Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Why Science Fiction Authors Can't Win

Read this article, by John Howell, entitled "Why Science Fiction Authors Can't Win."

Then come back and read this quote, by James Enge:
I believe that the greatest danger to genre fiction nowadays is not the denial of respect from some notional group of literary tastemakers but the very real likelihood that sf/f may become respectable. Those who thirst for the foamy gray poison of respectability should consider the fate of jazz, once a popular medium, now respectable, ossified and ignored.
Update 10/12/09: Since I dragged him into this by snagging his older quote, good sport James Enge decided to give his 2 cents on the Black Gate blog in a post called, "SF/F: Field or Dangerfield," however a more lively discussion is going on at his own personal blog post, where he mentions the article. Both are worth checking out. A discussion on Pat's Fantasy Hotlist is also generating a lot of comments.




40 comments:

chadao said...

Ha, I began to feel this way when folks started lining up to see Star Wars. SF came out of the ghetto and everybody, no matter how unqualified, wanted to publish some. I think it almost killed science fiction completely, although it seems to be recovering nicely now, thanks in part to folks like Pyr.

Tim Akers said...

I don't think we should *try* to gain the respect of the establishment. I think it's a crime that we don't have that respect, but I can live without it. We shouldn't compromise the genre to get their attention, any more than we should compromise our literary standards to conform to false genre specifications. Honestly, the people I hear bad-mouthing sf/f the most are people who frame themselves as sf/f writers (but not "that kind" of sf/f writer)

Joe Abercrombie said...

I think Enge's got a good point about the *notional* group of literary tastemakers. The idea that the literary establishment is some kind of coherent, homogenous, anti-sf block is even more bizarre than the idea that sf itself is some kind of coherent, homogenous block. Everyone looks down on things they don't like and characterises them by their weakest and most obvious characteristics. Kim Stanley Robinson's assertion that "A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford" is just as mindlessly dismissive as saying, "a good new book about spaceships is not going to tell us more than Brian Aldiss's Non Stop." I daresay one could write a similar complaint about the way in which fantasy is looked down on by the sfnal elite and constantly passed over by the Hugo nominators. Who gives a toss? There always seems to be a strange bully/victim complex on show in these debates - a desire for sf&f to be kept separate and pure while at the same time a demand that it be respected by the hating mainstream, plus an attempt to appropriate everything that takes place in the future as sf and anything with the slightest magical element as fantasy.

I think we need to be more comfortable in our own skin than to get upset every time a judge or critic shoots their mouth off.

Joel Shepherd said...

I think the key question is 'respectable to whom?'

The only reason people care what a small group of literati snobs think is that this small group of literati snobs has somehow had conferred upon them by the literary world the power to discern the worthy from the unworthy, and thrown entire subgenres into the latter camp without bothering to read them. It's their ability to direct the opinions of the broader public that makes them powerful. In and of themselves, what that small group of literati snobs thinks of SF&F doesn't matter a bit... in fact, from many such people (though by no means all, as snobs can be found in all genres) disrespect is a badge of honour and should be taken as such.

SF&F writers pleading vainly for respect from such people have all the dignity of British punk rockers begging for a knighthood. But the punk rockers won in the end, because most people named 'Sir' have far less impact on popular culture, and pass unnoticed.

If the members of maligned minority genres care so much, perhaps they should start their own award, and make publicity from the fact that it won't exclude anyone, thus bypassing the literati and making them the separatist clique that no one notices. Other than that, I can't think of anything to be done about it, and like Joe above, can't really get very worked up. That kind of respectability is not what my work is for, and never will be.

Mark Chadbourn said...

I agree with Joel, There is a big danger here. And I'm not talking about abstracts, and emotions, and what people feel about sf/f. I'm talking about hard cash.

Contempt directed by people with a voice, and therefore power, in modern society can shape potential sales and therefore stop potential income reaching publishers and authors. The production of books follows the flow of cash - see the recent debate on the rise and rise of urban fantasy on the Publisher Files and elsewhere.

