10 April 2004

Is There Anybody Out There...?

Over at s1ngularity.net, Gabe has made the fairly common complaint that speculative fiction is not known/understood/respected by the General Public. He writes
No one cares about us beyond the high, barbwired walls of speculative fiction. We are a tiny fragment of society, a single chink in a world-sized fence. We are a tiny fragging crack on the side of the universal dam.
Choose any subculture and you will be able to fit the same complaint to it. That's what makes something a subculture. It may be Gabe is arguing SF shouldn't be a subculture ... but then, what should it be?

Is the argument that Nightshade Books should be selling 10 million copies of every title they print? Well, that would, of course, be nice, but human beings have such a variety of aesthetic tastes that I doubt it will be happening anytime soon. The things that appeal to millions of people tend to be the most mediocre, the most blandly comforting, the most familiar and repetitive. I'm far more interested in writing that is designed to appeal to a small, appreciative -- even, dare I say it, elite -- audience.

SF is and will always be a subculture, because at its best it's just too damn strange for the masses. Some SF will appeal to larger audiences because it will contain elements of other subcultures and so be capable of crossing outside of its own ghetto, but to expect SF in general to appeal to a mass audience is unrealistic.

But compared to many other types of writing, SF isn't in particularly bad shape. And once you stop talking about written SF, you're in a completely different world. The most popular movies are frequently SF films, there's an entire channel devoted to the stuff on cable, and even in terms of written work, SF novels frequently appear on the bestseller lists.

"But that stuff's almost all junk!" you scream.

Welcome to the world of appealing to millions of people.

In our culture, great art is almost inevitably marginalized. For all of the envy SF writers, critics, and readers sometimes show toward "literary fiction", have you ever looked at the sales numbers? For every bestselling Jonathan Franzen there are a hundred writers -- better writers -- lucky to sell 5,000 copies of their novels. (If, that is, they can even get published in the first place.)

I can hear the poets laughing in the background. "I'd cut off my ear to sell 5,000 copies!" many a contemporary poet has said. Ever tried getting your poetry book reviewed in a venue read by anyone other than poets? And you thought getting SF noticed was hard...

The poets seem rich to the playwrights. Sure, there are plenty of theatres around the country, but most of them specialize in plays by dead people. A magnificent playwright I know had a conversation with a producer in Seattle who said he specialized in plays by young writers, as evidenced by the fact that he'd produced a play by Craig Lucas (who, in case you don't know, wrote Prelude to a Kiss and was a new, young writer in the early '80s -- it would be like an SF magazine being proud of publishing that young turk William Gibson this year). If you're lucky enough to get a production of your play, it will probably be a limited run at a theatre with fewer than 100 seats. And, unless it wins a Tony or Pulitzer, your only hope of getting it published is as an acting edition for a specialty publisher, which, of course, won't be sold in bookstores. (Go to the drama/plays section of a bookstore sometime if you think the SF section is bad.)

Compared to most literature of any quality and seriousness, SF isn't in bad shape. Yes, short fiction isn't as popular as it was in, say, 1955, but no short fiction of any type is. No, the magazines aren't selling as well as they did in the early '80s, but that's true for most magazines these days. (And even though the circulation of all of the magazines has steadily decreased over the past ten years, the SF magazines still sell far more copies than any of the major literary journals that I know of.)

It would certainly be nice if non-SF readers knew about some of the more interesting young writers in the SF world, but I don't feel that way on behalf of the SF world -- I feel that way because I think there are serious readers out there who would appreciate the work of a handful of people currently publishing in the SF markets. I don't think most such readers would have a lot of patience with any of our major magazines or anthologies, however, because those are the sorts of things that appeal only to people accustomed to the subculture, and the majority of what is published within the SF world in any year doesn't contain qualities that would appeal to people who, for one reason or another, aren't inclined to find SF-style writing appealing. That isn't a slam of the SF world, any more than it is a slam of literary fiction to say that the work of Thomas Bernhard is likely only to appeal to people who like challenging, innovative writing.

About a month ago, I started writing an article about SF and the mainstream, but I've abandoned it because I don't think the problems SF faces have anything to do with non-SF writing. The problems are entirely within the genre, and I don't blame anybody for not reading SF. On some days, I blame myself for reading it at all. So much dead, flaccid, lazy prose; so many juvenile writing techniques; so little real thought about anything other than gimmicks.

The real shame of SF is that within the subculture, we don't appreciate some of the best work to the extent we should, and we give inordinate, grotesque praise to far too much writing that doesn't deserve it.

Update: Gabe has a reply at s1ngularity.net, clarifying his position. I misread some of his intentions, I think, and in many ways we're starting from similar spots but heading off in different, perhaps complementary, directions.