• Fantasy vs SF: Who Let The Dogs Out?

    by  • December 8, 2009 • Fantasy, Publishing, SF • 14 Comments

    Mark Charan Newton, actually.

    Over on his blog, Mark has incited a firestorm with the posting “Why Science Fiction is dying and Fantasy Fiction is the future”, which has attracted fierce responses from Charles Stross, Richard Morgan, Adam Roberts and many others.

    Here’s my response:

    Surely there is no finer sport than ramming sharpened stakes into the cages of the SF community!

    And yet, there *is* an SF community, with reasonably definable boundaries and consumption patterns. In its natural habitat, the SF reader will graze easily across hard SF, space opera, military SF, literary SF, wherever both science and fiction combine.

    There is no fantasy community, and this, I think, is where your initial premise breaks down, Mark.

    There is NO connective tissue between what has been branded as urban fantasy and secondary world fantasy, anecdotally little crossover in readership, and generally very little love lost between the two camps. Urban Fantasy has more in common with the romance genre (always a big seller) and the romantic fringes of 80s horror, and is a better fit under the Paranormal Romance banner. Yes, there are fantastic elements, but horror is a sub-genre of fantasy, but we don’t lump that in when we discuss this issue.

    Strip out “urban fantasy” and there’s not such a great disparity in sales between fantasy and SF. But that still doesn’t leave a fantasy community. There are a lot of authors writing broadly tales of the fantastic outside the secondary world area – the majority are never likely to have big sales (the area they write in – the huge sweep of the imagination – is too unfocused to be branded), but they have a consistent readership. Many readers of secondary world fantasy aren’t hugely interested in them, and often see them as part of a different, unnamed genre too.

    What we now call secondary world fantasy is the only true fantasy community. It’s the area where the biggest sales lie because it’s built on the twin foundations of Tolkien and gaming, which provides a constant stream of new readers through the gates. (There’s probably an academic paper to be written on how many authors in this field based their works on their teenage and twenty-something gaming inventions…) More importantly, it has boundaries defined by the community itself.

    So really when we talk about SF vs fantasy, we’re talking about SF vs secondary world fantasy. That undercuts the initial argument even more, because I was told by a publisher very recently that sales of secondary world fantasy are also in decline – slow, certainly, at the moment, but consistent. Fewer secondary world fantasies are going to be bought. The argument then becomes, which is declining faster – “fantasy” or SF, and that’s not a very fun argument at all.

    Part of the sales decline is due to the intense, and accelerating, change in society, where communities are breaking down into increasingly small self-identifiable units. It’s something the music and TV industries have already wrestled with – there are no “rock” fans any more, but a vast number of tiny tribes that shelter under the rock banner. Viewing figures for TV shows plummet as the makers increasingly have to micro-target.

    The challenge for the big publishers is how they’re going to build a business model that is acceptable to their shareholders when genres continue to fragment (in fantasy, say, to apocalyptic fantasy, heroic fantasy, magic-based fantasy, historical fantasy) with less and less boundary crossing and subsequently a lower ceiling of potential sales (ans: they can’t). It’s an issue that smaller publishers like Solaris and Angry Robot were specifically set up to tackle.

    But in this area, I think, SF is better placed to thrive in the long term because its community is broader and more cohesive, and there is much more micro-boundary crossing to keep sales up.


    14 Responses to Fantasy vs SF: Who Let The Dogs Out?

    1. December 8, 2009 at 4:27 pm

      Throwing my hat into the ring
      “Why Science Fiction Is Dying & Fantasy Fiction Is Dying Too”

    2. December 8, 2009 at 4:39 pm

      Adrian – good post. Cross promotion is the only way forward in the commercial environment we’re entering, and, as you point out, WoW is a huge untapped audience.

    3. December 8, 2009 at 4:59 pm

      This is an interesting take on the subject, Mark. I think you’re right that, in this country at least, there isn’t a single fantasy community in the way that there’s an sf community; and the fragmentation into subgenres is certainly significant. I’m curious, how far down do you see that fragmentation going? Would we really reach a point where a person might read, say “magic-based fantasy” but not “heroic fantasy”?

    4. December 8, 2009 at 5:05 pm

      If we look at other areas of the media we can see this fragmentation continuing to frighteningly small sub-sets. Within fantasy, I’ve already heard comments from, for instance, some GRRM readers that are almost contemptuous of the elves&dwarves&magic stripe. That splintering only gathers force.

    5. December 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm

      Actually, Urban Fantasy has more to do with Noir novels than with Romance. Just because a lead character is female, does not a romance novel make. If you read any of the best selling Urban Fantasy books, very few of them actually feature Romance as a plot (and even then it’s a sub-sub-sub-sub plot).

