August 11, 2014

Eric Raymond on SF

Computer programmer and open source software advocate Eric Raymond is also a big fan of "classic" science fiction, by which he means "linear narratives, puzzle stories, competent characters, happy endings, and rational knowability."

Such preferences, of course, are anathema to

critics/authors/editors who are bent on imposing the deep norms of other genres onto the SF field. Such people are especially apt to think SF would be "improved" by adopting the norms and technical apparatus of modern literary fiction.

Raymond identifies the malady at the root of the problem as LSE or "literary status envy."

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th and then 20th-century literary fiction . . . They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

In a later post, he warns that

LSE is a wasting disease. It invades the brains of writers of SF and other genres, progressively damaging their ability to tell entertaining stories until all they can write is unpleasant gray goo fit only for consumption by lit majors. One of the principal sequelae of the disease is plunging sales.

He provides a list of symptoms to watch for, such as:

1. [Author] desires to be considered a "serious artist."
2. Idea content is absent or limited to politicized social criticism.
3. Heroism does not occur except as anti-heroic mockery.
4. All major characters are psychologically damaged.

I especially like number 7:

7. Inability to write an unambiguously happy ending. In advanced cases, the ability to write any ending at all may be lost.

The rest can be found here. As Kate points out, the symptoms of LSE show up in in lit-crit critiques of pretty much all "classic" genre fiction, for example, the works of Agatha Christie.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
8/11/2014 1:24 PM   
I think the unambiguous happy ending is one reason romance books have really taken off in the last decade. Not only is the genre burgeoning, it is attracting strong writers.

The fact is, like comedies, decent happy endings--which are so entirely satisfying--take skill! It's the sad/doom-doom-doom endings that are easy.

And, too, I think it is easier to appear to talk profoundly about doom-doom-doom than about happiness or satisfaction or somebody doing a good job. Economists, politicians, religious folks--everybody wants to talk about how bad everything is. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. But looking for the good entails the ability to closely observe, exercise insight, and willingly question supposed depressing givens about modern life.

Simply put, happy endings are smarter!