Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Publicity Doesn't Just Happen: A Case Study

When Publishers Weekly did its cover story on science fiction (in their April 2, 2007, issue), the lead interview was with me, Robert J. Sawyer. The article, by Bethanne Kelly Patrick and Michael Coffey, began:

Robert J. Sawyer knows a thing or two about the future.

"It's here," says the Hugo Award-winning author of 18 science fiction books. And that's not necessarily good for the science fiction/fantasy category, in his view. "The genre is having a hard time retaining readers who see that today's world is in no way related to the visions SF was peddling in the last century." Today's world was supposed to be about "living in outer space," says Sawyer, "not living in cyberspace." And the cyberpunk world envisioned by William Gibson was wrong -- "that world is not underground and malevolent, but above ground and universal."

Sawyer's own writing (he publishes with Tor) vies for timelessness by plumbing eternal philosophical and ethical questions, albeit in a futuristic setting. But Sawyer is also a publisher, with his own imprint at Red Deer Press in Calgary, where he is challenged to find other writers with strategies that can attract readers in a tough market. Sawyer points to several "metrics" that spell the dire situation for traditional SF/fantasy, such as the closing of specialty bookstores and the steep drop in circulation at magazines like Analog and Asimov's ...

Tremendous publicity (and in the issue that came out the week my 17th novel Rollback was released, to boot!). But publicity like that doesn't just happen. Stephanie Stewart, the wonderful US marketing director for Fitzhenry & Whiteside, for which I edit the Robert J. Sawyer Books science-fiction imprint, knew that PW had an SF feature coming up, and had me send in the following comments to them, precisely in hope of getting our line included in the roundup; not only did that result in the lead interview, but also a spotlight on Phyllis Gotlieb's new novel Birthstones, which I edited for the Robert J. Sawyer Books line.

Here's the pitch -- comments designed to whet the appetite for an interview -- that we sent to Publishers Weekly on February 27, 2007:

Robert J. Sawyer edits Robert J. Sawyer Books, the science-fiction imprint of Toronto's Fitzhenry & Whiteside. He's won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for best novel of the year, and his own works are published by Tor (most recently, Rollback, an April 2007 title which received a starred review from PW). Despite his own in-category success, he thinks the future of SF lies not with dedicated imprints but with breaking out of the genre box and reaching a mainstream audience. A few of his thoughts:

Without intending to, Arthur C. Clarke put a best-before date on science fiction: 2001. Now that the future is here, the genre is having a hard time retaining readers who see that today's world -- with fundamentalism in resurgence -- is in no way related to the visions SF was peddling in the last century.

In many ways, the science-fiction label has become a liability, and the science fiction that sells best -- be it Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, or Michael Crichton's Next -- eschew not only the genre name but all the standard marketing symbols, as well. The old publishing adage that all you had to do to sell an SF book is put a spaceship on the cover doesn't work anymore; oh, there's still a core audience that will buy such books, but it's a shrinking core.

There's been much discussion in the SF field that the small press is the future of the genre, but the problem with most small-press SF imprints is that they exist in isolation: they are standalone imprints, unaffiliated with larger houses. When Calgary's Red Deer Press -- for more than 30 years, one of Canada's leading literary publishers -- approached me to develop a science-fiction imprint for them, I was immediately intrigued, because instead of developing my own catalog, the books would be appearing in an established catalog, alongside quality works of all types. (In 2005, Red Deer Press was bought by Toronto's Fitzhenry & Whiteside, and in the U.S., my imprint now appears in the Fitzhenry catalog.)

This was the opposite of the ghettoization of SF, and it's exactly what I see as the future of the genre: the moving of SF works into the mainstream. The irony, to date, has been that it's authors coming out of other categories -- Walter Mosley from the mystery field and Nora Roberts (writing futuristic mysteries now as J.D. Robb) from the romance field, for instance -- who are having the greatest success with their breakout SF.

