Everything Is Nice

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

Perdition And The Deep Blue Sea

with 5 comments

Simon Spanton has published a really odd piece called ‘Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition’ on the Gollancz blog. It is only 800 words long but manages to be rambling, patronising and built of straw.

His central thesis is that “it is clear that we are having a very informed, passionate and ongoing conversation with… ourselves.” Who is this we? I am going to assume all members of what we like to call the speculative fiction community. Apparently we’ve let ourselves down:

Preaching to the converted. Or arguing the finer points of our theology with those on the other side of a schism in our faith. Who is talking to the unbelievers? Who is taking the message out to the heathen mainstream? Where are the missionaries?

Good choice of analogy: missionaries are deluded, bigoted idiots who are obsessed with shoving their worldview down other people’s throats. The genre has got quite enough of those, thanks, we don’t need any more. A more sensible word might be ambassadors and guess what? We’ve got plenty of those too. To be honest, when Spanton writes something so stupid, it is hard to believe he is writing in good faith. Are we really to believe that, say, Damien Walter in the Guardian, Simon Ings in Arc or Adam Roberts in every periodical known to humanity are turned entirely inwards? Not to mention that, in the age of the internet, the very idea of having a conversation with yourself is utterly obsolete.

Spanton concludes: “Where, in short, are the hell we going to get new readers for all these wonderful books from?” Ah ha! It all becomes clear! Despite writing on a blog orientated at readers, the “we” isn’t all of us, it is the industry. Once again a diagnosis of a problem with the genre is quickly revealed to really be a desire to sell more books.

It is for this reason that Spanton picks genre awards as an example of the problem when they actually undermine his original argument. The UK has two awards – one established (the Clarke) and one newcomer (the Kitschies) – that do more than most other things within the genre to spread the good news. They do exactly what he later says in the comments that he is seeking: “What would be fantastic would be if we could find ways to increase that exposure, to broaden the appeal of an Award’s brand beyond that of the already interested parties.” That doesn’t really matter though, all that matters is sales and winning an award “makes not a jot of difference to sales of the winning books”. This is a publishing truism that is frequently trotted out along with others such as people will only buy genre books with ugly covers. In the comments, Lauren Beukes gives a pretty clear example of how this fact isn’t always true:

Zoo City was about to go out of print in South Africa when I won the Clarke Award. It’s now in its fourth reprinting. I’ve certainly seen a spike in sales in the UK and SA although it’s still not huge numbers, and in South Africa it has a lot to do with the local-girl-done-good factor. But still a significant uptick.

More significantly, the Clarke win has lead directly to other opportunities, from Zoo City being included in the Humble Bundle e-book bundle, curated by Cory Doctorow, which sold 80 000 copies (eclipsing all my other sales put together), sales in other foreign territories and, critically, putting me on editors’ radars as my agent and I prepared to pitch The Shining Girls.

As I was typing this, Simon Morden has written a comment saying exactly the same about the Philip K Dick Award. It is not that Spanton is necessarily wrong – I’m sure the Bookscan figures usually do show little sales spike – it is just that this is a very narrow way of measuring things. So I was particularly interested in what Tom Hunter also said in the comments:

SF awards don’t increase sales (part 2). How do you know? I’ve had many conversations with publishers of all sizes about reader insight, and basically there doesn’t seem to be any – publishers seem to know less about their audiences any any other comparable cultural organisation (theatre, gallery, museums etc) So basically unless an award announcement results in an immediate sales spike how are you tracking this?

This was the one comment Spanton didn’t respond to. I am happy to accept that publishers know far more about their punters than me but how much do they actually know? Regardless, it is pretty obvious that awards are a red herring in this discussion. This is Spanton’s second shot at the argument:

I sometimes wonder whether the mainstream and literary markets, even by just occasionally indulging in older genre ideas and treating them with (from religious analogy to art world) broader brush strokes and colours that are easier on the untrained eye, are not going to be more successful at showing to a broader readership what SF and Fantasy can do. Whether it be Audrey Niffenegger, (not Margaret Atwood – she’s just one of us OK? Argument closed), Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Roth, Will Self or even, God help us all, Martin Amis aren’t those mainstream writers who dip into genre actually doing more to take our argument out there than we are? And this is without considering those fantastic and unashamed genre writers, the likes of David Mitchell and Lauren Beukes who are published under the aegis of mainstream houses and who therefore have the chance of getting their conversation heard by believer and heathen alike.

Now this is missionary talk: benevolently condescending to the other side. But it says absolutely nothing. “Aren’t those mainstream writers who dip into genre actually doing more to take our argument out there than we are?” Does Spanton really believe there is a rhetorically obvious answer to this? Where is the argument? We have the tautology that mainstream writers are published by mainstream publishers and nothing beyond this. His final sentence makes even less sense: Mitchell belongs in exactly the same category as Niffenegger of those writing fantastic fiction for mainstream publishers whereas Beukes is someone whose success with genre publishers has brought her to the attention of mainstream publishers. What is missing is any explanation of why this makes any difference to outside of a genre publishing house. There is simply no “we” here.

