Roundtable: Genre Accessibility

Paul Graham Raven

To cut back to the original question (which, I would point out, is not an attempt to devalue any of what’s been said thus far, but more a way of blatantly skipping the need to take three hours to catch up on the thread thus far and respond to what’s already been said as well as the seed question – sorry, lots on my plate at the moment):

Has contemporary science fiction become too self-absorbed, or does it still have the capacity to cross over to a mass audience?

“Contemporary science fiction” is too wide, ill-defined and inclusive a category to make sweeping judgements about by this point, I think, but it certainly contains subgenres and tendencies which could easily appeal to a mass audience with a wee bit of tweaking and some smart marketing. I think it worth making the additional point that the “literary” audience is not a mass audience; indeed, in numerical terms, it’s probably far smaller than the genre audience, at least here in the UK.

If so, who are the authors and books that have managed to do so?

I just finished reading Charlie Stross’s Rule 34 for review. I remember him talking a long time back about “pitching for the geek audience” – novels that will flick the switches of the type of people who read BoingBoing every day. And I reckon he’s nailed it, too: for an sf reader, there are the buried references to the continuity of the the genre; for the webgeek reader, there are tidbits of weirdness you’ll have seen people blogging about, plus Zeitgeisty usage of memes and slang; for the average airport thriller reader, there’s a very tight, pacey and economical plot, set in the near future in a way that doesn’t alienate the reader from their position in the present. It’s a brilliant hybrid. (Walter Jon Williams appears to be driving in a similar direction, though he keeps getting caught out by setting things just a lttle too close to the future and having reality pip him to publication.)

There was a lot of talk recently about Mieville’s Embassytown, in the context of “breaking genre into the literary fiction scene” and potential Booker Prize nominations. I’ve not long ago finished reading that book, too, and while I liked it a lot, it’s a challenging and demanding novel that Josephine Average is going to bounce off very hard, and that Larry Literary is going to find (ironically enough) far too plotty, and riddled with stuff that is unabashedly drawn from the genre toolkit. So Mieville is almost certainly inhabiting an interstitial space at the borders of genre and literary, and writing excellent books to boot… but I think that hoping for the “sf breakout” to occur on that front is a false hope. If it’s gonna go over the lines anywhere, it’s at the already permeable border with the technothriller.

And who do the folks in our Roundtable discussion group think are likely candidate to break out of the genre and find a large non-genre readership in the future–and why?

I think a vast number of sf writers could do it. The question is whether they really want to; doing so will mean stepping away from the more traditional trappings of sf, getting futuristic (or alt-historic) in a way that doesn’t take a massive leap of faith or familiarity with genre protocols to grok, and writing pacey books that focus on plot and character in similar ways to the big bestseller titles. To use a slightly risky metaphor, if we think of science fiction (and indeed genre in general) as a sort of literary dialect – complete with its own slang vernacular, unusual pronunciation patterns and rhythms, so on and so forth – all that a native sf speaker (er, writer) needs to do to be understood more clearly is to make the effort to speak in the argot of the audience they’re trying to reach. Y’all remember the reaction to Cheryl Cole on American X-Factor? That’s pretty much what happens when you speak in downtown skiffy to a mainstream audience; only the ones who make an effort are going to get a grip on what you’re saying, and even they will struggle to get the nuances available to a native.

Personally, I suspect that publishing is heading for exactly the sort of collapse-of-the-mainstream-as-a-market that music is going through right now, and that within a decade at most there will be no easily defined “mainstream” to aim for, if by “mainstream” we mean “significantly larger and hence more profitable market”. “Mainstream” is just another genre, or a “vertical” as the MBA/marketing circuit likes to call ’em; hence I’m not sure how much wisdom there is in chasing after a “large non-genre” readership for folk who already have a steady genre readership, the grass may look greener in the other field, but the field may not be as big as it looks, and already has an established herd grazing it as the fences shrink inwards.

Unless they have a particular aesthetic urge to write mainstream, of course – in which case tally-ho, wot?

Paul Di Filippo

I think a vast number of sf writers could do it.

What are the sales though for recent cross-borders thrillers by Greg Bear, Ben Bova and John Barnes, just to name three? Despite any wonderful goodness in their offerings–and I expect a lot, given their track records–they don’t seem to be burning up the charts.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

We do have the case of Neal Stephenson hitting the best-seller list with Cryptonomicon. Also Quicksilver (though not the other novels in the Baroque Cycle) and Anathem. Will be interesting to see how Reamde does.