Despite the SF writer's supposed stock-in-trade, which is seeing a perspective light-years wider than that of mundane writers, most writers in the SF field seem incapable of seeing outside the SF box, while others, who aren't so anchored in the traditional SF marketplace, have no problem nimbly exploiting SF tropes in works that are sold to a broad, mainstream audience.

With the line I edit for Fitzhenry & Whiteside, , I've been looking for writers who will have wider-than-genre appeal -- and I've been cherry-picking them from within the established SF marketplace. Many of the authors we've worked with had previous books published by established SF publishers, including Baen (known for its oh-so-genre covers) and Tor (the largest house in the SF field), but weren't finding large audiences within the core SF demographic such houses go after.

Our next two books are both by authors previously published by Tor. Phyllis Gotlieb isn't just an SF writer -- she's also a feminist writer, in the mold of Ursula K. LeGuin. And she's a poet of wide renown in Canada. Tor packaged her previous books as space opera; we've given her new book Birthstones a beautiful mainstream cover, and hope to find her that wide audience that doesn't know that it likes science fiction.

Matthew Hughes, author of The Commons, which we're doing later this year, was previously packaged by Tor as an SF adventure writer -- and he does tell a rollicking good yarn. But his principal strength is in the psychological astuteness of his work, in which he writes about Jungian archetypes and the power of myth: we're shifting his market position from being the stepson of golden-age SF editor John. W. Campbell to being the stepson of Joseph Campbell, the author of A Hero with a Thousand Faces, and, again, we think we can find a wider market for him amongst people who never thought they would read an SF book. There is a future for SF, but it's a future that depends on getting more than just science-fiction readers to buy the books.

Publishers Weekly was indeed intrigued by what I had to say, and on Thursday, March 22, 2007, they submitted follow-up questions, which I immediately answered; they also followed the questions below up with a phone interview:

1. Why is breaking out of the SF box to reach a mainstream audience so important? Has traditional SF "jumped the shark?"

If it had just jumped the shark, that would be fine -- at least people would understand what's going on. But SF has instead executed a parabolic maneuver with an exemplar of the cartilaginous order Selachii at its focus -- which amounts to the same damn thing, but in modern SF fashion is said in a way that is so jargon-laden, so exclusionary, and so unwelcoming of newcomers that they simply aren't let in. It's almost as though much modern SF has a hazing ritual: if you can survive the first few chapters, maybe we'll give you a story worth reading.

Here's the opening paragraph of Chapter 2 of Glasshouse by Charles Stross (Ace/Penguin USA), widely being touted as one of the best SF books of this past year (a 2006 title most critics think will be on the 2007 Hugo ballot, to be announced this weekend); I doubt any non-habitual SF reader would continue on after encountering this (and, yes, "Is" is capitalized as shown -- even common words are made difficult in modern SF):
The Invisible Republic is one of the legacy polities that emerged from the splinters of the Republic of Is, in the wake of the series of censorship wars that raged five to ten gigaseconds ago. During the wars, the internetwork of longjump T-gates that wove the subnets of the hyperpower together was shattered, leaving behind sparsely connected nets, their borders filtered through firewalled assembler gates guarded by ferocious mercenaries. Incomers were subjected to forced disassembly and scanned for subversive attributes before being rebuilt and allowed across the frontiers. Battles raged across the airless cryogenic wastes that housed the longjump nodes carrying traffic between warring polities, while the redactive worms released by the Censor factions lurked in the firmware of every A-gate they could contaminate, their viral payload mercilessly deleting all knowledge of the underlying cause of the conflict from fleeing refugees as they passed through the gates.
The readership of the average SF paperback has plunged from 100,000 in the 1970s to 20,000 in the current decade; the circulation of the major SF magazines has dropped from 160,000 to 40,000 in the same period. General readers are devouring books with SF sensibilities -- Michael Crichton's Next, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, not to mention The Da Vinci Code -- but they're staying away from the SF section, and so those authors who want a wide readership have to find ways to be shelved in general fiction.

2. You say that SF is having a hard time retaining readers in a world that "is in no way related to the visions SF was peddling in the last century." Could you discuss further?

