Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Separating SF and Fantasy in bookstores

Got asked by a newspaper reporter in New Jersey today to comment on the "nuts" idea that a local bookseller had divided science fiction and fantasy into separate sections. Here's what I had to say:

Actually, it's not nuts at all -- nuts was when Ottawa's House of Speculative Fiction separated the male and female authors into two sections (although it was a great conversation starter!).

And, in fact, there's good precedent. Chapters/Indigo -- Canada's largest bookstore chain -- always separates science fiction and fantasy into different sections. It's an accident of US publishing history that the two genres are thought of as related: as it happens, it was Donald A. Wollheim, an SF editor, who brought out the first US edition of what was then a unique work, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. If someone else had scooped that up first, the two genres would never have been commingled.

And, really, SF has always had a lot more in common with mystery than with fantasy. Both SF and mystery prize rational thinking and deduction, and require the reader to pick up clues about what's really going on as they read the story. Fantasy and SF, on the other hand, are diametrically opposed: one is reasoned, careful extrapolation of things that really could happen; the other, by definition, deals with things that never could happen.

So, more power to your bookseller!

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At January 31, 2007 3:57 PM , Anonymous Jim Shannon said...

Hi Rob, me again. Audrey's books downtown where I go to special order keeps their science fiction and fantasy all together but has a special section called Fantasy. Strange. That's why I like Chapters because they separate the genres but I also like to support the local independent bookstores to.

Pardon me if this isn't sounding politically correct but I don't see many women writing science fiction these days. Women(as it seems to me)mainly write Fantasy. It's a shame because I've read some great women SF authors, like Karen Traviss and and Julie E Czerneda to name a few. The ladies of SciFi offer a unique and refreshing perspective to the genre. I wish there were more women writing SF today especially here in Canada but as far as separating male authors from female authors, that's nuts.

At January 31, 2007 5:28 PM , Blogger SRMcEvoy said...

As a former bookseller at Chapters you statement is false. Some stores seperate the two genre's of Sci/Fi and Fantasy and some do not depending on the market and the size of those section in store. For example the Kitchener (Gateway) Chapters has had them seperate since the store opened. Where Waterloo Chapters has not. There stores have different ratings and the size of sections and specific sections are controlled by that.

At January 31, 2007 5:37 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

I stand (slightly) corrected. Thanks! :)

At February 01, 2007 9:16 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

And I will admit to some confusion on the part of Chapters / Indigo. Here's the Google AdSense ad they placed using my name as keywords:

Author Robert Sawyer
Shop for his latest fantasy novel
Free shipping on orders over $39!

I, of course, have never written a fantasy novel -- I guess that's why it's free to ship it. :)

At February 01, 2007 2:39 PM , Anonymous James Enge said...

You wrote (in part): "It's an accident of US publishing history that the two genres are thought of as related: as it happens, it was Donald A. Wollheim, an SF editor, who brought out the first US edition of what was then a unique work, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. If someone else had scooped that up first, the two genres would never have been commingled."

I don't by any means want to flame you, but this simply isn't true. You might want to look a little earlier, at say Campbell's magazines Unknown and Astounding, or even earlier at the science fantasy published in the Munsey magazines.

On the rationality of fantasy, see Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories."

At February 01, 2007 10:03 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, James. I was implicitly talking about BOOK publishing (the reporter's question was about sections in a bookstore), but you make my point for me. ASTOUNDING and UNKNOWN kept the two genres separate (why otherwise have the two magazines, with clearly different editorial thrusts?).

Yes, Campbell happened to edit both; lots of pulp editors also edited western, mystery, romance, etc., without them being the same thing (and my own editor, Dave Hartwell, edits maintstream for Forge as well as SF and F for Tor).


At February 02, 2007 3:53 PM , Blogger spatterlight said...

Our notions of what “really could happen” are open to constant revision. I guess you're defining the process of writing sf by the writer's attempts to draw from only cutting-edge physical theories not yet falsified. (When science stops being provisional, of course, it becomes theology.)

But this is impossible. We don't just extrapolate from science's findings; we extrapolate from what our imaginations comprehend, of which all scientific knowledge is only a potential subset. Otherwise an innovative solution to an Einstein field equation would qualify as science fiction. Such a solution might potentially be part of a decent sf story, but if it were just grafted onto a stock setting with superficial, predictable characterization, it'd be terrible sf, not just terrible literature.