The people who support the genre of "literature" do have a powerful voice in the media, and set standards by default. Their toxic comments need to be resisted.

Tim Akers said...

Then again, I think it was Andrew Wheeler who said something along the lines of "SF/F has been trying to achieve literary respectability for years. And now we have, and we have the awful sales to prove it."

With a couple exceptions, literary sales suck. You don't hear thriller writers complaining every time a lit author uses "plot" without declaring the book a thriller. Why do we care? I'm not even convinced that the awards that sf/f gives out accurately reflect the readership of the genre. Lou has been nominated for/won multiple awards, and that's great, but what's really impressive is that he produces award winning fiction that actually sells.

Joe Abercrombie said...

Mark,
Big danger? Really? Because sf doesn't appear on the booker list? It never has. Because the odd critic or author occasionally says something derogatory about spaceships? I'm not seeing the threat, honestly, and I think you're greatly overstating the power of prizes and critics, on the whole. Sure, they can help, especially for a relatively little known writer, but Tim Akers is absolutely right that literary respect rarely goes hand in hand with big sales. Some literary books sell a lot, sure, but so does some sci-fi and fantasy. You point out the massive success of urban fantasy of late - has that area been lavished with literary kudos? Was the booker shortlist bursting with paranormal romances? Not so much. Urban fantasy tends to get treated with hearty contempt even by sf fans, let alone 'the people who support the genre of literature'. Hasn't stopped it from shifting a few units...

Stephen Deas said...

I'm with Joe. Genre fiction (and please take this as a wide definition including crime and thrillers and so forth) generates a fierce and powerful 'brand loyalty', does it not? Both to the genre and to specific authors. 'Literary' fiction I suspect does not. So maybe they need their awards a lot more than we do? Just a thought.

Mark Chadbourn said...

Maybe I'm not expressing myself clearly. I'm certainly not advocating a desire to move sf/f into the literary ghetto. I relish the roots of the genre, and agree with James that it's a vital part of what makes sf and, indeed, f, a transgressional thrill.

But I am concerned about the scorn poured on to the genres. When papers like The Independent refuse to review *any* genre title because they "have no value", there is a strong message being sent to potential mainstream readers. When commentators across the media trash the entire sf/f genre (but not crime), it does have an effect. And in this day and age, these kinds of memes spread much faster and deeper, and take root.

I don't care whether SF is up for the Booker or not. I'm not bothered about respectability. I see little value in prizes and awards. But I *do* see a danger in corrosive criticism of the entire genre from people who really are opinion formers to the wider population.

karen wester newton said...

Not too long ago a collection of short stories by British SF author Chris Beckett won the Edge Hill Prize. The judges sounded a little mortified to find themselves awarding a prestigious prize to a collection of stories that had all appeared in either Interzone or Asimov's, but they did award it because they found Beckett's work "popping with enegry." The trick is to get those folks to pick up Asimov's or Interzone so they realize Beckett is good but not unusual in the genre.

Anne Lyle said...

I used to think (and still do, to some extent) that mainstream authors who use SF tropes should be man (or woman) enough to admit it. Then I ran into someone who didn't seem to get the concept of genre, and in the process of trying to explain, I realised the situation was more complex than "Us vs Them".

My explanation was basically this: different people want different experiences from fiction, and the marketing genres are there to direct them towards the sort of books they enjoy. This is distinct from categorising a novel by the tropes it uses - and both have their uses.

For example, including a love story in your book doesn't mean that it belongs in the Romance section of Borders. Romance readers want a particular kind of love story, with a strong focus on the relationship and (usually) a happy ending.

A book can cover multiple genres, but generally one predominates and that is the one that is chosen by the marketing department to get the book in front of the widest possible readership.

