none of them ever read blogs on the Internet. Trufact.

  45. Please, people! Just because some English professors come out of their offices to say condescending things doesn’t mean we’re all like that. (Of course, the tenure system does make some Prof Slughorn wanna-bes think they can say anything they want!)

  46. Putting aside questions of elitism and reader alienation and, well, most of the things that our host here was actually talking about, I share some of Roberts’ disappointment with the shortlist.

    It is a list with a fairly small radius, if you will. Most of the readers of Stross are readers of Scalzi, Gaiman, Doctorow and Stephenson: if you were to let a recommendation engine like the one at Amazon.com let you know what “Readers who enjoyed ‘Little Brother’ also enjoyed,” you would be able to construct the shortlist in a few hops.

    This may suggest that the people who voted this year came from the same cohorts, and perhaps in a lousy economy it is natural that the people who can vote are likelier to be part of that sort of Vinge demographic of libertarian technophiles–and rich computer programmers–among whom Stross and Doctorow and Stephenson are major figures.

    But since I would like to look at the list as a document that tells readers something about what’s good in science fiction, I’d like to see nominated some of the excellent books from authors a little further from the galactic core.

  47. He lost me wildly for two reasons: one, he didn’t actually present any better books for this year’s list! Which leads me to believe that he actually couldn’t think of anything better. Two, calling “The Graveyard Book” cosy and twee is sort of like calling some other kids book that is deeply horrifying on a social and imaginative level cosy and twee. I loved that book because of the protagonist’s lack of a grasp on his humanity: the little girl in the end actually stops talking to him because he’s scared her so much. Plus he psychologically tortures two kids from school he doesn’t like and is proud of it and encouraged to do it. That’s. That’s not exactly cosy. It makes me question his depth as a reader that he would say an offhand thing like that, because if he’s such a light flip-through-a-book kind of guy, I hardly think he had the right to talk about any other books that I haven’t read. (Like Anathem.)

    And, well, as much as I like Valente, and I do… “Palimpsest” forgot it had a plot until the last fifty pages. It was two hundred fifty pages of beautiful, vivid, and often sexy descriptions of things with little to no forward movement. Yet another tick mark against his opinions. Books that are just pretty don’t quite strike me as deserving Hugos, either.

  48. I can agree with a fair amount of Adam’s criticism, but as with all critics he makes the fatal mistake of underestimating the importance of and artistry required to make a novel ENTERTAINING. To me, this is THE crucial quality for a successful novel. By entertaining, I don’t mean necessarily humorous, or frightening, or thrilling — I mean anything that provokes a genuine emotional response and connection, which is what art is supposed to do.

    I don’t know alchemy enables prose leap off the page and into my mind, but it is elusive, and should be a highly prized commodity. James Joyce was the consummate “experimenter” of the form, but you can’t convince me that his textual acrobatics actually constitute fiction. Twain was no less an experimenter than Joyce, but his fiction was accessible and alive. If you want to experiment fine, but please present me with a finished work, not a crude exercise validated only by an arrogant sneer.

    If a critic genuinely finds “Anathem” boring, he has a right to his opinion. But don’t tell me something was fun to read, but a lousy book. That’s like saying the Patriots are a lousy football team — all they ever do is score more points than the other team.

  49. I’m so sick and tired of these elitist blowhards with doctorates in whatever looking down from their ivy league towers and scoffing at the lowly undergrads working the fiel

    The rough translation of the above is “If you’ve spent your life studying a particular topic, you are still not allowed to have an opinion which differs from the popular one. And if you do have one, you must express it in the softest way possible, so that the no one gets even the slightest bit upset about it.”

  50. If, over the next few years, the Hugos are dominated by writers with popular blogs we’ll learn something about the relative importance of publicity over other qualities.

  51. For quite awhile the Hugos have been ‘the five best books from the usual suspects’, and pretty much nobody else makes the shortlist unless the usual suspects didn’t have five books total out that year. And normally first-time nominees don’t win, unless voters recognize, belatedly, that a previous book that should have made the short list didn’t. See, for example, Neal Stephenson, winning with ‘The Diamond Age’ I believe in great part because Snow Crash didn’t make the shortlist a couple of years before.

  52. There is something to that, though, John. For example, reading the Whatever all the time I feel like I know you. I don’t, of course, but I certainly know more about you than I did almost all of the guys I was reading in the 80s and 90s. It’s the same thing with regular readers of Stross and Doctorow Does this make me more likely to vote for books by y’all? I don’t know, probably. It certainly makes me more likely to buy the books, which is pretty much a pre-requisite. It’s not an instant vote – I disliked Little Brother, no chance I’d vote for it, and still haven’t read Saturn’s Children.

  53. Here’s a thought. I don’t read anything except on recommendation from a trusted source. There’s way too much noise out there to waste time and money conducting $8 to $25 dollar experiments.

    Scalzi, Stross and Co. have demonstrated an ability to entertain me. They are known quantities, and are fairly accessible via their respective blogs.

    Further more, I only picked up my first Stross book, Singularity Sky, because it had a recommendation on the cover from Michael Swanwick.

    I’d love to see a “must read” list out there to help me filter the noise. I realize there are probably a million and one of these already, buts that just the noise problem repackaged into larger investment vehicles.

    That being said, I’ll probably be giving several of the books Roberts mentioned a look. If you really want to enlighten us, Adam, hit us with an RSS feed of must-reads and wait a year.

  54. Glad to see we were all able to band together and let Roberts know none of his complaining about mediocre books was gonna go unchallenged.

    PS: Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!

  55. Synchronicity…one of my vacation books was his “On”, which I found extremely frustrating. The main character as whipping boy non-entity was one thing, but the “didn’t feel like delivering the last five chapters” non-ending about sent me around the bend. Yes, I know that the post-moderns do that, but someone like David Foster Wallace can get away with it because his books aren’t exactly linear in the first place.

    I did think his criticism of “Little Brother” was completely on-target. I don’t understand what people see in that book. Otherwise, I find his criticisms way off-base, the sort coming from someone who doesn’t understand the sense of fun. “Graveyard Book” was one of the best juveniles I’ve ever read and to criticize Stross’ book as “for randy teenagers” implies to me that he completely missed the point of the thing.

  56. “He lost me wildly for two reasons: one, he didn’t actually present any better books for this year’s list! ”

    He quoted someone else approvingly who said “…Terry Pratchett’s Nation, Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels, or even Allegra Goodman’s The Other Side of the Island …. Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, or Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.”

    and was keen on the Clarke awards list – Sherri S. Tepper’s The Margarets, Mark Wernham’s Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, Reynolds’ House of Suns, The Quiet War, song of Time, Anathem – if not all the books on it

    and suggested for next year – Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit; Lee Konstantinou’s Pop Apocalypse, China Mieville, The City and The City;, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream, Catherynne M Valente, Palimpsest

    (though realised that Lavinia wouldn’t be eligible then)

    Anyway, I more or less agree with Roberts. Anathem was ambitious but in the end bad, Little Brother right-on but not a great book, haven’t read Saturn’s Children but have yet to read anything by Stross that impressed me as fiction, have given up on novels by Gaiman, and (sorry John) thought the OMW series had declined to the point where I wasn’t bothered reading any more of them. But all five books are by people with enough love from fandom that the 800? people who vote in the Hugos were bound to list them.

  57. John,
    Self promotion was much less noticeable before these electronic social network thingies.
    Bing Crosby was a great singer but would never have made it as big without his skill with that new technology the microphone.
    You are at least a pretty good writer but it is possible that you wouldn’t have published as many novels, let alone be shortlisted for the Hugo without a large internet fan base.
    This doesn’t mean that without blogging we would be voting for better books, just perhaps other books. When the environment changes you get a different mix of species.

  58. This was knid of crazy. Having different taste then say the voting populace is one thing. Write why you don’t like the picks. Give examplaes of waht books you would pick.

    Insulting your readers or possible readers seems short sighted. I probably won’t hold it against him. I read books because I want to read a book not gain some insight into the author who wrote it. However, I have friends who would quickly remove him from their reading list for insulting their tastes.

  59. When will LeGuin, Robinson and Pratchett become popular enough to be loved by the fans?

    And when will Reynolds get paid for his work?

    The injustice of it all.

  60. Walt:

    “Self promotion was much less noticeable before these electronic social network thingies.”

    As I’ve noted elsewhere, I think the shibboleth of The Internet Creating Hugo Nominees shows a fair amount of underestimation (if not actual ignorance) of what else goes on in terms of the choices people make for their nominations, up to and including the fine art of self-promotion. I’m not going to dispute being online helps (hello! It does). I do dispute that it is as absolutely critical as people seem to think it is.

    At this point I tend very strongly to believe that the reason so many people want to blame the Internet for the Hugo nominees this year (and in other years) boils down to “I can’t believe people didn’t nominate what I thought should be nominated! Some nefarious outside force must be affecting their minds! I know! It’s the Internet!” Which as you may imagine I find both condescending and a bit silly.

  61. I skimmed his rant looking for recommendations. Surely if he doesn’t think much of the list he’ll propose alternatives, right? So after much skimming I run into a mention of The Quiet War. Cool. I check on Amazon. It’s out of print in hardcover. The paperback isn’t out yet. The hardcover only had a single review (compared to 58 for Zoe’s tale) and a four star review at that. I’m sure it’s a fine book but if nobody read this thing and it’s impossible to buy currently how did he expect it to be voted into anything?

  62. I am surprised that people aren’t addressing the meat of the argument, no matter how many objections there may be to the way it was phrased (i.e. the “meta” criticism).

    Some or many or most of us want our sff to be something that challenges us, stimulates us mentally, broadens our horizons. We also want the books to be entertaining and readable in a more conventional sense. How many of the books that are award-winners in their own day manage to be both of these? Well, not *all* of them. So how does the community rate the relative importance of these two factors? Do we like the weighting, or upon reflection does something seem out of whack?

    I haven’t read all the nominees, so I can’t say how this plays out currently. I think it is worth discussing.

    PS to Walt above: Having read Scalzi before ever seeing his blog, he *is* that good.

  63. You can’t just dismiss the Internet as an influence on people’s reading.

    Just… yeah. You can’t.

  64. No one is, Aoede, least of all me. I just don’t think it’s as influential when it comes to Hugo nominations as apparently some others do. Otherwise, as an example, “the big three” print magazines wouldn’t dominate the short fiction categories as they do.

  65. Some years several realy good books get published, and some years not so much. This is somewhat reflected in the Hugo nominees.

    Some years there are 4-5 really strong novels.
    Some years there are 4-5 really medeocre novels.
    Some years Verner Vinge published a book and everyone else is screwed. (no seriously)

    I’ve read Hugo wining novels before and thought “what a piece of dreck, how did that win?” and looked at the nominee list and seen that everything was crud. Contrawise sometimes you ask youself how something failed to win and you go back and look at the list and it’s a verry strong field.

    Also, since this is a Fan award, the demographics of the nominees tend to be affected by the demographics of the atendees. When the Worldcon was in the UK a couple years ago, all 5 of the Best Novel authors were UK citizens.

    (still didn’t help poor Ken McLeod though, who keeps having the bad fortune to write awesome books in years with an incredible slate of nominees)

    Is it a weak list compared to say 2006 or 2005? I’d say yes. That doesn’t mean they are bad books though.

    And simply being nominated increases sales. Our host might be able to tell us by how much…

  66. Chris,

    I read Old Man’s War and loved it before reading his blog so I know what mean. I wouldn’t have said he’s *asterisk* worthy but opinions differ.

  67. Mark Horning:

    Zoe’s sales are in line with the other books in the series, so it’s difficult to say whether the Hugo nod has much influence. If Zoe wins, perhaps it will over the long run. However, I don’t suspect Zoe will win this year.

  68. Ray@67: I love Kim Stanley Robinson…but suggesting a book for Hugo consideration that won’t be published until December seems wrong…are you suggestion that the work is good or the author?

  69. McAuley’s The Quiet War? That’s my point with ego-flexing academics like Adam Roberts. They always go with obscure writings. It makes them look more smarty-pants than the lowly serfs tilling the fields (most of whom couldn’t even fathom what a pair of pants were; burlap sacks they’d know, of course). Trust me, Adam Roberts spends hours a week researching obscure quotes and references to out of print book titles for the sole purpose of milking his own Bovine somatotropin-injected udders and ceremonially serving it to the lactose intolerant masses like a sacred Hindu cow.

