Rich in ideas, poor in prose

It’s unfortunate that the entire genre gets tarred as junk by some critics and readers when in reality it’s not entirely junk—if it were, I wouldn’t write a long essay describing it. I have a theory as to why science fiction often gets labeled as junk: it values other qualities than aesthetic novelty/skill and deep characterization. It’s more concerned with ideas rather than how ideas are expressed, while the greatest literary fiction sees ideas and their expression as inextricably linked. At the same time, though, I think that science fiction’s defenders might bring on the literary snobs’ ire by doing things like calling them literary snobs when many aren’t actually snobs, but just have standards that science fiction too infrequently reaches in part for the reason I just stated. This is also why, I suspect, science fiction has trouble achieving the critical and academic recognition it should probably have, especially given its larger impact on the culture. I’m one of the defenders of good writing being good writing regardless of where it comes from, but the more science fiction I read, the more I realize so much of it just doesn’t have the skill in narrative, detail, character, sympathy and complexity, language, and dialog that readers of literary fiction demand. I still like a lot of science fiction, but most of it now causes me to roll my eyes and skip pages: characters have no life, the books have no lifeness, clichés abound, and strong setups devolve into variations on cowboys and indians.

Jake Seliger on the literary shortcomings of science fiction writing.

I share his general sentiment. I've read lots of science fiction, and it's a genre I cannonballed back into this summer. I asked everyone I knew for their top two sci-fi novels, and I started working through as many of them as possible. Many of them were rich in ideas but transmitted in prose that could be described, if you are charitable, as serviceable.

It's impossible to avoid the tag of “literary snob” when sharing that sentiment, but the belief that high quality writing is inconsistent with entertainment is one of the classic false dichotomies. It's a cliche that science fiction audiences seek out ideas over quality prose, rich inner lives, and other literary trappings, but I've not encountered much evidence to the contrary.

My sense is that audiences are much less forgiving of that when it comes to science fiction movies. Perhaps we're less tolerant of amateurish acting than we are of clumsy writing because our imagination has more room to reform any deficiencies in the latter.