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Looking for “Quality” — A Debate Prompt

I like to start debates, when I can get people to play.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of "quality" in literature, or heck, even in SFF by itself.

I once heard an interview with Orson Scott Card, in which he suggested that SFF magazines and publishers, except for those that focussed on YA, were becoming too "artsy" and failing to tell good stories. By cooincidence, about three weeks later I met the literary novelist Alexander Chee, who said that Ender’s Game was terribly written because it wasn’t full of rich description or complex imagery. I thought they were both speaking nonsense.

I don’t really believe in genre distinctions, and I especially don’t believe in a genre (or "anti-genre") called "literary" fiction. The tools that so-called literary writers use are the same tools we all use (metaphor, rich description, theme, surprising characterization). There are some writers who use these tools to the exclusion of telling a story, and, to my mind, they are neither craftsmen nor artists. But there are others who think that a good plot-line excuses a complete lack of beauty or subtlety; they might as well be selling beer.

Now take, just as an example, the nineteen novels that have won both the Hugo and the Nebula:

    • Dune
    • The Left Hand of Darkness
    • Ringworld
    • The Gods Themselves
    • Rendezvous with Rama
    • The Dispossessed
    • The Forever War
    • Gateway
    • Dreamsnake
    • The Fountains of Paradise
    • Startide Rising
    • Neuromancer
    • Ender’s Game
    • Speaker for the Dead
    • Doomsday Book
    • Forever Peace
    • American Gods
    • Paladin of Souls
    • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union


I’ve read only ten of these (the other nine are on my "to do" list), but as a group they present a nice little puzzle. We can probably postulate that a book that has received the enthusiastic approbation of both fans (the Hugo) and writers (the Nebula) has something like "quality." Yet, in many ways, you couldn’t find a more dissimilar group of stories: in theme, style, use of language, characterization, pacing, plot, etc., they are utterly different. I love the ideas and settings behind Dune, for example, but I think its prose stinks. Doomsday Book didn’t hook me until I was more than halfway through the novel, but once it got its teeth into me I was a goner. The epic sweep of The Left Hand of Darkness contrasts with the claustrophobia of Gateway. Paladin of Souls gleefully subverts the tropes of both fantasy and romance, but doesn’t let on that that’s what its doing until you’re deeply into the book.

Now, we can look at all this diversity and contradiction, and sit back and say something comfortingly neutral, like, "It’s all a matter of taste," or "There are many roads to Rome," but I call that making excuses for not having an opinion.

So, how about it? Where do we locate quality? What do we mean by it? Feel free to use examples from the list, or from elsewhere.

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