  70. Steve: I suggested it because I’ve read it (it’s out in the UK in August) and consider it better than anything on this year’s Hugo list by a large margin.

  71. Steve@80 – they weren’t my suggestions, but Roberts’. Someone else complained that he hadn’t proposed any alternatives, so I lifted a lot of titles from his post. He wasn’t keen on all of them, but seemed to think that each set had more award-quality than the existing set of nominees.

    (The only one from that list I’ve read is The Knife of Never Letting Go and it is excellent. But YA, which cuts against Roberts’ argument somewhat)

  72. Well, to each their own. Really, anyone looking for a list of cutting edge, “literary”* sci-fi ought to know by now that they need to find a different list than the Hugos. It’s like complaining that the Oscars don’t accurately reflect the most cutting edge movies of the year. Well, duh. Roberts’ argument is trying to make the Hugos that list. I hate to break the news, but that horse died years ago. Time to let it go. The Hugo (and usually the Oscar) nominees are generally entertaining, popular works. Sometimes they are also cutting edge. Sometimes they are not. There is nothing wrong with that.

    *Avoiding use of the word “best” here, because best doesn’t actually mean anything unless you define the criteria.

  73. To clarify (stupid lack of editing): Roberts’ argument seems to be that the Hugo’s *should* be that list.

  74. And because I too am a fan (though without Hugo voting privileges) they are my awards.

    Um, Professor Roberts? Anyone can be a Hugo voter, if they ante up. If you are critical of the Hugo nominations, there is a way for you — and others who believe as you do — to address this situation. The fact is, the number of Hugo voters isn’t all that large. So while you are correct saying these are “my awards” because you are an SF fan, there is a mechanism whereby you CAN take true ownership of the awards.

    Or at least one vote.

    Dr. Phil

  75. Of course, Roberts is a professor of english. It all makes sense now.

    There’s something about being tenured that warps minds and turns readable prose, poetry, and non-fiction into turgid, wordy dreck. And in academia, the masses are always wrong, everything popular is to be shunned, and literary criticism is serious business even when it’s forgotten what the fuck it’s supposed to be criticizing.

    What I want to know is why the professors who handle the science part of science fiction (Hi Prof. Plait!) and work in the hard science fields of academia are not like this.

  76. Ray @67: I’m the person Adam quotes about alternative Hugo nominees, and I just wanted to note that his quotation leaves out the caveat that I haven’t read the last three, though all have received excellent reviews from people whose opinions I value. The Pratchett, the Langan, and the Goodman, however, despite being far from perfect, would each have made much better Hugo nominees than a good 60% of the current ballot.

    Doug Wade @73 & Dirty Wizard Hunter @81: The Quiet War was published in the UK this year. I didn’t care for it myself, but that’s very much a minority opinion – its reviews have been stellar and it was nominated for the Clarke award. As Adam is British, it hardly seems fair to accuse him of having chosen to highlight an obscure book.

  77. Reading this is like listening to enophiles argue Which is better? Cabs or Zins?.

    Or pro-life and pro-choice people argue about when life starts.

    i.e. painful and wanting me to put them out of my misery.

  78. Abagail:

    “The Pratchett, the Langan, and the Goodman, however, despite being far from perfect, would each have made much better Hugo nominees than a good 60% of the current ballot.”

    Re: Pratchett, he’s been nominated and declined before, so it’s entirely possible he was nominated again, and passed again (or that someone else declined a nomination — it’s been known to happen). We’ll see when the tallies are released after the ceremony.

  79. The good prof would do well to watch the movie The Squid and the Whale to see if perchance he might recognize himself in one of the characters.

  80. It’s the process, not the thing.

    Despite all of the specifics in Mr Roberts’ kvetch, I did not read it as an attack on particular authors, or even on “what literature/the arts should be.” Instead, it’s a process issue: What is the appropriate method for choosing awards? He could perhaps have been more clear on this, but I’m familiar enough with the way professors think and write to see that concern behind his comments.*

    And here, I must agree with Mr Roberts: The Hugo process (and, for the matter, the Nebula process) is ineptly designed and broken, even for a “fan” (or, in the case of the Nebs, “writers'”) award.

    Were I Lord High SMOF, I would establish a nominating system that did not “hometown” the ballots, or at least not so egregiously as the present Hugo system does. (Exhibit A: the final fiction ballots from Toronto.) Instead, the nominating process would be through a jury with some continuity — overlapping two- or three-year terms, with a large-enough membership that nobody can dominate proceedings. Only after the jury has established a relatively merit-based final panel does one open things up to the membership at large for a final determination. I would also get rid of a lot of categories, particularly those related to fandom, which only proves that:

    I am not Lord High SMOF. I would throw away virtually everything Heinlein did after MIAHM for want of editing; I would banish Andre Norton from the Grandmasters, and instead term her a Pioneer, because a Grandmaster should be worthy of continued emulation; I would make all of those “libertarians” who write about utopian systems actually read the utopian oeuvre (fiction and nonfiction) before spouting forth; I would murder, maim, and mutilate any artist who insisted on steel brassieres for barbarian princesses in arctic climes. The very point here is that there is more than one way — process — with which to measure “excellence;” that the present process is open to severe criticism for emphasizing fen preference over excellence, while nonetheless offering the pretence that it is indeed about excellence; that the status is, indeed, not quo.

    If fandom wants to establish a popularity contest among the kewl kidz, go right ahead.+ Just don’t pretend that the unkewl kidz will agree with the choices. Or that the choices — inept and inappropriate as they usually are — somehow reflect anything more than the results of a popularity contest.

    * I’d better throw this out now: I may not be an English professor, but I did substantial work in English in England, on a track toward being an English professor (ABD PhD). Instead, I got a different doctorate, in the “social sciences,” filled with perhaps the most antisocial segment of grad students known to man: lawyers. IMNSHO (ever heard of a professor, let alone grad student, with a “humble opinion”?), there is no defensible “primary” purpose of anything in the arts, and that indeed “purpose” is the wrong inquiry and even vocabulary. That, however, is not the point.

    + That fen are, almost entirely, those who the “real” kewl kidz shat upon in high school is an entirely intended irony… as is my accusation that they’re adopting the same methods to deal with an unkewl subpopulation. There’s an anthropology dissertation lurking in there somewhere!

  81. They always go with obscure writings. It makes them look more smarty-pants than the lowly serfs tilling the fields

    Or, possibly, they might think that they’re actually better and has nothing to do with putting down the masses.

    I’m an academic (you may have guessed) working in military history. The stuff that is most popular in military history is the American Civil War and World War II. If I wrote a list of the best military history of the year, I could well see being predisposed to pull in works on less popular conflicts rather than the 47th rendition of the Battle of Gettysburg or the invasion of Normandy.

    There’s something about being tenured that warps minds and turns readable prose, poetry, and non-fiction into turgid, wordy dreck.

    Really? Stephen Ambrose? David McCullough?

  82. The Quiet War is obscure? Is Gollancz now some worker-owned cooperative fanzine publisher that releases books in limited editions of thirteen within sardine can tray cases so that they might sell the keys separately? (For another £100, surely.)

  83. ben @63: the “Big Idea” series of posts here is one possible starting place that I know of, SF forums are another. Although I suspect a “must read” list will by necessity be so varied between people nobody will have read all of it.

    As to Mr. Roberts: I’m an Israelli, and this sounds like a similar argument that happens every year about the Geffen Awards(the Israeli SF awards) process. The Geffen and the Hugo are both popularity based, as such experimental books, books by new authors and niche books tend to do more poorly then the books who’re a bit more middle of the road. If you want a quality contest go check the Nebulas- the Hugo isn’t one.

  84. ETA: by quality contest I meant “a contest based on professional judgement of merit” rather then “a contest that has quality”

  85. ben @63 Here’s a thought. I don’t read anything except on recommendation from a trusted source. There’s way too much noise out there to waste time and money conducting $8 to $25 dollar experiments.

    Dunno where you’re located ben, but you could go to your local public library and see if they had whatever book you were thinking of reading — or could get it. (Inter-library loan is a wonderful thing, and in the States at least is generally free to the patron.)

    Perhaps your library doesn’t stock much science fiction/fantasy, but if folks start asking for it, they’d probably start to buy it.

  86. Adam Roberts: the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing.

    Um, no. The “very heart’s-blood” of literature is to entertain. Only if it accomplishes that, will it even be given the chance to accomplish the other things you mention. At least that’s the way it works among us general readers. It may be different with your students, who, after all, are required to purchase and read whatever books you assign.

    Nick Mamatas @95: I’m afraid that The Quiet War is pretty obscure, at least here in the U.S.

  87. 99 – hugh57 – a lot of people find it enjoyable – entertaining, if you’d prefer that word – to be drawn out of their comfort zone, challenged and stimulated, woken and shaken, presented with the new, unnerving and mind-blowing. These things are not the medicine disguised by the sugar, they are the sugar.

  88. jams @98, ben @63: I rarely read anything except on recommendation from a trusted source. There’s way too much noise out there to waste time conducting several hour experiments. Money does not have all that much to do with it.

    That said, our esteemed host has served as the trusted source many, many times. The Big Idea series has been–is a great idea. Of people who regularly tend to disagree with him on literary quality, I also view Nick Mamatas’s and Nicholas Whyte’s recommendations highly. There are others, but these three are high in volume as well as accuracy of critique.

    If there was a wide-spectrum popularity contest (which the Hugos are not, have never been, and will never be), it could serve as a recommendating engine in itself. I just don’t see how such a contest could come into life. Most readers can’t be bothered to participate in any process, no matter how easy for the voter, to gather such results.

  89. I admit to being (at least this year) a Hugo voter, but not nominator, so I’m clearly part of the problem. Are there books I would have liked to have seen on the ballot? Yes, but I’m not unhappy with the ones that are there.

    I have just ordered Gardisil through inter-library loan, so will give Mr. Roberts’ work a try. (Quiet War wasn’t currently available)

  90. How nice that The Quiet War is still in print in the UK. But even so looking at Amazon UK it doesn’t look like it’s exactly a popular item. It’s a fan award, you’re going to get popular books. If The Quiet War is wonderful (and it could be, I have no idea and couldn’t buy a new copy in the US even if I wanted to) the question isn’t why did those Hugo-voting idiots pass it up, the question is why it didn’t sell better in the first place.

  91. I wonder if we can get a metric on how many Whatever posts start with an exasperated plea from John to the masses to stop sending him something before he plunges into a full-on post about that something.

    Maybe people were sending that something because he hadn’t written about it yet?

  92. Ray @100: I don’t doubt that many people are entertained by being drawn out of their comfort zone, challenged, etc. My point is that if a book doesn’t entertain, it can’t unnerve you, or blow your mind, or whatever, because you very likely won’t read it.

  93. beth meachamon @ 36:
    I don’t mind kvetching, god knows. But it comes across more grounded if the eye-roller participated in the process.

    OK, so I should sit in the corner and drink my double tall soy STFU-achino where the Hugos are concerned because I’m not in the financial position to lay out a fair chunk of change to get a ballot paper?

    Master Thief @ 87:
    Of course, Roberts is a professor of english. It all makes sense now.

    There’s something about being tenured that warps minds and turns readable prose, poetry, and non-fiction into turgid, wordy dreck. And in academia, the masses are always wrong, everything popular is to be shunned, and literary criticism is serious business even when it’s forgotten what the fuck it’s supposed to be criticizing.

    So, suck on that John Crowley (who is an adjunct professor of English at Yale when he’s not one of the best writers in America, period)! You might also want to track down a copy of Kingsley Amis’ New Maps of Hell, which got a lot of criticism back in the day for taking SF “seriously”, and was going to do his academic career no good at all.

  94. arkessian @104: I did not intend to suggest that the US is the center of the universe, or that you don’t matter. I only meant to point out that The Quiet War has not been widely available in the US (at least not yet), so it shouldn’t be too surprising that we in the US would consider it obscure.

  95. Can someone just please explain to me why it is, exactly, that a person who has admittedly not voted in a ballot/election finds it necessary to complain vociferously about the outcome of said ballot?

  96. 108: No, no one is saying that you shouldn’t be able to discuss the quality of the selections just because you didn’t vote. What’s at issue is that the criticism was NOT directed at the contents of the list, but rather at the poor, unsophisticated drudges who cast their votes in a way that did not match the desires of one pedantic blowhard.

