Bewildering Stories Discusses
The Best? Says Who?
by Don Webb
In the essay “Best Is in the Eyes of the Reader,” Bertil Falk expresses bemusement — to say the least — at the fickleness of contemporary fame. He cites two short stories that were acclaimed, even apotheosized, in their own time: O. Henry’s “The Green Door” and Somerset Maugham’s “Rain.” The best one can say now, a century later, is that neither has been entirely forgotten and that both can serve as models of the genre.
Bertil also cites a counter-example: Gerald Kersh’s “The Thief Who Played Dead,” which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post but was unaccountably ignored by literary awards and anthologies for detective fiction in 1954. Was publication in that magazine considered honor enough? Or was it a kind of kiss of death? The latter seems hardly likely: The Sat. Eve. Post also published such works as Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which has not been forgotten.
Bertil raises important questions: Who nominates and votes for literary awards? And how is the result determined? In other words: “This is the best? Says who?”
The questions are farther-reaching than they may seem at first glance. We’re talking not only about contemporary — and therefore probably transitory — fame but also about the validity of any literary canon.
According to Theodore Sturgeon’s Law, “Ninety percent of everything is crud” (Venture Science Fiction, March 1958), although modern parlance usually modernizes “crud” as “crap.” Sturgeon’s Law raises questions of its own, such as:
Does it refer to the natural world? That seems highly doubtful: Sturgeon would surely disavow any affectation of a snobbery so cosmic it would make hubris look like abject groveling. We would have to conclude that Sturgeon’s Law applies to itself.
Is the converse true? Ten percent of everything is not crud? Or crap. Or whatever. The glass is at least one-tenth full? That seems more likely. In fact, it has an ancient precedent: in Genesis 18:17-33, Abraham applies a moral lesson by haggling the Lord down from fifty to ten righteous souls as the price of sparing Sodom.
History has judged Sophocles sternly. The Soudas, a Byzantine encyclopedia, estimates he wrote 123 plays in his long and illustrious career. Only seven have survived intact. That’s little more than five percent. What were copyists thinking? We are fully justified in accusing history of shortchanging us. And we don’t want merely the missing half-dozen plays of the top ten percent, we want all of them.
But what would we do with ten dozen plays by Sophocles? A selection would take place willy-nilly; probably the top ten would get the most attention, at the expense of the others. And that may well be exactly what happened over the centuries, along with the inevitable accidents of history.
Who makes the selection? In ancient and medieval times, copyists. In modern times, scholars. And they tend to be a generous sort; literature is their bread and butter. But they do read a lot, and a consensus tends to form around a canon of “classics,” namely works read in class.
Why should students take scholars’ word for it that, for example, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma are his best novels? Try reading his Armance, for example, and you’ll see why.
Ancient scholars did the same thing; but again, their action was authoritative, not authoritarian. By the middle of the 2nd century, Christian gospels had proliferated so widely and diversely that the genre was in danger of degenerating into a series of pop-culture romances.
No formal decree was needed. A popular consensus formed around standards of selection, primary among which was authenticity. The canon took shape very early, and the marginal works were finally agreed upon by the end of the 5th century. Why was the book of Revelation included? Probably sheer quality. It was far and away the best example of apocalyptic literature in existence. How do we know? Read the rest. And viewed purely as literature, Revelation puts almost all of modern science fiction to shame.
When Bewildering Stories issues its Quarterly Reviews, are we acting as a kind of latter-day council in establishing a canon? In a sense, yes.
Who are we to do so? Well, what’s the alternative? Hold a popular vote? We did that in the four Contests we’ve held to date. In every case we had what the Preditors & Editors annual poll suffers from: ballot-box stuffing and, as Bertil calls it, vänskapskorruption. Since there is no consensus about standards, how else can casual voters decide?
Is the Review Board qualified to make the selections? We’ve all read a lot, and our works speak for themselves. And readers know who we are.
Are we fair? We hide nothing: readers can easily measure the works that are selected against those that aren’t. We seem to have done very well over the years: no one has yet protested an inclusion or an omission.
Do we agree uniformly? No more or less than the readers of the many different gospels at the beginning of the first millennium. We’re carrying on a time-honored tradition. And the Order of the Hot Potato tells our readers where we’ve disagreed.
What is the “best” short story or poem or anything else? Such a question is ludicrous. “Best” for whom, when, and what purpose? And “the best story of the year”? Forget it. Anyone who claims to have only a single favorite story or poem is intellectually starved.
Bewildering Stories does not decide what the “best” is. Rather, we tell readers what we especially recommend to them. And if anyone needs to ask, we can say why. Fairer than that is hard to get.
Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories