Monday, October 23, 2006

Is SF Dead or Merely Dying?

This may be scattershot, since I got back from a short family vacation and should be doing about a dozen other things.

There's a pernicious idea going about the SFnal world to the effect that SF was about a third of the mass market in the early '70s and is now about 7-8 percent of that market (which may well be true; the earlier figure doesn't look out of line to me, and the latter is similar to figures I've seen recently), and that therefore SF was doing something right then and wrong now.

This is hogwash.

The "early '70s" date is a crafty one for two reasons: 1) it's just before the first big romance boom, when the mass-market discovered that women will read lots of books if you give them the books they want to read, and 2) it allows one to pretend that the "SF" that was selling then was cutting-edge New Wave metafictions.

Balderdash 1: No, SF is not entirely for teenaged boys (though it certainly was mostly so in the early '70s, and don't forget that), but it's historically been read more by people of the male persuasion. And before romances really took off, paperback publishing was more aimed at the male reader (business travelers, servicemen, and so on). Therefore, obviously, SF had a bigger piece of that pie. And, equally obviously, once women began buying piles of books, the share of the total held by SF went down -- because the total was getting much bigger. Mass market books increased in sales enormously during the '70s and '80s, partially because of and partially driving the chain-store boom.

Balderdash 2: Dhalgren sold a ridiculous number of copies in mass market in that period, for reasons now inexplicable. This is not true for the great mass of similar books. SF at that time had a tendency to sell at roughly the same level, no matter what it was (as long as the hardcovers didn't offend librarians and the paperbacks didn't offend distributors), but the more "cutting-edge" literarily ambitious books were the ones most likely to offend, and so had the most problems and often the lowest sales. What were people really reading in the early '70s? Lots of space opera -- reprints of Doc Smith and Edmond Hamilton, then-modern shelf-filler like the Dumarest of Terra books, humorous versions from Ron Goulart and Harry Harrison. And, of course, masses of Edgar Rice Burroughs books, as well as those of his imitators.

So this is yet another case of taking two perfectly respectable facts and trying to shove them together at relativistic speeds to generate some kind of nuclear reaction. Sadly, all that actually results is a lot of light and heat.

The SF that has always been the most popular is the adventure stuff, and it always will be the most popular. These days, that's the vast sharecropped empires on the one hand and writers like David Weber and Anne McCaffrey on the other. That might not be what SF aficionados like to talk about together, but that's what moves the most books, and what most of the people who read SF read most often. If we try to gerrymander the stuff that people read out of the genre, we'll quickly find ourselves in the position of modern poetry: exactly nowhere.


Anonymous said...

SF isn't dying? Andrew, you'll get in trouble for speaking such blasphemies. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering, myself, if the "SF is dying!" thing isn't at least partly due to the capitalist fallacy: the idea that any enterprise, group, species, genre, or culture is failing and dying out unless it has defined rivals that it's beating out in a blood-soaked competition.

I don't see evidence of a dying genre, but I'm not studying numbers. I'm looking at the shelves in my local bookstores, and seeing larger, more prominent sf sections, with more authors, more titles, and what matters to me most, more books I want to read. I suppose this could all be an illusion, or an eddy in the inevitable flow towards oblivion, but that's not what it looks like. It looks healthy to me.

Andrew Wheeler said...

There's a messianic streak in SF, which I've never agreed with, to the effect that SF is the literature that will lead the world into the broad, sunlit uplands of THE FUTURE!!!, where everything will be perfect. (Charlie Stross's recent long post is devoted to poking a similar mindset in the snoot -- though I don't agree with all of his points, either.)

Combine that with a market share that has declined, and people who believe in the myth of SFnal exceptionalism are worried that THE FUTURE!!! will not happen.

On the other hand, I think SF is a commercial genre, which mostly exists because there's an audience who likes to read adventure stories about robots and spaceships (and because they're a smaller audience that enjoys more literary virtues). So loss of market share may be mildly annoying, but it doesn't fill me with panic.

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