The problem as I see it is that we try to make a special case for SF, and claim all books with even a hint of SF as "ours". Probably it's just a backlash against the literati who condemn all SF as trash simply because it's the unsophisticated populist stuff that is most visible. But to my mind, if a publisher thinks (probably rightly) that the average SF&F fan wouldn't enjoy a Margaret Atwood novel because the SF element is too slight, then it's perfectly acceptable to market it as mainstream/literary fiction.

The reader comes first, not the critic...

Adam Roberts said...

Can't say it's always the case, but on this one I find myself in complete agreement with Nick Mamatas.

Philip Athans said...

Who is it we're supposed to be impressing? If I publish a book like The Ghost King and it sells 100,000 copies in hardcover that's all the respectability I need. The NY literary critical circle jerk can go ahead and tell each other I suck, but critics don't buy books, readers do, and readers like an entertaining, plot- and character-driven genre tale. I take that very seriously and do my best to nurture the best fantasy entertainment I can conjure up. Critical respect? Shrugged that off years ago.

Nick said...

As Coriolanus said:

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o` the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Dospising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back: There is a world elsewhere.

The shorthand: The so-called literati can shove it!

Nick said...

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/sep/27/chalcot-crescent-fay-weldon-review

Presumably it's a fresh take on SF because it's by Fay Weldon? There is perhaps really no point in trying to engage with such chattering idiocy:

'This part of the plot is unashamedly sci-fi, and though Weldon often sacrifices characterisation in order to focus on ideas about nature, nurture and the importance of family, it's her fresh take on the genre staples that makes Chalcot Crescent stand out. Traditional British sci-fi tends to be peopled with the brave and the dutiful; it's a pleasure to have these realistic characters squabbling and sulking on their way to Armageddon instead.'

The reviewer is obviously well read. 'Unashamedly'?!

BTW. That cut and paste of Shakespeare earlier should have read 'despising'. I had already corrected 'rock o' the fens' to the correct 'reek o' the fens' although Rock o' the Fens is a good fantasy name!

karol said...

"I daresay one could write a similar complaint about the way in which fantasy is looked down on by the sfnal elite and constantly passed over by the Hugo nominators."

5 (or even 6, if you consider alternate history fantasy) of the latest 9 Hugo winners for Best Novel were fantasy.

Blue Tyson said...

"HEREIN lies the peculiar significance, the peculiar sacredness even, of penny dreadfuls and the common printed matter made for our errand-boys. Here in dim and desperate forms, under the ban of our base culture, stormed at by silly magistrates, sneered at by silly schoolmasters -- here is the old popular literature still popular; here is the unmistakable voluminousness, the thousand-and-one tales of Dick Deadshot, like the thousand-and-one tales of Robin Hood. Here is the splendid and static boy, the boy who remains a boy through a thousand volumes and a thousand years. Here in mean alleys and dim shops, shadowed and shamed by the police, mankind is still driving its dark trade in heroes. And elsewhere, and in all ages, in braver fashion, under cleaner skies, the same eternal tale-telling still goes on, and the whole mortal world is a factory of immortals."

- G. K. Chesterton

Joe Abercrombie said...

Karol,
Come, come. 5 or 6 out of the last by a very broad definition of fantasy. What if we consider the last 20 years instead of your rather arbitrary 9? What if we look at the shortlists as well as the winners? What if we also consider that fantasy greatly outsells sf (and by your broader definition that would presumably include YA, horror, and alternative history, stupendously outsells it)?

The Hugos are nominally for anything speculative but they have a healthy bias towards a certain type of hard-ish sf, and I don't see the problem with that. It's a natural function of the tastes of the body that votes for the award. Again, who gives a toss? I don't have a problem with it any more than that the British Fantasy Award tends to have a horror slant, or that (yes) the booker prize is nominally for all fiction but tends to go to a certain style of literary/historical fiction. Moreover, readers who care about literary prizes (and I don't think, on the whole, there are that many) come to recognise the style of a given award and trust that the judges will deliver the style of winner they like. They read all the Hugo winners, for instance, because they like the books that get picked. I'm not sure winning the booker prize would do all that much good to, say, an epic fantasy, because people who care about the booker don't read epic fantasy (they'd turn off as soon as they saw the magic sword on the cover), and people who read epic fantasy don't much care about the booker (bloody literary illuminati, how dare they tell us what's best). All you'd get is a small spike in sales, a lot of confusion, and an agreement that categories may not make much sense but they do indeed serve some commercial function...

tomlloyd said...