    The criticism of “literary experts” as being, by and large, ivory tower dwelling elitists is as true as the criticism of the unwashed masses being ignorant Harry Potter fans…in other words, there is truth in each complaint, if hidden by the gross overstatements.

    If you disagree with the list, try to vote yourself. If financial constraints prevent, then talk up the lists at appropriate forums. Bitching after the fact? Well, I love to do it myself, so no real complaints, but don’t be surprised when people are offended.

  97. but don’t be surprised when people are offended.

    Taking offence, the gate and the whole garden path. Nope… not surprised at all. I’d just rather leave all the sniffing about pointy-headed elitists to the likes of Sarah Palin, who I don’t expect any better from.

  98. What about this idea that wanting to be challenged or drawn out of your comfort zone is somehow nobler than simply wanting to be entertained? I don’t think I agree with that.

    I can seek expanded horizons and personal growth on one hand, and entertainment on the other, without mixing the two. Or so it seems to me.

  99. I think that at least one person has read this post and run off to AR’s site to say, “Nyah, nyah, I’ll never buy your books again!”

    Is there a word for this kind of behavior? I know what sock puppetry is. And I know that a blogger can sic his fans on his internet enemy. But is there a word that describes this person who is like the mean girl’s best friend– someone who takes it upon himself to go do the blogger’s dirty work for him? — and is there a different word for it when the blogger hasn’t asked and would really rather this twit wasn’t out representing for him?

  100. @hope:
    Sounds like a volunteer minion you’re talking about. Whether he’s wanted or not depends on the situation.

  101. hugh @ 109: I accept your intent; but if we in the the UK (and I suspect the rest of the world) weren’t willing to look outside our national boundaries, most of published SF would be obscure.

  102. Abigail: Oh, no, John Scalzi would never try to incite people to do something they had not previously thought of doing, by Oh So Humbly ™ putting it out there for their perusal and edification. Not in a million years. The very idea. I’m shocked. Shocked, I say.

    See also fan Hugos passim.

  103. 113 and 114 – expanded horizons etc etc are not an optional extra on top of entertainment, or an alternative to entertainment, they’re an essential part of it. If it doesn’t make me think I am not entertained. There are exceptions, I suppose, but on the whole this is what I read _for_, this is why I *enjoy reading books*.

    It’s funny, though, that we’re having this argument about entertainment when discussing a shortlist that contains two lectures (Stephenson and Doctorow) with a light coating of fiction, and a book by Stross who (in my experience) has great ideas for stories but no great stories.

  104. PJ, John,

    “Useful idiot” and “someone being an idiot” just aren’t specific enough.

    Aoede,
    Volunteer minion is good.

    What about self-appointed minion? Volunteers are often deeply appreciated, but “self-appointed” has a nice pejorative ring.

  105. Oh, Ulrika. Your bitterness about the Fan Writer Hugo is truly an enduring joy.

    That said, what this comes down to is having one of two perspectives re: the people who visit this site. One, they’re generally slavering morons who will do my bidding when I but crook a finger at them; Two, they generally have working brains and free will.

    Guess which I believe.

  106. I cannot help it. I wandered over from EBear’s LJ to check up on the kerfuffle. I looked Robert’s novel on Amazon. And I absolutely have got to say that, in addition to not wanting to buy Mr. Roberts’ work after he insulted a book I’m very fond of, that I would not be able to buy any book the name of which is so close to Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. I would just laugh too much. I would find it distracting while reading the book — it seems to be the name of the protagonist — and simply would not be able to concentrate.

    There, I said it. I feel better now.

  107. Thanks for this John. I must admit that a person is welcome I feel to have a go at a short list, it’s fair game. The problem for me, is the way it’s done on this occasion. It’s a tremendously patronising letter. Roberts assumes he knows best, and then tells all of fandom so. By addressing all of fandom, and by essentially denigrating the people who have voted due to the mediocre list, he seems to reign down his disdain from on high without thinking about what or who fandom or the voters are. Voters and fans are individuals.

    Science Fiction book readers in the main, yes there are critics, and scholars, and academics, but I am a fan of books, I read them. I like lots of things, but I want to be entertained, to enjoy a book. No one can tell me why I enjoy a book, its personal enjoyment, I can tell (or bore ) others about it, but everyone is individual.

    I don’t need to be spoken to like a child. Go look at the Clarkes, I am told.
    The Clarkes, a juried award, that do not judge the best UK SF book of a year, but Judge the best out of the books that are ‘submitted’ to be Judged is not a good comparison. Last year there was a bit of upset about the Clarke short list, where was Brasyl many asked, where was Roberts then, methinks.

    That’s all way too messy for me. The raw gut feeling of Hugo voters, despite the multitude of personal motivations and equations that go into their personal selections, is cleaner. It is what it is, a bunch of people, book readers I hope, voting for what they liked and enjoyed, for whatever their motivation was, they made that effort, and for that, they do not deserve that sort
    of letter.

    Worldcon is not a representation of Science Fiction Readers, or of fandom, but it is fairly representative of Fandom. I do not know the type or the makeup of the people who purchased 4.6 million SF and Fantasy books in the UK in 2008 (Financial Times) and I have no idea what those readers make of The Hugos, before I even contemplate what the literary world thinks, but I do know as a reader, a voter and an active fan, when someone is really being condescending.

    Mind you fellow readers of good SF, The Quiet War by McAuley, is a great book. It really is quite phenomenal, and when it comes out over there, I would heartily recommend it, it’s good stuff.

  108. The Clarkes, a juried award, that do not judge the best UK SF book of a year, but Judge the best out of the books that are ‘submitted’ to be Judged

    Which includes every genre SF book published in the UK. Sometimes publishers of non-genre science fiction – those of, say, Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon – decline to submit, despite requests from the judges to do so. Is your problem with the Clarke really that it doesn’t contain enough literary fiction?

    Last year there was a bit of upset about the Clarke short list, where was Brasyl many asked, where was Roberts then

    Here.

    methinks

    Seriously?

  109. MadGastgronomer:

    Gradisil is the name of the main character, based on the Norse mythology of the world tree Yggdrasil, from which the thrust of the ideas for the backdrop of the story are taken.

    It helps if you think of it from that perspective! :-)

  110. 1. There is no Lord High SMOF. SMOFs is US – if you want to take the time to participate even a little bit.
    2. To suggest that the HUGO Awards be changed to some quasi-hybrid juried-popular award system (multi-year tenure for judges even) is to demonstrate an utter lack of understanding of the awards, the history and the difficulties of getting anything done in a truly democratic (non-representational) organizational system. NO fan is sufficiently revered, experienced, knowledgeable or wise to be elevated to lord high anything – even temporarily.
    3. if you are looking for ‘expertise’ to inform the Hugo selections, you need look no further than the voters in any given year: the pros is the fans and the fans is the pros.
    4. arguments restricted to the ‘shortlist’ fail to take into consideration the (usually) much wider selection from which the shortlist is drawn,
    5. I am nor aware of any other award that is more accessible and has more potential for change than the Hugos.

  111. steve @ 129: There is no Lord High SMOF.

    In fact, anyone publicly announcing that s/he is a SMOF is, by definition, not one. :-)

  112. *slavers moronically*

    Wait! Did John crook his finger?! *sits up, panting eagerly* What is thy bidding, my master?

    Aw nuts, he was just scratching his ear. Aw ear, he was just…

    *lies back down in a pool of moronic slaver*

  113. Xopher@131,

    What, he crooks his finger for you? I’m stuck with one of those electronic collars. Sigh.

  114. Well, this is kind of interesting. Both Roberts and Scalzi have gone against the cardinal rule of authorness, which is that you don’t criticize and argue with your critics, as it generally makes you look like a small-minded, sour grapes loser and you can’t win the discussion anyway.

    Roberts, in criticizing the Hugo finalists, will look to many as being sour grapes because he isn’t a finalist for the Hugo. That he may not have had a book eligible to qualify for the Hugos this year is irrelevant. He’s a SF author, he’s complaining about other authors who got an award nomination that he did not. Therefore, to many, what he’s really saying is that he deserves the attention more than they did. (Note: I don’t believe Roberts believes this at all, but many people inevitably will.)

    Scalzi is an award nominee, whom Roberts criticized. Scalzi is not objecting to Roberts’ criticizing him; he’s objecting to how Roberts did it, that Roberts did not come up with an interesting enough, snarky enough, etc. essay, and dissed SFF fans. However, many, as we’ve seen in this thread, are not going to make the distinction and instead see Scalzi as making sour grapes over his book being criticized. (Note: I don’t believe that Scalzi is making sour grapes over the criticism because Scalzi has made it clear many times before that he doesn’t object to criticism at all, but again, many others will see it in that light because of the rule of authorness.)

    I am quite sure that both Scalzi and Roberts will survive intact and may very well do it again down the road, but if any other authors are listening in — you can’t win this sort of discussion, even if you have slavering minions. :)

  115. KatG #133

    I think people are mostly upset at feeling they’ve been talked down to. Whether or not Roberts is expressing sour grapes (much less Scalzi) is pretty much beside the point and not largely cared about.

  116. Mr. Scalzi, thank you for this amazing takedown. I admit I’ve never read your books, but I am now going to go out and buy some of them.

  117. KatG:

    “I don’t believe that Scalzi is making sour grapes over the criticism because Scalzi has made it clear many times before that he doesn’t object to criticism at all, but again, many others will see it in that light because of the rule of authorness.”

    So you’re saying that if people misread what I write, they will think I said something I didn’t? Yes, well. I’m not losing much sleep over that one.

  118. 127 Seriously Martin, The Clarke Judges do not read and Judge every SF book published. Go ask them.

    Thanks for that link though. Shame that he couldn’t write about the hugo short list in a similar manner, just makes his patronising and condescending manner even more noticeable.

  119. I pay attention to the Hugos and Nebulas about as much as I pay attention to the NBA All-Star selections.

    Which is to say, while I love reading SF & F I don’t really put much stock in “selected” accolades.

    There are invariably problems with the methods of selection and no matter what happens, one or several novels/stories (aka: players) who jolly well deserve to be on the short list, are not on the short list.

    Is there such a thing in SF & F as the Gold or Platinum album? Where pure, raw sales are the only criteria?

    Yes, this is its own can of worms, but popularity is popularity is popularity. When people vote with their wallets, I think that’s important. Regardless of what the cognoscenti of the genre may believe.

  120. Pam@132, I only thought he crooked his finger. It would have made my whole day, but alas, I was disappointed.

    He gave you an electronic collar?!?!?!? I am so jealous right now.

  121. “So you’re saying that if people misread what I write, they will think I said something I didn’t? Yes, well. I’m not losing much sleep over that one.”

    I know you’re not. You have balls of steel. :) And you’re not afraid to say what you think. Roberts may also feel that offending the fans, as you pointed out his essay might do, is not an issue for him either. Both of you are strong writers and pithy.

  122. I have issues with this year’s Hugo shortlist as well, though I don’t think that Adam Roberts’ alternatives would have been much of an improvement. And I do agree that the tone of his piece is problematic.

    But can we please dispense with the blanket attacks against academics in general and literature professors in particular? Yes, there are literature professors who are insufferably elitist. But there are also scholars who take popular literature seriously and fight for genre fiction to gain academic acceptance. Adam Roberts belongs to the latter group.

    I have rarely agreed with his opinions on any given work of SF, but that does not diminish his contributions to the academic study of SF.

  123. I hope elitist snobbery isn’t mandatory for being a literature professor. I want to be one some day in the future, and it’d be terrible if I had to hate the fluffy steampunk fantasy stuff I write. But then, I also drink Starbucks coffee regularly, so I’m probably irrevocably doomed to the category of pretentious elitist no matter what kind of fiction I read.

  124. @14, Niall:
    “And the answer is: quite a bit more motivated, thanks. It is a critique that treats me as an intelligent adult and invites me to engage with its arguments, which holds out the promise that its author’s fiction will do the same.”

    But to me it does the opposite. I purchase and read a *lot* of books. I *really* enjoyed several of the books on the list he criticized as being mediocre. While possibly not the BEST I’ve ever read, they were all what I felt we very good, smart novels. If Mr. Roberts feels that those books are merely mediocre, it tells me that, more than likely, his taste in science fiction does not match mine. If that is the case, what motivation do I have to purchase his books? (Beyond that I’ve never even heard of Mr. Roberts, which makes it less likely that his novels are my style–Amazon knows my tastes very well by now and rarely am I suggested an author of more than one novel that I haven’t heard of)

  125. I find it unfortunate that people are reacting so negative to these comments. I’m not sure how Roberts was supposed to express his displeasure and suggest alternate novels without ‘looking down’ on sf fandom. Honestly, it looks like you either agree with the nominees, or you’re looking down on fandom. There needs to be an alternative to that.

