Roundtable: Genre Accessibility

Russell Letson

Also coming late to the party and thus stealing from everyone’s plates:

The ground for general-audience acceptance/understanding of print fantasy has been well prepared for decades via Stephen King et al. (to say nothing of the YA tradition that Gary points to), but there has been no equivalent for SF, despite the occasional breakout book–Stranger in a Strange Land and even Dune do not really provide sufficient training for the range of tropes and conventions that make up SF in general. The dystopian/disaster subgenres are narrower and have general-fiction-world exemplars going back to the 1930s and 40s (Huxley, Orwell, George R. Stewart) and extending through the atomic-war anxiety of the 1950s (Nevil Shute), so even the most skiffy-phobic literary reader can get The Road without stretching. (And that’s without adding in trope and convention leakage from film and TV.)

Then there’s the “publishing and marketing ghetto” Gary points to, which might in part be a sociological/taste matter not unlike the milder dislike some audience segments have for other traditions with strong genre roots or affiliations, such as the hard-boiled or cozy mystery traditions or the historical romance (in the old Shellabarger/Costain/Yerby sense). (I sometimes think that the knee in the acceptance curve has to do with sheer excellence of execution: how many people who love Patrick O’Brian will be as enthusiastic about, say, Dewey Lambdin or Alexander Kent?)

The historical novel has some of the same barriers to easy understanding that SF faces, softened by the fact that one can generally swot up enough background to fill in whatever is unfamiliar–and I suspect that the successful and skillful historical novelist will, like O’Brian, find ways of managing expository information in a way that either stays out of the way or (better yet) becomes a feature rather than a bug: Here’s how you conduct gun practice; here’s how a naval surgeon repairs a depressed skull fracture; here’s how prize money motivates the crew to endure battle.

Implicit in Paul Raven’s comments is the recognition that SF is a family of related genres, and not all of them are equally accessible to readers unfamiliar with their conventions and histories. Wide appeal means managing the Shakespeare trick that Paul sees Stross pulling off: building a text that has something to entertain and amuse and enlighten a wide range of overlapping sub-audiences while maintaining its own integrity.

To return to the music analogy, jazz that remembers that it is evolved dance music will have a wider audience than, say, hard bop that seems to the uninitiated to live on the far side of a harmonic and rhythmic discontinuity.

N. K. Jemisin

Russell, I’m not sure I follow. You’re mentioning film and TV leakage, but you’re also saying there’s no “gateway drug” for SF. (Stephen King? A gateway into print fantasy? I can’t see people jumping from the Dark Tower to George R. R. Martin or China Mieville, but maybe I’m wrong there.) I can’t speak for others, but I know that thanks to film and TV — and video games and manga — I’ve gotten plenty of exposure to the Singularity, post-scarcity SF, mundane SF, and other concepts that are fairly esoteric to print SF these days. The serial numbers and labels have been scrubbed off, but the sophisticated content is there — it’s not all space knights and unimpressive technology like smartphones “tricorders” anymore. So it seems to me that film and other media make for an excellent gateway into print SF. Why people then might or might not walk through that gateway is a different matter.

Russell Letson

Nora: I guess I’m not sure how your generation’s introduction(s) to the various components of the fantastic map onto the print tradition I grew up with, particularly onto the magazine- and paperback-publishing core of that tradition, though I think I have a sense of how, say, Stephen King domesticated the Matter of Supernatural Horror for very broad adult audiences. Some of my uncertainty is rooted in demographics and my personal social situation: I just don’t hang out with people half or a quarter my age and thus have a diminished sense of how they came to read some of the same books I do–and whether and how they see them as fully competent expressions of genre possibilities or as the kind of entertaining-but-superficial employment of an Idea that I still (in my geezerly way) think of as “comic-booky” or “summer-movie-ish.” (It is perhaps partly a matter of my cohort membership that I can turn off the part of me that parses print SF long enough to enjoy, say, an X-Men movie but find small pleasure in comics or comix or manga. Or maybe it’s like my distaste for melon–just a matter of idiosyncratic wiring.) I have written in an earlier blog thread that the tropes of SF have in my adult life spread all through the popular culture space, but I think that the reading protocols that dominate core SF might be different from those employed by a general audience whose primary source of tropes is the non-print fantastic.