I'm with Chadbourn here. While I don't like the fact that a percieved proper fantasy or SF author is incredibly unlikely to win the Booker, I'm happy with the boundaries that frame the SFF genre. What I don't like is the much-repeated opinion of a few that the genre contains nothing of value and, crucially, is only for the sad geeky club and their closed little worlds. By repeating the accusation that SFF is a closed world, they're firming it up in the collective unconcious and dissuading some from trying it for themselves. The dismissive, slightly contemptuous attitude is one I see in publishing quite a lot - You don't write proper books, just geeky ones, so jolly well done but don't pretend it has any artistic merit.

While I'm never going to have the issue that Atwood would if she admitted her next novel was 'proper' SF, this perception does matter and does limit the genre overall - just as some of the artwork on the books will because they're so focused on a specific target market they'll put off others from considering the book.

Reuben said...

I think that part of the problem is that for a lot of people, sf/f is a guilty pleasure. Not that I want to take away from that, but how often do you see someone openly reading a Tobias Buckell or David Gemmel novel at the coffee shop or on the bus? Now how often do you see someone reading John Grisham or Dan Brown in the aforementioned places? We've got to stop being emberassed about these fantastic novels that bring us so much pleasure. I believe that if people who don't primarily adorn themselves in black trench coats and skull shaped jewellery, (kudos to them by the way for having the courage to be interesting!) start publicly professing their love for speculative fiction, maybe it will become a little more acceptable. Either way, why are we hiding it? Geez, I know that there are tons of sf/f fans out there, I just never see you!

I don't believe that gaining respectability for sf/f will compromise the genre. SF/F's very nature is to challenge convention. It is also by nature very entertaining. Reading SF is probably the only way I'm ever going to meet someone from another star. Reading fantasy is the only way I'm ever going to meet a dragon and live to tell about it. If I wanted to meet people with failed marriages and cancer who never do anything interesting, I'd go to a hospital. I'd much rather read about someone with a failed marriage and cancer who owes money to a witch doctor and argues with demons about football matches.

Oh well, you can't please everybody, so why worry about it?

Lou Anders said...

Reuben, love your second paragraph but disagree with your first. I spent about two days a week in coffeeshops and have done for several years now (it's where I read manuscript submissions). I pay a LOT of attention to what other people read there, and I frequent see SF&F being read. Most common are RA Salvatore, David Weber, and Steven Erikson. All have pretty unabashedly genre covers and nobody seems embarrassed. I've come to think the "I'm afraid to be seen reading this on my commute into work" is a myth publishers tell themselves and that the rest of the world really doesn't care. Also, I feel very strongly that SF&F art, and the history thereof, is one of the unique virtues of our field, something to celebrate. But to get back to the topic, the number of people who see SF&F as stigmatized verses the number who don't... well, genre IS mainstream now. I'm amazed by the number of people who approach me enthusiastically when they find out what I do. I think the minority that still thinks they win brownie points by acting snide are dinosaurs crowded in the last warm valley, and are waking up to how out of touch with reality they are. Which is not to say that everyone *needs* to enjoy genre, only that more and more people recognize that more and more people do.

Anonymous said...

