Sunday, August 05, 2007

Success vs. Acclaim

Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 3/4/00, obviously in response to someone else who I felt was not nearly as brilliant and witty and charming as I am (though probably more modest):

I believe that you are conflating two very different lines of argument:

  • that commercial success necessarily destroys or subverts the virtues of a particular author/work/genre (and)
  • that great art is only/more easily created in the absence of a critical apparatus

I don't exactly agree with either of those arguments (though there certainly are points to be made in the favor of both), but they are entirely separate arguments.

Literary acclaim is not commercial success. Some SF writers have had one, some have had the other. The list of those who have achieved both to any appreciable degree is quite short (I can think of William Gibson, off the top of my head, but that's all). Merely becoming renowned never got anybody six figure book deals; mostly it was six-figure book sales that did the trick. Of course, becoming renowned can bring with it its own temptations and pitfalls, but they are generally quite distinct from the temptations on offer to the very popular writer.

Either of these arguments is interesting and worthy of being hashed out at greater length, but I did want to point out that combining the two only clouds the picture.

2 comments:

Johan Larson said...

Here's a related question for you.

Right now, SF has essentially zero literary respectability. Venues dedicated to Literature hardly deign to notice us. But the thing is, if they were to accept us, there would surely be pressure to conform to their expectations, rather than our own. And this might require substantial changes: more emphasis on characters' emotional lives, less focus on yeehaaa action and techy details, and so on. If that's the tradeoff, is it be worth making?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Johan: Are you kidding? SF gets quite a lot of literary respectability -- probably more than mysteries do these days, and vastly more than the much larger field of romance.

There are many universities with programs of SF/F studies, and several organizations devoted to the scholarly examination of SF/F. (And SF/F seems to have largely migrated from the kind of pop culture studies that got it into the academy into proper literature departments, as well.)

Major newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle review SF/F regularly -- and, even occasionally in the case of the former, do it well and with a knowledge of the field.

The tradeoff you mention has already happened -- the books that are reviewed most often, and praised by reviewers and academics, aren't space operas or adventure stories. Whether that's good or bad depends on what you want.

But SF is very literarily respectable these days, and expecting any popular genre of fiction to be any more accepted is unreasonable.

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