Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Publishers Weekly Notices We Exist

I see Publishers Weekly a week late, since I'm second on the distribution list for my boss Ellen's copy, and she doesn't get to it until the weekend. So I didn't get to see last week's issue, with articles on the mainstreaming of fantasy and the geekiness of SF, until last night. (Though, as I started to write this post, I discovered that those articles, and probably most of the magazine PW charges $8 a week for, is online for free. I still don't get this "New Economy" stuff, but it makes linking easy.)

There's not much to say about the first article, except that it has very little to do with genre fantasy in any sense. Basically, literary tastes swung strongly away from the fantastic in the early 20th century, and, though fantasy elements started creeping back into "literary" fiction after WW II, they've only become widely acceptable in the last decade or so. (Now, a writer can actually start a career doing literary fiction with fantastic elements, whereas before literary writers got a "You Are Entitled To Write One Fantasy" card after their third novel.) The article doesn't try to explain that history, talk about any of the literary-fiction fantasy pioneers of the '50s through the '90s, trace the growth of fantasy as a commercial genre starting in the '70s, or even mention the explosive recent growth in fantasy genres aimed at women (starting with paranormal romance and moving on through vampire shagging and most of the popular manga). So it's basically back-patting by literary types, who are all happy that they can tolerate a little unreality in their reading, now and then. That's nice for them, I guess, but I don't think the people reading The Lovely Bones or The Time-Traveler's Wife are mostly the people reading A Feast for Crows or Definitely Dead. So it doesn't have anything to do with my end of the publishing world, except inasmuch as it indicates some literary types may now believe what I do isn't utterly plebeian.

I've been thinking about the Itzkoff issue far too much lately, and I may perhaps be ready to concede that he backed his way into coming close to a useful observation. (Though I still believe he doesn't know the field, and so expressed himself badly and confusingly.) There's been some talk lately about "entry-level SF" -- I know John Scalzi has been concerned about it, and provided a forum to work up a list of books that might interest non-SF readers. Scalzi's list, of course, came out of the mid-December kerfuffle about Greg Benford's odd "I'm taking my toys and going home" post about how fantasy is trouncing SF in the marketplace. As always, the SF world is obsessed with itself and both wants to be taken seriously by the wider world and to be purified of influences from that world, so that it can be a better version of itself. Thus, Itzkoff's stated aim of finding books that a non-SF reader could enjoy would generally be a good thing, if I thought he was capable of identifying those books if they smacked him on the nose. (Though why the New York Times would be particularly interested in "entry-level" SF, rather than the best of the field, is an open question; they, and review outlets in general, are much more likely to look for the exceptional -- and compare books to the best exemplars of their types -- than to spend much time criticizing mid-rank titles.)

The best quote in the article about Itzkoff comes from Diana Gill (who I always knew was one of the smart ones), who points out that "geeky" is only used to tar SF, and not other kinds of detail-heavy fiction. She mentions Patrick O'Brian, who evokes a very different world (with lots of detailed technology) in quite science-fictional ways. Thrillers of all stripes, mysteries with heavy "CSI" elements, historical novels, chick-lit books with their lists of shoes: these are all popular fiction categories as obsessed with specific details as SF is, but no one calls any of them "geeky." This is, of course, because isn't the "geekiness" of the details that matter: if you start with an assumption that SF (and, by extension, science, technology and futurism in general) are "geeky," then anything related to that area is already geeky to begin with. QED.

So the question "Why is SF so geeky?" really devolves into a tautology: "Why is this thing that defines geekiness as geeky as it is?" It's all in the heads of the beholders; we're not cool in their eyes, and we never will be, as long as we insist that SF is interesting and worth reading.

This is nothing new, so I'll end with the famous couplet by Kingsley Amis, one of the literary types who did Get It:
"SF's no good!," they bellow till we're deaf.
"But this looks good."--"Well then it's not SF!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually the verse was by Amis's co-editor of the Spectrum series, the historian Robert Conquest.

Michael Walsh

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