      And it has more to do with fantasy than romance. It involves different races/species (High fantasy has elves/dwarves, Urban Fantasy uses Vampires and werewolves in almost EXACTLY the same way). If you would read any of the books, you would see that the genre furniture is close to Fantasy and Noir, and very far away from Romance.

      Very, very far away. Yet, if you slap a female writer on a book, and a female character as the lead, I guess people are just going to label it Romance. It’s sad, when you think about it.

      And there is a fantasy community…it just likes to argue over subgenres. Kind of like how the science fiction community does. Funny how that is.

    6. December 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm

      I find it a strange concept that a person will read only one genre of book. I can’t add to this and hope you don’t all think I’m trying to trivialise matters by saying this.

    7. December 8, 2009 at 9:27 pm

      I agree with you, Clive. I read across many genres and always have.

      Paul, I have read urban fantasy, and I would beg to differ. In fact, I find your suggestion that I consider them closer to romance because they are (generally) written by women quite offensive. When many of the urban fantasy novels came to the UK, they were originally branded under the Gollancz Romancz line. In the US, many appear under the Paranormal Romance banner, and their authors, I might add, are happy for them to be there.

      Some urban fantasy takes the stylings of noir, and of horror (with the vampires and werewolves and the rest) but the rhythms of the storytelling echo the romantic novel, not fantasy.

      I know some readers – particularly some male readers – bristle whenever the romance issue is raised, but the authors aren’t usually unhappy.

    8. Paul Jessup
      December 9, 2009 at 2:27 pm

      Now, you’ve made a small error in categorization- you’ve lumped Paranormal Romance together with Urban Fantasy again. Just because it’s contemporary, with werewolves and vampires and demons, does not make it the same genre, any more than Elf porn (and there is such a market here, for Fantastical Romance) is the same as Tolkien.

      “In the US, many appear under the Paranormal Romance banner, and their authors, I might add, are happy for them to be there.”

      No…no they’re not. I don’t see the Mercy Thompson books listed as Paranormal Romance, nor the Dresden File books. You’re making an error here by lumping these books together. Paranormal Romance takes the genre furniture of romance (mixed with some urban fantasy tropes) while Urban Fantasy takes the genre furniture of noir and fantasy with a bit of horror. That’s it.

      “Some urban fantasy takes the stylings of noir, and of horror (with the vampires and werewolves and the rest) but the rhythms of the storytelling echo the romantic novel, not fantasy.”

      How so? I think you’re making another categorical error here by lumping wrong books together. Most of the NY Times best selling books, labelled Urban Fantasy, do not have the romantic beat when it comes to their plots.

      The romantic beat being- the romance is the main plot of the book (all plots are subservient to the romantic interest, and all opponents are opposing the romance). While most books marked as Urban Fantasy (that I’ve read) have plots that mirror noir stories (a mystery, usually a murder, that unfolds and is the main plot).

      The only one I can think is an exception is the Charlaine Harris books, and that has the romance going alongside the murder mystery, so the two plots are entwined.

      It just feels like (to me) you are doing the same mistake a lot of writers are- lumping two genres together that bear close resemblance, but are not quite the same thing.

      Maybe it’s different here in the US? Urban Fantasy books are sold, shelved and placed in the Fantasy section. Paranormal Romance books are shelved and placed in the Romance section. And from reading both (I’m an unabashed fan of the romance genre) I can tell you there is a difference. It’s in pacing, narrative voice and genre furniture.

    9. December 9, 2009 at 2:38 pm

      Then I will accept your explanation, Paul – although it does point up what I was saying in the post about the micro-tribalisation of tastes. Most non-genre readers probably wouldn’t be too aware of any of the distinctions here – as my US editor said, it’s either spaceships or dragons.

      I’ve read Charlaine Harris, bannered as urban fantasy, undoubtedly romance, marketed as both in the UK, so the lines are not as clear-cut as you point out. And when you mention the Dresden Files in the same category as Charlaine Harris, it does point up the absurdity of some of these sub-categorisations.

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    11. Paul Jessup
      December 10, 2009 at 2:37 pm

      “I’ve read Charlaine Harris, bannered as urban fantasy, undoubtedly romance, marketed as both in the UK, so the lines are not as clear-cut as you point out. And when you mention the Dresden Files in the same category as Charlaine Harris, it does point up the absurdity of some of these sub-categorisations.”

      Actually, the lines can be pretty clear cut, and it’s the genre test you can use for science fiction. If you take the science out, do you still have a story? If you can’t, it’s science fiction.

      If you take the romance out of Sookie Stackhouse books you STILL have a story. Not much of one, but the murder mystery is the primary story, not the romance. So it’s not a romance.

      I think one of the best writers in the genre lists the differences best-

      And of course you can find some exceptions to the clear-cut lines of genre- you always will. Otherwise, any genre will be a big stagnant boring swamp. But exceptions don’t make the rule….

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