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.

Is It Time For SF And Fantasy To Split?

Over on the Borders Babel Clash blog, I’ve been putting forward the idea that it’s time for fantasy and SF to go their separate ways:

It makes me wonder, though, if it’s time for fantasy and SF to dissolve the marriage of convenience. They came together in an age when there was a limited number of speculative fiction books on the shelves and the two genres huddled together for support. But as Charlie Stross points out, they’re very different in outlook – one stares out to the world, one peers into the unconscious.

When a good number of authors and readers of one genre openly sneer at the other genre, that’s probably a good time to disentangle them at the level of marketing, conventions, societies and the rest. Fantasy has more in common with horror, and urban fantasy which straddles the two. And that would leave SF to be “pure” which a lot of its supporters seem to want.

Of course, members of the SF community who speak openly about that kind of thing might find it a double-edged sword. Fantasy thrives in sales terms, and those big secondary world epics that Charlie Stross mocks give a lot of bookstore cover to what may be perceived as the more challenging of the SF fare – especially at a time when three senior editors (two in the US, one in the UK) tell me they’re no longer really in the market for SF for sales reasons.

Fantasy vs SF: Who Let The Dogs Out?

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.

‘If You Write SF, Deny Your Genre’

Some people may have missed Brian Aldiss’ letter to The (London) Times on October 16 under this heading. He says:

Sir, At the Cheltenham Festival Margaret Atwood said that writers “are
likely to be compulsive wordsmiths” — presumably a way of saying that
writing is for some of us an expression of the life force.

Her life would have been more difficult had she not cleverly denied that
her early science fiction novels, such as A Handmaid’s Tale, were
science fiction. Had she neglected this strategy, there would have been
for her no more literary festivals, no more reviews, no more appearances
on BBC breakfast programmes.

It is a truth widely acknowledged that SF is not worth consideration by
sane minds. Kurt Vonnegut and J. G. Ballard have adopted Atwood’s
gambit. When Vonnegut grew tired of being a guru, he returned to SF and
wrote such brilliant novels as Galápagos. No reviewer spoke its name.
When — possibly because of my age — I was invited on Desert Island Discs
this year, I was told that SF readers were nerds who were poor and could
not “get a woman”.

(I was very tempted to use that last quote as the heading. Just for sport, of course.) Aldiss raises an issue that has plagued numerous genre writers down the years, from Stephen King to Terry Pratchett, who said that magical realism is fantasy for people whose friends went to Cambridge.

But to be honest, I enjoy that outsider status. One of the roles of genre fiction is to kick over the statues. We should celebrate that.

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.

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…

Richard Dawkins Is Killing SF!

Or how you can lose by winning…

Science fiction is in a slow sales decline (or not so slow, depending on which bookseller you talk to), and now accounts for a fraction of its former market. Meanwhile, fantasy remains a sales juggernaut, with what Publishers Weekly described at its last roundtable close-up (admittedly nearly three years ago now) as a ‘huge’ audience for immersive epics.

Which is strange when you consider that the quality of SF is arguably at an all-time high, a new golden age of speculative fiction. I can name several authors whose books will undoubtedly be read in decades to come, and I’m sure you can name many more. Fantasy – and I’m stating this as charitably as I can – has not produced so many quality works. One or two maybe. There have been a lot of good books, entertaining books, comforting books, ones that please their readers, but classics? Not so much. (I’m a fantasy author – I can say this.)

There’s been some debate about why SF is failing to resonate with the wider public in the same way that it used to do. Part of the reason is that we live in a science fiction age. The wonders that were on the page are now all around us. But to follow that argument to its conclusion would suggest that SF sales should be increasing rapidly as it becomes the fiction of the mainstream, true 21st century literature that shines a light on the way we live our lives today. Instead it’s following the trajectory of the western.

If we look to psychology we may find some answers. We are creatures that are held in stasis by opposing forces: our nature demands a balance. Right brain/left brain, masculine/feminine, intuitive/logical. Plato defined two ways of seeing the world – ‘logos’, from which we get ‘logic’, looking out at the world, scientific in common usage, and ‘mythos’ from which we get ‘mythic’, which mapped our inner selves and was just as vital for defining the way the world works.

Long memories or a little research will show how irrational we were back in the sixties and into the seventies. Belief in the occult was much more mainstream than it is now, with serious people discussing it in a serious way. You won’t find that today. I know some of you American readers will beg to differ, as you face a rising tide of irrational religiosity infecting mainstream life, but those pressures are coming from the outside into the heart of society, and are generally resisted by the opinion-formers and the establishment which shapes the consensus-reality of our society.

This was very clear in Richard Dawkins’ recent TV series where he charged out to attack what he saw as a tidal wave of irrationality from creationists, new agers and charlatans threatening to swamp science. In reality, he came across as a complete bully, using his intellect to smash down people who couldn’t vocalize their beliefs, or even really comprehend why they felt the way they did. It’s a flaw that’s just as clear in his best-selling book, ‘The God Delusion’.

The fact is, his side is winning. Generally, society is much more rational than it ever was.

I’m talking here about subtleties – about the mood of society, the ‘feel’ of it. You can probably find a million examples of perceived irrationality, from the high sales of ‘mind, body, spirit’ books to millionaire astrologers. But those things are accepted, often wryly, often hopefully, but very rarely at the heart of a world-view. Commentators in the media who shape opinion are united in their acceptance of the scientific paradigm. You don’t even find UK tabloid newspapers covering occultist or fringe subjects to the same degree they did in the sixties and seventies. As someone with lots of journalist friends, I know this is because even the tabloid people consider these things beyond what their readers would take seriously.

Dawkins knows this, I’m sure, but he’s on a crusade to stamp out irrationality wherever he might find it. He has stated that any irrationality is a threat, even if it’s a lightly held belief or a half-hearted curiosity about things he believes could never, ever be true.

And he’s wrong. Utterly. We need our mythos. We need our irrationality. We are built to need it. Cultures before ours managed to integrate both into the same world-view quite easily; it’s not an either/or situation. If you’re interested in magic, it doesn’t mean you think Einstein is a charlatan. (On the fringes, some may, but we’re talking about ‘real’ people here). The more people are unable to find irrationality in the culture around them, the more they will be driven to seek it out through their imagination.

In other words, every time Richard Dawkins kicks a quivering new ager, a hard-pressed science fiction writer loses another sale.

Right now, and for the foreseeable future, society needs fantasy. It doesn’t really need SF.