Writing What You Want Or Writing For Living?

At Fantasycon 2010 this past weekend, I moderated a panel discussing the tightrope authors have to walk between writing what they want and maintaining a commercial career in the current tough publishing environment. For anyone aspiring to be an author, it’s essential listening:

(The sound quality may not be great in parts due to microphone malfunction, but it does improve if you persevere. Many thanks to Adele at Un:Bound for getting it all down.)

The panel guests are Saran Pinborough, Mark Morris, Conrad Williams and Tim Lebbon, all horror authors now working in other areas. We touched on why horror is commercially dead as a genre (as opposed to individual novels) and the difficult issues facing writers of SF and fantasy in an industry going through a period of rapid change.

It’s worth another blogpost on the challenges facing all the speculative genres in the coming years, I think. Whatever you’re used to on the genre front, the landscape is going to look very different.

Give Me Some Emotion

A lot of people have been talking about my post suggesting that the more rationalist a society gets, the less it needs rationalist fiction like SF (with poor old Richard Dawkins thrown in as the whipping boy, for a spot of humour). Some have been predictably getting hot under the collar. Others were more receptive.

I grew up reading SF. The first adult ones I remember were Heinleins when I was nine or ten, moving on to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. During my teens I expanded into fantasy and horror, with Moorcock, Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and I still read right across the core speculative genres. In those days, SF was the powerhouse of imaginative fiction, influencing mainstream thought, whether high-brow or low. Fantasy as a genre – even with Tolkien behind it – was clutching on to the coat-tails, and horror was barely seen.

But now things have changed. The tribalist SF readers like to proclaim that although influence and sales have declined, they still have the high ground – the better writing, the more rigorous ideas. And the better literary pretension, of course. Yet fantasy is now much more effective at communicating with a wider readership, and reaching out to people from different walks of life.

There are numerous, complex reasons for changes on this scale. One is indeed that people read books to get what they don’t have – new ideas, information, experience, and, increasingly, irrationality. Another is certainly that in some areas SF has grown more insular and inward-looking, like a group of gourmands sneering at everyone else eating pizza. But one important reason is that a significant part of SF has forgotten what is the engine of communication in story-telling – emotion.

I’m also a screenwriter in the TV industry, and at every script meeting, the cry goes up, ’emotion, emotion, emotion’. The emotional heart of every story is the point of connect for viewers or readers, and allows them to take on board the big ideas, the themes, that lie within. Big ideas alone are not enough. Everybody in TV today understands this. It’s the reason why the current series of Dr Who has been such a success. Russell T Davies, the show runner, received his TV training on soaps, and took the decision to infuse emotion into the core of the new series concept. It’s the reason why Battlestar Galactica is such a success, and the reason why most TV and film SF connects with a wider audience.

Fantasy – which comes more from the heart than the head – instinctively understands this too. So does horror. But SF has always loved its big ideas and these days in the literary world, I feel, is loving them much, much more than the humanity it wants to care about those ideas. This isn’t really a different argument to the ‘rational society needing irrational dreams’ one. It’s about the balance between head and heart. People don’t want an academic lecture. They want to feel why they should care.

I used to get that in my early SF reading – maybe not so much in Asimov, but certainly in the broad thrust of the genre. Or am I misremembering? Or perhaps modern SF really is concentrating on humanity and using emotion to piggyback those big ideas into the minds of the wider population, and I’m just not reading those books. Put me right…I’m sure you will…

Zombie Alert

Apparently horror is going to be the big literary trend for 2007. One highlight to look out for is Heart Shaped Box by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill out next month (and, boy, is he going to be sick of that tag in a few months time – no wonder he kept it a secret for ten years). Great writer, and I have to say, a thoroughly nice bloke.

Lots of other names coming through too, from most of the major publishing houses. The genre has been moribund in the UK for going on ten years now so it’s about time for a resurgence.