Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Problem of Obscurity

Yesterday, the longlist for the Young People's Literature category of the National Book Award was announced. I think it's a great list, full of interesting choices. A columnist for The Atlantic Wire, however, found the list to be too obscure. Which is also an interesting choice, especially considering that two of the authors listed as names we shouldn't worry if we don't recognize, Meg Rosoff and Gene Luen Yang, are both winners of the Printz award, a fairly major award for YA lit. Yang was even previously nominated for the National Book Award. Names that are perhaps obscure for a casual reader should not be so for a columnist writing on the awards.

A couple of years ago, at Stonybrook University, I taught a course on The Fantastic as Place. It tended to be a course that was fairly full of SFF readers, so I opened the semester by asking which writers on the syllabus people were familiar with. Everyone had read JK Rowling, nearly everyone had read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. About 3/4 of the hands went up for Neil Gaiman. About a fifth of the class had read Joe Hill, Lev Grossman, Cat Valente, China MiƩville. No one had read Emma Bull's War for the Oaks.

I mention this because I got tagged in a brief online discussion of obscure books in SFF last night, and I started thinking about the nature of obscurity. My gut feeling is that while Emma Bull is not among the most well-known of SFF writers, many people working in the field have heard of her, and those who know the history of the field know the connection between War for the Oaks and the genre of Urban Fantasy. My other gut feeling is that people newer to the field, or more casual SFF readers - much like my students - have no idea who she is. I think both things are fine. (I also think it's a terrific book, and it wound up being one that my students liked best, so maybe pick it up if you haven't yet.)

(I should, at this point, also mention that in another class I taught, The Dream as Literary Form, fewer than 1/5 of the students had heard of Neil Gaiman. Obscurity, like so much else, is in the eye of the beholder.)

I get really uncomfortable talking about obscure books, obscure writers. Especially because I think that much of obscurity is about context. In the wider anglophone reading world, if you're not JK Rowling, Stephen King, Dan Brown, or Nora Roberts, you are likely an obscure author to some extent. There are people you will have heard of if you work in the field or study its history - people you will find extremely influential - that people outside of the field will have no idea about. This is fine - it means there is always cool stuff for us to discover.

But my real discomfort about obscurity discussions is when it gets used like a knife. "If you haven't read x, you don't really belong here." "I've never heard of y, so clearly they aren't important." "The Top Ten Writers You MUST Read" except that list hasn't been updated in the past twenty years, because God forbid someone tell us that our influences have become obscure. Because maybe that means we have.


  1. I loved War for the Oaks....think it was a Gaiman recommendation that spurred me to get hold of it. In the end most writers (except Shakespeare, Austen and their ilk) will fall into obscurity so it's specially great when writers enjoying their moment in the spotlight recommend others. He also put me onto Daniel Pinkwater, Hope Merrilees and several others.

  2. My other gut feeling is that people newer to the field, or more casual SFF readers - much like my students - have no idea who she is.

    I think this increases with the age of the work, too and to their detriment. How many people under 30 have read Bester? How many have *heard* of Zenna Henderson?

    1. Well, and I prove your point. I'm over 30, and have never read Bester or heard of Zenna Henderson.

      But I also think that fields are (or should be) moving, living things. Right now, I'd tell someone trying to break in to read Rowling and Collins over Asimov and Heinlein. Not that we should disregard older works, or ones that are less well known, but that there are a lot of things to potentially be read, and not an infinite amount of time to read them in.

  3. Hi Kat,

    I'm the one who started the Twitter chat you mentioned. I absolutely agree with your assessment that obscurity is relative to the reader. What I'm seeking out for the particular list/article I'm putting together is a list of spec-fic books recommended by spec-fic authors (presumably fairly knowledgeable and well-read in the field) for readers of spec-fic (perhaps slightly less well-read and knowledgeable, but certainly more knowledgeable than the general public).

    I'm really approaching it as a recommended reading list for fans who are looking to find something new and different, not to be some sort of definitive cannon of must-read books. If you can think of an "obscure" book readers would enjoy and want to contribute to the article, shoot me an e-mail and I'll give you all the details. Thanks! gcalcaterra(at)gmail(dot)com

    1. And I want to be absolutely clear - I don't have any problem with the article you're planning on putting together (I'll probably check it out, as I'm always looking to potentially expand my reading list). I am always in favor of anything that introduces readers to new-to-them books. The discussion just made me think a bit.

    2. Of course. I didn't take your post to be a criticism at all. Obscurity is a funny thing, definitely worth contemplating. One of the cool perks of being a writer is that you do have a captive audience (albeit a small one in my case!), and it's nice to give back to some of the less-known writers who influence and inspire us by sending readers their way. That's my goal at least.