Although SF is not in fact about prediction, the general public thinks that it is. And whether it was Arthur C. Clarke predicting giant orbiting space stations and glib talking computers by the year 2001, or William Gibson suggesting that a punk-style hacker underground would be running the world by, well, right now, the visions turned out to be wrong. Instead of Clarke's manned voyages to Jupiter and beyond, we haven't had a human leave Earth orbit for 35 years now; and instead of cyberpunks, we got Wikipedia and Time naming "You" -- us, the average joe who freely and altruistically creates online content -- its person of the year.

In our materialistic world, SF's selling point for rational, busy people had become that it was a way of gaining insight into the future (and, as Alvin Toffler said, reading it would help avoid future shock). But with SF being so wrong in the short term, and so far out in the long term -- technologies that are, in Arthur C. Clarke's own words, indistinguishable from magic -- readers are preferring fantasy: honest escapism, engagingly told.

3. A corollary: is part of the problem that our world(s) has expanded so far and so fast that people naturally look for narrower and more inward-facing perspectives?

I don't dispute that statement, but, in fact, there is lots of inward-facing in SF. One editor I know quips that mainstream literature is about the inner lives of ordinary people, and SF is about the outer lives of extraordinary people -- but I totally disagree. Judith Merril, the late, great SF anthologist of the 1950s and 1960s, quite rightly said that SF should be at least as much about inner space -- the human condition, human psychology -- as about outer space. Works that provide insight and reflection are there in the field: certainly in the books I'm publishing under my imprint, and, I like to think, in the books I myself am writing.

4. Tell us about Matthew Hughes -- is he really renowned author Joseph Campbell's stepson? Psychological SF seems like a very exciting direction...

For many years, SF really concentrated on the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, astronomy. The soft sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology got short shrift. But there have always been some good works of psychological SF, and we're seeing more and more these days.

Like most SF writers today, Matthew Hughes has a day job -- the field has become a hobby, not a profession, because of the declining market share. He writes speeches, mostly for politicians. That is, he's always trying to find the right symbolism and metaphor to allow the person ultimately presenting the speech to achieve a very specific psychological effect. SF often makes manifest what we normally only think of as abstractions, and Matt is totally doing that in The Commons: different aspects of human psychology become tangible characters in his book; it's a very insightful study, and, yes, I do think Joseph Campbell would be proud.

5. You're an established, prize-winning author. Will you continue to publish with Tor? Or will your own works now come out from Fitzhenry & Whiteside?

I actually already have one book from them, my first short-story collection Iterations; that's how I got involved with them in the first place. And I'm talking about doing another one with them, too: a second short-story collection, Identity Theft.

Doing my collections with them makes sense. Single-author short-story collections are the worst-selling type of book in the SF field (multi-author anthologies are the second worst; novels are the only things that sell well). I've seen authors with Tor and others take year to get the orders for their novels back up to the level they were at before the same big house did their short-story collection, and so I want to keep my collections separate, and clearly small-press, so as not to confuse my bookstore stats.

I won't name the people who've had problems with having the same publisher do their short-story collection as their novels, but I will name a success besides myself from the approach I'm advocating: one of the hot new SF authors of this century is Karl Schroeder, and my imprint did a wonderful collection of his short stories, with an introduction by British SF superstar Stephen Baxter. We sandwiched it in between two of Karl's novels for Tor: Permanence and Lady of Mazes -- and Karl's Tor numbers continued to build nicely, with the collection -- which obviously sold many fewer copies, as collections do -- having no negative impact on his novel numbers.

But I'm going to leave my novels with a major publisher, for several reasons. First, of course, Fitzhenry & Whiteside is branding its SF as "Robert J. Sawyer Books" -- which was their idea, not mine; it certainly has got us a lot of bookseller attention, and major buys for all our titles from Chapters/Indigo -- Canada's major chain -- so I guess their instinct was correct. But having a book of my own under that imprint would look like vanity press!

