Sacrificing Quality For Style in Spec. Lit.


To say that the idea of sacrificing quality for style applies only to speculative literature would be a severe misrepresentation of the truth. However, speculative literature has one problem that literary fiction seems to either be incapable of addressing or simply never plans to address in the first place: speculative literature must always entertain. This is a stigma particular present in fantasy where the concept of originality, in more ways than one, doesn’t exist. Tolkien created the mold for the genre and as such it becomes increasingly difficult for new writers to come up with considerably profound works of fantasy. World building is often compared to Tolkien, and in a lot of cases when that happens, those comparing typically say that non-Tolkien world building lacks depth–an absurd notion considering that even Tolkien was no divine creator of fantasy tropes; he simply pioneered them. Given this, fantasy must, as a rule, entertain to be considered of any value in our increasingly popularized culture. That’s the truth and that may very well lead to the notion that one does not need to attempt to be original, or at least fresh, and instead can simply write grandiose stories that hinder on the absurd.

Speculative fiction as a whole, however, must entertain the masses. The reasons are numerous, but the primary and likely most important reason is that those who place critical acclaim on a novel as literature generally do not read speculative fiction and consider speculative fiction to be of ‘lesser quality’. This leaves speculative writers a very narrow viewpoint to work in, and while certainly that viewpoint encompasses a large portion of the market, there is perhaps some desire there to be recognized among those that have shunned the genre–a sense of acceptance.
Taking into account that speculative fiction must always entertain we run into a persistent issue of quality vs. style. One might conclude that in literary fiction quality is in conjunction with style, and perhaps there is some validity to this in the literary theory camp. However, typically, style does not determine quality. One could write a novel that represents truly magnificent ideas and destroy the quality of those ideas by using a style that borders on the unintelligible. A novel, therefore, cannot be based solely on the style of the writing. It must, for its sake and the sake of the author, present itself in a manner that can be read. Readability could probably be broken up into the following categories:

  • Popcorn Fiction Readability
    This is basically the simplest, most basic, most bare-bones you can possibly get in terms of writing. Most of the novels in this group are formulaic and so utterly simplistic that one really need not read too deep into what is going on. It’s pretty basic. Ironically, this is also the majority of what shows up on best seller kiosks in the grocery store and many other stores you frequent.
  • General Readability
    Not too simple and not too hard. The difference here from Profound is that the novels in this section actually do have a profound effect on literature and society without having to intentionally be profound in style.
  • Profound Readability
    Literary fiction. That pretty much sums it up. If something is written in such a way that the structure itself leans on the complicated, it’s generally literary fiction. The style here is one that tends to ignore the typical conventions of writing–the ‘rules’ if you will–in order to make some grand statement. The problem? Most of us don’t read this stuff because it’s, mostly, b-o-r-i-n-g. For this reason, I never call ANY speculative literature ‘literary fiction’ because that would mean that 1984 by George Orwell is dull and boring.

Now, almost all speculative fiction is intentionally readable. That sounds like a rather stupid statement, but when you think about the dying market of unreadable literary fiction, fiction that tries so desperately to be profound and interesting and is incapable of realizing that the average reader doesn’t read above an 8th grade level, it becomes obvious that speculative fiction is pretty much almost always readable.

Here’s where style comes in, though. Now, when Isaac Asimov proposed that we are in an Age of Style in regards to Science Fiction, he wasn’t simply speaking about the actual style of writing–as far as grammar and structure are concerned. He was actually talking very much about the style of science and the style of the stories told. We are seeing a lot more in the genre dealing with quantum physics, string theory, and other advanced sciences that most people probably would have problems understanding even if it were common knowledge.

The problem, then, is that science fiction is making efforts to use these sciences in the story, without making it clear what is going on. SF writers have to realize that we’re not all scientists. Certainly science is acceptable and obvious, but if the science seems to get in the way of the story, that is an example of sacrificing quality for style. It also is something we all should be avoiding. Regardless of how much science plays an important role in SF–and I can recognize this and actually enjoy the use of science to add validity to the literary form–when it is used stylistically or, as I like to say, ‘text-book style’, it detracts from the story, from the form, and from the quality of the book as a form of literature.