I’m also mindful, based on some examples I gave, that some science fiction and some science fiction writers don’t cross over to popular (i.e., non-genre) audiences until a while after the landmark work is published. Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy was pretty much known to just science fiction readers until the 1970s, when his success with The Gods Themselves got him cranking out Robots and Foundation novels that began making the best-seller list. Also, but I don’t think Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land was a best-seller. I think it was a cult classic that built a non-genre audience for his work over time, with the result that his last few books charted on the best-seller lists.

Now that I think about it, Stephenson’s success is not unlike Heinlein’s. The cult audience that Snow Crash cultivated poised him to break through with Cryptonomicon.

I could be totally wrong about all of this, in which case I hope you more enlightened folks will correct me.

Rachel Swirsky

Basically, I agree with everything Paul Graham Raven just said, except inasmuch as I’m not sure the technothriller is the only border open for commercial crossing. In particular, I agreed with the dialect/language of genre/mainstream is another language stuff.

I think his much better explanation obviates the need for what I was going to say, which is good because I didn’t say it very well, but for what it’s worth:

Okay, but it seems from my admittedly spotty engagement with what people are saying here that there are at least two concepts being condensed–one, reaching a wider audience, and two, breaking out into commercial success.

When we say SF is too sophisticated to reach a wider audience, are we ignoring books like Housekeeping? I mean, whatever one thinks of it, it’s not unsophisticated. Nor is it divorced from a long literary conversation that much of the reading audience will only have some knowledge of. Or even more clearly with something like Midnight’s Children or Petals of Blood which are both very sophisticated and coming from several different literary and historical traditions.

So are we saying SF is like jazz, suffering from its sophistication, in comparison to… what? Do we want to reach the audience of Housekeeping? Or do we want to reach the audience of John Grisham? Or both?

Rich Horton

I’m (part of) the audience of Housekeeping — Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite writers, and all of her novels are utterly remarkable.

So … is it in a different way too sophisticated? Well, Robinson’s later novels (but not, I think, Housekeeping) became bestsellers, so, no, not really. But … they are still very sophisticated. Am I reading them for something different than I read SF for? Some SF — but not all. Because part of the joy of Housekeeping is the prose, the astonishing prose, and SF has some writers who do prose very well.

Back in the ’70s, when I was but a kid, and some SF — Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke — was reaching bestseller size markets, I had a music analogy. I thought SF was like country music (as it was then). Back in the ’70s country briefly surged in popularity (as it has again since), but not in a sophisticated, inner-directed, way. Rather by adopting pop strategies. (Or singing pop songs — “I Am Woman”, “One Tin Soldier”, “Driftaway” all became big country hits for country artists.) I thought that was some of what SF back then was doing to reach a wider audience.

That is, basically, the techno-thriller approach. The John Grisham (or, more directly, Dan Brown) audience approach. (Don’t get me wrong, by the way — I love really good old-timey country music, and bluegrass. But I have a hard time with the poppier stuff.)

The route to Marilynne Robinson’s readers, if possible at all, is best reached with technical skill, by which mainly I think I mean prose. (I mean, you know, Michael Chabon, eh?) I don’t know if SF’s inward looking jazz-like “sophistication” is a problem in this sense. The plots might be (but hey, Chabon), and there are some readers (Sven Birkets?) you just won’t reach, but mostly I think the ingrown resistance to SFnal vocabulary is diminishing, and as long as the basic writing skills are not offputting, the readers will follow.

Gary K. Wolfe

So are we saying SF is like jazz, suffering from its sophistication, in comparison to… what?

There are probably a number of answers, all of which we’ve touched upon in this conversation.  One is simply the bestseller list, which as we’ve noted may occasionally include fantasy or horror (and much more rarely science fiction), but which is simply a measure of exceptional commercial success.  In terms of who shows up on college reading lists or as models for MFA programs (a very crude and artificial measure of “respectability”), we’re probably talking about the dominant paradigm for “literary” fiction, which still very often defaults to the kind of domestic realism that Eliot and James helped canonize, and that a lot of people still think of when they think “literature.”

A third comparison, not quite the same as the bestseller list, is whatever is currently trendy.  Like jazz, SF has maintained a fairly knowledgeable core audience for decades, despite what the dominant pop music or pop literature has been.  For a while in the 30s, it looked like jazz was the dominant pop music, but it gave way to crooners and eventually rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop.  But jazz fans kept listening to jazz, just like SF/F readers keep reading the stuff, even as its broader popularity waxes and wanes.

9 thoughts on “Roundtable: Genre Accessibility

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  • December 2, 2011 at 4:03 am

    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

    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.

  • December 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    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

    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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