Second, of course, the small press just can't touch the advances I'm getting from Tor: the advances, editorial fees, cover artist fees, and so on, for all the books I've done to date under my imprint combined don't come anywhere near equaling the advance I get for a single book of my own from Tor. I'm lucky enough to be one of the few full-timers left in the SF field (there are certainly fewer than 100, and probably fewer than 50), and staying with a big house is a necessity for maintaining that.

You mentioned awards: these have been absolutely key to my success. In all aspects of business, branding is the hot topic these days, and being branded as both a Hugo Award winner and a Nebula Award winner has been key to why I've survived with a major publisher in a shrinking marketplace. But I'm one of the lucky ones -- I know that. And the work I do with my imprint is a way of paying back that karmic debt: there are lots of great manuscripts out there in this wonderful field, and I'm delighted to be able to give a few of the very best a good home.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At May 23, 2007 3:46 PM , Blogger Josh said...

Well put. The Glasshouse excerpt was especially telling. I have nothing against Charles Stross, of course, but I read his Accelerando a few months back, and while it was thought-provoking, I'm still not entirely sure what thoughts it provoked, and I can't say I enjoyed it as a story so much as printed performance art, or something.

It's ironic that if SF as a bookstore section doesn't let in and promote some more accessible works, it's not going to be those accessible works that suffer--as you've pointed out, the mainstream will make room for them. The more, um, stylistically challenging material, however, is going to have a lot of trouble remaining commercially viable if story and basic readability aren't given as much consideration as neat ideas are.

At May 23, 2007 4:10 PM , Anonymous Damien G Walter said...

Bang on target and well over due.

At May 23, 2007 4:27 PM , Blogger Bombauer said...

Thanks for that, it was fascinating. I think many of these ideas can be easily transposed to other professions.

But back to SF: You've hit the nail on the head. Most people have the wrong idea about science fiction, or at least put the entire genre into one big lump. They imagine a science fiction novel as being like a transcript of a tedious, procedural TV show like CSI, in which we're supposed to be dazzled with the mundane mechanics of science (running a gas chromatograph under sexy mood lighting with a funky soundtrack is still boring as hell in my mind)!
What you've been describing in your book tour lately, the literature of ideas, philisophical fiction -- this is what I try to convince people is the real science fiction that they're missing! This message simply isn't getting out to the masses.

But what's the answer? Public service announcements on NBC? Probably not. Tireless word of mouth will work, but damn slowly. But it does work. I'm embarassed to say that I had never read the Handmaid's Tale until a couple of months ago when you mentioned it on your blog. You were right, it is science fiction. However, if I was still in high school and told my english teacher that Margaret Attwood was a great SF writer, it would NOT have gone over well!

At May 23, 2007 5:24 PM , Anonymous Damien G Walter said...

Its Science Fiction as a label that is the problem. All mainstreaming science fiction means is not pigeon holing a book before its even had a chance to fly and giving it a cover that doesn't make 99% of the public wretch on sight.

At May 23, 2007 7:24 PM , Blogger Bombauer said...

So this raises an 'industry' question. Is it possible for Robert J. Sawyer to get his latest book onto the New Books Shelf at Chapters or Barnes and Noble? Or will it always go straight to the back of the store on the top of the Sci Fi shelf?

Who controls these things?

At May 23, 2007 7:32 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Bombauer. Rollback has been on the "New and Hot Fiction" table at the front of most Chapters stores in Canada for the last month. How does a book get to be at the front of the store, you ask? Normally, the publisher pays a fee for prominent placement; the fee is called a "display allowance."

Hachette (Warner, Little Brown, etc.) has information on the sorts of money they'll spend to help get prominent placement and promotion of their titles in bookstores here; most other publishers have similar plans.

At May 24, 2007 4:12 PM , Blogger Bombauer said...


The book buying public likes to read a particular kind of book (story, style, topic etc), and they control the market...simple economics. The SF book 'industry' cannot change what people want to read, but it needs to convince people that SF novels do, in fact, contain subject matter that they will enjoy!