  126. Paul D:

    “I’m not sure how Roberts was supposed to express his displeasure and suggest alternate novels without ‘looking down’ on sf fandom.”

    Easy: By saying “I personally think it’s mediocre year for the Hugos, here’s what I would have put onto the slate instead.” Disagreeing with the composition of the short list isn’t the problem. Berating people for their choices is.

  127. “I’m not sure it’s very smart to go out of your way to needlessly antagonize potential readers.”

    That’s the takeaway message, huh? Somehow I think that you wouldn’t be openly advocating cowardice if it wasn’t that you were angry that your book was dissed.

    And, you know, what you see as his condescension is absolutely justified by your remark, and the approving fan reaction to it. Don’t criticize, because the fans will get mad at you? That’s a rule for hacks, writing forgettable stuff that never dares to take a risk with their audience.

  128. Rich Puchalsky:

    “Somehow I think that you wouldn’t be openly advocating cowardice if it wasn’t that you were angry that your book was dissed.”

    Yes, well. Clearly you’ve never seen this, Rich. Bad reviews don’t bother me. You’re free to believe it or not, but I’m not responsible for the fantasy version of me you have in your head.

    As for not going out of one’s way to antagonize readers equaling “cowardice,” that’s a pretty damn stupid assertion, so I’m not going to bother arguing that point with you.

    And quite obviously, it’s not in the least surprising when I note that condescending to readers is not a very smart thing, that readers here might actually say, “why, yes, as it happens, we don’t like being condescended to.” Were you thinking they would or should respond otherwise?

    Beyond this, you appear to be confusing antagonizing potential readers outside of one’s novels with challenging readers stylistically or formally within one’s novels. It’s certainly possible to do the latter without the former, although if you do the former, you may not get a chance to do the latter.

    Basically, Rich Puchalsky, right now you’re winning the contest for the thread’s most abjectly stupid comment. If you can’t actually get smarter from that comment to the next, don’t bother to comment again.

  129. O_O There’s a contest for that?!

    What’s the prize? Oh, who cares.

    *ahem*

    Comic Sans is a lovely typeface, usable in an endless array of situations!

  130. Here’s what’s lacking in the nominees <- works for me

    If your opinion differs, "you really, really, really, really, really need to broaden your aesthetic horizons" and "there must be something wrong with you" <- doesn't

  131. I’m all for being challenged. But I also like a lot of stories that are just good reads.

    A lot of years, the good thought-provoking speculative and literary stuff is unreadable.

    And a lot of years, the readable stuff is not really that thought-provoking.

    I think it’s a poor year all around if one side of that equation is unrepresented. That basically happens never.

    If they’re represented by different books, and the readable ones win, then that’s unfortunate in one way, but not in every way. That happens a lot.

    I just wandered back through the list of shortlist nominees and winners and I think that the last year that didn’t strike me as having compromises on both sides to some degree is 1986.

    Books for the ages – that combine readability, plot, characterization, mental challenge, literary achivement into one nice neat package – are really rare. In the Hugos list… Canticle, Stranger, High Castle (wow, that was a good 3 years), Dune, Flowers for Algernon, Left Hand, Forever War, Neuromancer, the 1986 nominees en banc, Speaker, Fire… I’ll ignore 2002 and on as too recent and I’m leaving out a few who I really like but others are so-so on (Cherryh).

    Maybe one really good one every other year on the average? Most of whom won?

    I recommend realism. Most authors never write a book at that level. The combination of authors don’t write those books every year.

  132. I seemed to recognise some trick
    Of mischief happened to me, God knows when—
    In a bad dream perhaps. Here ended, then,
    Progress this way. When, in the very nick
    Of giving up, one time more, came a click
    As when a trap shuts – you’re inside the den!

    —Robert Browning, “Childe Adam (Roberts) to the Internets Came”

  133. Wow, I hadn’t even heard of Roberts’s kvetch until now. So thanks for the link. Mr. Scalzi.
    Anyway, I agree with him. Most of the nominees are pretty lame, and the only one that deserves to be listed, Stephenson’s Anathem, is actually quite Boring.
    So what if he calls on SF fandom for its lack of taste? SF fans, either in person or as a collective aren’t imunne to criticism. Need anyone be reminded PKD being largely ignored during his days only to be recognized now as one of the best authors sf has ever produced? Fandom misjudgements aren’t new, it’s not like there’s no history behind Roberts’s criticism.
    If that alone causes his books to fail miserably (not because of me though, I already thought he was terrible before his little rant), well that’s his problem and nobody else’s, isn’t it?

  134. “You’re a peon” screamed Adam Roberts. “From the Spanish, peón.”
    Peon looked up from his required course reading, the Hugo-winning novel Gradisil. “Yes, professor.”
    Adam Roberts perked up another octave. “And being that I wrote a hundred-thousand word dissertation on the irony of having so many illiterate peons working in the study gardens of Robert Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” you should consider yourself honored to be in my . . . presence. Er, I mean class.”
    Peon shifted uneasily.
    Adam Roberts rolled his eyes. “Oh, for heaven’s sake! Speak, peon!”
    “Er, but I’m the one here.” The only one stupid enough to enroll in your class is more like it, thought Peon Po.
    In the hyper-inflated imaginings of Adam Roberts, his makeshift classroom on the northernmost lawn of the school was teeming with fluttering minds. They were here for him, like moths drawn to a flame.
    Adam Roberts lifted the tent flap and sheepishly poked his head outside. “Minions, the lot of you . . .”
    An army ant stopped dead in his tracks on a stinky pheromone trail and thought, You don’t know the half of it, human.
    Peon lowered his head and pretended that he was reading the godawful book again. He thought he was enrolling in a course on the misuse of pharmaceutical drugs in science fiction. He’d misread the course syllabus. One book, he’d thought at the time. This course is going to be a breeze.
    Apparently, the title of Adam Robert’s Hugo award-winning novel “Gradisil” was eerily similar to “Gardisil,” especially for dyslexic readers. Gardasil was the new vaccine for the two types of HPV or Human Papillomavirus.
    His dyslexia had gotten the best of him yet again.
    Peon shifted uneasily again just as Adam Roberts pulled his unusually over-sized head back into the tent like an old tortoise. He shakily zipped up the door to the weathered army tent again.
    Nothing but the sound of a female mosquito looking for a meal.
    Adam Roberts pulled the rusty can of mosquito repellent from his back pocket and sprayed down his albino arms again.
    “Will you stop . . . fidgeting, peon!”
    Peon’s genital warts were itching like the myriad mosquito bites on his neck. He would call Merck after class again and ask where his damn drugs were.
    “Now,” said Adam Roberts with the air of a weather god. He popped another Merck pill from his silver Pez dispenser and turned to page 213 of his award-winning novel. He felt a wave a nausea sweep across his consciousness like a lazy warm summer breeze and smiled wanly. “Where were we!?”

  135. James @ 137: Seriously Martin, The Clarke Judges do not read and Judge every SF book published. Go ask them.

    This is literally true, because as Martin mentioned sometimes publishers do not submit one or more titles, but the Clarke award’s coverage of its chosen field is more complete than any other award I know of (inside or outside sf — Clarke judges read a much higher fraction of eligible works than Booker judges do, for instance), and there is emphatically not any sort of deliberate exclusion.

    Kenshin @ 143: If Mr. Roberts feels that those books are merely mediocre, it tells me that, more than likely, his taste in science fiction does not match mine.

    Well, yes. I believe that was the suggestion I made in the second half of my comment. If you don’t enjoy Roberts’ critique, and you do like the novels on the Hugo shortlist, I think there is a lower-than-average chance that you’ll appreciate his books anyway. I actually suspect both Roberts’ post and this post do a good job of appealing to readers likely to enjoy their authors’ work, it’s just that there isn’t an enormous amount of overlap between the two sets of readers.

  136. One thing that bothered me about Adam’s broadside was that he didn’t really define his terms. Aside from one very brief mention that books should be “challenging, or unnerving,” he blathers on about how this year’s books are mediocre, and how good and excellent books should’ve been nominated. But he never actually says “this makes a good book; this makes an excellent book. These are the qualities I look for in a work for in sci-fi; this is how I determine whether or not said work has these qualities.” For rhetoric, it’s a complete FAIL.

    He mentions one book I’ve never head of as what all sci-fi books should aspire to. What qualities does he look for in a work of literature?

  137. ‘I’m not sure it’s very smart to go out of your way to needlessly antagonize potential readers.’

    Also known as the importance of pandering professionally.

    ‘…I was largely out of circulation until yesterday…’

    Though your posts on Metafilter were certainly not largely out of circulation, having been part of a larger discussion.

    But this one wins – ‘Beyond this, you appear to be confusing antagonizing potential readers outside of one’s novels with challenging readers stylistically or formally within one’s novels.’ Because obviously, antagonizing potential readers is the one thing that an author should avoid at all costs to be a successful author, at least if measured in terms of awards and the increased sales which generally accompany being nominated for or winning such awards. The very horror that an author might actually act or think in ways that would antagonize potential readers outside of the pages of their writing. Obviously, the key is triangulating your audience – which is why Card is likely to never win an award again, isn’t it? His apparently sincere, if utterly abhorrent, opposition to gay marriage has likely killed any chance for him to win a major SF award, apparently most deservedly so according to your logic, regardless of the quality of his work. Luckily, you seem to have the necessary principles and understanding to avoid actually taking any stand which, speaking as an author, would preclude your future success.

  138. not-scottbot, the functional word there is “needlessly”.

    Obviously, if the content of the work is there to shake up the reader or challenge them in some way, that is not “needlessly”. If your intent as an author is to yell at everyone not buying your books because they are so much better than the drek they are reading, well, that is “needlessly”.

    I think that is the defining term.

    As far as Card goes, I will never buy nor read another of his novels. IMHO, there is just no room for that sort of bigotry and hatred in this world, so I refuse to support it, and I hope he never does win another award. But if he was just an ass or a reprobate, well, that’s a different story. I may one day read one of Mr. Robert’s novels; I may not. But I’m not a huge fan of pretension, so I would probably steer clear, since it is altogether possible that his comments are a clear indication of his fiction.

  139. not_scottbot:

    “Also known as the importance of pandering professionally.”

    You know, one of the truly idiotic things to come out of this discussion is the proposition that not actively calling out science fiction fandom as a bunch of semi-literates with poor taste is “pandering,” as is, apparently, pointing out that doing such calling out is not necessarily wise for a working science fiction writer to do. This shows both a woeful lack of understanding as to what pandering really is, and evidence in my opinion of actual contempt for fandom. Both of these are pretty stupid, and I’m not obliged to take either of them very seriously, from you or anyone else.

    “Luckily, you seem to have the necessary principles and understanding to avoid actually taking any stand which, speaking as an author, would preclude your future success.”

    Yes, I never take stands on controversial subjects here, ever.

    Honestly, not_scottbot, do you actually read this site? Or do you just pop over every once in a while to pour bile into a particular comment thread without reading anything else? Because the above comment is profoundly ignorant as regards the content of this site.

    In fact, I write a lot of stuff here that annoys readers, and I’ve been known to tell the ones who inform me that I risk losing their readership by writing on that subject that they can kiss my ass. The idea that I censor myself for fear of losing readers is just laughably stupid and easily disproven.

  140. Easy: By saying “I personally think it’s mediocre year for the Hugos, here’s what I would have put onto the slate instead.”

    Well here’s where I’m confused – when I read his comments, that’s exactly what he did.

  141. No. He’s explicitly criticizing fandom for making the nomination choices it has. It’s right up there at the very top of his entry. As noted before, there’s a difference between saying “I don’t like this list,” which is perfectly fine, and “You chose poorly,” which implies that the writer is arrogating to himself the ability to discern what should be on the list and what should not, without regard to the possibility that a) the nominators have brains and have nominated under perfectly valid criteria that are not ones he has considered, b) that his own criteria are not necessarily better than the ones the nominators used. And also makes him look a bit of a smug pedant, which might not be the best way to approach a potential reader.

