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Friday, October 15, 2010

Literary vs. Genre Fiction: The Line? (Part Three)

[And now for part three. You can read parts one and two here and here.]

3. What are some common myths people have about fantasy and/or science fiction?

The interesting thing about Delmater's response is that she offers a myth held by genre readers as a myth held by general readers. She says that the reason few people come to science fiction is because they assume it is "very hard to understand—too scientific—or that it is all about robots and ray-guns, and that it is best suited for children or the simple-minded." There are a lot of problems here (other than the odd contradiction).

According to Terry Jones,
this is how migraines start.
First, people don't not read SF because they think it's too hard to understand (double-negative!). That's a myth transplanted from at least thirty years ago, if not farther. If this part of Delmater's response were true, then one would not expect to find Star Wars or Michael Crichton books on the bestseller list.  After all, pretty much everyone who gives a flying fig about categorizing genres in the loosest sense believes Star Wars is science fiction, and Michael Crichton writes the closest thing to hard science fiction that you're going to find from a bestselling author today.  More importantly, Star Wars is just one franchise with a book series that seems to sell quite well (it's probably the most successful, but I don't have sales numbers to confirm that).  The issue isn't that people think SF is hard to read.  There's something else going on.

Captain Flashypants says, "Gotcha!"
Second, I agree that people do associate SF with its tropes (or furniture).  And you know what?  That's not a reason why people don't read SF.  If it was, then it would also be a reason used to avoid SF movies.  But guess what?  SF movies are often the top grossing movies every year, and it has been that way, more or less, for a decade, if not longer.  The reality:  people like ray guns and spaceships and aliens and explosions and all that stuff that is often associated with SF in all its forms.  Again, the problem has to be related to something else.

Third, the idea that people still look at SF as simple-minded is somewhat unfair to how people view SF.  Yes, people still consider SF to be a less serious genre, but that's largely because most SF movies are meant as pure entertainment.  And you know what?  There's nothing wrong with that.  I may not like those movies, but a hell of a lot of people do; good on them.  SF as a literary genre is somewhat more sophisticated, certainly, but it is only more sophisticated in the sense that literature almost always is in relation to its film counterpart.  People aren't reading SF because they see it as simple-minded, though.  There are certainly individuals who think it is just that, but, again, for the third time, I think the problem is something else entirely.

(To be fair to Dalmater, I think she's right that people view fantasy in a derogatory light, but I also don't think it matters.  Fantasy isn't struggling to maintain a readership.  People can think ill of it all they like, but it's not going to stop people from writing fantasy or publishers from releasing four-thousand trilogies a year.)

The thrill of discovery...
The nude kind...
The problem I see with readership in SF is that there has not been enough of an effort to transplant media tie-in readers and genre movie watchers to the general literary field.  Some of that has to do with marketing and the community, and some of that has to do with the fact that so much of the SF that gets attention seems to be of the more serious variety.  The problem?  That's not true of other genres.  There are serious fantasies, sure, but most fantasy is on the lighter side.  The plots might be dark, there might be evil and dark magic, and perhaps some political intrigue, but overall, most fantasies that get attention are rip-roaring good fun, with some exceptions.  You can even look to other genres, such as romance or mysteries, with the same lens.  The titles that often sell the best are the ones that give readers the thrill they're looking for.  The reality is that most people read books to be entertained, and that's it.  They're not necessarily interested in deep themes, complicated prose, convoluted plots, and other such things.  They want that thrill, and they want it fast so they can move on to the next thing.

This is a good movie.
SF is having a hard time meeting that demand, and that's likely because there has not been enough effort to dispel the myth that SF literature can be just as fun as SF movies.  Remember, people loved District 9, generally speaking, and I think it's clear that films like Inception and The Matrix remain fan favorites.  Hell, I'll even throw Avatar into the mix (it's hard to avoid talking about it anyway).  All of these films have one thing in common:  they are immensely entertaining, generally speaking (not everyone agrees, but that's like saying that not everyone likes licorice).  Three of the aforementioned films are also "serious" SF films (you can define that word "serious" if you so choose; I'm not going to).  SF literature isn't snatching up these folks for one reason or another.  Maybe they've simply lost them to the film engine, or maybe we as a community aren't doing enough to point out to lovers of films that there are great books that would be right up their alley if they'd just give them a shot.  Meanwhile, SF readers who have been reading since H. G. Wells and Jules Verne had their literary child are concerned about the "coming end."

I'm not one of those individuals who thinks that SF literature is dying.  I don't think it can die.  But I do think that it will continue shrinking until it becomes excessively niche if something isn't done soon.  SF is in need of a marketing campaign that transcends the publisher package.  Publishers aren't going to do that for us.  They have no real investment, generally speaking, in maintaining genres.  If SF wains, then they'll publish less of it, and it's no sweat off their back.  Why?  Because publishers will simply move on to the next thing.  They respond to market pressures.  They do their best to control the market (and let's be fair here, publishers certainly push certain kinds of nonsense on the rest of us that they damn well shouldn't if they expect us to see them as agents of integrity--just look at all the political books released in the last decade).  At some point someone is going to have to put up a call to action in the community, and the community will be given a choice (in the words of Robert Zubrin) :  "we either muster the courage to go, or we risk the possibility of stagnation."

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  1. I have a feeling we're going to see a resurgence of Sci fi. It seems to be changing a bit. The lines between fantasy and sci fi are bluring and the technical aspects are less important.

  2. Maybe. We'll see. That depends on a lot of different factors. SF is doing really well in the film industry, though.