Books That Travel The World (And Books That Don’t)

As I was finishing up the last draft of The Devil’s Looking Glass, I received news of the publication of the French version of Lord of Silence (see below). It got me thinking about how, although we live in a globalised world/economy, fiction is one area where the separations of the past are still quite evident.

The massed ranks of the internet love to pretend only one yardstick is necessary for books. Press this button for good, and this one for bad. Except, as the music industry has found out, the 21st century is all about nuance and complexity and mini-tribes. The mainstream is dead.

Some books just don’t travel well. That doesn’t mean they’re bad books, just that they’re not necessarily universal. Some novels work best when they’re communicating with a very narrow readership. Subtle, deeply-themed, with a great deal of unspoken communication because so much knowledge is already shared.

This is a long tradition of British fiction, and one reason why many UK writers have struggled across the Atlantic, but you can also find it throughout Europe.

Americans are much better at universal communication (unless the fiction is religion or sport-based when it hardly ever breaks out of their shores). I don’t know why that is, although I have a few ideas. The nation and its history is based upon the principle of Big Mythologies, and myth is a universal communicator with its symbols and archetypes. And film as an American art-form (okay, arguable, I know, but it has been embraced by the people as such) has infused the culture with its universal communication techniques.

I love the big books with the ubiquitous themes, but I’d certainly miss those fusty, quirky little stories about forgotten parts of a country’s culture if they came under threat in the current publishing climate.

The Death Of A Thousand Lashes

For a significant part of my working life, I laboured in the print and broadcast news media, and I still provide media consultancy to various organisations. More than anyone, I know how the voice of the people is deeply unrepresentative of the wider population. But nowhere is that clearer than among those who comment on literature for a living.

Antipathy to genre fiction is deep-seated, and goes beyond mere dislike to a belief that it should be despised and derided at all costs as a way to keep up standards. In The Publisher Files, Tim Holman identifies two recent examples of snooty dismissal of genre fiction and very decently attempts to give these people the benefit of the doubt.

There is a line of thought that the majority of literary criticism is a class thing – an unconscious way for a self-perceived elite to control and contain the masses. And to listen to Mark Lawson’s destruction of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol on Radio 4 I can quite believe this – a programme so sickeningly smug, it made you consider a multi-millionaire author, perhaps the biggest-selling author in the world, as the poor underdog.

Many people in genre publishing like to rise above the constant sniping, stating these people just don’t get imaginative fiction. What can you do when they claim there is no good SF or fantasy, just “well-constructed yarns” or “entertaining nonsense”?

But there is a serious issue here. As Tim points out in his blog, it strikes at the heart of any attempt to grow the audience beyond the core readership. The disproportionately loud voice of these people creates a meme that seeps out through the population – that all genre fiction is low-brow, rubbish, not worth your valuable time. It’s corrosive, and it creates an unconscious collective standard. It’s human nature to be influenced by majority view. Buyers make choices based upon perceived value and if they are constantly told something has no value they will choose something else.

That will hamper any attempt publishers make to break fantasy and SF into the mainstream readership. For that reason alone, it can’t be ignored. It needs to resisted, harshly, at all times, and it needs to have the people at the top of the publishing ladder leading the way.

No Elves in Greece

Every country gets the fantasy it needs, it seems, whether that’s elves and wizards in the UK, US and Australia, or fantasy more rooted in the real world in Germany and Greece. I always thought fantasy was pretty much a universal genre, with many of its tropes based in ancient story-forms.

But a correspondent, Julian Wilson, pointed me in the direction of the Uncertainty Avoidance Index used in cross-cultural communications theory to map a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

The index indicates how much a society tolerates the new, the unknown and the different. Germany, which has a relatively high uncertainty avoidance index, is a society which relies on rules and regulations and tries to reduce its risks to the minimum. The US and particularly the UK have relatively low scores on the index.

In Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind, Geert Hofstede says, “Marieke de Mooij has pointed out that cultural values can be recognized in both the subjects and style of literary fiction produced in a country. As examples of world literature from high-UAI (Uncertainty Avoidance Index) countries, she mentions Franz Kafka’s The Castle from Czechia and Goethe’s Faust from Germany. In the former the main character is haunted by impersonal rules; in the latter the hero sells his soul for knowledge of Truth. Low-UAI Britain has produced literature in which the most unreal things happen: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.”

