I’m shirking my responsibility to rank this year’s finalists because it is too emotionally painful.
However here are links to my fan-writing meta-reviews in reverse alphabetical order:
But most of all don’t forget to vote!
I’m shirking my responsibility to rank this year’s finalists because it is too emotionally painful.
However here are links to my fan-writing meta-reviews in reverse alphabetical order:
But most of all don’t forget to vote!
The final candidate and just in time as people rush to get their ballots filled in!
What else does the genre of fan-writing have to offer beyond the already mentioned three-ews (news, views and reviews)? We’ve already seen quite a variety. We could add another ‘ew’ with ‘interviews’ but we’ve seen so far newsletters, panels, collaborative projects, databases, resource lists, recommendations and a fan-fund photo diary. Another of my favourites is the Big Enormous Labour of Love Project. The kind of thing were a fan thinks “I should read all of X…” or “how far was it from X to Y in…” and they they decide to do it themselves and weeks/months/years later they’ve generated a substantial thing in its own right. Time to look at Adam Whitehead…
Adam has an extensive profile of his activities on his Patreon site (I’ve skipped a few parts)
I’ve been blogging at The Wertzone about all things science fiction and fantasy for over a decade. My main areas of interest and expertise are epic fantasy, space opera and history across books, TV, film and video games. I have a keen interest in genre history and am the author of A History of Epic Fantasy, which you can read on my blog… I am also a keen fan of the Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin. I have been moderating at Westeros.org for a decade, written an essay for Beyond the Wall and taken part in quite a few convention panels on the books and their TV adaptation, Game of Thrones… Earlier in 2016 I started a new blogging project, Atlas of Ice and Fire, which examines the maps, geography and military campaigns of A Song of Ice and Fire in detail.https://www.patreon.com/user?u=4370220
If any genre deserves and encourages the spawning of Big Enormous Labour of Love Projects it is epic fantasy and Adam has taken that genre’s appendix-aesthetic into his own History of Epic Fantasy (https://thewertzone.blogspot.com/search/label/history%20of%20epic%20fantasy) and then went onto a major cartographic project mapping out the continents of George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice (https://atlasoficeandfireblog.wordpress.com/). You don’t need to be a fan of either epic fantasy in general or Game of Thrones in particular to appreciate the time and effort put into either of those projects over several years.
They would be impressive in themselves but Adam also maintains an active blog covering genre news and coverage of books, TV and games. https://thewertzone.blogspot.com/ Did I mention that this year’s finalists do A LOT? Because they do.
Big Enormous Labour of Love Projects are iceberg-like, what you see above water is impressive but the time and effort is the huge mass of research that is hidden under the waves. It’s not just long running projects that have this quality, consider this post from Adam’s blog from 2019:
“The Marvel Cinematic Universe Timeline (updated)https://thewertzone.blogspot.com/2019/07/the-marvel-cinematic-universe-timeline.html
Following the release of Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home, I thought it might be interesting to run down a timeline of major events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films and the relevant backstory.”
The whole scope of events (now including the time-travel sections of Avengers: Endgame) put into a detailed timeline from the beginning of the universe… Brilliant, nerdy, painstaking fun. Part of what fan writing adds to fandom is these kinds of ways of re-engaging with the stories we have enjoyed. A timeline-post doesn’t look like what we might think of as literary criticism but the essence of it (as with cartography of fantasy worlds) shares with models of literary theory, a way of examining and revealing structures and ideas in works of fiction. Whether the scalpel we use for dissecting works is Foucault or Mercator, what we gain is understanding of ideas work together (or not, as the case may be).