  142. Easy: By saying “I personally think it’s mediocre year for the Hugos, here’s what I would have put onto the slate instead.”

    I think there’s a substantially good chance that would have been taken as criticism of fandom, anyway.

    And @155: Really? 434 words to work out your internalized loathing of people with tenure? It’s the kind of fanfic that tells more about the author than the subject.

  143. David:

    “I think there’s a substantially good chance that would have been taken as criticism of fandom, anyway.”

    Eh. Possibly, but, you know. Inasmuch as people kvetch about the Hugo slate every year, it wouldn’t have stood out as specifically pounding on people. On the other hand, by writing an “open letter” to fandom as Mr. Roberts did, he really left no doubt on the subject.

  144. David, fanfic? Really? It was nothing more than a good ten minutes of ribbing. Your halo needs a reboot, bro.

  145. Ah, the ancient battle of artistic depth ‘n quality vs. popular appeal. We even get snobbery and snark on their traditional sides. Classic.

    After this, can we get pure research ‘n discovery vs. practical invention? Or maybe discuss the potential illusion of free will? Or, joy of joys, taping bacon to the cat vs. taping the cat to bacon?

    Please?

  146. On the other hand, by writing an “open letter” to fandom as Mr. Roberts did, he really left no doubt on the subject.

    True.

    David, fanfic? Really? It was nothing more than a good ten minutes of ribbing. Your halo needs a reboot, bro.

    The author of said kind of fanfic is usually the last to know.

  147. My name is David.
    I live in another’s id.
    Though it’s not by choice
    My infatuation with Joyce.
    The rent is only three quid.

  148. @159 Card is unlikely to win awards until he stops phoning it in. As much as I dislike his personal politics, it is the decline in quality of his works that has lowered my opinion of him as an author.
    Were he to write a new book as good as “Ender’s Game” or “Speaker for the Dead”, I would definitely think it worthy of receiving awards, though his bigotry would make it difficult for me to consider purchasing it, if it were specifically recommended, I would read it.

  149. “there’s a difference between saying “I don’t like this list,” which is perfectly fine, and “You chose poorly,””

    I’m not sure I see that difference. Or rather, I don’t see how one can criticize the shortlist without either implicitly or explicitly criticizing the people who put it together. If I write a negative review of a novel, I’m saying both that I didn’t like it and that the writer wrote poorly. Adam’s criticism isn’t, or at least not primarily, of the individual novels on the shortlist but of the shortlist as a whole, and you, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow are not the authors of the shortlist. You didn’t give your novels Hugo nominations. The Hugo voters did. The fact that they thought the novels they were choosing were good ones is of irrelevant. After all, most authors think they’re writing good novels, and you don’t expect reviewers to take that opinion into account.

    Now, as I said in the comments to Adam’s entry, my problem with his post is that he’s equating the Hugo voters (and specifically the voters whose votes made up the shortlist) with SF fandom as a whole, but if you rewrote his post as an address to Hugo voters (which is essentially what you’ve done here) then it seems to me that he’s directing his complaints at exactly the right people. The only question remaining is one of tone, but as someone who’s never shied away from antagonistic, dare I say arrogant addresses himself, it seems a little rich for your to take Adam to task for doing the same.

  150. Or rather, I don’t see how one can criticize the shortlist without either implicitly or explicitly criticizing the people who put it together.

    See, I told you so.

  151. Abigail:

    “Or rather, I don’t see how one can criticize the shortlist without either implicitly or explicitly criticizing the people who put it together.”

    Why not? It seems pretty simple to me: You recognize that other people have aesthetic concerns and considerations different than one’s own, and that those concerns have validity, even if they are not ones you yourself would choose. It’s the difference between “you’re doing it differently than I would” and “you’re doing it wrong.”

    The idea that any difference of opinion or evaluative weight is an inherent criticism of the person holding a different opinion or evaluation seems fairly zero-sum to me, and that’s not actually how the world works (or has to work, in any event).

    “The only question remaining is one of tone, but as someone who’s never shied away from antagonistic, dare I say arrogant addresses himself, it seems a little rich for your to take Adam to task for doing the same.”

    Well, it’s not the only question remaining, to be sure. And this observation rather conveniently ignores who the targets are and what the intent is. All antagonistic/arrogant addresses are not equal, you see. Mr. Roberts is of course more than welcome to condescend and lecture to whomever he chooses. But speaking as a working writer, I find his target puzzling, and as a matter of edification to others, I pointed it out as a tactic of questionable utility.

  152. If I write a negative review of a novel, I’m saying both that I didn’t like it and that the writer wrote poorly.

    Really? Because I can think right off the top of my head of a half dozen novels that I absolutely detested, but also thought were very well written. (Mostly ones assigned in literature classes, come to think of it, though not exclusively.) I’ve considered it an important part of becoming an Adult to be able to separate “I didn’t like this” from “This wasn’t any good.”

    Of course, there’s also a lot of overlap between things I dislike and things I don’t think are any good. And a small overlap between things I don’t think are very good and things that I like anyway. But I think it would be pretty trivial to call out various nominees as not suiting one’s taste–or even not matching what one thinks is appropriate characteristics for a given award–without implying that everyone who liked/voted for the books in question has substandard tastes.

  153. To echo Fade Manley here, speaking as a professional critic of many years standing, there have been a number of creative works that I’ve recognized as being formally good which personally left me cold, and conversely, a number of works I really enjoyed that I also recognize are not going to be to everyone’s taste (and indeed may be a sloppy ol’ mess). A critic has to know his or her own biases and also have a theory of mind for people who are not they.

    If as a reviewer you can’t separate “I didn’t like it” from “The writer wrote poorly” I suggest to you that your reviewer’s toolbox is likely not as complete as it should be, and that you might want to look into that. It does explain why you apparently can’t separate not liking a list from criticizing the people who voted for it, however.

  154. Where do critics get the idea in their heads that you can harangue someone into having more sophisticated tastes? I’ve seen this in music, I’ve seen this in art, I’ve seen this in literature and I’ve never really been impressed by that tactic.

  155. 154: “SF fans, either in person or as a collective aren’t immune to criticism.”

    Actually, we pretty much are. That’s why we read SFF, even when multitudes of folk told us that it was not very uplifting and challenging of us to do so, that we are in fact juvenile imbeciles. SF fans, which include the authors, criticize each other all the time, and SF fans resolutely ignore such criticism from other fans, including authors. We then criticize the criticism, which criticism is also resolutely ignored.

    We read SFFH published in general fiction, both acclaimed and not, we read SFFH published for the category market, both acclaimed and not. We read comic books, manga, tie-ins, chapbooks and erotica. We read from small, obscure presses and large conglomerates. We still read magazines, some of us, unlike most of the rest of the world. And we don’t read just for entertainment — we read because we find SFFH to have substantial worth and to be worth our time. (And movies and t.v. shows too.)

    So tell a SFFH fan that he’s stupid in his choices and needs to be smarter about them, and he’ll tell you to fuck off. Because he’s immune, thank goodness.

  156. Sheila:

    Replace “sophisticated” with “different” and you’ve got the real problem there.

    That said, I do think it’s a reasonable and laudable goal to get people to try new things. But the key is to persuade, not harangue.

  157. Well, I did a bit of research on this literary critic, Adam Roberts. It turns out he does have a PhD in nineteenth century poetry, Robert Browning circa 1850, I believe. I know many readers out there respect English professors. Hell, many readers on this site appear to idolize them, it seems. They’re like disciples, I suppose. I’m an old country hand from Saskatchewan so I’ve seen a lot of this in my life. Wolves and sheep. I guess what I’m saying is that Mr. Roberts seems to think of himself as the wolf and the Hugo voters as the sheep. Well, just because you have a fancy education doesn’t mean you’re more intellectually enlightened. It simply means you can convey your thoughts more eloquently. It’s kind of like a figure skater, I suppose. Having spent thousands of hours on the ice, they’re much more graceful skaters than hockey players. And with the British accent of his, Roberts can probably make Tupac sound like Bach. With respect to Roberts’ authoritarian stance against readers without tenure, I just don’t see the correlation between 19th century poetry and 21st century science fiction. I mean, can someone please explain this to me. I only have a bachelor’s degree in applied sciences, worked at Dupont of Canada until recently. I earned my degree in my 40s. I either have a perceptual dysfunction or Professor Robert’s is some higher form of omniscient Neptunian. Hmm, maybe I should do the math:

    19th century poetry teacher + a subscription to Popular Mechanics = Grandmaster in science fiction

    I’m just a simple man, but I think this equation sums up Adam Roberts pretty good. It just leaves me thinking one thing: Popular Mechanics must be one hell of a magazine!

  158. Or rather, I don’t see how one can criticize the shortlist without either implicitly or explicitly criticizing the people who put it together.

    Sure you can — I find the Harry Potter and Twilight books, to put it politely, a case of rapidly diminishing returns. Rowling increasingly could do with being copy-edited by Freddy Kruger, and I’m not a horny, self-loathing teenage girl battered by my nascent sexuality so Stephanie Meyer just isn’t speaking my language. Critical honesty forces me to admit, however, that there are plenty of people who would beg to differ and they’re not all sub-literate tweenies with the taste of raw tofu.

  159. “…explicitly criticizing fandom for making the nomination choices it has…makes him look a bit of a smug pedant, which might not be the best way to approach a potential reader.”

    I submit that AR’s choice of whom to address his open letter to is absolutely the correct one, and furthermore the only one that _excuses_ him from accusations of pedantry, smug or otherwise. To whom should he have pleaded his case? Several comments on his post’s thread and here have a tone of “ARs critique may or may not be solid, but any such critique is misdirected and should be aimed at publishers/booksellers/miscellaneous market forces rather than readers”. Obviously, all of the aforementioned, as well as 101 other entities, have measurable influence on what does and what does not end up on my bookshelf. But, appealing to publishers or whomever is equivalent to pleading with political operatives and pollsters to please, please market more suitable candidates that those silly citizens may then elect. The only honest, unpatronizing (and yes, possibly toxic to sales) target of ARs manifesto are SF readers, whom he is well aware vote titles on to Hugo shortlists and who bear the great reponsibility that comes with the great power of “[saying] something about SF to the world” (ARs words).

    As far as the charge that AR ” …is arrogating to himself the ability to discern what should be on the list…” (stupid arrogators!), well, no folks, he isn’t. This charge would stick if ARs point was something like “Arghh! Iron Man 6 didn’t get the best picture nod, it was better even than fantastic four times 5 minus 3. Due to my discerning taste, _I_ would have nominated it, at least.” That (style) is not it at all, though.

    Instead, he makes a claim about what aesthetic qualities award quality SF should contain: “…to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange…”; the means by which these goals are achieved: “…draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing.”; and how the Hugo shortlist failed: “Little Brother is a mediocre piece of writing: stylistically dull; too formally stilted in execution; too monologic tonally…The Graveyard Book is too twee, too cosy…Saturn’s Children’s take on late Heinlein tries something new with the form of the novel, if rattling the form to pieces with a hail of bolts and screws counts as new” etc, etc. AR does not state explicit reasons for the assignment of a, literally, soul-destroying level of mediocrity to Zoe’s Tale. So, that’s unfair, underhanded, and uncouth. But an exception to the general style of his critique.

    Which is a manifesto (in yiddish: kvetch?)! and it would be a weak one indeed if it didn’t elicit strong reactions of the “about time somebody said it (23, 55)” or the “I’m coming for you, your family, and your family’s family, ya uppity perfesser! (7,29)”. But the well argued (if impolite) way AR has laid his balls out on the chopping block deserves a bit more respect than either the “potato-pahtahto, Well he’s got his opinion and I’ve mine, nyah, nyah, nyah” type response or a weakly paternal ‘shame on you for suggesting sf readers aren’t special and wonderful flowers’ are capable of rendering.

  160. Well, just because you have a fancy education doesn’t mean you’re more intellectually enlightened.

    Actually, it pretty much does. It means, at very least, that you’ve spent an enormous quantity of your life studying a particular subject–like literature–and that you’re pretty well expert in it. You may still be an idiot, you may have the social graces of a thing-without-much-social-graces, but you’re definitely supposed to know your topic backwards, forwards, and roundabout.

    “Just because you have an MD, doesn’t mean you’re a better doctor” is similarly nonsensical.

    It simply means you can convey your thoughts more eloquently.