RJ Sawyer has reached a level in his career at which his publishers will back him and his books, and finance marketing and in store placement. His work will catch the attention of more consumers who might not normally go to the SF section.

(I'm just thinking with my fingers....not a very worthwhile comment really)

At May 25, 2007 9:04 AM , Blogger SF said...

I wonder how much the decline in average sales for paperbacks has to do with the market expanding? I having trouble finding stats for earlier years (and I should be getting to paying work anyway), but my perception certainly is that I was doing a much better job of "keeping up with the field" in the 80s than I am in the 00s.

A quick check of the Hugo Awards lists shows that I read at least half of the nominated novels every year from 82-87, whereas I've only read 7 total from 2000-2006, and almost all of those were fantasy. I think the number of new SF/F books I buy has stayed pretty constant over time, so it definitely feels like there are a lot more of them out there now...

At May 25, 2007 10:34 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Interesting thoughts, SF! Certainly the combined field of SF plus fantasy has expanded, although I don't know whether SF per se has gotten substantially bigger. And it's also probably true that selling 100,000 paperbacks was only marginally profitable for a publisher back then, but now, thanks to new technologies streamlining the publishing process, and to higher cover prices, selling 20,000 is marginally profitable for the publisher today, even if authors can't make livings selling at that level.

At May 25, 2007 11:39 AM , Blogger Ryan Oakley said...

I blame a mixture of inept marketing and - along the same lines - awful, childish covers. Let's face it, for most people books are accesories. We're social animals and everything about us communicates something.

As sad as it is, book covers speak not only to the book but to the reader. They say something; usually to the opposite sex. It doesn't matter how good a book is if people are embarrassed to pull it out on public transit.

(This is also why I think digital reading is taking so long to catch on and never will in its current form. Barring some sort of white headphone, iPod type hype, these little black boxes just don't afford the same oppourtunity for self expression or for someone to say: "Hey, I read that.")

The SF books that do the best are the ones that have the nicest, most adult covers. The ones that do the worst have some unironic amazon and a fellow with a ray gun. Or something along those lines.

At May 25, 2007 11:41 AM , Blogger SF said...

BTW, I understand what you're getting at with the Stross quote -- but it seems to me that sort of thing is by far the best feature of his writing! Certainly his plots, prose, and characterization are all pretty pedestrian. But he can summon that vividly weird yet familiar quality maxing out the sense-of-wonder with an amazing rush of wild ideas. I know "Economy 2.0" is going to be haunting me for years.

Now that I think about it, I'm reminded of Cordwainer Smith's ability to evoke the utterly alien -- he's a much better stylist, but you could easily pick similar paragraphs which are completely uninviting to casual reading from his best works. Look at the first two paragraphs of "Scanners Live in Vain", for instance.

At May 25, 2007 12:40 PM , Blogger Bombauer said...

Re: Digital reading - I've tried it on my laptop, reading novels, and even while using a variety of text/bg colour combinations it's still too hard on the eyes.

I've heard some PDAs are more comfortable for that sort of thing (I've seen Robert using it at readings of course!), but in a few years as better OLED products hit the market thing should really improve. This will cause a paradigm shift in the book industry I expect.

There is an email newsletter/blog concerning the music industry called the Lefsetz Letter which has been discussing how that industry is changing, and how the established record labels are completely unable to change the way they do business. It has also lately been discussing the failure of labels to adequately support the artists, things like that. You guys might want to check that out -- it's been pretty interesting.

At May 25, 2007 12:53 PM , Anonymous marly said...

I'm not sure how I got here but found the article interesting...

Of course, one has to give Borges and his infinite library credit in the prediction-of-internet realm.

At May 25, 2007 3:48 PM , Anonymous Jim Shannon said...