Later in the book he suggests that countries which have low uncertainty avoidance are more likely to have “literature dealing with fantasy worlds” and those with high uncertainty avoidance are more likely to have “literature dealing with rules and truth”.

So if you live in Greece, Portugal or Guatemala (high UAI) or Denmark, Jamaica and Singapore (low UAI), let me know if this is just another example of Academics Gone Mad or if it has some bearing on the tastes of fantasy readers around the world?

Selling Fantasy By The Pound

Fantasy and SF for the connoisseur or for mainstream tastes: which path should a publishing house follow? That’s an interesting debate which the ever-erudite Lou Anders has raised on his blog. When founding the excellent Pyr imprint, Lou and his team took the conscious decision to publish what Norman Spinrad called “science fiction written specifically for experienced and intelligent readers of science fiction, with a bit of fantasy more or less in the same mode thrown in”.

I think that’s an excellent policy for Pyr. It’s certainly a truism that the more you indulge in a particular taste the more refined that taste becomes (which can also be a problem for critics, who, as Stephen King puts it, “lose their taste for pizza”). The core readership of fantasy and SF – the fans, although they probably don’t categorise themselves that way – deserve some gourmet dishes.

But there is a wider debate here. On The Genre Files, Ariel gives a smart overview of marketing genre books in the 21st century, a post that all authors and publishers should read. And in a separate article, editor George Mann writes about Solaris’ choice of traditional covers for their genre titles.

Both these articles get right to the heart of trying to sell books to a fragmented audience in the 21st century, and it’s something the music industry in particular, and TV and Film, are all struggling to deal with. Do you go for the hardcore fan or reach out to the wider audience? There are pros and cons for both. It seems that Lou, Ariel and George are all swinging towards an approach that caters to the dedicated reader, and I think that’s a business model that will work very well for Pyr and Solaris.

But if it was applied to the whole industry I would have real problems. In the music industry, where I worked for a while, the marketeers have struggled. By focusing on the tribalist music fan that has emerged over the last twenty years, they have had trouble gaining breakout hits from genres. Attention shifted to marketing bland fare that would appeal to all tastes to gain those mainstream hits, and sales have fallen dramatically (yes, I know there are many other factors, but this is a core concern).

The comics industry in particular has faced a great many problems because of the loss of its mainstream audience. That was caused by the collapse of its distribution network in the late seventies and early eighties and the shift to specialist comics shops. But the comics producers then found that to maintain sales in this rarefied atmosphere required stories that excited the jaded palates of the core fan – and were nigh-on incomprehensible to the casual reader. Sales fell further, the core fan market had to be shored up to a greater extent, and a desperate retreat from the centre ground took place, that is still damaging the industry.

The issue of covers and marketing is not just an industry issue. I’ve had several readers complain about my move away from traditional illustrative fantasy covers to the latest design-oriented ones. I’ve had just as many applaud the move. These covers are a personal choice. I like design; they work for me. And, I have to say, sales have been much, much better. But I don’t think you can extrapolate too much from that for the wider market. If all covers were designery, mine wouldn’t have had the same impact.

I love fantasy, science fiction and horror. I believe these three genres are appealing to mainstream tastes, if some way can be found to communicate their values to the casual browser. I’m afraid that an across-the-board retreat to the ‘core fan model’ will ghettoize them even further and lead to a long-term decline. The best way for the industry, I think is – to use music industry analogy – hardcore labels for the purist, and general labels to attract new users.

But that is a fiendish and crippling trap for the writer. Once you establish yourself in one pool or the other it will be very hard to crossover and gain, on the one hand, the new readers and wider sales that sustain your career, and, on the other, credibility that is just as valuable a commodity in the internet-empowered world.

Saving Science Fiction

Warren Ellis has contributed to the debate about the slow, sad decline of science fiction as a publishing powerhouse with an interesting notion: that we should stop building ‘castles in the air’, as he says – ie writing about wild and wacky futures – but concentrate on the world around us with an SF writer’s eye for detail and extrapolation…because we are living in a science fictional age. Read more here.