Adam has gone with the option of a PDF of links with only one extract in the document itself. There are 21 posts linked, including several maps (not just of ASoFaI but of other books such as Dragonlance https://atlasoficeandfireblog.wordpress.com/2019/08/07/dragonlance-a-map-of-ansalon/ )
The style of articles linked is varied. Some, such as this one focus on key world building questions in classic stories:
“Arrakis being the size of our Moon is, however, highly problematic. First off, our Moon is generally considered to have insufficient mass – and thus gravity – to hold down a thick, life-supporting atmosphere. The Moon’s gravity is about one-sixth that on Earth, and a combination of low gravity and solar winds have stripped the Moon of whatever atmosphere if may have once possessed.”https://thewertzone.blogspot.com/2019/03/sf-questions-how-large-is-arrakis.html
I absolutely love this kind of stuff but the linked articles also include more conventional reviews and pop-culture retrospectives. For example:
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t perfect, but it’s one of those shows where the imperfections make it more interesting. It’s a show that tried to wear several hats simultaneously – action, comedy, romance, horror – and actually succeeded in doing so. It could be funny, scary and thought-provoking, and occasionally (in the case of the harrowing Season 5 episode The Body, comfortably one of the best episodes of television ever made) genuinely tear-jerking. It was also a show way ahead of its time in many respects, with the series doing metacommentary, genre savviness and social commentary arguably better than most shows attempting the same today.”https://thewertzone.blogspot.com/2019/11/she-saved-worlda-lot-buffy-vampire.html
There’s a lot to enjoy here and this is a fan-writer with an eye for detail and analysis.
Hugo online voting is now open. Don’t forget to vote in the Fan Writer category. Speaking of which here is our fifth contestant!
Sites:http://www.nerds-feather.com/search/label/paul%20weimer & https://skiffyandfanty.com/author/jvstin/
SFF Audio: https://www.sffaudio.com/tag/paul-weimer/
It can’t be true that Paul Weimer knows everybody in science fiction but if we were to draw a huge network graph, I think Paul would be at on of those nodes that helps joins multiple groups together. A regular columnist and pod-casting panellist in multiple venues, Paul is an insightful observer of the wider landscape of science fiction and fantasy. Paul is a bridge that links communities and people (exemplified by his revival of the popular mind-meld posts (http://www.nerds-feather.com/2019/09/the-hugo-initiative-mind-meld-favorite.html ).
On his personal blog, Paul describes himself this way:
“I’m an ex-pat New Yorker who has found himself living in Minnesota since 2003. Since moving here, I have developed a taste for photography, and marry it to my love of travel, landscapes, architecture and adventures. When I am not photographing things, my Science Fiction side comes out. I am a writer, reviewer, and podcaster for the Skiffy and Fanty show, SFF Audio, Nerds of a Feather, and other places as well.”https://www.princejvstin.com/about
Paul’s genre interests are broad and deep, ranging from science fiction classics to contemporary fiction, cartography and an active involvement in fandom. You can find his observations as long form essays or short comments but they are always insightful.
As the 2017 Down Under Fan Fund (DUFF) winner, Paul combined his multiple talents to create a visually stunning record of his southern hemispheric travels in New Zealand and Australia. For those missing out on a journey to the southern lands, you can experience some of it visually here https://www.princejvstin.com/duff. While writing and photography are quite different mediums of expression, Paul’s capacity to both observe and frame what the rest of us are seeing is demonstrated in both.
Paul’s Hugo Packet contribution consists of twelve articles that mix reviews, criticism and author interviews. The reviews span across fiction, games and non-fiction.
I’d like to focus on the interview aspect a moment. It is both a popular and underrated form of fan-writing: popular because interviews make for interesting articles and underrated because the fan-writer purposively takes a back seat to show off what somebody else is saying. A good example included in the Hugo Packet is an interview with Gareth L Powell which you can also read here https://skiffyandfanty.com/blogposts/interviews/interview-gareth-l-powell-on-fleet-of-knives/ I like to do chunky quotes from articles in my Fan writer series but in this case I’ll do a shorter one:
“3. The novel opens on a set of alien ruins, and alien Big Dumb Objects were important in Embers of War. Why do you think alien ruins are so evocative to readers as a place? What draws you to them as a writer?“
Look at what the question does:
For more conventional essay-style writing I personally really enjoyed this re-visit to Ursula Le Guin’s very early work Rocannon’s World.