    You haven’t read much academic prose, have you?

  161. Manduca:

    “To whom should he have pleaded his case?”

    This is the wrong question. It’s perfectly fine for him to address fandom, of course; the question is whether he has to do it in such a smug and condescending way. As noted above, he’s arrogated to himself the “correct” position and sits in judgment of their choices; what he hasn’t done is asked why those particular choices were made (or assumes that they were made for reasons unrelated to people liking the works themselves, which is another level of condescension in itself).

    “Why did you choose these works?” would have been rather less antagonistic than “You chose poorly,” basically, and would have suggested he actually wanted to understand the choices rather than just negate their possible validity.

  162. Frank n. Stein,

    Well if you’d done a little more research on Adam (or if you did had at least chosen to quote those of your discoveries which didn’t necessarily support your thesis) you would also have discovered that as well as having a Phd in 19th century poetry Adam is also the author of, amongst others, the Palgrave History of SF, the volume on SF in the Routledge Critical Idiom series and nine SF novels published by Gollancz in the UK. He has also taught both an SF strand of a literature course and creative writing courses. None of which necessarily make him more qualified to pronounce as he has done but all of which present him as a somewhat more rounded writer in this context than you have endeavoured to show him.

  163. Nowhere in his critique did Roberts make an appeal to his authority as a PhD in English. I don’t know why people have to criticize him for having one.

  164. Simon: nine SF novels published by Gollancz

    … and one published by Solaris. As long as we’re being completist, you understand. ;-)

  165. Interesting comment thread. I’m an occasional SF reader rather than a die-hard fan, and an incidental passer-by on this blog rather than a regular, so sorry if the following is out of order here.

    Read one book each of Adam Roberts’ and yours (JS’s)- both impulse buys (in book stores thinking ‘haven’t read any SF in a while’– both had interesting blurbs and engaging first few paragraphs).

    I know this is inadequate sample size for drawing proper conclusions, but what the heck. This is the internet.

    They were ‘Old Man’s War’ and ‘The Snow’. Both good books I reckon. ‘Old Man’s War’ was a fantastic rip-roaring yarn. Characters easy to identify with, some really nicely executed SF ideas- like the whole rejuvenation bit (though- as I imagine Adam Roberts would argue- nothing way-out radical or boundary-pushing), but fun, solid entertainment the whole way through. It felt like you were holding something back, though- not quite sure what- the military fireworks weren’t quite enough on their own. I know, maybe I should read the others in the sequence.

    As for ‘The Snow’- completely captivated by the first half of the book. There’s a great description of the snow coming down- I was reading it on a hot, sunny beach and it still made me shiver. Atmospheric and haunting. Yet somehow, it all fell apart when it came to ‘explication time’ later on. At the start, it seemed like he was shooting for something a bit different and original… Unfortunately he missed, but it was interesting- though ultimately disappointing- reading him try.

    Based on this limited exposure– if I was at an airport bookstand and needed something dependable to read on the flight, I would go for ‘Joe Scalzi’ again, without hesitation. If I had a quiet weekend at home, was overdue a SF fix, and had read some good reviews of the book in question, I might give ‘Adam Roberts’ another try. Impossible to say who is ‘best’, or more Hugo-worthy.

    In short- you both write different stuff. Your attitudes seem to reflect the kind of stuff you write. I’d say you’re both capable of writing (or maybe have already written?) some really, really great science fiction. But you’ll be approaching it from different directions.

    I think I’d prefer it if you SF authors just provided the source material for others to carry on this kind of debate- the most useful way you can respond is by writing the best fiction you possibly can. ‘SF fandom’ (and occasional SF readers) will take care of themselves.

    Your published work is very much appreciated, by the way- and not just by those who identify themselves as part of a ‘SF scene’.

    (And yes, I probably should have posted this comment on Adam Roberts’ blog, seeing as he started it… but maybe he’ll read this too)

  166. “he’s arrogated to himself the “correct” position and sits in judgment of their choices; what he hasn’t done is asked why those particular choices were made…the question is whether he has to do it in such a smug and condescending way”

    Well if that’s inherently a bad thing, I suppose I arrogated the correct position to myself this morning when I insisted that no, the barista had not given me the correct change. What’s the big deal?

    Anyway, AR didn’t himself claim that he is granted a right to judge the choices of others. Rather, he claimed that SF is a privileged literature, that those privileges derive from a unique mixture of authorial daring and reader mind-blowing, and that it is SF itself (as conceived by AR!) that sits in judgment of the Hugo voters and their shortlists and finds them wanting. If we’re to call bullshit, let’s tell him that his version of SF is bunk, that the shortlist *is* deservedly praised SF because of its merits, and lets tell him just what the bloody hell those merits are.

    One woman’s smug is another girl’s sardonic, so call it what you wish. The ratio (on all of the internets) of hand wringing over the smallest deviations from pc decorum to actual responses and thoughts about what might the content and substance of *good* SF be is a bit of a bummer.

  167. Manduca:

    “Well if that’s inherently a bad thing, I suppose I arrogated the correct position to myself this morning when I insisted that no, the barista had not given me the correct change. What’s the big deal?”

    Let’s start with the fact that you were arguing issues of fact (i.e., the amount of change), while Mr. Roberts is fronting a matter of opinion (i.e., what is mediocre and what is not), so your example here is really not a good one at all.

    “Anyway, AR didn’t himself claim that he is granted a right to judge the choices of others.”

    Of course he did, the second he wrote informing fandom that their choices were mediocre, and criticizing their choices. He went on to blather on about the things you note, but those are rationalization for his arrogation.

    “The ratio (on all of the internets) of hand wringing over the smallest deviations from pc decorum to actual responses and thoughts about what might the content and substance of *good* SF be is a bit of a bummer.”

    Meh. I’m not in the least concerned whether he finds the Hugo short list mediocre or not, and as noted multiple times before, Mr. Roberts is perfectly free to say what he wants, how he wants to. My observation in this case is that I don’t think it’s particularly smart to tell a class of people who are also very likely your potential pool of readers that their taste in literature stinks. That’s not an issue of “pc,” it’s an issue of not needlessly antagonizing your consumer base.

  168. Dear me, what mixed feelings this conversation creates in me. As a —

    (1) leftist

    (2) businessperson

    (3) person who has been known to hang with English professors

    (4) high-school dropout with no college

    (5) editor of two of the five Hugo nominees

    (6) fan of British anti-American polemics

    (7) fan of Scalzi, Doctorow, Stross, Gaiman, and Stephenson

    (8) person suspicious of cant, both the lumpenfannish American dumbassery that rags on “leftists” and “professors” and the equally self-congratulatory cant that runs through British SF, fan and pro —

    — I hardly know which team to root for. Maybe both of them can lose. After which, we can have an actual conversation.

  169. Simon Spanton, you’re absolutely right. All hail Professor Adam Roberts, the Grandmaster of S-heifers the Worlds Round. Now run along to the professor’s den, Simon. He has some blue Smarties for you. [yawn] I’m retiring from this blog. Too many queen bees for one hive. A tout a l’heure, drones!

  170. Dirty Wizard Hunter,

    Did I say ‘all hail’? I did not (‘none of which necessarily makes him more qualified to pronounce . . .’) .

    Did Frank n Stein attempt to characterise Roberts as ‘just’ a poetry professor (albeit one who’d read Popular Mechanics)? Yes he did.

    Was that characterisation helpful to the debate? Not particularly.

    Should I have bothered to mention anything that you didn’t agree with? Seemingly not.

    But you’ve flown away to start a hive elsewhere so I guess I shouldn’t be bothering with this post either.

  171. – I hardly know which team to root for.

    You root against Dirty Wizard Hunter for continuing to wank all over the thread.

  172. Adam’s position is precisely the same as most long-time critics. After you’ve read thousands of novels (or seen thousands of movies), the only ones that stand out are the ones that push the envelope, do something bizarre.

    It is no longer enough to be great entertainment. No, the story must be written in 2nd person present, or have so many extreme plot twists that the antagonist turns out to be the protagonist, or have so many convoluted and interwoven subplots that confusion becomes the theme of the story, or be written in a new grammar such that the reader is halfway through the book before understanding begins to set in.

    Those are some of the hallmarks of literary works, where the writing is the point, not the story. And personally, I don’t like great literature, I like great entertainment.

    Yes, I love it even better when the story opens my mind to new possiblilities, and does that with wonderful imagery. I’m thinking Rendezvous With Rama, or Ringworld. Or stories that impact the entire genre such as Across Realtime, or I, Robot, or The Anubis Gates. None of these are Tolstoy, and thank God.

    If the Hugo were to reflect the jaded taste buds of literary criticism, it would serve an entirely different purpose: it would tell me which works to avoid.

    Thank you, John, for entertaining me. And please, everyone, let’s keep the Hugo’s as they are – a reflection of what the majority of science fiction fandom enjoy.

  173. Stephen D. Covey:

    “Adam’s position is precisely the same as most long-time critics.”

    An irony here, of course, is that I am a long-time critic: I’ve been doing professional criticism on and off for 20 years (albeit not of science fiction literature).

    That said, I’ll note again my issue with Roberts in this case is not his critical evaluation of the works in question but his choice of how to present it.

  174. I think the problem I had with his rant was not his point – that some excellent books were left off the list, which is (always) true, and that he’d rather see more ‘different’ or interesting books make it, which I certainly don’t disagree with to some extent.

    The problem was that he chose to put down the various works, rather than spend most of his time arguing that certain other works should have been shortlisted. Certainly he needed to explain that the works that were shortlisted were a bit bland, normal, whatever, to make his point, but the fact that about 5% of the rant was suggesting alternatives and 95% was putting down those on the list [and the readers who got them there], that was a problem.

    Honestly, that’s why we have multiple awards – for multiple bodies. SF/F has become ‘popular’, thanks to various reasons; Harry Potter; renewed interest in space; young people who read Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke growing up and having young people of their own; whatever. Thus the awards are going to be a bit more ‘popular’ fiction; cutting edge stuff doesn’t make everyone happy, it makes a small group VERY happy. Hal Duncan, for example, is a great writer, but his books confuse me to no end; and I can barely read Vance at all, despite him being another of the great classic SF authors. That doesn’t mean they’re bad authors – they’re clearly both very good – but it means I probably wouldn’t vote for them for an award, either. On the other hand, I personally would’ve nominated whichever of Jo Walton’s excellent novels in the Ha’penny series was written in this award year, and Steven Barnes’ Great Sky Woman as well (assuming it’s in the right year period?). Neither of those are enough in the ‘main’ line to appeal to the majority of fans, though; and I understand that.

    Ultimately, thus, we have the different awards. Nebula (awarded by the writers), Hugo (awarded by the general public), Clarke (awarded by those crazy Brits), etc. Thus, I feel that Roberts’ mistake is not in viewing these novels as too mundane, but in expecting the Hugo awards to be something it’s not. The Hugo awards are nominated and ultimately voted on by the People – thus, they are going to be the most popular novels, and typically not cutting edge stuff. I certainly don’t have a problem with that; and if Mr. Roberts wants to see cutting edge works win awards, perhaps he should start up an award of his own.

  175. James Enge has weighed in at Black Gate, and as I suspected would happen a fair amount, he missed what was actually Scalzi’s target, believing that Scalzi is upset about being criticized, rather than that Scalzi is upset that Roberts didn’t simply criticize him but criticized fans as his main target:

    “and in his response to Roberts the natural ill-temper of a writer scorned seemed to be salted with the crankiness of a Great One whose pedestal had been jostled by a Lesser One.”

    The funny thing is that I’m quite sure from reading this blog over time that if Scalzi was not nominated for the award, he would have still made the same exact complaint about Roberts’ essay.

    I will say that Enge otherwise has some good points. And Joe M. #206, some very good points there that I agree with. I also think the fact that Roberts is a college professor is pretty much irrelevant. I’ve heard the exact opposite of Roberts’ view from a number of college professors and total agreement with Roberts’ view from many who aren’t academics at all. But I’m married to a professor, so I’m biased and will let others argue the point.

  176. Steven @204:

    Adam’s position is precisely the same as most long-time critics. After you’ve read thousands of novels (or seen thousands of movies), the only ones that stand out are the ones that push the envelope, do something bizarre.

    I don’t know – I’ve read thousands of novels, and most of what I enjoy reading is pretty ‘fluffy’ in terms of deep content or edgy writing style.

