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?

8 thoughts on “The Age of Heroes?”

  1. You know, Jo and I were talking to John Berlyne about the last point there – the horror resurgence – at lunchtime today, and we reckon that there has actually been a horror resurgence in recent years. The thing is though, it’s not packaged as ‘horror’ any more… these days horror books are being marketed as ‘supernatural thrillers’, complete with demonic private eyes or feisty heroine-exorcists, who don’t so much run screaming from the gibbering terror in the basement as kick its butt and send it packing back to the netherhells.

    And you know why? Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That show made such an impact on the mass-consciousness of the horror-reading public that now vampires, werewolves and the like are seen as alternative lifestyle choices rather than things that go bump in the night… well, depending on your interpretation of ‘bump’ obviously (Laurell K. Hamilton, anyone?)

    And Orbit are riding that particular wave in a Big way…

  2. Ah, but I was talking about commercial horror, and while the books you mention are undoubtedly good, they haven’t really troubled the upper reaches of the sales chart in the way that, say, King or Herbert did, nor have they really crossed over to the general, Eastenders-watching public in that name-recognition Stephen King way.

    Most non-genre, mainstream readers need horror that is only slightly tangential to the real world, like The Shining, say, rather than a world where vampires and werewolves are the norm, imo.

  3. Science Fiction is also confounded by the rate of change- anyone trying to project more than a couple of years into the future is likely to be thrown very quickly by the next socially-transformative gadget – the mobile phone would be a good example of something that was actually quite hard to predict but is now ubiquitous. Something written now and set in the near-mid future could be totally dated in 18 months. Fantasy at least avoids that danger.

    Horror isn’t really my thing (except Phil Rickman, who is great) but I think it has suffered very badly from the whole “target market is 15 year old boys” problem that has plagued fantasy until very recently. The idea of horror for grown-ups appears to have temporarily eluded the feeble minds of marketting departments in the publishing world.

  4. Interesting points. Don’t expect ‘horror’ being taken on now to sell like King and Herbert, as with any genre it’ll change over any given period of time. Publishers aren’t looking for people who sell on that level, and are perfectly happy with its present incarnation in the post-Buffy market, since they couldn’t give horror titles away to the book trade for years. Should they see a new writer who can cross the thriller/horror divide, they’ll be dead chuffed, of course. But any publisher who specifically looks for a King/Herbert type writer with those sales, which come from a different period, will be disappointed. In the same way, both SF and fantasy have changed. In the last ten years, SF has become stronger, with Hamilton, Morgan, Reynolds, Grimwood, MacLeod, Robson, Stross, Asher and others working perfectly well. Again, publishers aren’t looking for the majority of these to hit top 10 lists, but to sell well, and they mostly do.

    Fantasy, of course, has moved on from the post-Tolkien days, with George R R Martin, China Mieville and others broadening the genre. Again, UK publishers aren’t looking for a new Brooks or Eddings, any more than they’re looking for a new King or Herbert. They are dealing with where the genre is now, not where it was ten or twenty years ago.

    As a publisher for fifteen years and an agent more recently, I’m aware that things can move quickly in the industry, although there is often a more organic change, and one thing for sure: no new author being considered by a UK publisher in 2006 will be compared with long-term bestsellers, but with those writers who have become successful in the last few years. Those are the people with whom a publisher’s sales director can make comparison when they speak to W H Smiths head office…

  5. It’s also important to look at the reasons for the horror slump of the mid to late ’90s, and one of the most important – I’ve always maintained – was the rise of the computer game.

    Reading horror fiction has surely always been, at least in part, about experiencing that frisson of fear. And in the mid ’90s, as computer games and hand-held consoles became both more widespread and more sophisticated, mass-market consumers could get that frisson – that adrenalin hit – from a much more immediate, multi-coloured stereo-surround sound source than books.

    Games like the House of the Dead series, which literally threw zombies at you and let you blast them into greasy lumps with large-calibre weapons, provided an instant and repetitive hit without the (for many, or even most) tedious chore of having to wade through a few hundred pages of prose for the payoffs.

    There are lots of other factors that contributed to the decline of mainstream horror at the time – not least of which was publisher’s appalling record for supporting horror authors with effective marketing spend – but House of the Dead was a definite book-killer, I reckon.

  6. John, I appreciate the points you are making from an agent’s/editor’s perspective, but I wasn’t really talking about publisher or industry expectations – more about how the genres are seen from the reader side and the wider societal jigsaw. All those authors you mention are excellent. But I am concerned that if publishers in the modern world focus on marketing for a niche readership, SF will eventually go the way of the western or war genres – which appears to be happening with horror.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.