“That duality of SF and Fantasy viewpoints goes into the character of Rocannon as well. He does acculturate to the world he is stuck in, embodying the role others give him as “The Wanderer.” This culminates in a wonderful sequence that pushes the novel to it’s most fantastical bits: Rocannon engages with the planet and bonds with it on a psychic level. He comes away changed by the experience, more ready than ever to protect the planet against the invaders. This is the core sequence — where Rocannon must fully become part of the world in order to protect it. The journey to this moment is a fantasy-style one in which he becomes a traveler and outsider. Here, he sheds that, and becomes fully part of the world. It makes me think of the Gaia Hypothesis or the endgame sequence to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.”https://skiffyandfanty.com/blogposts/blogseries/miningthegenreasteroid/miningrocannonsworld/
Paul is very much a traveller and he sometimes presents himself as an outsider, perhaps because of his capacity to take a step back and observe with both an analytical and holistic eye his surroundings but that aspect of being fully part of the world is what comes over in his writing.
We are into the second half of this years fantastical fan-writing finalists. Tomorrow we hit the wonderful world of the W’s.
I believe I first encountered Bogi on Twitter. Of course, nobody should be defined just by their social-media but given that fandom is a social phenomenon, the role of media such as Twitter is significant when considering fan-writing as a genre. Bogi has been providing years worth of recommendations for marginalised voices on Twitter under the diversestories and #diversepoems hashtags. Our 2020 collective-Hugo-mind theme this year is Fan Writers as messengers between worlds and communities and it’s this kind of work that helps illustrate that, even though the nature of expectations tends to focus on essay-style writing. Don’t worry though, there’s plenty of that as well!
Bogi describes emself thusly:
I am a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person. My personal pronouns are e/em/eir/emself or singular they (I’m fine with either). I have been living in the US for the past five years, and I have transformed from a nonresident alien to a resident alien. R.B. Lemberg is my spouse and I spend a lot of time gushing about them. We have a child (my stepchild), Mati, who is thirteen years old. All of us are neuroatypical and are on the autism spectrum, which causes adventures!! I have motor dyspraxia and a variety of rather aggravating chronic health issues. These have been blamed on everything from pesticides to Chernobyl. I write short-form speculative fiction and poetry, and I have been published in a variety of venues like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex and Strange Horizons. You can find my bibliography here.https://www.bogireadstheworld.com/about-me/
But that page starts with with a shorter summary that is almost a mission statement:
“Hello and welcome – I am Bogi Takács and I read an inordinate amount of books.“
Drawing from personal experience, Bogi is a short story writer, poet and anthologist (specifically the Lambda Literary Award winning anthology Transcendent 2) but also somebody who reviews, promotes and advocates for marginalised writers. Eir blog has a wealth of resources (https://www.bogireadstheworld.com/resources/) as well as on-going reviews of works that go well beyond the same limited range of writers that get the most attention. That work also extends to the Tor.com blog (https://www.tor.com/author/bogi-takacs/) which includes reviews of older works as part of a QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics series.
Bogi’s writing is a positive challenge that asks people to reconsider the scope of works that they engage with. “Positive” in the sense that it is driven by creative output and the advocacy for creators of speculative fiction rather than the sense of simply being ‘feel-good’ or avoiding pointing out the ingrained prejudices and issues within the wider SF&F community.
Bogi’s Hugo Packet contribution contains eight essays, mainly review essays but also three recommendation lists that are well worth reading. One thing I particularly like about eir packet is this section:
Some of my fan writing is in the form of databases and bibliographies; I’m going to link them here (you’ll need an internet connection for these, but everything else should be in this ebook):Bogi Takacs – Hugo Packet 2020
• The 2018 trans- and intersex-themed speculative stories database
• A comprehensive list of QUILTBAG+-focused SFF anthologies (very long!)