Science fiction has become mainstream and this is one of several reasons why I think readership is declining. Non science fiction readers still see SF as Star Trek and Star Wars and or cliché-ridden devices like time travel. The non-Sf community would rather go watch a science fiction movie with Will Smith then read an sf book. Right now the horror genre is a where science fiction was 25 years ago and the readership seems to be gravitating towards horror. The fiction reading community is like migrating geese and even though the readership might still be out there, they’re just somewhere else where the weather is nicer. SF can’t compete with horror and even fantasy these days. It seems to me that SF needs another Star Wars or it’s version of a Harry Potter but with SF so cross contaminated these days e.g. Cyberpunk, Space Opera, Hard, Speculative etc the waters are way too muddy. Trends are like fads. Another thing I’ve noticed is that SF does not cater to the impulse shopper. I can go into any Chapters and pick up a mystery or a horror novel and chances are it’s a stand a lone. There are way to many series in sf/f. There are few stand-alone novels in the SF bookshelves. All I see these days in Canada’s National book chain something like is “book 3 of the yada-yada wars by Tom P Whatshisname and most shoppers are impulse or month-by-month shoppers. The answer in my opinion is we need more stand alone books and this is where Robert J Sawyer’s imprint comes into affect and the small press. The thing is the small press hasn’t got the “deep pockets” of publishing houses like Tor and Ace. I might be out of line here but these are just my impressions. The small press seems to be the last stop on the tour for first time authors that haven’t broke into the big time and as the SF readership continues to migrate away from science fiction even big name authors will soon be resorting to the small press. The small press as it seems to me, needs wider distribution channels and deep pockets.

At May 25, 2007 5:18 PM , Blogger Bombauer said...

A friend of mine, a coworker who is otherwise well educated, told me that when he was a teenager the only books he read were Star Wars books or Battletech book! I wept.

When I see entire shelves in the SF section devoted to these, Star Trek and Dragonlance, I have to leave the section and mentally/emotionally re-collect myself in another section (like Arts and Crafts).

I agree wholeheartedly that there are too many epic series out there, limiting access to the genre for novitiates. But how about all those times that you see book 3 at Chapters, but they don't stock 1 and 2?! Absurd. They've basically lost 3 sales on the spot.

At May 25, 2007 11:56 PM , Anonymous Jim Shannon said...

"But how about all those times that you see book 3 at Chapters, but they don't stock 1 and 2?! Absurd. They've basically lost 3 sales on the spot."

That's exactly what I'm getting at. I bought Fast forward #1 this evening because I love anthologies. I'm tired of leafing through broken series.

At June 12, 2007 6:12 PM , Anonymous Shoshana said...

Ok, the fact is that I should be focusing on my "work" right now but instead have been finding myself digging through your blog...and relishing the distraction. Naughty. Yes, I should focus more on the tasks at hand and all that. But despite all that, I am thrilled my shirking of focus has led me this discussion.

I love genres. Genres fascinate me because there's this remarkable fluidity to them. It's like they're organisms in their own right: the gothic novels the preceded Frankenstein--often considered the first modern science fiction novel--were grandparents to a bevy of tomes and stories that have evolved from its wake. The fact their was and always has been an evolution in genres means that purity is sort of an illusion. If enough texts come out steadily within a given period of time that have enough distinguishing literary features in common--and the public recognizes this--a genre is born.

Even in the supposed golden age of SF, my sense is that there was actually a wide variety of subgenres nursing their way into existence. As a coder for the genre evolution project (yes there is such a thing!) at the University of Michigan I read stories from the past several decades. I'm still thrashing about in my twenties, so my ideas about the "golden age" (in quotes because I think that means different things and different time spans depending on whom you talk to)versus now is based mostly on what I'd learned through working on that project.

The thing is that while it is sad that academia and the general public can both harbor discriminatory feelings towards SF, I also feel proud that salient traits of SF have heavily permiated popular entertainment and books of more wide held academic merit. SF as a genre, if we define it by textual characteristics and not just marketing labels, seems to be thriving. And not just in books... Video games and movies abound with SF tropes. In fact, Erik Rabkin leads off his Science Fiction Literature course at U of M with a breakdown of how most of the top grossing films of all time are actually science fiction--even if you wouldn't find them shelved in that department at your local video store. Oh gosh, and let's not forget comic books!