That is, essentially, the premise of the TV series I’ve been developing for the BBC. I think it’s bang on the nose as a way to pull science fiction back into mainstream consciousness. But quite what all those people who love stories about Big Machines will make of it is a different matter.

Coming Up…

New limited edition, exclusive books coming from PS Publishing:

PAST MAGIC — Ian MacLeod (collection) (ready to ship late this month)
THE VOYAGE OF NIGHT SHINING WHITE — Chris Roberson (novella) (ready to ship late this month)
ILLYRIA — Elizabeth Hand (novella) (shipping in December)
JULIAN — Robert Charles Wilson (novella) (shipping in December)
FLAVORS OF MY GENIUS — Robert Reed (novella) (shipping in December)
TWELVE COLLECTIONS & THE TEASHOP — Zoran Zivkovic (double novella) (shipping in December)
THE MERMAIDS — Robert Edric (novella) (shipping in December)
POSTSCRIPTS # 9 — winter 2006 issue (shipping in December)
HEREAFTER, AND AFTER — Richard Parks (novella) (shipping in January)
THE SCALDING ROOMS — Conrad Williams (novella) (shipping in January)
WHERE OR WHEN — Steven Utley (collection) (shipping in January)
PROMISED LAND — Jack Dann (collection) (shipping in January)

Anything grab your fancy?

The Age of Heroes?

Fiction is not disconnected from the real world.  This might be stating the obvious, but some people seem to think that books just get written, published and sold at the whim of authors and publishers.  But it’s possible to map out a correlation between trends in publishing and real world events.  That’s just common sense – we are all at the mercy of what’s going on in the world, and we unconsciously adjust our perceptions and tastes accordingly.

Fantasy and science fiction are interesting cases in point.  Fantasy has always been published to discerning tastes, but the great ages of commercial fantasy were in the late sixties, (slightly shading into the early seventies) with the rediscovery of Lord of the Rings and the Weird Tales authors with Robert E Howard’s Conan in the forefront; and in the late-seventies, early-eighties with books like Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant stories.

The first of those coincided with the rise of the Hippie movement, the Vietnam War protests and mounting disillusionment with elected officials.  The second coincided with cynical right wing Governments on both sides of the Atlantic, great fear in the waning days of the Cold War and even more disillusionment with elected officials.

The superficial reading would be that these were both times when the general public fled from harsh reality into the comforting and conservative arms of fantasy.  I don’t think that stands up, as people were regularly confronting the powers they feared in wide-ranging protests, not running away.  The common thread, in my opinion, was the deep need for heroes, in the mythological sense.  Champions of right (not Right) who could help make sense of the world.

Which should, by all rights, put us on the brink of another golden age of commercial fantasy publishing.  Politicians of all stripes are generally despised across most of the west.  With the events in the Middle East – a massive failure of elected officials (again of all political positions) that has caused a devastating death toll – and the weak-kneed attempts of politicians to tackle issues that really concern the public, like climate change, there has never been more of a need for heroes.  Sales of fantasy novels have declined a little in recent times (partly due to more widspread problems in the book trade).  I reckon a few good marketing campaigns could turn that around nicely.

Conversely, I don’t believe this is a very good time for science fiction, which has seen quite significant falls in sales.  We’re living through another industrial revolution.  Techonological changes are increasing exponentially, with the accompanying societal and cultural transformations.  People are burned out by science or blase about it.  They see its effect in every aspect of their lives, 24/7.  They (and I’m talking here about the wider reading market, not the dedicated fan) don’t want to spend their time reading about it.  Of course, SF isn’t just about science, but unfortunately it’s that aspect that the non-hardcore fan focuses on.

This is in marked difference to the past ‘great ages’ of SF (for argument’s sake, let’s just say the thirties, the fifties, the seventies) when there were bursts of scientific advance that left the public exhiliarated and keen to know more.  Has the real world techno-advance left SF unable to create a sense of wonder any more?  I think that’s possible.

But if I were a canny publisher I’d put my money on a horror resurgence.  With that same techno burn-out people are fleeing rationalism to the realms of the unconscious.  And with the terrors and instability out in the world, they want the more manageable terrors of the supernatural.  Yet at the moment, no British publisher (and few US ones) have a horror list.  That has to change, surely?