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Thursday, June 10, 2010

European Science Fiction: More Serious Than American SF?

I've been mulling over a quote I found over at io9 some months back from Franz Rottensteiner, a European editor of science fiction. When I first read it, I found myself disagreeing almost immediately, and only recently have I managed to disentangle that incredibly nationalistic "but America is awesome" reaction from the things I actually have a problem with. First, I'll give you the quote:
I think that the great difference between the mass of American SF and the (very rare) European masterpieces is their degree of seriousness, moral seriousness. Best exemplified perhaps by Frederik Pohl's "Gateway" novels and the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic. Roadside Picnic is in essence an existential novel about fighting on and keeping your moral integrity in a corrupt world where life is constant fight for survival. Pohl's novels are simply about winning in the lottery, hitting the jackpot. It may cost your life, but the rewards for winning are tremendous, and the universe is full of gifts. The Strugatskys adopt fairy tale motifs, but their stories are the realistic ones, and Pohl's the fairy tales.
Let's get realistic with numbers before I try to address what I think is a gross oversight on the part of Rottensteiner:

--The Publishing Industry in the United States brought in roughly $35.7 billion of net revenue in 2006.

--Following the United States (in 2006) were Japan (about $10.7 billion), China (about $4-5 billion), the United Kingdom (about $3.6 billion), and somewhere in the mix is Germany (I couldn't find an exact number). In 2006, the Federation of European Publishers, using figures from twenty-six national associations of publishers, reported that the total net revenue from the publishing industry of Europe was about $27.8 billion.

--Popular fiction makes up around 55% of what is purchased (which explains why popular fiction, in all its forms, has so much of a presence in bookstores).

When I looked at all of that and then re-read what Rottensteiner said about American SF, a few things popped into my mind:

a) On some level he's probably right. When you consider the issue of mass production, most of what comes out of the U.S. is what you might call popcorn or fluff literature. That's not to say that those titles aren't good reads or without value, just that the content of their pages is not what most would consider to be of "literary value" (however you determine that).

b) "Serious" is a very subjective concept. For some people, gambling may very well be a serious affair, and reading a book about characters gambling with their lives or money or whatever, regardless of the setting, could produce the same impact on that individual as a character study in novel format might on someone who reads fiction for substance.

Rottensteiner's argument, however, has one fatal flaw: he's comparing the mass of American SF to what he very clearly states are the rare European masterpieces. With that kind of logic, it's easy to make any kind of blanket statement about the publishing industry of another country or continent. For example, if you look at the split of fiction by language in Europe, it becomes very clear that English is not in the majority in terms of overall size. Only about 21% of sales are for titles in English in Europe, which is beat out only slightly by titles written in German. Collected together, 79% of sales in Europe are for books not written in English. If you take the very generalized route that Rottensteiner takes, then we could assume that the majority of all books in Europe are of no interest to Americans simply because they are not written in English, and, thus, Europeans are, by default, very disinterested in having their work read abroad. A ridiculous argument, to say the least. But, even if you set all this aside and take Rottensteiner's argument for what it is trying to say, the whole thing simply falls apart.

One can't possibly make the argument that European SF is more serious than American SF without immediately coming off as somewhat ignorant (or maybe extremely ignorant). This is like saying that American film is not serious simply because everyone goes to fun blockbusters like Transformers, which inevitably become representative of the industry, even though they aren't. What about authors like Neal Stephenson, Jeff VanderMeer, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Crowley, Samuel R. Delany, Jonathan Lethem, Cormac McCarthy, Mary Doria Russell, and the dozens and dozens of others in the U.S. who are writing "literary" SF? These people aren't names people recognize because they're unimportant to the genre. They're names because they've provided something to the genre that Star Wars novels have yet to do: a kind of original, well-crafted, well-written, beyond-pop supremacy that makes the genre so diverse and great.

It all seems rather silly to say that somehow American SF is less serious than European SF. Maybe it seems that way when you look at the body of science fiction literature that has come out of Europe and made its mark in America. If you look at just that, then, yes, of course European SF looks remarkably serious by comparison. But that's like saying that translated fiction in the U.S. is somehow representative of the publishing industries of other countries, which is something that anyone with a few braincells knows is ridiculous. American SF may very well have a vibrant popcorn fiction market, but it has an equally powerful and vibrant non-popcorn streak too, and it's only invisible if you're not really looking.

Sources:The io9 Article
Parapublishing Book Industry Statistics
European Book Publishing Statistics (pdf)
The Field of Japanese Publishing (pdf)

P.S.: I've taken the liberty of using current (as of 6/9/10) currency rates to figure out the dollar equivalent of the various figures listed above. Those rates were likely different at the time of the report and at the time of sales, so there are obviously some discrepancies present in this post.

P.S.S.: I would love to include statistics for the number of books published in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, but I currently don't have the time, nor the resources, to disentangle all of the factors that play a part in those numbers (for example, cutting out reprints and books originally published in one country, and then brought over and published by the foreign arm of the same publishing company, such as what happens between the U.S. and the U.K., and so on).

P.S.S.S.: I'm not saying that Star Wars novels don't add something to the genre or aren't well-written. I'm simply saying that Star Wars novels are not, as of right now, going to influence school curriculum or change how we think about genre fiction. They will absolutely change how we think about Star Wars and the movies and so on, but that's a different thing entirely.

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  1. Terrific post and very thought provoking. I think your arguments against Rottensteiner are spot on. Especially the one about what constitutes 'serious' sci-fi.

    I happen to like like British fiction quite a bit, and I agree that there are many masterpieces. However, your list of American authors is equally compelling.

    Nice job!

  2. Well, I think England is a country you'd have to separate from the rest of Europe simply because they have a vibrant book industry that includes a lot of the stuff I assume Rottensteiner would consider to be "not serious."

    That said, there are a lot of great British authors of "serious" SF :P. Adam Roberts and so on.