Wormholes are physically possible, given a long list of hypothetical preconditions? So what. Nobody who's ever read a decent story will sit back and applaud a bare hypothesis like that. What do wormholes mean in the context of the characters' experience? What do they mean to the reader's hearts? Even the writer of hardest sf (the sf writer most willing to limit her working imagination) must ground and interpret the science that inspires her storytelling.

Also, doesn't science include psychology (and biology, sociology and anthropology)? Isn't every situation unique? If you grant that, then most every story ever written is sf – extrapolating from the sophisticated, continually unfalsified models of human behavior we carry around with us in our heads. If you don't, then you're excommunicating authors tall as James Tiptree Jr. and Ursula K. Le Guin. I'm not trying to propose a definition of sf or fantasy – I'm skeptical that any definition is possible, because the concepts within are too vibrant – just pointing out some cracks around your definition's edges.

Greg Bear says (in the introduction to Collected Short Stories, if I remember right) that all literature's fantasy, because we don't understand our hearts. Gene Wolfe's argued eloquently (Castle of Days) that sf's a “chrome-plated” genre of fantasy. But read his novels – ignoring the easy division between sf and fantasy, integrating everything his mind can come up with, he's made the greatest novels of our time.

I've spent way too long on this – still need some breakfast, and your eyes are probably tired. But on which side of the bookstore does Wolfe's Book of the New Sun go? Or Walter M. Miller's Canticle For Liebowitz, which drops the immortal Wandering Jew into a physically, historically and psychologically rigorous post-apocalyptic landscape? Or China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, with its protagonist, Isaac dan der Grimnebulin, practicing biochemistry (while his roommate does computer science) in a thoroughly fantastic, bizarre world? Jack Vance's Dying Earth? Would you call Le Guin's Earthsea cycle irrational, or Delany's Neveryona fantasies, or R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy? You're dismissing Borges, even. The century's best fantasists have produced a lot of evidence, and it's not in your favor.


Martin Hazelbower

At February 02, 2007 4:25 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Oh, don't be silly, Martin. It's a two-sentence sound bite for an interview. Of course it's not comprehensive. I've got tens of thousands of words about SF on my website, not to mention over a million published words of my own SF; go read that, for starters, if you want to debate what I think about SF. Or, for that matter, come to the Library of Congress on April 19, when I'm giving a talk about my views on SF.

If the newspaper in question had given me the wordcount you've taken on this topic, I would have said all sorts of things that shaded and contrasted, but it didn't, and so I said something that was on topic, germane, pithy, and -- yes -- true as far as it went. But that's all it was; no need to get all worked up. As you say, you've spent way too long on this; I spent 90 seconds out of my day to respond quickly to a request from a reporter for a cute article about a bookseller's seemingly eccentric decision. Chill, dude.

At February 03, 2007 2:25 AM , Blogger Farah said...

Sorry Rob but the division in the genre has been fuzzy from the beginning. There is plenty of book length fantasy published before Lord of the Rings in both the US and the UK. Peake and Stapledon in the UK are being publishd and reviewed in the same way. John Wyndham is both sf writer and fantas writer depending how you read him. Horace Gold was an sf writer who wrote about leprechauns in an sf-nal way.

As for your comment about magazines, Unknown came out of Astounding, but it's emphasis was not precisely on fantasy but "spookiness", so that both magazines continued to publish both sf and fantasy, but Unknown tended to veer towards the fear factor (I spent about three years working on these magazines for an incomplete PhD).

If anything, the publication of LotR is a factor in the increasing division of the two fields, rather than in their conflation: it creates a market for the tripledecker fantasy whose readers seem (and I use that advisedly because no one has ever done any real reseach on this to my knowledge) to want nothing else. But *that* market doesn't come into being until 1977. For my last book I lined up the fantasies I was studying in date order--up to 1977 they are reasonable in size. Donaldson and Brookes come along and suddenly the assumptions all change.

At February 03, 2007 11:23 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Thanks for the comments, Farah. We don't entirely agree, of course, but it's nice of you to drop by, and it's interesting to see an academic, as opposed to bookseller, perspective.

