Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Margaret Atwood Steals The Bread From Neal Asher’s Mouth

with 6 comments

Mark Newton says that science fiction is dying and fantasy is the future. As Larry Nolan asks in the comments, does it really matter? Not to me. For starters, I don’t really draw much of a distinction between the two, it is all SF and it will always been around. Nolan mentions the death of the Western novel as an analogy. Now, the Western is inherently a more limiting genre than science fiction so I don’t think the analogy is plausible but even so there is something appealing about a world where all the pulp trash has withered and you are just left with Cormac McCarthy and The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada.

As always, Newton is mostly interested in science fiction as a marketing category which is another reason not to be too concerned about its “death”. It does lead to him saying some slightly odd things though:

Literary fiction is eating up SF. Mainstream fiction possesses a parasitic attitude to SF, whilst contributing very little to the celebration of the genre. Jeanette Winterson, Toby Litt, Margaret Atwood – the ‘literary’ brigade are taking SF ideas, recycling them as something new, packaging them for mainstream tastes. And more importantly, dragging the ideas to a section of the bookstore or readership that aren’t likely to visit the SF section. Those sales don’t get categorised as SF sales – just general fiction. So mainstream fiction is leaching sales, and the latter is just as important in terms of the genre’s sustainability. Without sales, there is little long-term backing from bookstores, and eventually publishers. (Publishing is a business, and imprints must react to patterns in sales – else they go bust.)

Literary fiction is not eating up SF, it is at best nibbling it. Based on my own very unscientific survey of the literary landscape there has certainly been an increase in the amount of science fiction published outside the genre imprints. This is a source of considerable pleasure to me (I’m not sure how you could describe their existence as “parasitic”). There is hardly a deluge of them though; as a percentage of all science fiction novels published in a year they would barely register.

Moving on, bringing the ideas of science fiction to a new readership sounds like a positive thing to me as well. Growth seems like the opposite of death. The problem, apparently, is how you score the sales. I’ve spent some time grappling with the idea that “mainstream fiction is leaching sales” but I still haven’t got my head round it. Newton has just said these books sell to people who don’t visit the SF section of the bookshop so I’m not sure how this can also deprive the same section of the bookshop of sales. It also seems to set up a false binary opposition: you can either buy the new Atwood or the new Asher but not both.

As it happens, I agree with Newton’s wider point that fantasy is ascendant at the moment (although, as Eric Gregory points out in the comments, all such things are relative). I don’t think that is particularly interesting unless you work in the industry. None of this escapes the fact that there will always be more books I want to read than I have time to read them. The exact ratio of types of books available at any one moment in time isn’t much of an issue to me.

Written by Martin

4 December 2009 at 15:07

Posted in genre wars, sf

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6 Responses

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  1. As I said, you can moan and whine about the fine details all you want, but sales and marketing is what dominates the literary landscape. What is difficult to explain with casual commentators such as yourself is what actually matters in bookstores – where the future is decided. Of course, I’d love for the debate to be more about art and literature; it’s just that, in the supermarket sales age, that debate has less and less of an impact.


    4 December 2009 at 15:20

  2. “mainstream fiction is leaching sales”

    On this, I meant that SF by mainstream writers does not get registered as sales going to the SF section. The readers of such SF books are unlikely to buy SF from the dark genre corner of the bookstore. They’re different types of fans. And where someone would be once sold as SF (Chris Priest?) their modern day counterpart would now be sold in mainstream fiction. Negative feedback loops. Let me know if you need more explanation.


    4 December 2009 at 15:26

  3. sales and marketing is what dominates the literary landscape

    Well, that depends where you stand, doesn’t it?

    I’d love for the debate to be more about art and literature; it’s just that, in the supermarket sales age, that debate has less and less of an impact.

    I don’t think this is really relevant to my post. I’m not saying that science fiction deserves on merit to be bigger than it is. I’m not saying that publishers should publish and sellers should stock according to entirely artistic criteria. All I’m saying is I’m not worried about particular publishing trends because there will always be enough good stuff out there and I’m questioning one of your assertions about the way people buy books.

    As for the supermarket sales age, is the change really so dramatic? Publishing has always been a industry and there has always been a tension between the artistic and the commercial.

    And where someone would be once sold as SF (Chris Priest?) their modern day counterpart would now be sold in mainstream fiction.

    This is the part of the picture I was missing. I can well imagine that faced with a moribund genre and a mainstream accepting of science fiction that a young SF writer might go the mainstream route. Kit Whitfield, for example. As with the existing number of non-genre Sf novels I would imagine the numbers involved would be quite small though. Even if this sort of talent drain took place on an epic scale all it would mean is that science fiction would be sold unbranded. This is an argument for the death of SF imprints not SF itself and again, I’m not sure why I as a reader should care about that.


    4 December 2009 at 15:59

  4. “As for the supermarket sales age, is the change really so dramatic?”

    Very quickly: Hell yes. It’s massive. That pulling on one side, Amazon on the other picking at range, physical stores are having to compete and that means making the most of the frontlist like never before.


    4 December 2009 at 18:34

  5. Not a problem, I need to lose some weight anyway.

    Neal Asher

    5 December 2009 at 20:22

  6. […] you know what hasn’t been discussed enough? The death of science fiction. Responses here, here, here, here, here and […]

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