Sunday, December 28, 2008


Gardner Dozois has selected my story "The Erdmann Nexus" for his 2008 Best of the Year. I am, naturally, pleased about this. But, once again, it isn't the story I considered the best one I wrote last year. Which raises the question: Is an author a good judge of his or her own work?

Sinclair Lewis, one of my favorites writers but currently out of academic fashion (despite having won the Nobel) thought his best novel was Arrowsmith. In fact, in his later years he said it was the only one he could "stand to own." History, however, remembers him more for Main Street and Babbit. Graham Greene dismissed his spy novels as "light, inconsequential entertainment" -- and literary history vastly disagrees. Even in the smaller pond of SF, I have heard writers (no names) say they think their best stories are ones that most readers would not agree with. Including me.

The deeper question here, of course, is: "Best by what standards"? And so we come back obsessively to the subject of several other of my blog entries. What makes an SF story "good"? Great characters? Surprising plot? High-concept idea? Pace? Eloquent writing? Important thematic implications? Ideally, a story would have all these attributes, but while that's a great standard to aim at, an editor must choose from the inevitably flawed stories in front of him. And a writer usually ends up concentrating on two or three attributes at the expense of the rest.

I'm unwilling to say that all standards are completely subjective, because that leads to the situation in which any story is as good as any other, as long as someone somewhere says it is. But actually defining those standards is another matter.


José Iriarte said...

I actually am willing to say that one story's better than another as long as someone says it is. I'd be all for objective standards, if I could be sure they'd agree with my judgments. ;) But I've been told by too many people that all science fiction is escapist crap for me to feel comfortable being That Guy to someone else. If a story moves you, affects you, changes your life, makes you think, whatever, then wonderful. Why is it necessary to decisively say that one story is better than another? We can perhaps agree that some stories have that effect on more readers than others do, and work to make these available to the widest possible audience, but that's all it really comes down to.

I was at a kaffeeklatche (sp?) with Ellen Datlow at Readercon when the topic of stories authors think are their best came up. She said that when an author said that to her, she invariably hated it. She suggested keeping it under your hat when you thought a story was your best. (Prepublication, at least.)

I certainly haven't managed to sell the story of mine I think is my best. The sad thing is, as much as I want to be a successful writer, I could settle for a life of literary obscurity if every story I wrote pleased me as much as that one does. But I don't know where inside of me that story came from. I wish I could find that spot and tap it regularly.

TheOFloinn said...

"Subjective" comes in for a lot of bad press, mostly because of the "cult of the objective." But most everything human about our world is subjective -- sound, color, taste, pain, pleasure, beauty. That doesn't make them unreal, and it doesn't mean that some things are not more beautiful than others, or one story "better" than another. After all, the subjective experience of sound is a response to the objective reality of air waves.

Methinks it is the multi-dimensionality of the concept of "best." "Best" is an adjective, or accident, not a substance; and if something is not "sub" "stance" we have cannot "under" "stand." "There is no white without a white thing." So there is no best without a best thing. But just as complex numbers are two dimensional, stories are multidimensional: Best character, best plot, etc. One story may be better than another on one dimension, but not on another. That's why there is more than one Oscar. (Even this is too broad. A character may be "good" in multiple ways.)

Differences in judgment probably relate to differences in weights given to the various elements of the story. Perhaps a Pugh Matrix could be used.... [G]

Unknown said...

All literary standards are pretty subjective. That doesn't make them equally valid. My own personal take is three-pronged:

a) my own standard is the most valid. (the arrogance clause)

b) any sufficiently large group of people with the same standard is also valid, so long as that standard doesn't violate a). (Ratt at one point as an extremely good and popular band.)

c) standards change over time, and those that last have greater weight. (The impact of the Ramones was much more long term than Ratt, and so they are better.)

Tim of Angle said...

A good story has interesting characters doing interesting things. That's all there is to it.