To apply the same ideal to fantasy I’ll have to take something that has probably been done in SF too, but seems more prevalent in fantasy as the use of this particular thing is rather common in fantasy, or at least better presented or useful in that genre. Flashbacks and multiple POVs in the same paragraph section. Stylistically speaking, flashbacks actually can work wonderfully well, if utilized appropriately. But just like with science in SF, some authors use flashbacks poorly and draw the reader away from the story. Transitions are important. You can’t just go to a flashback straight from the end of a sentence if there isn’t a good way to transition to that. Multiple POVs is something I’ve already addressed, but is worth reiterating. There is nothing wrong with using multiple POVs. In a lot of ways, multiple POVs works well in speculative fiction because it allows you to get varied views of what is going on. Nothing wrong with that right? Nope, not really. But sometimes authors switch POV almost at random in the middle of paragraphs, making it so the action, or whatever else is going on, is hard to follow because you’re bouncing around in the heads of different characters. Sometimes these jumps are actually completely pointless. If you get into the head of a character that, in the long run, doesn’t matter to the story, or at least is not worth giving deep characterization to, then it serves to be a useless passage.

In the above cases it’s not so much a sacrifice of quality for style, but a sacrifice in quality in general. Literature should strive to be of quality, regardless of the genre. Quality suggests that the author actually cares about his or her writing. I do realize that quality is a very subjective term, as it should be. What I might consider quality, the literary academia might consider as garbage. Alternately, what you might consider quality could vary significantly too. Given that, we have to come to some sort of collective point as to where literature stands. Do we all consider that literary fiction, as a rule, is of quality? I would wager not considering that many of the literary works that are accepted as quality works of art actually have no relevance to me or to most of society. And certainly we cannot consider all works of genre fiction, or regular fiction, to be of quality either. It’s clear that there are quite a lot of works whose quality is questionable.

But perhaps we can come to an understanding that quality speculative literature is that literature which suggests more than a passing thought from the author. It is literature that is not written to a formula and seems to have a sense of integrity through the novel as a whole. Then again, it is always possible that you do not qualify books like 1984 by George Orwell to be quality literature, but you see The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown to be of quality (I know a certain someone who would argue vehemently on this subject). At least we can accept that quality, in and of itself, cannot be sacrificed to project style. They must work together, or the novel falls apart.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

3 thoughts on “Sacrificing Quality For Style in Spec. Lit.

  1. 1984 is a rare kind of book. There’s no fighting or action, yet it’s hard to put down. It seems like literary fiction due to all the stuff under its surface, but there’s a big science fiction aspect to it, also. In my opinion, those kinds of books are the best kind. All those boring books students are forced to read in school contain so much profoundness that it’s almost like seeing one huge infodump which the author assumes will not make the reader put the book down. At the same time, there’s stuff today with absolutely nothing under the surface, bare-bones as you called it. Where the author writes and writes, but there’s no meaning in any of it except for entertainment value. I prefer the middle ground, both in reading and writing.

    “Quality suggests that the author actually cares about his or her writing.”

    Oh, you have no idea how many people I’d like to say that to. And that’s not counting when giving critiques to novice writers (in which I’d probably phrase it more kindly) 🙂

    “many of the literary works that are accepted as quality works of art actually have no relevance to me or to most of society.”

    Agreed. The key word is “many”, because there’s plenty of literary fiction which actually confronts issues which still plague society today, and can offer good insight, even if they don’t keep you on the edge of your seat.

  2. Exactly, there are a lot of wonderful classics and wonderful ‘literary’ works, but then there are a LOT of really crappy classics and really crappy literary works.

    What ever happened to that Facebook club you were going to make?

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