• On Twitter, a lengthy meta thread of trans writing, reading, booooks
This kind of fan-work doesn’t translate easily into awards or Hugo Packet contributions but collation, resource gathering and similar activities (eg Renay’s Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom, Cora’s equivalent one for the Reto Hugos etc) is very much part of what fan writers bring to fandom. The essay-form is the easiest way of comparing fan-writers but the importance of fan-writing and fanzines is also in aspects such as news and resources (or sad work such as obituaries).
However, for those who want essay-style fan-writing, the reviews show Bogi’s capacity to critique fiction. I particularly liked Bogi’s review of A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurance Gidney, a book and author about whom I know nothing.
“There is a tiny subgenre of Weird fiction focusing on artwork, and its effects on people. I love this subgenre, and I think it works best with approaches that are more beguiling and enticing than brutally horrific (though I’ve also seen the latter done convincingly). A Spectral Hue is more dark fantasy than horror – certainly many aspects of horror are present, and the past of Shimmer is rooted in slavery, but the overarching ambience of the story is more languid and beatiful than stark and terrifying, despite the presence of supernatural creatures and happenings. I also liked how a certain purplish color, the titular spectral hue pulled all the themes together. (In this sense it reminded me of another Weird story that stayed with me throughout the years, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Flash Frame which does this with the color yellow, and film rather than art objects.)”Bogi Takacs – Hugo Packet 2020
That there is demonstrating a key part of good reviewing. I obviously don’t know if it is accurate reviewing but I do know that by this point I want to know more. Exciting curiosity in the reader about books is something an effective book review can do.
Bogi has include two Tor.com pieces in the packet but acknowledges the current ambiguity voters have around fan-writing and paid venues, so has put them at the end. If you want to skip over them you can.
Three down, three to go! The next exciting plot twist in the Hugo Fan Writer series!
Podcast: www.escapeartists.net , https://pseudopod.org/ & https://escapepod.org
What do we call a pop-culture explorer who co-owns a podcasting empire? A pod-cast impresario? An impodsario? The Escape Artist network of podcasts (SF: Escape Pod, Horror: Pseudo Pod, Fantasy: Pod Castle, YA: Cast of Wonders) are just part of what Alasdair Stuart is involved in but I’m starting there because of our 2020 Fan Writer theme of messengers between worlds.
Stuart describes himself as:
…a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, and writer. He is a Hugo Finalist for Best Fan Writer, and a British Fantasy Society Best Non-fiction finalist for his weekly pop culture newsletter The Full Lid. His nonfiction can be found at numerous genre and pop culture venues, including regular columns at the Hugo Award-winning Ditch Diggers and Fox Spirit Books. His game writing includes ENie-nominated work on the Doctor Who RPG and After The War from Genesis of Legend.https://escapeartists.net/about-ea/team/
It’s an amazing range of outputs and Stuart uses his skills as a pop-culture critic to great effect, mixing personal observation and depth of knowledge of genres to provide insights into books, stories, games and dramas.
Central to Stuart’s fan-writing is his weekly newsletter The Full Lid. If you aren’t a subscriber then it is worth dipping into the archives. I particularly liked this essay he wrote last year on the coverage of the anniversary of the moon landings (it’s also available in the Hugo Packet).