    I would love to see Stross, Scalzi, Mieville writing in the universes which are sort of fluffy that I enjoy anyways – Weber’s Honorverse, the 1632verse, what’s become of Ender’s universe. And I read all their stuff in their universes, too. But I am happy with a decent story and characters I’m comfortable with too. There’s nothing much deep about Harry Dresden, but it’s a good tale. Briggs and Harrison, etc.

    I’m finding a desire to have more of the 60s classics (formerly in grandparents and parents libraries, not now available to me), going forwards.

  177. Adam Roberts,

    With regard to your thoughts on what constitutes an award-winning science fiction novel, you’re sadly mistaken. Or with an air of salient mimicry, you FAIL. But with the spirit of good wordsmanship I just may give you a passing grade by the end of this here humble anti-rant.
    Actually, good science fiction is all about escapism. It is about being plucked from your comfortable armchair and blasted into the heavens with nothing more than a whirring mind being pumped with words, inspired words which are miraculously transformed into kinetic energy.

    I’d like to quote something from an obscure novel,

    “The gravitational potential energy are the socioeconomic forces that keep us grounded in our daily lives. They are the corporations that have modeled themselves after the gravity wells in the universes, the black holes that feed on “wandering” matter. These forces et al have since simplified things, much like the trade publishers have simplified their products to compensate for the steady rise of DADDAs (Drones with Attention Deficit Disorder in America), particularly in the fledgling sf community. Mankind has been unceremoniously morphed into the moon, a lump of dead weight on a gravitational leash. Mankind has been reduced to the role of zooplankton, drifting organisms caught in a INTERconnected NET looking for scraps of soul-food. Welcome to Dystopia Inc., a world where semi-inspired science fiction books, with chapter headings coated in Oxycontin, are fast-becoming the neo-soma of the twenty-first century[. . .]”

    Though Scalzi, Gaiman, Doctorow, and Stross may not be able to built rocket ships per se, they can certainly do the work needed to accelerate our dead weight from the comfortable armchair to the escape velocity needed to carry us up and away from the mundaneness of everyday life. They provide us with the means to escape this incessant gravitational pull on our consumer-oriented minds. They give us cool pulpy vehicles to fly about in. They write us the books we want to read.

    Dirty Wizard Hunter

  178. Paul D @ 191 – Nowhere in his critique did Roberts make an appeal to his authority as a PhD in English. I don’t know why people have to criticize him for having one.

    Some of the responses are indeed a bit, to paraphrase Hanns Johst, “whenever I hear of Academia… I release the safety catch of my Browning!”

    It was Mr S in his post who made sure we knew that, as well as being an SF writer whose sales might be hurt (“What fragile little novels. Such a pity if any of them got damaged!”), Dr R was not just some sf blogger but had an academic aerie to live on. Commenters inclined to the ad hominem need no further encouragement to squat and pinch off their own ass-loafs of contempt.

  179. Nicholas Waller:

    “Commenters inclined to the ad hominem need no further encouragement to squat and pinch off their own ass-loafs of contempt.”

    I do confess to be mildly confused that noting Mr. Roberts’ profession, and noting most SF/F readers are not going to respond to to his open letter with the same equanimity as his students might has led people to think I’ve somehow got it in for academics. I went to the University of Chicago, for Christ’s sake. We churn out academics wholesale there. And proudly so.

    That said, I’ll chalk it up as a teachable moment and for future reference in terms of how to snark on a professor without implying you’re generally anti-academic.

  180. I think you’re wrong when you say condescension won’t sell books. Harlan Ellison rightfully sold a HELL of a lot books by being a serious pain in the ass.

  181. >My observation in this case is that I don’t think it’s
    >particularly smart to tell a class of people who are also
    >very likely your potential pool of readers that their
    >taste in literature stinks. That’s not an issue of “pc,”
    >it’s an issue of not needlessly antagonizing your consumer base.

    Hi John,

    Came across this discussion via James Enge’s post at the Black Gate blog. Overall, I find myself in agreement with many of your comments.

    Ironically though, I’m myself scratching my head at what you keep stating is your central point (above).

    I read pretty wildly in the genre, but I find that over and over, I keep coming back to those writers who make no compromises, who speak from the heart regardless of the consequences. The writers who take the biggest risks. Kinda, I dunno, like John Scalzi.

    Assuming Adam cares about commercial concerns for his novels, I completely agree that what Adam did doesn’t look very smart. But if I give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows that, I admire the hell outta him for it.

    So help me out here. Are you saying that Adam is a writer who knew something wasn’t going to be popular to his future audience – yet dared say it anyway? And this is your criticism?

    – John

  182. OK, you kinda lost me.

    So you’re _not_ saying that Adam is a writer who dared say something that his audience was bound to disagree with.

    Instead, you’re saying that Adam is a writer who recklessly said something that was sure to piss off his audience.

    What’s the difference?

    – John

  183. I think you should probably not try to rephrase what it was I said and look at what I actually did say. What I did say is not actually all that complicated.

  184. Fair enough. You said:

    “I’m not sure it’s very smart to go out of your way to needlessly antagonize potential readers.”

    I asked:

    “Are you saying that Adam is a writer who knew something wasn’t going to be popular to his future audience – yet dared say it anyway? And this is your criticism?”

    That’s not a very complicated question, either.

    Can you answer it?

    – John

  185. ““[Y]et dared say it anyway” is not what Scalzi actually said; it’s the spin you decided to put on it.”

    Yeah, that’s a fair criticism.

    Still though, I think it’s an honest one. It’s not intended to be spin; it’s just the way I read Adam’s post. Sorta, “Geez, he really doesn’t give a damn about readers, does he? Man, I wish more writers were like that.”

    If I’m the only one who read it that way, then Scalzi can safely ignore me. But I thought I read in his comment an assumption that most readers would be pissed off by Adam’s comments. I wasn’t, and I thought it worth bringing up.

    – John

  186. John O’Neill,

    Sure, Adam can piss off whom he likes. He was, however, rude. And, in a way, kind of boring. It wasn’t a great rant; it wasn’t a rant that would change minds. There was nothing new or daring in it, but it was, I suppose, comfort reading to those who were disappointed with the Hugo shortlists.

    Most rants are like that, just like most novels are middlin’ of the road.

    But a few (like John Scalzi) have mastered the craft of the rant to an art. Adam Roberts is just really not there yet, and I think his rant was also a bit lazy, really.

    (His novel writing is good, on the other hand, even if it leaves me cold.)

  187. I dunno, John – guess I’m disappointed. I pop by here from time to time because your posts are generally smart, witty, informative and full of heart. But this one is, I think, unworthy of you. You’re clearly – VERY clearly – pissed off with Roberts for calling your book mediocre, but you’ve chosen to cloak that in the thin pretense of detachment and some long-winded ostensibly objective critique of Roberts’ post in general. Neither of those cloaking devices works worth a damn – I’m afraid your evident pique shows through like acne under cheap foundation.

    That’s not to say I blame you for being pissed off – no-one likes their work called mediocre. But I think a man of your calibre could have handled it better.

  188. Shorter Adam Roberts:

    “Yr favrit stuf SUX, my favrit stuf RULZ, n I’m rite becuz I’m mor edjucatd than U!”

  189. 224: So you are saying he’s a man of calibre, but you’re calling him a liar? Scalzi takes to criticism like a duck to water, and has never laid claim to literary pretensions with his writing whatsoever, the exact opposite in fact. Numerous other authors, reviewers and other people in the SFF blogosphere are not too happy with Mr. Roberts now, for the exact same reasons that Scalzi expressed.

    What Scalzi was doing was criticizing Roberts’ rant, not the claims about the books in it. And he was expressly criticizing that instead of criticizing Scalzi and the other writers, Roberts went after the fans. He was saying that, in his opinion, Roberts should have addressed his literary kvetch to Scalzi and the other writers, not to the fans. Which is clear in the title. He was saying criticize me, don’t criticize them.

    Now, again, you may think he’s lying. In my opinion, he’s not.

  190. The majority of these threaders a) don’t know the meaning of fandom b) have failed to realize that the rant was addressed to fandom, “Dear Science Fiction Fandom” b) are semi-illiterate, which is precisely what is irking Roberts about the Hugo voters c) are somewhat literate, but failed to read the rant through and through d) fully understand the rant but were simply to intimidated by him d) glossed over the rant like they do their science fiction books, which is why they prefer easy-to-read YA novels, which obviously irks Roberts e) are simply talking out of their arses. In fact, the only threader who appeared to understand the gravity of Roberts’ rant and lash back with the proverbial sword was Dirty Wizard Hunter. And what did he get . . . a backlashing by said threaders. The conclusion is that the threaders et al got what they deserved in the rantings of Adam Roberts. In the malleable minds of most of these threaders, if someone calls you a semi-literate moron, you should straighten your dunce cap and . . .

  191. Peon Po, it’s more impressive as a rant if you don’t include lots of a), b), c), and so on.

    You can try again, if you want.

  192. Erm. Reading Mr. Roberts rant, I came away with the impression that he is focused on the stylistic weaknesses of the novels in question, as opposed to their strengths. They are not perfect, these novels, and I actually would not put some of them on MY list. BUT….I can look at the novels he suggested and pick them apart too.

    I’m not sure when Year’s Best became identified as “Wholly new and original.” It is an aspect that can contribute to the success of a novel, but is it any more over-riding than, say, appealing characters, righteous ideas, emotional cores, well-done retro pastisches, or lyrical homages? Why this one characteristic? I get that those who love this genre don’t want it to stagnate entirely, but each of these novels in their own way is something new too. Maybe not startlingly new, but new in small increments. (I mean, I wouldn’t have picked Zoe’s Tale myself, even though I liked it muchly, because there were books I liked MORE, but I’m still trying to think of the last Hugo nominated book that starred a teenage girl as the main point of view. George R.R. Martin’s Feast for Crows has three girl viewpoints, but you could argue they are diluted amidst the many many male characters. I digress though.)

  193. Richard K. Morgan:

    “You’re clearly – VERY clearly – pissed off with Roberts for calling your book mediocre”

    Nah.

    Look. I understand lots of writers are neurotic about bad reviews. I’m not one of them. I’m not one of them because I’ve been a professional critic for years and I know how it the process works; I’m not one of them because I long ago accepted the fact not everyone’s going to like my work; and I’m not one of them because fundamentally if I’m happy with my work, I don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. Finally, I’m not one because, you might intuit from the link above, a really cracking negative review amuses the crap out of me.

    It’s certainly true enough Roberts’ essay was brought to my attention because people e-mailed me about it, presumably because they wanted me to see someone calling the book mediocre. But, you know, if I spent my time posting entries in a rage anytime someone on the Internet (or anywhere else) said they didn’t like one of my books, I wouldn’t have much time for anything else. I see rather quite a lot of reviews slagging my books. People are entitled to their own opinions and usually have valid reasons for them, which, incidentally, is one of the points of this entry.

    I accept that there are going to be people who are going to have a hard time buying the idea that having the book called mediocre does not in fact send me into a killing rage, but there’s not much I can do about it.

    Why I decided to comment on Roberts’ piece was aside his opinion of my book (or the other books on the shortlist) and on his decision to offload his dislike of the short list on fandom as an expression of their lack of taste rather than rather more accurately discussing his own personal distaste. I just don’t see this as a very smart maneuver for a working writer. It’s this that interested me; not his review. As noted, bad reviews of my books are a dime a dozen.

    Now, you can believe me on this score, or you can choose not to. It’s all the same to me, and I accept you’re skeptical. But I know myself and why I do things. So with all due respect (and there is much respect due to you), you’re wrong in this case as to my motivation.

  194. I for one have no problem believing John when he says the post wasn’t motivated by simple annoyance at Robert’s “mediocre” comment about his book. I’ve read enough of this blog to know things are not that simple.

    Ah, well…

    Too bad it does look like a very pissed-off response to criticism of his book and books by friends and people he admires and/or works with. And a lot of people can get even more worked up on behalf of their friends than when they themselves are attacked…

    Too bad also about the appearance of academic-bashing (is the 2008 campaing and all that “elitism” nonsense already that far in the past?) — or the part of the post that seemed to say, basically: “Look, buddy, in this business, you don’t bash the clients, y’know what I mean?”

    But I’m not going as far as to accuse John of consciously intending to write all that.

    Hey, the road to hell is paved with a lot of good intentions, isn’t it?