Because this piece isn’t really about having a “conversation with ourselves”, Spanton doesn’t see the need to make any suggestions about how that conversation might be extended. His only positive suggestion at all is: “But I do think it would do us no harm at all to stop being so bloody sniffy about the mainstream and literary (whatever that means) world’s occasional ‘misappropriation’ of ‘our’ cool stuff.” I agree entirely with this statement. Unfortunately he spoils the effect of having said one sensible thing by immediately following it with classic Them Vs Us cobblers “Yes they are going to claim (in the broadsheets, on the radio; all those places we don’t get to go) that they had the idea and are better than us (just like we do) but they are at least talking to other people.” This is tiresome but in the comments he goes further to say “I’m not a genre Uncle Tom” which is just fucking offensive. And what was the point of any of it? I’m really not sure.

Written by Martin

20 February 2013 at 19:30

Posted in genre wars, sf

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5 Responses

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  1. I agree with the spirit of Spanton’s argument, if not the letter or execution.

    It does seem to me that the culture and institutions surrounding genre culture are in trouble. You look at other forms of popular culture and they are rich in money, attention and youthful interest while SF gets progressively older and inward-facing. The surviving institutions of SF are in need of serious overhaul but are in the hands of people lacking the energy or desire to reach out to younger people.

    As a result of this decadent introversion, the people who should be flowing into SF are going elsewhere. Not just into other media but also into YA. YA is not only building its own conventions, its own blogosphere and its own genre imprints, it is aggressively recruiting authors and commentators from the field of traditional SF.

    Frankly, if I were in charge of a traditional genre imprint I’d be worried because YA covers much of the same subject matter only it has more money, more energy and more young people talking about it.

    Spanton sees this problem as one that can be solved through PR: Attract some attention and people will happily join our sub-cultural niche. I see the problem as far more substantial in that I think that even if SF had the world’s best PR, people still wouldn’t want to ‘join us’ as the institutions we hang out in are rotten and alienating.

    Why would anyone in their right mind want to become a genre critic? Why would anyone in their right mind write traditional SF when they could write YA-SF and reach a much larger and more engaged audience? Why would anyone in their right mind want to get involved in WSFS business meetings and push through a reform programme designed to target younger potential fans?

    We can object to his language and to the way he marshals his argument but I think he is quite correct to detect a stench of death in the air.

  2. Interesting stuff, Jonathan, I’m going to reply in semi-reverse order. Just because.

    Why would anyone in their right mind want to get involved in WSFS business meetings and push through a reform programme designed to target younger potential fans?

    I certainly wouldn’t but someone will or another convention will eat its lunch. Why should I – or anyone outside of the tiny circle of the heavily invested – care which it is though? I agree that “the surviving institutions of SF are in need of serious overhaul” and I’ve put some effort into attempting to do so. But the insitutions aren’t the genre and mean nothing to most genre readers. The disappearance of these institutions would be like the disappearance of HMV from the high street: a bit sad for historical and nostalgic reasons but ultimately of little consequence.

    Why would anyone in their right mind write traditional SF when they could write YA-SF and reach a much larger and more engaged audience?

    There is an obvious answer to this but perhaps it is too old-fashioned: people write fro other reasons than movey. SF is full of journeymen and hacks who will move where the next pay cheque is. So what? The SF they produce is barely readable and I can’t see how YA represents any threat to SF when majority of work in the field is already juvenile. Equally, I doubt publishers are afraid: they’ll expand their YA line as they’ve recently expanded their paranormal romance line and thei epic fantasy line before that. It is all just fads.

    Why would anyone in their right mind want to become a genre critic?

    See above. I like reading SF and I like writing about SF. I like writing about other thinkgs too. What other reason is there for criticism? It’s not as if there is any money in it.

    We can object to his language and to the way he marshals his argument but I think he is quite correct to detect a stench of death in the air.

    Will the BSFA still be going in 25 years? Probably not. Will Gollancz still be going in 50 years? I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. Will speculative fiction still be going in 100 years? Yes, undoubtedly.


    21 February 2013 at 13:12

  3. […] Everything is Nice on Perdition and the Deep Blue Sea: […]

  4. I remember going to a Ronnie James Dio gig after a hiatus of some twenty years. I hadn’t listened to Dio or any Heavy Metal in the interim. Dio was a bit older and frailer but he still did his thing while the faithful gathered to watch – old rockers, young rockers, with their denim and their badges. It was as if I’d just stepped out of the room for five minutes as opposed to twenty years. I only mention this because I started reading S.F. again after pretty much the same length of time and have formed pretty much the same impression. Whether this is a bad or a good thing is open to debate.

    Aonghus Fallon

    24 February 2013 at 02:10

  5. […] breaking down the artificial barricades that bedevil speculative fiction part of the frustration behind this post was that I didn’t think Gollancz were putting their money where their mouth was. Why did […]

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