“But while there’s reassurance here there’s also entitlement and complacency. We can, and have waited for the future to come when we could have gone out and built it. But instead of a first step Apollo has come to be viewed as a destination and you can see the seeds of that here.The surly bonds of Earth have been stripped and now all we have to worry about is waiting for the next trans-lunar shuttle. Seeing BBC Panorama’s counsel of luminaries, including an impossibly young Brian Aldiss, discuss the philosophical impact of the landing was especially weird. The greatest minds of their time, which was fifty years ago, talking about a future which, for us, has yet to arrive.”https://alasdairstuart.com/2019/08/22/apollo-at-50/
Stuart manages very well to shift the distance in his writing from the observational to the personal. Character is, I’d contend, a underestimated aspect of fan-writing. Yes, fan-writing does cover the kind of community journalism style writing, as well as descriptive reviews (both valuable – I’m not knocking them) but fan-writers are by title fans and it is the personal engagement with fandom and stories that drives the world of fan-writing. You can’t genuinely know people from what they write but good fan-writing should, over the course of many examples, give a sense of a person and a perspective. I think it is something that Alasdair Stuart does very well. I’ve never met him (and it’s unlikely I will anytime soon) but his writing conveys character in a way that is very personally engaging. Yes, yes, that’s an illusion of sorts but that illusion is something I enjoy in good writing.
Alasdair Stuart’s packet contribution is quite extensive. The content page makes it look shorter but three full newsletters really adds to the breadth of coverage.
The thorny issue of paid versus non-paid output in fan-writing is a topic I’ve covered inconclusively before. Stuart takes a simple and pragmatic approach to the problem: he includes both paid and non-paid writing in the package but is absolutely overt which-is-which and the remuneration involved. Likewise, for categorical purists, the commentary on pod-cast are clearly marked. Also, as well as a collated PDF of all the material he included, there is a separate folder of the individual parts, so if you want to ignore say the horror-related writing (out of genre purity 😉) you can.
I feel like I must have missed something but that is a repeating theme in this year’s finalists. Prodigious pop-culture polymaths, each of them but Alasdair Stuart gets to be a paradigmatic podcasting prodigious pop-culture polymath.
Post number two (collect them all!) in our Hugo Fan Writer profiles.
James Davis Nicoll:
We could, if we felt inclined, classify fan writing into the three ‘ews’: news, views and reviews. James leads his Hugo packet contribution with reviews and while those are excellent they perhaps underplay his history as a blogger, commentator, epigramist and person around whom stories happen (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Nicoll). James is both a pioneer in online fandom and also a key piece of infrastructure.
In James’s DreamWidth bio he describes himself:
“I was born in Canada, learned English in the UK, learned English again in Canada and aside from various trips abroad have spent most of my adult life in Kitchener, Ontario. I ran a hobby shop for 17 years and now am a free-lance book reviewer and game editor, occupations that have taught me how to budget.”https://james-davis-nicoll.dreamwidth.org/profile
Whereas TV Tropes is more expansive:
James Nicoll is a sharp-witted observer of the foibles of science fiction authors and their works, though somewhat Unluckily Lucky when it comes to personal safety (to the point where reporting one his numerous brushes with near-death earned the label “Nicoll Event.”) Coined the trope “Brain Eater”, which is now Filibuster Freefall, and is also the creator of the famous “Purity of the English Language” quote.https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Creator/JamesNicoll
The theme that has emerged from the Hugo-voter’s collective intelligence this year is fan writers as connections between worlds. The most apparent aspect of that in James’s work is his Young People Read Old SFF project (http://youngpeoplereadoldsff.com/) which puts classic science fiction stories in front of young people (or sometimes current science fiction in front of old people). As a project it is a fascinating example of how ‘fan writing’ exceed simple definition. The posts show how reading is a conversation with texts and with others reading those texts. James’s role is to facilitate the process but by doing so the whole project turns the process of review into a deeper form of literary criticism.
In 2019 James Davis Nicoll reviewed on average 20 books a month – that’s about two books every three days. So picking between these must have been a tough choice for him. The packet has boiled it down to five reviews that cover a variety of genres: some 1980’s sci-fi from Walter John Williams, Gideon Marcus’s Rediscovery: SF by Women 1958 – 1963 anthology, a contemporary single author anthology, a webtoon and a manga.
It is a smart choice of examples as it allow him to show off the range of approaches to reviewing. One of the key aspects is introducing people to stories that they weren’t aware of, for example https://www.webtoons.com/en/fantasy/aerial-magic/list?title_no=1358 You can read his review here https://jamesdavisnicoll.com/review/seconds-from-sunrise or in the packet.
