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 Miéville. 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.