What Joe said. This idea of some monolithic establishment is just wrong. But, I love it when I see writers expressing that opinion, since it just means I have a lot less competition getting leverage and gigs and other opportunities from people and institutions a lot of genre writers just assume are hostile toward them. Of course, one thing is true: if SF and F keep trending toward godawful pseudo Romance covers or really sloppy-looking swords and sorcery covers, most authors won't have a chance because regarding delivery systems and perception of content, there is at least one prejudice across the board: people outside of genre (and thankfully at least a few inside genre) do not like things that look stupid, regardless of whether the content actually is or not. --JeffV

Lou Anders said...

Don't disagree with that at all. But think that, as with so many things, its the executive not the subject matter. I know swords and sorcery covers that look sloppy and I know swords and sorcery covers that look amazing. It's down to the skill of the individual illustrator/art director.

As I've said before, it's about making those genre elements inclusive rather than exclusive. But I am very opposed to attempts to market books sans all genre elements.

Blue Tyson said...

What I'm surprised about is that no-one thought to call the Oxford don type out about calling others weird geeks in their little rooms.

What do they think the average person thinks of them exactly? Something like nebbishy wussboy monomanical ultranerds that hang out in smoky rooms away from everyone else (and all the women) expressing their love for the 13th line of 15th century poems perhaps?

They'd never dream of attending conferences about arcane inconsequential minutae, ever, would they? :)

Nick said...

Blue: Yep! For an academic class that spends much of its time pointing out the shifting nuances of a supreme irony in a given text, it's, um, a bit ironic. Heh!

I studied 'classic lit' at university, got a degree in it and love it profoundly. But I've hopefully learned to distinguish between that sort of love and wearing it like an elbow patch. A lot of them haven't.

Nick said...

Some cheeky bugger spammed you, Lou!

Lou Anders said...

Dealt with.

Nick Takrann Fantasy said...

Damn right. Pwnd.

Nick said...

Coda:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/oct/13/sci-fi-future

Lou Anders said...

Thanks for that.

Nick said...

There's a fair summary of it here, Lou. The focus was on Cult, the Rise of the Geek (!) and graphic novels. I only caught the tail end which included the misogyny criticism. The programme is no longer on the BBC iPlayer but might turn up on YouTube at some point. Jeannette Winterson's stance was fairly predictable. She has herself written some interesting fantastic fiction. Oh, no, hang on, in the higher eschelons of literary excellence it is called 'magic realism'. Or, as the Wikipedia entry for Sexing the Cherry puts it: 'Sexing the Cherry is a postmodernist work and features many examples of intertextuality. It also incorporates the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses'. So not the genre of the fantastic then! i.e. 'Not only, but also...'

http://www.bleedingcool.com/2009/10/09/mark-millar-and-kevin-smith-do-bbc-newsnight-review/

Jenna said...

You know, sometimes I wonder if Atwood will have a special bit in her will - perhaps an attorney reading a statement to the press which reads something like "by the way, I've been writing SF, boys! PWND!!"

I really didn't understand the Literati divide existed for a long time. I just knew it was sometimes a bitch to find where a book was in the bookstore (libraries have it right - ALL fiction in alphabetical order, last name first!).

During a conversation with a customer, I discovered she was a published author. I mentioned that I was working towards that myself, and she asked what my work was like. I told her that I'd love it if people ever thought my books could go on the same shelf as Kazuo Ishiguro, Walter Tevis, and Margaret Atwood. Her response: "Oh, you're one of those."

I had to fight to get her to explain herself. Turns out she was an erotica writer, and much maligned by the Literati. I had to explain what I meant by my statement was that I would like to write whatever story needed telling, even if one story was about an alien crashing on Earth, and the next one about a pool player. Or perhaps a tale about an English butler, followed by a tale about clone children. Or, anything dystopian.

I just want to write a story about the human condition. If the marketers and the literati want to box me in, that's going to be rough on all of us.

They'll probably just dump me into SF. Funnily enough, I'm fine with that.

Lou Anders said...

Exactly. I love Moorcock for writing everything from Hawkmoon to Colonel Pyat, and doing so without pen names, and getting Grand Master awards and Booker & Whitbread nominations both.

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