This is the first of six posts highlighting each of the Hugo 2020 Best Fan Writer finalists. I’m going through by alphabetical surname order (as listed here https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/07/05/its-hugo-fan-writer-finalist-week/ )
Other Sites:https://retrosfreviews.blogspot.com/ & http://indiespecfic.blogspot.com/
In the introduction to her blog packet, Cora describes her fan writing actives as:
“I write about old and new science fiction and fantasy books, movies, TV shows, writing, food and anything else that comes to mind at my personal blog as well as at Galactic Journey and elsewhere around the web. Together with Jessica Rydill, I also co-run the Speculative Fiction Showcase, a blog focussed on science fiction, fantasy and horror by small press and self-published authors. At the Speculative Fiction Showcase, I post a weekly round-up of interesting links from around the web as well as a monthly round-up of newly released science fiction, fantasy and horror books by small press and self-published authors.”Hugo Voter Packet 2020 by Cora Buhlert, Pegasus Pulp Press
Cora has been doing the hard working of promoting self-published and small press SF&F for years. While sections of fandom have been trying to reframe publishing mode as some kind of partisan ideological battle, Cora has been writing, publishing and promoting indie sci-fi consistently and in a way designed to enhance science fiction writing.
The same can be said of her exploration of the pulp-era classics and if you are voting in this years Retro Hugo Awards for 1944, her writing is a greta place for insights into the era. Skipping ahead a few decades, Cora is also the German correspondent for Gideon Marcus’s Galactic Journey project, the time-travelling blog currently living in 1965.
In her 2019 essay The Golden Age Was More Diverse Than You Think, Cora took a long look at both the prejudices within 1940s era sci-fi but also our stereotypes and expectations of that time.
“Survivorship bias can be found doubly in the Retro Hugos, because not only do people (and the Retro Hugo nominator base is small compared to the current year Hugos) tend to nominate the famous stories, the ones that endured, they also tend to nominate and vote for writers (and editors and artists) whose names the recognise. This is why unremarkable debut stories by future stars tend to get nominated for the Retro Hugos, while better but lesser known works and authors tend to get overlooked.”
A common theme of this year’s fan writer finalists is that are each people who join worlds together. Cora is a paradigmatic example of that, Europe, indie publishing, the pulp era and contemporary sci-fi & popular culture*, Cora is a traveller between adjacent universes.
Cora has provided a very nicely curated selection of fifteen essays. I know it can be a real struggle to work out how much or how little to include in these things and given the voluminous output of this year’s finalists I’m sure there were lots of difficult decisions to make. Even though I regularly read Cora’s blog there selection still contained things that were knew to me or which time and life had meant I’d skipped over originally. I’d go so far to say that 15 looks like an optimum number: enough for variety but not so much that the contents page looks overwhelming.
There is an excellent mix of Cora’s multiple interests: contemporary reviews of Star Trek Discovery and Star Wars, pulp-era re-evaluations (eg Eric John Stark – Social Justice Warrior of Mars), Galactic Journey extracts and, of course, the ever popular Darth Vader Parenthood Award for Outstandingly Horrible Fictional Parents. [Also, easily the best fan writer Hugo Packet cover art, by Tithi Luadthong]
*[…and also other genres https://indiecrimescene.blogspot.com/ ]
I was saving this category until closer to voting opening but that’s been delayed so long I almost forgot about my plans.
This week I’m going to do six posts about each of the Hugo 2020 Best Fan Writer Finalist. Each one will entitled along the lines of “Why You Should Vote for [insert name of fan writer] For Best Fan Writer”. I’m not going to rank them because, zoiks, that’s going to be way too hard. I will be picking things out about each and what I like about them.
To kick things off, here are the finalists again as well as some links to where you can find them (not just eligible fan writing), as well as sample posts stolen from The Hugo Sheet of Doom or from Hugo Packet links.