So, that's the good news. SF is, in my opinion, alive and thriving and even dominating fiction-based entertainment.

I know that doesn't solve the discriminations and misconceptions the genre faces. I actually got in a fight with my AP English teacher when she told me how it was a shame that someone as bright as me wasted her time reading novels without literary merit...meaning the SF and fantasy I was and still am strongly drawn towards.

I wish I knew how to change that. It is a shame for both the writer and the potential reader that books are avoided based on their genre designations.

At the same time, we as SF fans have the power to influence our own small spheres in two ways. First, we can respect the wealth that the genre has to offer in all of its glorious diversity: some of those Star Trek novels can be amazing, and not all of those cyber punk texts are inaccessible. We also can influence those around us who might be disinclined to explore the texts shelved in SF by making genuine recommendations based on their interests. A person who has designated him or herself as a non-SF fan but likes The Handmaid's Tale or A Clockwork Orange might have a whole new world opened up for them if the right text on similar themes found its way lended into their hands. I've gotten quite a few people to watch and *enjoy* Doctor Who by exposing them to the less threatening "comedy" Red Dwarf.

Rob, if you're interested, I might send you a copy of an article the Genre Evolution Project produced entitled "The Exagerated Reports of the Death of Science Fiction". It's short and insightful. It was published in the Dec '05 edition of the New York Review of Science Fiction, and I believe there's also an article about you in there!

And, um, I'm going to go do something non-geeky now. go read some Terry Pratchett. ;`)

At June 12, 2007 6:16 PM , Anonymous Shoshana said...

Oh and yeah...I think it is a damn good idea to have easily accessible but high quality SF out there. A really really good book can actually make you feel smarter and more insightful as you find yourself grasping its concepts and thinking about them. I've put down some well reccomended books that made me feel like I wasn't smart enough or educated enough to find my way through the text and arrive at the concepts. It's frustrating. That said, when I've slogged on instead of giving up I've also found that it wasn't entirely unrewarding.

At June 12, 2007 9:42 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Shoshana. Thank you for the fascinating comments. What depresses me is that (as I said) it's easier for someone who has NEVER written SF to publish SF under the mainstream banner than it is for an experienced SF reader. And if a literature is in fact a dialogue, with the practitioners of that literature all riffing on and responding to core texts, it's unfortunate that so much of the SF written now is created without reference to the SF that went before.

Now, I happen to be very lucky. In Canada, I get an awful lot of mainstream attention -- in fact, I daresay I'm one of the few who really knows what it's like to live simultaneously on both sides of the genre-mainstream fence. I've arranged my own upcoming affairs such that I now have a mainstream publisher for the Canadian marketplace (Penguin Canada), and a genre publisher for the US (Ace Science Fiction). Although I've invested a lot emotionally and in terms of work branding myself as a science-fiction writer -- and I have long felt a strong loyalty to the brand -- I'm preparing for a future that I hope won't arrive but I fear will in which, despite, as you rightly cite, the pervasiveness of SF tropes, that the label SF will be total anathema; my long-time branding of my website as SFWRITER.COM continues, but I now have ROBERTJSAWYER.COM as a synonym for it.

I'd love to see the NYRSF article; I do subscribe, but I have no idea where my back issues are. :)

At June 13, 2007 3:47 AM , Anonymous Shoshana said...

Is literature really a dialogue between texts? It depends on if the reader is supposed to be involved in the conversation because it’s certainly possible for an author to be quite purposefully responding to a previously written text without necessarily imparting the existence of that conversation to the reader. I read Childhood’s End as a response to themes in Star Maker, and I read The Hobbit as response to the heroic ideal of Beowulf. For me those inter-textual conversations are fundamental to my readings of the more modern books, but I am keenly aware that it is only possible for me to have these experiences because I’ve actually read Star Maker and Beowulf, which is not something the author can reasonably control. It also depends on whether or not you think the conversation because it’s certainly possible for an author to be influenced be earlier texts without consciously being aware of it.

