January 13, 2015
Hug a Critic (Or Nominate them for an Award)
A lot of ink has been spilled, by me as much as anyone, about the genre ghetto. The mainstream publishing industry pointedly ignores genre in all those spaces it considers respectable, like newspaper reviews, literary awards, and adult conversations. Meanwhile, genre fandom often resists analysis and criticism from mainstream culture, insisting that their corner of literature has its own rules and standards that a “non-fan” can’t understand merely by reading a genre book. There are a lot of shots lobbed about high culture and low, the people versus the establishment, fans versus experts.
And yet there is more self-aware crossover now between literary fiction and genre fiction than there has ever been, in the short fiction markets in particular. The golden age of pulps might have passed on, but in its place is an incredibly fecund culture of online literary ‘zines with expressly speculative mandates. When I stopped reading fantasy fiction fifteen years ago, we were still in the age of Locus, Asimov’s, and Realms of Fantasy. When I returned a couple of years ago, most of these glossies were dead, but the internet was teeming with stranger things, more experimental things. The internet had this effect on everybody over that fifteen-year period: anybody can publish anything, so they do. Fringe projects abound, but there’s a difference in SpecFic:
Literary SpecFic isn’t the fringe. It’s an increasingly sustainable share of the short fiction market with a demanding, critical audience willing to pay for the product. In no small part because of the precedent set by the pay rates of the old pulps (and the writer’s unions that sprang up around them,) literary short fiction markets with genre flavours now pay more and more reliably than most “mainstream” literary markets, a distinction you can see in the talent they attract. (These inroads have been less marked in novel-length works: there, a literary SpecFic work is still likely to be marketed and branded as “literary”, downplaying the genre aspects of the work.)
The overtly hybrid form is being led by short fiction. SpecFic short fiction is good. It is important. And it is all but invisible to the mainstream.
A year ago, there was a lot of talk on Twitter about a need for more serious criticism of this fiction. Not only is there more material being released than your average reader can sort through, but much of it is complex material that benefits from a close read. Critics help to sort and decode, to lead the conversation.
There were (and are) some phenomenal critical sources, like Strange Horizons and The Cascadia Subduction Zone, but these focused primarily on full-length works, including anthologies. Other places – Tangent Online, Fantasy Literature, and Locus Online – covered short fiction in brief; overviews without much analysis. There was a need for regular, ongoing, critical coverage of the wealth of material coming out of the periodicals.
As it turns out, there was a need for a lot of regular, ongoing critical coverage of this material. Once the spores took root, short fiction review columns popped up like mushrooms in October. I like to think of 2014 as the beginning of a new critical era in genre fiction. Now we have Amal El-Mohtar’s Rich and Strange up at Tor.com, K. Tempest Bradford covers short fiction at io9. Fantastic Stories of the Imagination has Gillian Daniels and just a couple of months ago, Nerds of a Feather started a “Taster’s Guide” to a flight of interesting short fiction each month.
And, of course, I have maintained Clavis Aurea now for over a year.
In a recent Twitter discussion about award eligibility, Niall Harrison (Strange Horizon‘s editorial force) pointed out that while critics are technically eligible for the Hugo Awards’ Best Fan Writer, “…it’s a poor fit and almost never happens.” Individual essays occasionally get nods (such as last year’s winner, “We Have Always Fought” by Kameron Hurley,) but it is hard to define a critic’s body of work as a whole. You could perhaps nominate their blog or a single, standout column. Critics have not, historically, had their own brands the same way fiction writers do.
I believe this year is different. The same ‘zines who have raised the bar for quality SpecFic short fiction are housing and branding critics with definable, nominate-able bodies of critical work.
I would love to see this trend recognized in this year’s awards season. Literary criticism in genre isn’t new, but it is newly normalized. There is a new critical culture. We’re showing that genre isn’t a ghetto: it’s a metropolis.
You are eligible to nominate for the 2015 Hugo Awards if you were a member of Loncon 3, a member of Sasquan, or the 2016 Worldcon, MidAmericon 2. The nomination period opens January 31, 2015. You will be able to nominate up to five people or works in each category.
Critics and their works are generally eligible for both Best Fan Writer and Best Related Work. You could nominate the critic (say, Amal El-Mohtar) as Fan Writer, and their column or blog (say, Rich and Strange) for Best Related Work.
Let me rephrase that. You should nominate a critic for Best Fan Writer, and their body of work for Best Related Work. I hope very much that you will consider nominating me and my column, Clavis Aurea.
Critics are a vital part of the literary landscape and they work hard. As literary SpecFic continues to push boundaries, reach new audiences, and gain new respectability, these critics will have had no small part in the shaping of the genre. That’s a role that deserves to be recognized on the ballot.
Hug a critic!
Next week, I’ll be laying out my own choices for the categories I intend to nominate in! Stay tuned!