I jumped into the middle of a literary controversy last night. On a post reporting Iain Banks’ contribution to the ongoing debate in the Guardian over the literary merits of science fiction, Hugo Award-winning editor and fanwriter Cheryl Morgan said:
For example literary writers, on average, probably produce better sentences than SF writers.
Now, I should hasten to add that this is one sentence taken out of context, and that Cheryl’s post qualifies that statement in a number of ways. But it still got a reaction: Lavie Tidhar and Elizabeth Knox weighed in to the subsequent discussion with Cheryl Morgan on Twitter.
It’s a storm in a teacup, perhaps: one more skirmish in the long war to establish, or alternatively to deny, speculative fiction’s place at the literary table. But it got me thinking: what does it mean to produce a better sentence? What makes one sentence better than another? Is it the beauty of the words, or the use of metaphor or simile or imagery, or the function the sentence plays in telling the story, or a combination of all of these?
As I understand it, Cheryl’s perception – and it’s mine, too – is that, in genre fiction, the merit of a sentence lies chiefly in its contribution to telling the story, while in literary fiction, the merit of a sentence lies chiefly in the beauty of its expression. I’m just not sure that a beautiful but non-functional sentence is “better” than a sentence that is less elegant but contributes to advancing the story.
What do you think? What makes a sentence “better”? And, if that is a meaningful question, then…
Who writes the best sentences?