If SF abounds in the mainstream then it stands to reason that even if a writer hasn’t read any SF that has been labeled as such that the author has in fact been exposed to other SF that has been published as mainstream. Some of those works were possibly written by people who had at least read some SF or--more likely--been exposed to SF film and television, which means that there is still some building off of the genre’s history. The tropes that make us inclined to say that this work or that is actually SF must have found there way into the author’s head somehow. It’s similar to the post modern schism between the sign and the signifyer…a jingle without a product, a symbol without a meaning. And yeah, that depresses me too. It’s not just SF that’s suffering…there is this general and unsettling trend to sort of water down elements of fringe cultures and integrate them into the mainstream. What tends to happen when subcultures start experiencing this is for offshoots to crop up, and that may be what happens with SF…maybe, in a way, that’s what the subgenres are.

The article--which I’ll send to you--has a pretty positive outlook on the health of the SF genre, especially as compared to other genres that used to thrive in the days of pulp magazines. If we are going to look at a genre as an organism (a Shoshana concept btw, not something discussed in the article) than SF’s influence on the mainstream means that it is strong, so strong that it doesn’t even need to live in the SF shelves to survive. I think that speaks to the merits of SF, and I also believe that while there is are valid reasons to fear that SF will sort of get absorbed by the mainstream blob that if any genre can hold its own against it SF can. Maybe it’s naïve, but I think that pointing out to folks that they are actually reading and watching and enjoying science fiction can help keep the genre going. We just have to find a way to make the mainstream-a-sized SF a sort of gateway drug for the hard SF…um not the hard SF as in hard or soft SF…I realize that’s kind of muddled, but I like thinking of sci-fi like a drug.

If got replaced with because that was what the market demanded I would cry. I really would. It would be worse than when Disney made a cartoon children's musical out The Hunchback of Notre Dam or when Gus Van Sant made a color shot for shot remake of Psycho.

At June 13, 2007 9:54 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Hi, Shoshana.

Well, academics, especially in the humanities, have the good fortune of being able to set up their own taxonomy of study, so the academic study of science fiction will doubtless survive, with academics saying, no, really, Crichton, Neffeneger, Atwood, and Nora Roberts are science fiction writers.

But the industry of science fiction per se -- the corpus of works written by authors who have directly read and are building upon the SF of, say, Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, and the editors who work in that field (look at the list of Hugo-nominated editors this year or last, and try to find any of this flourishing out-of-category SF that they've ever been involved with) -- is endangered.

Yes, time travel, robots, aliens, and starships, etc., are now common coin (inherited via comic books and movies, and not, say, via Simak, Asimov, Clement, and Niven), but the vacuousness with which they are used is saddening to me (yeah, I suppose it IS science fiction in the first Christopher Reeve Superman film when the Man of Steel flies around Earth backwards thereby reversing its rotation so that time starts to flow in reverse, but I hardly see it as having any connection to the social comment of THE TIME MACHINE, or the religious satire of BEHOLD THE MAN, or so on ). Yes, Eric might indeed succeed in convincing people that endless numbers of things are science fiction; I suspect he'd have a much harder time convincing those actually familiar with the genre that they are GOOD science fiction. :)

I'm watching friends, and very good writers, get squeezed out of the genre every day, as the market for SF-*as*-SF shrinks. I'm seeing some of our best failing miserably at making the transition out of category. And Joe Haldeman spoke quite openly on a panel at Oasis in Orlando last month about how his sales figures are way, way down (this despite having won a Nebula as recently as 13 months ago); I believe he said he's selling 1/4 of what he used to.

Is J.D. Robb (Nora Robert's pen-name for her out-of-category SF) really writing better, more important, more artistic SF than Joe? Of course not -- but she's outselling him by at least an order of magnitude these days. Cry for that, not for the fact that branding myself AS myself, as opposed to as part of some larger movement, may be the appropriate long-term career strategy for me. Indeed, celebrate it -- since it'll give Eric one more author to point to and say, "No, really, he writes science fiction, too!" :)




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