Still, in my own (admittedly brief) time as a bookseller, the one home truth I learned was that the arrangement of items on various shelves is all about helping customers find what they're looking for quickly and easily. From chain superstores to small independents, some booksellers DO make the SF/Fantasy distinction, and, although I'm hardly advocating that they all should do it, I do indeed understand why they might.

My comment on LotR was specifically a discussion of how that book was shoehorned into an EXISTING market category in the American marketplace. I'm sure you know this, but others might want to see the "Publication History" section of Wikipedia's article on LotR for some more on the relationship between SF editor Donald Wollheim and LotR.

Again, given the real-world fact that some booksellers really do make a distinction between science fiction and fantasy (including, here in Canada, many of the superstores operated by our major bookstore chain, and certainly some independents in the US, as evidenced by the newshook for the article I was contributing to), then it is fair to ask on what basis they are making these decisions.

I think I can confidently say that the decisions being made by modern booksellers (whether chains or most independents) have nothing whatsoever to do with the history of pulp magazines (I didn't bring them into the discussion; Martin did, and you've added to what he said).

Honestly, try to find a bookseller at a major chain store (such as Chapters or Barnes and Noble) or a typical independent who has even heard of ASTOUNDING or UNKNOWN or Frank A. Munsey's ALL STORY (or Horace Gold, who, incidentally, shares my birthday); heck, try to even find a copy of ANALOG (the current incarnation of ASTOUNDING, for those who don't know) in such an independent bookstore, more's the pity.

Then try to find a customer in said bookstore who knows or cares about the distinctions between what Campbell published more than half a century ago in ASTOUNDING vs. UNKNOWN, or indeed who has read or even heard of any of the historical studies of the SF/F fields (my own favorite, if anyone is interested, is THE WORLD BEYOND THE HILL)?

Oh, and bonus points for those up to a challenge: explain how come Borges usually ISN'T on the SF/Fantasy bookshelves, nor is Crichton, nor (often) Rowling, but justify why alternate histories are? (Hint: all such decisions are based on marketplace realities, not literary theory.)

Then explain why Tor, Ace, Roc, Baen, Del Rey, and so on, actually do put distinct "Science Fiction" or "Fantasy" labels on books; what possible rationale is there for that (and how often do you think the terms "ASTOUNDING," "UNKNOWN," "Campbell," or "Gold" come up at the editorial conferences)?

Why should it be sensible to make clear distinctions at the publishing level, but not the bookselling level? Both are concerned primarily not with literary theory/history but with the practical commercial reality of getting books into the hands of customers, after all.

Again, given that such distinctions ARE made (almost always at the genre publisher level, sometimes at the bookstore level), then the essay-question assignment is to find a justification for why those decisions might be made, or explain cogently why, for instance, chains such as Chapters, which carefully plan and manage very inch of retail shelf space, are making a bad business decision in often dividing the genres.

Oh, one more thing: do it all in under 150 words, which is the amount of space I devoted to actually explaining why the sections might logically be separated by at least some booksellers. :)

At February 04, 2007 1:24 AM , Blogger Paul Levinson said...

Roberto - just dropping by to say hi, and add that, me, I'd be glad if some bookstore took out any sort of Adsense ad for The Plot to Save Socrates - even if they labelled it a realistic story about incest in the South ...:)

At February 04, 2007 11:29 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Paul. Good to see you!
And I do hope people find your remarkable THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES -- on whatever shelf it happens to be! :)

At February 06, 2007 6:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow... there's lots of opinion on this. For me, I'd like to just be able to browse the shelves at my bookstore for sci-fi works without having to stumble over all the fantasy that crammed amongst them. (oh, and yes... it is those books that I, in my humble reading pursuits, define as sci-fi that I am looking for.)

So Robert, hear! hear! for encouraging the separation. And booksellers - this would save me a bunch of time and frustration as one of your customers.

Tony (first time poster)

At February 06, 2007 6:43 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Tony. Thanks for stopping by! And thanks for the kind words!



At February 06, 2007 7:17 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

I'm not going to try to work out ratios of men vs. women, but female SF writers who impress the hell out of me include Catherine Asaro, M.M. Buckner, Lois McMaster Bujold, C.J. Cherryh, Julie E. Czerneda, Nalo Hopkinson, Nancy Kress, Karin Lowachee, and Connie Willis ... and I've been blown away by a lot of talented newcomers, including Suzanne Church, Karen Danylak, Susan Forest, and Danita Maslan.


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