Ruminations of the Relevancy of Being “Relevant”

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”.

Anne McCaffrey Photo: Edmond Ross/ Random House

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

H. P. Lovecraft
Robert E. Howard
C. L. Moore
Leigh Brackett
Poul Anderson
Jack Williamson
Margaret St. Clair
A. Merritt
Harold Lamb
Henry Kuttner
Edmond Hamilton
H. Rider Haggard
Rudyard Kipling
Fritz Leiber
Ray Bradbury
Theodore Sturgeon
Robert Heinlein
Raymond Chandler
Dashiell Hammett
Manly Wade Wellman

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.

14 thoughts on “Ruminations of the Relevancy of Being “Relevant”

  1. Jim Cornelius

    Ah, the relevancy trap. Thanks for taking this on. It really IS a trap. Like fretting over cultural appropriation, it is paralyzing to the artist. The harder you try to be “Relevant,” the less valuable your work will be — because what is “relevant” to self-appointed cultural gatekeepers will change as quickly as any other fad.
    Works that stand the test of time are, well, timeless. Instead of the reader imposing some synthetic Relevance on the reader, the reader discovers relevance within the work. And the good stuff keeps delivering, across time and regardless of fad or fashion.
    Great piece.
    Jim Cornelius

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thanks, Jim. You’re absolutely right about relevance and cultural appropriation. They’re both suckers games. In my own writing I strive for a two-pronged approach to relevance. It’s relevant to me that 1) the reader enjoys the story or gets something from the essay and 2) I get paid. I try to write the best piece I can and not worry about what the cultural gatekeepers think about it.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Says the man who celebrated Simak-palooza a few years ago. 🙂

      And Simak really should be on that list.

  2. deuce

    “If entertainment means light and playful pleasure, then I think it is exactly what we ought to get from some literary work – say, from a trifle by Prior or Martial. If it means those things which ‘grip’ the reader of popular romance – suspense, excitement and so forth – then I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; IT MUST NOT BE LESS. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.”

    —- C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

    “Entertainment is fiction’s purpose.”
    — Edgar Rice Burroughs

    If any fiction writer, at any point in the writing process, puts some other factor ahead of telling a good story, then that writer has failed. Pedagoguery is pedagoguery. It does not matter how it is wrapped and spun. When the writer is more concerned with conveying some “relevant message” than with entertaining his readers, then he has betrayed his Muse. Indeed, betrayed his Muse in the very bed he shares with Her, taking Relevance into his arms instead. Homer, Haggard, Burroughs and Howard: all of them understood this. Their names are held in honor in the “Kingdom of Letters”, as Kipling called it. They may not have stated “relevant facts”, but they told the Truth.

    “It is only words—nothing but words—that live to show the present how, and in what moods, men lived and worked in the past. And we do not know what words they will be. That is one of the reasons why there can be neither first nor last in the kingdom—for it is not a republic—of letters.
    We who use words enjoy a peculiar advantage over our fellows. We cannot tell a lie. However much we may wish to do so, we only of educated men and women cannot tell a lie—in our working hours. The more subtly we attempt it, the more certainly do we betray some aspect of truth concerning the life of our age.
    It is with us as with timber. Every knot and shake in a board reveals some disease or injury that overtook the log when it was growing. A gentleman named Jean Pigeon, who once built a frame house for me, put this in a nutshell. He said: `Everything which a tree she has experienced in the forest she takes with her into the house.’ That is the law for us all, each in his or her own land.”

    — Rudyard Kipling to the Royal Society of Literature, 1933

    1. Keith West Post author

      Great quotes, especially the Kipling. Thanks, Deuce. I like the imagery of betraying your Muse when we stray from entertaining. I hope I am ever faithful.

  3. Woelf Dietrich

    Anything I say here will be like preaching to the choir. So allow me to just throw a few side notes, if I may.

    Technically you did broaden your horizons last year and you found the results lacking.

    People have different tastes. It becomes a problem when one side wants to impose their tastes on the other as the most perfect and awesome thing. There is no such thing. There is no utopia in life or in genre, though some of us would argue the pulp era was pretty fantastic.

    My taste includes authors from before this century to contemporary writers in the present, but, admittedly, I have a weak spot for those writers who schooled me as a teen and young man, and I favor them above everyone else.

    Only a fool talk in absolutes.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Preach on, brother, and let me throw in an Amen. You said what I wanted to say much more concisely.

      And yeah, you’re right, I did try to broaden my horizons and found the results lacking. I’m not going to tell people what they like is inferior to what I like (although I may think it at times), but others aren’t willing to do the same. I’ve been finding my tastes narrowing because of what is sometimes crammed down my throat (or in a few cases authors’ being more concerned with the politics of their readers than their readers’ enjoyment of their books). It’s not that I don’t like some of these works, but no one will tell me what I have to like or what I should and shouldn’t read. I try to be aware of this and resist the temptation to ignore/not read certain works, but I’m not always successful. And nobody wins when that happens.

  4. Former Studen

    “I’d recommend broadening your horizons. Anything written in the last 15 years is more relevant than McCaffery’s entire oeuvre”.

    Hoooooly crap, the arrogance in that statement. Jeez. This is what I call the fallacy of modernity: the idea that just because of the chronological distance makes writing better/more worthwhile/more significant overall. What a load of bull crap.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Yep, that’s what it is, all right. There is a reason classics are called classics.

  5. Paul McNamee

    I haven’t been relevant since before I was a teenager. I grew up in the early 1980s listening to blues and 60s-70s rock because I couldn’t stand the current crop of music at that time.

    Screw eat, pray, love.

    Read, write, publish.

    The rest is noise.

    1. Keith West Post author

      “Screw eat, pray, love.

      Read, write, publish.

      The rest is noise.”

      Great words to live by. I listened to a lot of big band and 50s pre-rock’n’roll pop music as a teenager in addition to 50s-60s-70s rock. Most of my life has been spent out of step with current trends. I think I’m a better person for it.

  6. Randy Stafford

    Relevance and its cousin didacticism are moving targets. So is entertainment, for that matter, but it moves less slow.

    Today’s “relevance” becomes tomorrow’s “outdated concerns”. Didacticism, whether political or purporting to teach you about something, doesn’t age quite as fast.

    I don’t have anything against either. But, if you’re an author, few are going to hear you if you don’t entertain first. And what reader’s consider entertaining is not going to be as quick a moving target.

    I’ll note that Poe, arguably founding father of at least two (detective fiction and science fiction, maybe three with horror) eschewed didacticism and went for memorable effect which is one reason’s he’s still widely read.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Excellent point about Poe, Randy. You’re completely correct that entertainment comes first. If that’s there, I’ll put up with a lot of things that would otherwise make me close the book.


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