Wow, I’m exhausted just pasting all those links in! That’s a clue to this year’s nominees: firstly I know I’ve missed stuff so this is a fraction of what they do and secondly this is a really hard working set of finalists! As well as general fan writing, they are involved in multiple projects as either organisers or contributors. In addition many are involved in things like writing fiction, photography, poetry, cartography or publishing. This year’s finalists are all people who actively provide the connections between fans that makes fandom a community.
There’s a side-topic I’m trying to avoid (badly) covering mainly because it is 80% changing the subject from the actually topic du-jour i.e. shitty behaviour by authors in SFF and comics towards other people — mainly (but not limited to) sexual harassment and sexually exploitative behaviour. I more than alluded to it in this post because of the 20% of it that isn’t changing the subject (shitty behaviour in a community and how a community should respond without itself being shitty).
This post isn’t the post that I’m not writing but just a note to myself. The note is simply* pointing at a recent Mad Genius Club post by Dave Freer: https://madgeniusclub.com/2020/06/29/a-bonfire-of-vanities/ Which is fascinating in that it clearly is inspired by the current events in the science fiction community but is very firmly centred on the 80% changing the subject aspect of it.
That is fascinating. Put another way, people who we know have been demonstrably and outspokenly hostile to well being, peace and prosperity of the science fiction community would really like to change the subject from powerful male authors (none of whom they like, indeed Myke Cole is actively hated by the Puppies) being held to account.
*[OK not “simply” because I couldn’t help editorialising.]
It certainly could but only by defying expectations. [Post title based on this comment by Cora https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/06/21/back-to-flint/#comment-46478 ]
Not only are no wholly original ideas but the more out-there a story is the less accessible it is. Tropes, familiar plot structures, common refrains all make the cognitive task of reading a story easier (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_load) and up to a point, that makes reading familiar stories more pleasurable. Conversely, surprise, sudden shifts of perspective (e.g. when ‘getting’ a joke or a pun), novelty, solving a puzzle or getting an abstract reward for cognitive effort are also pleasurable. Twists, subversions of genre, reversals of tropes and other forms of surprise can cause delight — think about a baby playing peek-a-boo and the delight we get from an early age from learning about object permanence. Delight and comfort are related twins of cognitive pleasure (along with other elements such as excitement and catharsis).
Plot twists are one way to engender that delighted feeling of surprise and they have a multiple effect. The surprise itself is enjoyable but we also feel clever in being rewarded with a revelation (even if we didn’t actually work it out) and we often feel the urge to share with others precisely because when somebody watches The Sixth Sense (for example) unspoiled, we know something they don’t know and we enjoy the punchline again vicariously.
Of course M. Night Shyalaman’s career illustrates that over-familiarity with a structure can undermine the pleasure of surprise. Multiple films with a twist or revelation intended to make you re-evaluate the whole film is a signature move. His films come pre-spoiled, you can’t go into them now without an expectation that the story arcs contains such a twist, which undermines the surprise when it comes. Indeed, the twist becomes a harder move to make in general after the success of films in the 90’s by other directors such as The Usual Suspects, or Seven.
Of course a twist at the end isn’t the only way to create surprise. Undermining expectations by exploiting familiarity either of genre, character or context is another way to create surprise/delight. Rian Johnson’s film Knives Out did this, for example, by taking a whodunnit murder mystery plot, derailing that plot part way by showing exactly the who, how and why of the death, shifting to a different kind of genre thriller only to return at the end of the film to the detective revealing who the real murder actually was and thus making the surprise twist of the film being that the film really was the cosy country house mystery that it initially appeared to be (plus a whole bunch of other things).
Comfort versus delight are juxtaposed but they aren’t *opposed*. Books can have both in much the same way that somebody who enjoys murder-mysteries might well enjoy Knives Out (or not, as the case might be). Comfort and sticking to form is itself a skill and having invoked Rian Johnson already the juxtaposition is one that exists with the recently concluded third trilogy of Star Wars films: J.J. Abrams providing the two book-ends and Rian Johnson the middle in a way that demonstrates the problems with the two approaches.