Of course, what I find interesting you might find boring, and vice versa. That's why we have disagreements.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Well, Nancy, as a lyricist, I consider Dylan THE MASTER, no ifs, ands, or maybes.
Can he judge the worth of his own work? A echoing NO!
Case in point, BLIND WILLIE MCTELL, which he left off the INFIDELS album.("It wasn't recorded right.")
A masterpiece, which had Bobcats trading bootleg recordings for years until it was finally released legit.

My point is the response to any creative work is =completely= subjective. The "lousiest" story (or song, or film...) is =somebody's= favorite.

And how could you prove them wrong?

Unknown said...

I think it has a lot to do with which stories you are closest to, even if you don't realize it. There are many stories I've written that I consider to be my best work, which others disagree with. For each of those stories it has more to do with how close I feel to that story than on any other factor. But perhaps that's different for you.

James A. Ritchie said...

To individuals, I think one story is as good as another. The problem, I think, is with the word "good," not with "objective" or "subjective."

It's easy to spot the really bad writing, the truly bad story, the purely cardboard characters, etc. Every slush pile is filled with such stories, and most editors spot them easily. So would most readers.

It's the stories that fall on the other side of the line that cause problems. Is Ben Bova a better writer or a better storyteller than Harlan Ellison? Is Harlan Ellison a better writer or a better storyteller than Nancy Kress?

This is, at least in the short run, purely subjective. All these writers are good, they write well, and they tell good stories. Individual taste is the only thing that separates one from the other.

I do think subjectivity and higher quality comes into play, but only through the test of time. Writing and story and character that really does rise above the others will last. These writers and stories will still shine decades and centuries later.

A.R.Yngve said...

This happens again and again: The author has his/her own idea of what he/she thinks is his/her greatest achievement, and popular taste runs in the opposite direction. I've lost count of the examples.


1. Consider the circumstances of a writing life.
The author is also a person with a life. Certain stories have a greater personal importance to the writer for purely subjective reasons -- "I wrote this to get through my grief after my parents died," for example.

Or take the late David Gemmell, who started writing a fantasy novel when he got cancer, not knowing whether he would live or die. It's reasonable to think that to him, that book must have felt like the most important thing he ever wrote.

2. Consider timing.
The author has no control over trends in fiction -- what's popular and what's not. It's rare that a writer's first success was *designed* to coincide with a fad; you'd need a superhuman ability to predict the future.

What happens is that lots of people write about different themes or stories that are heartfelt to them... and then some of them just happen to "hit" a current trend or fad. Small wonder, then, that writers don't always agree with the trends about what's truly "great" work!
(I'm implying here that critics also tend to follow trends. Others may not agree.)

Jake Freivald said...

I am not a relativist -- relativism in moral philosophy has convinced me that relativism is toxic to reason -- but I think our perceptions of something's value are relative to our own situations. It's more like physical relativity than philosophical relativism: there's an objective truth, but how we perceive it is relative to our frame of reference.

I'm reminded of a carpenter's story about his "bad chisel". It was old, dull, wouldn't keep an edge. But it stayed in his tool box because he used it for rough and dirty jobs that would damage his "good chisels". He was chastised by an older and wiser cabinetmaker who told him, "There's no such thing as a good or bad tool -- just a tool that's better or worse for a particular job. That bad chisel is a fair sight better for dirty jobs than your good ones are." He never called it a "bad chisel" again.

So maybe the stories you think are your best are, objectively, the best from your frame of reference because of the benefits you derive from it: you enjoy the subtle use of rhythm, or that character reminds you of so many people you love, or your diction choice seems perfect; but it affects other people differently, and thus, objectively, it's too affected or too saccharine or too high-falutin' compared to another, better (for them) story. In a similar way, a blues song and a symphony might each be considered objectively better than the other in a given context.

I think "compared to" is an important phrase. "Best" implies "best for some purpose", I think, and unless we define what the purpose is, we have to consider our use of superlatives a little too fuzzy to take seriously.

Maybe. I think. :)