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.
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.)