The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “relevant” as “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand” and “having social relevance”. Just so we’re on the same page, relevance is defined as “practical and especially social applicability” and “the ability to retrieve material that satisfies the needs of the user”.
Why, I’m sure you’re asking, am I quoting the dictionary? Well, Monday on the interwebz, one side of a conversation was showing up in my Twitter feed. I’ve been trying to stay off Twitter these days because it’s a time sink, and I don’t have much time to sink. What caught my attention was a quoted tweet from a person in the conversation whom I don’t follow. The statement was “I’d recommend broadening your horizons. Anything written in the last 15 years is more relevant than McCaffery’s entire oeuvre”.
Some context, and no, I’m not going to name the person who said that. My intention is not to engage in personal attacks but to challenge the mindset behind the words because it’s pretty widespread. Seems someone somewhere declared this week Space Opera Week. Tor dot com is posting a number of essays on that theme. There was one post that brought out the old saw about women haven’t traditionally written space opera, and the few that have, well, they wrote it from a man’s perspective, horror of horrors. Brackett and Moore, in other words.
Certain parties responded. Conversations ensued. Anne McCaffrey’s name was brought up. The statement above was made.
Let that sink in. Yes, you heard it right. Someone said that anything written in the last 15 years was more relevant than Anne Freakin’ McCaffrey’s entire oeuvre.
For the record, I’m not a big McCaffrey fan. I read the first two Pern books when I was about 12 or 13. The third had just come out, so there wasn’t the mountain of them there are today. They weren’t really my thing, but I was young. I might have a different reaction to them now. It was through Dinosaur Planet that I came to Pern. I enjoyed Dinosaur Planet and its sequel a few years later, but for whatever reason, I didn’t read any more McCaffrey. (I did buy Decision at Doona on Monday, which was one I had intended to read at the time and never gotten to. It will be read and reviewed within the next few weeks.) None of which is important.
McCaffrey was one of the first women to win a Hugo Award (back when it still meant something), is a SFWA Grandmaster, and wrote a number of series, including one of the most popular in the history of the field, and was (and still is) an influence on many authors in the field today.
How are her works not relevant, or not as relevant as anything written in the last fifteen years?
To answer that, we need to decide what is relevant. So let’s go back to the dictionary. You see the word “relevant” thrown around a lot, so I’m going to go with the second definition, that of having social relevance. After all, there’s a great deal of talk about how science fiction and fantasy has an obligation, nay a duty, to present the world as it should be, for whatever definition of “should be” the person making the statement has in mind.
Did McCaffrey present the world as she thought it should be? How the hell should I know? A better question is, did she present the world as today’s arbiters of taste and entertainment think it should be? Clearly not, or we wouldn’t be having this
dialogue rant. It’s foolish to expect her to. She wrote in a different era, with different ideas of how things should be.
But it seems none of that is good enough. Fiction today needs to be relevant. Excuse me, I mean Relevant, with a capital R. It must enlighten. It must illuminate. It must present the best values and guide us to the perfect [fill in the blank]-ist utopia. It must not offend in any way – unless it offends the people who aren’t as enlightened as they should be – and be tolerant of a diversity of ideas, just so long as they’re approved ideas that lead us to utopia. If fiction doesn’t do any of these things, then it should be relegated to the dust bin of history while the fiction that is on the right side of history is lauded and honored and awarded.
Or so some people say.
Remember that word “relevancy”? You know, the one that was defined as “the ability to retrieve material that satisfies the needs of the user”?
Speaking only for myself, this user’s needs are for fiction to be entertaining. And fun. If your writing, your books, your stories, don’t satisfy that need, then it has no relevancy to my life. And I don’t care how “relevant” or “important” or “necessary” you think those books are. They aren’t relevant to me.
I’ve read enough “relevant” fiction. Last year I foolishly tried to read through all of the Year’s Best anthologies. I am never going to do that again. There were some good stories in the mix, some I probably would have missed. But there was so much boring (mediocre at best, pretentious and preachy at worst) crap as well, and it far outweighed the good stuff. I eventually quit the project and went on to something more enjoyable. One good thing, I would venture the only good thing, from reading so much heavy handed message fiction: I know what critically acclaimed new writers to avoid like the plague.
Before this week, I really didn’t have any plans to read any more McCaffrey. Nothing against her, just that she hadn’t pushed my buttons and I had moved on. I’m going to give her work another try.
I’m also going to be reading more writers who aren’t “relevant” (except to me and like-minded friends) and not read as many who are “relevant” or “important”. Writers such as (among others, in no particular order)
H. P. Lovecraft
Robert E. Howard
C. L. Moore
Margaret St. Clair
H. Rider Haggard
Manly Wade Wellman
And I’m not going to stop there. A number of writers are trying to revitalize the pulp tradition. By and large, these are new writers, but not exclusively. Some call themselves the Pulp Revolution, but there are plenty others. Many, perhaps most, aren’t published by the mainstream publishers. I don’t care that they aren’t. I just care if they can tell an interesting story without scolding me.
Their works are what are relevant to me. And that’s what I’m going to read.
I’m sure I’ll be told I need to “broaden my horizons” or some such. Whatever. Those who think that are free to do so, but for me their opinions have no relevancy.