Abrams, particularly with The Force Awakens, took the comfort path with a film aimed at nostalgia and hitting the plot beats and style of the original films. The film had new characters and better effects but the overall approach was to try replicate the feeling of watching Star Wars. Johnson’s The Last Jedi didn’t ditch all of that but in multiple ways (see my review) attempted to zig when the audience expected a zag. The result was less than perfect — I haven’t done a complete new triology rewatch but the middle film is my favourite and yet…it share with Abram’s films a sense of dissatisfaction. Neither approach entirely worked despite the obvious talents of both directors.
I’m talking about Dune of course and hence it is appropriate that it takes seven paragraphs about a different medium before bringing it up. Dune was hardly the first science fiction book to mix fantasy tropes with far future space travel. If anything, this mixture of faux-medievalism and planets harked back to earlier pulps (just as Star Wars echoed film serials of the 1940s) but the addition of other elements and that broad-brush sense of a bigger setting with a unexplained but deep history still felt fresh when I first read it (again, like Star Wars borrowing Akira Kurosawa).
The Abrams versus Johnson dichotomy with new works by new creators within an established fictional-universe is one way to personify the dilemma. The Abram’s approach is to provide the same thing again but different and the Johnson approach to undermine and rework, or the dichotomy between the-same-but-different versus different-but-the-same.
However, when it comes to awards, the-same-but-different has an obvious disadvantage. It is the same issue I have discussed before and it is an absolutely inherent one. Awards for creative works necessarily must single out particular works and in doing so assert that the honoured work is notable and hence different from comparable works. This in no way is a disparagement of those writers whose work is deeply within the comfort territory, Kevin J Anderson is manifestly a talented writer at what he does and I’m also mindful of how huge swathes of writing (particularly in Romance) is dismissed as less worthy precisely because it as seen as “unchallenging” or otherwise undifferentiated (and hence regarded as disposable).
Nor is this strictly an issue of formulaic writing or sticking to familiar plot arcs. Terry Pratchett is another name that is raised in discussion about under-acknowledged writers. Yet his quirky and often self-subverting novels were rarely singled out despite Pratchett himself being widely honoured (literally honoured with an OBE). However, the question of why this book rather than that book also applies and, to some degree, to which Pratchett could reliably deliver familiarity and consistency with sufficient novelty.
And yet. That very quality of familiarity is the essence of surprise. Jokes often work by a sudden shift in expectations. To quote Douglas Adams (like Pratchett, comfortingly surprising):
Ford: “It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Arthur: “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
Ford: “Ask a glass of water.”
So arguably, the greatest surprise, the most novelty, the ultimate in standoutability is not a wholly novel work. If everything is different, aside from the book being difficult to read (because you literally have to work hard to read it) there’s also no ground from which to distinguish the figure. Highly original works don’t offer surprise because they don’t engender the same expectations or worse the expectations work against the novel leading to disappointment rather than surprise.
So *maybe* the most standoutability and hence the most word-of-mouth, the most I-shan’t-spoil-it-but-you-must-read-this, and hence the greatest chance of picking up nominations would be the (n+1)th sequel to Dune that utterly changed how you think about the original novel. Yes, that probably wouldn’t get published because it would alienate the readership who buy Dune-sequels for the pleasure of familiarity (and may well quite different books for the pleasure of surprise) but at some point (2036?) the original book will come out of copyright and then…
If that still seems improbable, consider how works like The Ballad of Black Tom have received critical acclaim and award recognition by taking the once-surprising-now-very-familiar framework of H.P.Lovecraft and by examining the overt and less-overt racism of the works and Lovecraft himself created stories that are familiar and unexpected. Of course horror as a whole genre is an art form that delights in taking the familiar and making it unnerving.