In a March 2014 article, the UK Guardian newspaper asked whether genre fiction sentences can equal those found in literary writers such as Joyce or Beckett. I put that challenge to the science fiction and fantasy fan community in my posts Great Science Fiction and Fantasy Sentences and More Great Science Fiction and Fantasy Sentences. I received many responses suggesting sentences and also commenting on the very concept of assessing individual genre sentences.
The clear winner as fans’ favourite sentence was the opening of William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Here is a selection of some of the most interesting and provocative comments:
1. It is still irksome that genre literature is deemed as needing to ‘defend’ itself, but it is the loss of those that pass up such amazing worlds and works on such flimsy prejudices.
2. OF COURSE they can. What matters is the writer, not the genre.
3. I tend to ignore those kinds of articles. I know what I get out of SFF so I could care less. I’ve been getting harassed for not reading “serious books” for the majority of my life. The Guardian will have to do better than that.
4. Since you have actual stories in SF and F, the writers have to pay attention to the sentences’ fundamental purpose, to induce us to read the next sentence.
5. I often find myself looking with disdain at those who consider genre fiction to be inferior to literary fiction. Quite a bit of what’s considered literary, to my mind, is incredibly boring and poorly written. Joyce may be considered one of the most influential writers of his age, but he really isn’t all that interesting; I can think of many early 20th century SFF authors I’d rather read: Lovecraft, Tolkien, Wells, Baum, Burroughs …
Trying to show that Science Fiction and Fantasy can be as good as Literary Fiction is a losing battle as there are so many who cannot accept that some very great writers have written in genres in a way that is both entertaining and that examines and elevates the human condition.
And, personally, I don’t think a single, well-written sentence does much to show the skill of an author.
Some authors – take Margaret Atwood as an example – who write very noteworthy science fiction/fantasy won’t call it that due to their own opinions on literature. Atwood is a great writer, but then so is Sheri S. Tepper. I would compare The Fresco and The Gate to Women’s Country equally to The Handmaid’s Tale in terms of quality science fiction.
6. Of course, genre fiction is traditionally more focused on pulse pounding plot than prose and can survive a bad writing style. Literary fiction can excuse a parsimonious plot for good writing.
Joyce isn’t boring – he isn’t an exciting adventure story writer – but in context a lot of stuff happens – like Bloom seeing a girl’s knickers at the beach. Scandal! People risked jail to print and read Joyce. Not boring, at least for the times. Now Harry Potter was boring to my mind: little boy wizard saving the world from the wicked, bad, naughty, EVIL wizard is just so ho hum. Perfunctory prose, too.
I read and enjoy both genre and literary fiction – but I don’t expect them to be interchangeable.
7. One of my great failures as an English major is that I detest pretty prose for it’s own sake. Wonderful writing that’s also captivating is brilliant and can transcend the period it was written in.
To Kill a Mockingbird is brilliant and beautifully written. The same is true for The Lord of the Rings or Dune ….. Joyce is a great writer but he’s not interesting, IMO; Portrait of the Artist is beautifully written but tedious.
Many literary writers forget that, while plot can be subservient to characterization and style, it still needs to be there ….
What’s so great about a single, great sentence?
8. What’s so great about a single, great sentence? A single sentence is instantly memorable and stays with the reader.
But… it takes more – a raft of great sentences AND plot development to really deserve placement on the literary greats pedestal.
9. I think the whole question is wrongheaded. (You could equally turn that around and ask if Joyce or Beckett would have been able to write effective genre fiction.)
The language of a novel must work for its content, audience, and intent, no matter its genre.
For example, I’d stack Philip K. Dick’s opening of A Scanner Darkly up against the beginning of Joyce’s Ulysses any day – both effective writing, totally different audiences, content, and intent:
“Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.” ~ PKD
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
–Introibo ad altare Dei.
Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:
–Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful jesuit.” ~ Joyce
10. I studied English literature because I love to read and I wanted to know all about literature. And all of that sucks the joy out of it for me because I’m interested more in the entirety of the novel or the poem than in a particular sentence or couplet.
To Kill a Mockingbird or The Parable of the Sower are majestic – as are many of Auden’s sonnets or Frost’s or Angelou’s verse. And they can be dissected and analyzed and ingested in tiny, savory bites, but I still prefer them on their own terms.
11. I can appreciate both the analysis and the colorful imagery in sentences. What I can’t appreciate is To Kill a Mockingbird, but that’s another story.
So, the issue is unresolved, but no one expected that it would be – did they?
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