Roundtable: Genre Accessibility

Karen Burnham

What Nora’s saying makes a lot of sense to me. The success of Paolo’s Windup Girl, as Paul DiFi points out, also bears out the argument that depicting a wider and more diverse (less US/Euro-centric) world helps attract a wider audience. I keep hoping that Ian McDonald will break through for similar reasons, and when some people were comparing The Dervish House to The DaVinci Code my hopes raised even higher. But it doesn’t seem to have happened for him yet–maybe the nanotech plot of Dervish House is still a little inaccessible.

I’m thinking that both Paolo and Kelly Link (both gaining wider attention in part thanks to Lev Grossman at TIME magazine) are published by smaller presses. Does anyone think that the different styles of the different publishing houses has any bearing on what ‘crosses over’ and what doesn’t? Is it easier for small presses to bring out the kind of flexible works that have a higher chance of attracting a more literary, more diverse audience?

Cecelia Holland

Karen’s remarks on the differences in outlook between small and large presses touch on a major issue right now anyway–the hidebound caution (not to say suicidal inability to adjust) of the big guys vs. the flexibility of the little guys. Some of them anyway. Then there’s electronic publishing.

Gary K. Wolfe

First, I think we need to separate the whole YA field from the question of adult fiction. Looking at the current NY Times bestseller lists, the only names I can find in the top 20 adult bestsellers are George R.R. Martin and Jim Butcher, and both are fantasies or paranormals (I didn’t see any science fiction at all). The “children’s” list (which in NYT parlance includes YA) shows 5 out of the top 10 titles for chapter books are fantasies, and 6 of the top 10 series (including, of course, Rowling and Riordan). It seems to me YA readers have always been more open to the fantastic, and this goes back way before Rowling to include names like L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and probably even E.B. White.

That said, there may be something to Nora’s point about SF (more than fantasy) having become too self-referential, or possibly having set the entry bar a little high, leaving new readers to feel like the uninitiated. I think I get a sense of this occasionally when I go to a jazz club with an aficionado who can effortlessly compare a new horn player with something Chet Baker did in 1958, and I just find myself nodding amicably. And I also agree that reinventing some of these tropes from new perspectives–Caribbean, African, Latin American, or whatever–can be a way of revitalizing them and possibly bringing in new audiences. But, from my experience with my own students, some of these new readers aren’t even aware that they are reading SF; I’ve had students who see Octavia Butler solely as an African-American writer, or Nalo Hopkinson solely in terms of postcolonialism.

Like jazz, I think SF sometimes suffers from its own sophistication. Sometimes the factors that lead SF writers to be skeptical of a novel like McCarthy’s The Road–that it covers territory we’ve often seen before–are the very same factors that attract non-SF readers to it: there’s no entry exam, no particular awareness of an earlier tradition, but rather returning the concept to ground zero. Nor was there much very new in Justin Cronin’s The Passage last year, but that didn’t prevent it from becoming a bestseller. But when SF writers produce what I think of as accessible “entry-level” novels–Robert Charles Wilson and Jack McDevitt come to mind–they almost never break out in the way we’re talking about. There’s still a publishing and marketing ghetto, whether we like it or not. My students, few of them SF fans, were stunned at what a good novel Wilson’s Spin was in purely mainstream family-saga terms, and many wondered why they hadn’t heard of it before.

My sense is that SF breaks out in proportion to the reader’s ability to see it as something other than SF. Bacigalupi can be read as as environmental writer whose main instrument is SF; a generation or two ago Vonnegut could be read as a satirist, and a generation before that the late Heinlein could be read as a new age guru. Good, thoughtful novels about nanotech by Kathy Goonan or Greg Bear may not break out, but turn nanotech into an hysterical paranoid thriller and you’ve got Crichton’s Prey. I don’t entirely agree with Charles Brown’s “lowest common denominator” thesis, but I can’t entirely disagree with it as well. As long as you’ve got 74% of Americans believing in angels and 39% in creationism, SF in the traditional sense is going to be a hard sell.

Cecelia Holland

In a world drenched in fantasy, sf is too realistic?

Rachel Swirsky

Like jazz, I think SF sometimes suffers from its own sophistication.

To what are we contrasting it?

9 thoughts on “Roundtable: Genre Accessibility

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  • December 2, 2011 at 4:03 am
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    There is quite a lot to think about in this roundtable, but what stands out immediately are:

    1) Nora’s discussion of relevancy and the dynamics of privilege and power resonates with me, although I wonder if some young folks read these books for the thrill of what they think won’t happen and not just to find a space of inspiration for tackling the future. The way I hear some readers talk about THE HUNGER GAMES, for example, is like it is a fun, irrelevant video game. SF crossovers very often lose some of their potential for critique and re-lensing of actuality in the process of transition. But we have to keep working on the issues that Nora is bringing up, and I think that a growing list of authors are shaking up the genre and forcing it to confront some of the uncomfortable aspects that often get reproduced. This may be what we’re detecting in the self-referential and sometimes insular production of new SF stories. Perhaps it is time to start elaborating on those examinations and reworkings and consider how to make SF in particular and fantasika in general not just more popular, but more revelant and entertaining in a more satisfying way.

    Reading protocols keep popping up in this discussion as well; I was pondering this just a few days ago, this idea that the notion that “the future is here” alters both the entry requirements and cultural assumptions about SF. I wrote about this over at SF Signal if anyone is interested in reading more.

    I think that again Nora puts her finger on the problem in the end: how do we create fictional gateways that contemporary readers want to walk through?

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  • December 3, 2011 at 12:46 pm
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    There’s another ya sf bridge from the Heinlein juveniles in addition the media tie in Star Trek and Star Wars books: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

    Currently Cory Doctorow is writing ya sf; Bacigalupi’s Shipbreakers; bit older is Lowry’s The Giver; Westerfeld’s Uglies; if you count the Mira Grant zombie novels as sf; and Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy. (And of course The Hunger Games.) And The City of Ember series.

    Of course none of this is space, and much of it is either economic or political dystopia. (Or zombie apocalypse.) Sawyer’s WWW doesn’t fit into those categories, though.

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  • December 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm
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    And Pyr is entering the ya sf space with Planesrunner this month.

    Viking Juvenile published the Life on Mars anthology early this year.

    Older stuff: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom books (John Carter of Mars etc.) and the Verne and Wells books. Adams’s Hitchhiker books are generally well received by teens. A Wrinkle in Time.

    When I was a kid there was a near future dystopian series called the Desert Cowboys or something similar. (Wish I could remember the title so I could find them for my kids!$ As a teen, I read Asprin’s Phule books.

    More recent stuff: James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. David Macinnis Gill’s Black Hole Sun.

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  • October 19, 2017 at 4:12 pm
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    I don’t agree that there’s nothing YA available in sci-fi after Heinlein. I will agree that it’s limited (Anne McCaffrey, Joan D. Vinge & Orson Scott Card being the big exceptions I can think of myself.) I think the problem is that mainstream publishers won’t publish hardcore YA sci-fi. Dystopia and steampunk are fine, but anything that “looks” like space opera or cyberpunk isn’t. I know a metric crapton of indie YA SFF writers, just as many writing sci-fi as fantasy. Why are they publishing indie? They keep getting turned down by mainstream publications. There has been a tendency to go literary in the mainstream SF market in recent years, which loses young people entirely, and many adults too.

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