Guy Gavriel Kay

I admit to feeling depressed reading this topic, till Gary and Jeff weighed in, and then Russell’s late-to-the-dance (I’m later!) was reassuring and very smart. What he adverts to is the ‘requirement’ of excellence. Rich echoes that but I’m not sure where his thought takes us. No one can put a note in their commonplace book: ‘Write with exquisite prose and brilliant characterization tomorrow!’ (Well, we can write the note, but…) I might differ (I do) as to Marilynne Robinson, but his point is bang on about the rare artists who work with what we judge to be genius. (I’d substitute, say, Shirley Hazzard or Penelope Fitzgerald, but that’s just making the same point with different exemplars.)

So Russell, and Rich extending a bit, make my first point for me. It is possible to write (paint, compose…) anything and succeed in terms of quality … if you have the quality in you, either for a lightning in a field moment, or on an ongoing basis. This will not ensure commercial success, and in some cases will guarantee its absence! This is true of sf or primitive painting or architecture or grunge. Some subsets of art, like sf, do emerge from and with esoterica, and therefore have an initiation/learning curve, but the point at issue in this part of the dialogue was noting that true excellence makes its own rules (and is, definitionally, rare and not accessible just by willpower or wishing).

Next points, going back earlier in this.

Dystopic YA coexists with boy wizards and ADHD children of Greek gods and teens-with-vampires … there are multiple trends and copycattings at any given time, and it is always possible (and even useful) to search out the ‘social factors’ in why something clicks in pop culture (whether 50s hidden enemies among us, or vampires then and now, sensuous or not). But ‘angry’ social commentary is hardly new in or out of any genre!

Jeffrey’s takes us both wider and back to an old, old scrap. The ‘serious artists’ lament not enough readers, and the commercially successful claim to get no respect. (Find Stephen King vs Shirley Hazzard for one vivid version of this.) The former group urges publishers and the reading public to smarten up, dammit, we’re good for you! But whatever reviewer/commentator (quoted even earlier) said that Dervish House was like Dan Brown hadn’t really thought about either book. McDonald’s dense and knotty, deliciously crowded, and revels in it, Brown is need-only-15-minutes-at-a-time conspiracy fluff and sells in it.

So I’d say, on this issue, we need to focus on the question below in our answers to Karen: if this is about marketing and ‘why something hits’ it is a very different discussion than ‘where is the best work?’. The zeitgeist is what it is at any time, and clever tacticians will always, er, tack towards it (pander to it? get lucky?). A piece in this week’s Globe and Mail says there have never been so many fall TV series launching with kick-ass smart women stars. Is this just random accident in Lala land?

Challenging and ambitious art will not sell what tailored-to-fit-the-times work does. There is nothing specific to a genre in this.

And the ‘excellence’ of a gateway, in real world terms, is empirical … how often is it used? Otherwise we’re back to hectoring people (“Try this, you’ll like it, honest!”) and that rarely works … and only when we’ve made shrewd assessments of both the work and the people. This gets back to the ‘what is GRRM a gateway to’ discussion here earlier, and saying The Worm Ourobouros feels too much wishful thinking to me. (I’d love to be wrong.)

Seems to me we’re also still meandering about on what we’re ‘gatewaying’ (sorry!) to … one mass market cultural work to another, or mass market to deemed excellence in another medium (film/tv to books)? The HBO series was a gateway to George’s books, beyond that remains to be seen. And I haven’t even seen demographics as to how many non-readers of fantasy are buying, or if great numbers of fantasy readers (even greater than before) watched the show and are now buying George. Anyone seen anything that tracks this? (The book world is very bad at such things, though I’d bet amazon has an idea, based on buying patterns.) Anecdotally I know of some non-genre readers buying the first book, but whether they go to 2/3/4/5, and then whether they go to any other fantasies is another issue, too.

Meanwhile this was supposed to be about sf! Sorry.

I have vivid memories of the first Harry Potter being dismissed and even derided with irritation at conventions, with a lot of ‘Diana Wynne Jones did ALL of this before, and better!’ Then as HP exploded, went supersonic, it was adopted and embraced within the genre … that’s my sense of it, anyhow. I also know (random anecdote) a Canadian TV producer who was given the first book when it first appeared, read it, liked it, but decided there probably wasn’t a film or TV series in it, and didn’t do anything.

Scores of those stories out there, I know. How many publishers rejected the book? Or LotR?

This conversation branched out in a few different directions, each of which will be appearing over the next week and a half or so. Stay tuned!

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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