  195. David, actually, it was a) b) b) c) d) d) e). And I tossed in a typo for good measure. In a perfect bookish world, Doctorow or Gaiman simply would not have made the short list.

    Author@Google:Neal Stephenson.

    “I’m skeptical of readings as a book tour reading event because I think bookish people are a little bit different [. . .] Someone who never goes out in public is going to walk into a room and read out loud from a book.”

    Chewing on a deep-fried Coke and sipping from a half-gallon Slurpee, a Hugo voter thinks. “Hmm, let me think. [chew] Should I vote for the ‘writer,’ [chew] the literary genius who brought Snow Crash and The Diamond Age into the world, [gulp] or those guys who . . . READ well at book tour events. [gulp].”

    The Hugos should not be mentioned in the smart breath as the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Like comparing Halley’s comet to Mars, it is. Former, pretty much a passing fancy; the latter, part of the solar system of trade publication.

  196. Irene Delse:

    Well, as I said, people can believe my stated motivations or not. If they do, great; if they don’t, oh well.

    Peon Po:

    “The Hugos should not be mentioned in the smart breath as the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke Awards.”

    Speaking as a member of SFWA, I find this comment deeply amusing. I’d also note, just as trivia, that last year the Nebula and Hugo went to the same book.

  197. David, actually, it was a) b) b) c) d) d) e).

    Yes, that’s why I included “lots of” and “and so on.”

    In a perfect bookish world

    Clearly, a fair number of people disagree with you.

  198. Peon Po:

    Not really. On this year’s Nebula list: Little Brother, which also coincides with this year’s Hugo list, and Brasyl, which was on last year’s. I’ll also note to you that Doctorow’s made the Nebula Best Novel short list before, in 2004, since you appear to have a bug in your butt about him. Gaiman, meanwhile, has a Nebula for Coraline. Indeed, the only author on the Best Novel Hugo shortlist who has never been short-listed for a Nebula at some point in time is me.

    Bear in mind I’m pleased the Nebulas and Hugo diverge in their shortlists enough to be noticeable; it’s good to have notability spread about amongst different writers. But there’s enough overlap in the common categories among both writers and works that suggesting they don’t deserve to be noted in the same breath strikes me as a bit ahistorical, at the very least. And while I’m not a true student of the Clarke, from what I do know of it, there’s been a fair amount of overlap between those and the Hugos as well; China Mieville comes immediately to mind.

    Basically I find your snark re: the relative qualities of the Awards and the shortlists therein (and the nominators thereof) unpersuasive.

  199. Not that John needs defending here, but one thing that I have not noticed anyone pointing out is that John has REPEATEDLY warned various authors about the danger of pissing off potential readers. He has done this when it had nothing to do with him, as has Charles Stross. This is to both men’s credit, as they have even done so when they don’t particularly like or even approve of the writers they were warning. And, by the way, John did so in much the same snarkish manner he showed in the response to Adam Roberts.

    Since John’s response to Roberts is entirely in keeping with his previous behavior, it strikes me as both unfair and wildly inaccurate to assert that he is only repeating the same advice he has given to others before because he dislikes criticism.

    For the record, I tend to agree with Mr. Roberts on this matter. I believe many of the SF/F novels nominated for awards have been mediocre for some years now for a variety of reasons. But I also believe those who wish to become bestselling, award-winning novelists beloved by the public would probably do well to heed Mr. Scalzi’s advice. His track record suggests that he knows whereof he speaks.

  200. Scalzi: Your commenters are not acquitting themselves super-duper well, here.

    What Scalzi was doing was criticizing Roberts’ rant, not the claims about the books in it.

    1) ‘Rant’ is a childish term to use for such a metered piece.

    2) But so what? You were even less careful in your paraphrase:

    Please try to be less fail-tastic in the future, or I will be forced to once again assume that the reason you select the Hugo nominees you do has in fact nothing to do with the fact you actually like the books, because that would just be silly.

    You do understand that ‘liking’ isn’t being denigrated here, right? Of course Roberts understands that fannish enthusiasm is the reason the Hugo books get nominated and voted for. The man’s a pretty serious fucking historian and scholar of science fiction after all. My take on his ‘rant’ is: ‘”Fandom is just, y’know, fandom” isn’t actually a sensible justification for lack of literary discernment.’ Combined with, I suppose, ‘We should advertise our field more skillfully.’ And to preempt the obvious criticism: ‘I know the Hugos are a popularity contest, but we’re not in high school anymore, and we’re allowed to stop having those.’

    Shiiiit, I’ve had a good deal of wine tonight but even so I can imagine critically responding to Roberts’s post without adolescent condescension or the laughable abjection of ‘Why doesn’t this British cunt just buy a membership and cast his one goddamn vote if he’s so all-fired special?!’

    Time to spend time more sensibly,
    W.

  201. When I agree with VD the world must be tilting on its axis a bit weirdly; But agree I do. Hold onto your coffee, people, the equator just shifted a few inches.

    And Wax, you should take your own advice. Taking Scalzi to task for taking Roberts to task is the very definition of irony. Worse is that you, willfully or otherwise, completely missed Scalzi’s point, which has been well spelled-out repeatedly on this thread. W., I’m afraid you receive a FAIL. Please pick up your consolation prizes at the door.

  202. Sorry you didn’t feel I was doing super-duper enough, Waxman. Let’s see if I can do better.

    I have no problem with Mr. Roberts being a college professor. Many SFF writers have been, college professors are often hardcore SFF fans, and have been important allies in advocating SFF as literature. Mr. Roberts did a book on the history of SF and good for him.

    My problem with Mr. Roberts’ tired rant – and it is a rant – is that it does not illuminate anything, merely chastises, offering up opinions under the dubious claim of an educational deficit. Mr. Roberts mythologizes and exaggerates. Prominent, well-known author McAuley becomes obscure and overlooked; Stephenson and Gaiman, viewed as odd, literary, game-changing writers by most of the critical world, become commercial hacks; the hardcore SFF fans who pony up the cash to vote the Hugos – including SFF writers, critics, professors, etc. – are painted as clueless, uncaring bumpkins who seek only simple and familiar stories. He tries to objectify the subjective, to claim that there is an objective standard of good writing and style, and that he knows what it is. And he throws in the teenage rebellion snark of him being the cool guy and those who disagree with him being squares who disappoint him.

    You can hear this viewpoint from non-fans and many SFF fans every fifteen minutes as soon as they find out other people don’t share their tastes. As Roberts is a historic SFF scholar, it is rather strange that he doesn’t recognize the erroneous cyclical nature of the complaint – that genres that are constantly moving and evolving at increasing speed in numerous directions with unlimited potential across the globe are instead claimed for nearly a century to be in danger of stagnation and decay, often imminent death; that authors acclaimed for their underappreciated innovation and literary acumen are in the next decade derided as populist pap in favor of someone newer on the scene. (You can tell McAuley to look forward to being called a commercial hack in the future. Meanwhile, the New Media fans no doubt find the notion “quaint” that any print author is considered an original and challenging storyteller.)

    As Roberts is a SF fan, it is also strange that he doesn’t get that with fans, discouragement and disapproval, the use of the word “don’t,” will be ignored or snarled at, while encouragement and “do” always receives a listen and often a welcome. As he is a SF writer, it is further strange that Roberts seems so unable in his kvetch to put himself in someone else’s viewpoint, and to consider insights from a different perspective than his own judgment. And as he is a teacher, it’s depressingly strange that he seems to reject opening others’ eyes to possibilities and developing their own assessments, in favor of closing minds according to a rigid set of rules limiting critical thought.

    Mr. Roberts’ arguments are old, traditional, unoriginal, fossilized and obsolete. Most of all, they are extremely conformist, advocating a knee-jerk, played-out formula of goodness – the status quo of claiming to be fighting the status quo. I may very well like and think highly of Mr. Roberts as a SF writer – he is intelligent and articulate enough. But I have to agree with Scalzi that as a critical essayist, he is here lacking, offering very little that is new and interesting. Instead, it is saddening, as Roberts wants us to take in and appreciate only one dimension of storytelling, one color of the sunrise. We left such views behind for a wider horizon a long time ago.

    And if that was too long to read, let’s just go with this: Been there, heard it before, not interested. I do hope, though, that at some convention among the mindless masses, he and Scalzi can grab a beer and have a proper argument.

  203. Peon Po:

    Author@Google:Neal Stephenson.

    “I’m skeptical of readings as a book tour reading event because I think bookish people are a little bit different [. . .] Someone who never goes out in public is going to walk into a room and read out loud from a book.”

    “Chewing on a deep-fried Coke and sipping from a half-gallon Slurpee, a Hugo voter thinks. “Hmm, let me think. [chew] Should I vote for the ‘writer,’ [chew] the literary genius who brought Snow Crash and The Diamond Age into the world, [gulp] or those guys who . . . READ well at book tour events. [gulp].””

    It’s interesting that because one writer doesn’t believe “bookish people” will be good in public or at a reading that you accept the premise for all people. I guess if you use it as a discriminator instead of a facet of a person, that is, anyone who is a good reader is automatically NOT bookish, then well, it’s self-fulfilling. Anyone who reads their books well, or even is interested in reading their books is not a good author. It’s attitude’s like this that cause readers to point and say, “what an ivory tower duche bag!” I’m not going to attribute to Stephenson the thought that bookish people are superior, or make better authors, but you are clearly reaching that conclusion.

    Oh, and way to “help” with the insulting thought that hugo readers are some amorphous lump of humanity, swilling coke zero (sorry john) and slurpees. Suffice to say, your over-generalization is incorrect, as they over-generally are.

  204. What a dispiriting thread.

    Man makes credible comment on fandom.

    Fandom treats comment as if it were incredible.

    Man reveals his low opinion of certain books.

    Fandom reveals its low opinion of certain folks.

    Raise your game, fandom.

  205. Meh. The comment wasn’t all that credible; Roberts basically wanted to blame others for not thinking as he does. Nor is it only fandom who needs to raise its game.

  206. First, I strongly disagree with Robert’s idea of what makes something ‘good’, that the ‘lifes-blood’ of literature is challenging people (outside of a brief period in the 20th century, that is obviously innaccurate), and I disagree with several of his opinions about specific writers and artists. If I did agree with his basic idea, which he expressed well enough by the way, I might feel differently.

    I don’t feel incensed to the degree that people seem to, though. I can understand that if I had been nominated I wouldn’t want my work being called mediocre, that’s a little offensive, but as a fan, and in a lot of cases a slavish, drooling, and uncritical fan, I don’t feel offended by someone wanting the Hugo to go to something more challenging. I think he misses the point of the award and is wishing an apple to be an orange, but ‘whatever’, his opinion is valid – the Nebulas are generally not awarded to ‘challenging’ fiction. So. What.

    It probably speaks of the times we live in that thirty or forty years ago opinions like his were more common and recieved a much different reaction. The fire that he is trying to stoke is barely an ember. Though I applaud your political restraint, John, the fire that you are stoking here is already a raging beast, and all of it unnecessary.

  207. So Roberts’ comment wasn’t capable of being believed? Righto. I guess it *was* incredible, John. Give it up, Roberts, you ivory-towered, elitist believer in the novel, you. And don’t dare provoke a debate with fandom– because they’ll kick your foppish ass.

  208. “So Roberts’ comment wasn’t capable of being believed?”

    Given the idiocies of all sorts that people appear to believe, Robert’s comment is of course capable of being believed. Being believed, however, is no great trick, nor is it the same thing as being notably credible.

    The rest of your comment is just silly, low-grade snark.

  209. Just a counter-factual to the internet-causes-malappropriate nominations fallacy: Zoe’s Tale was my second Scalzi. (The first was Ghost Brigades which I liked but not enough to get another Scalzi.)

    I got it as a freebie ARC at BEA. I adored it (still do). I book talk it to teenage girls (and boys). It’s funny and fun and thoughtful and such a great ride. If you’ve read Diary of Anne Frank, Persepolis and wassname, the Zlata diary about the girl surviving Sarajevo you percieve Scalzi nailed the girl-in-the-warzone-experience.

    Had I been a Worldcon member (I was an attendee only once) I’d have nominated Zoe’s Tale in a heartbeat.

    I have since read every Scalzi (Okay, but not Zoe’s Tale) and found “Whatever” (okay, but I don’t have it bookmarked) and only ended up here via My Elves are Different.

    So there you are.

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