Monday, October 15, 2007

SF Vs. Fantasy

Mark Chadbourn is still unhappy about the world at large: now he says that Fantasy is beating SF because the world is too rationalistic, and we all need to run around in loincloths howling at the moon for a while, which, counter-intuitively, will increase the profile of super-rational SF. (Or something; the point isn't entirely clear.)

Sigh. I disagree with just about every sentence in that essay, so, if I'm not careful, I'll run on at the mouth for thousands of words. But I'll try to be brief, and just hit a few high points on the SF/Fantasy issue. I'm going to ignore everything he says about wider society, since that's a can of worms I don't want to open. (But, still: I think he's completely wrong, wrong, wrong -- about sources and trends and...well, everything, really.)

One. Perhaps -- just perhaps -- these two facts are not unrelated:

1) Fantasy is currently much more successful than SF in book form.

2) Fantasy books, to put it in less loaded terms than Chadbourn does, are fun to read and attract a large audience of people who love them. SF books are serious, dour affairs that, in his deadening, grandiloquent words "will undoubtedly be read in decades to come."

One and one-half. Uh-huh. Genre works that have a minor audience now will be massively more popular at some unspecified time in the future when we're all less rational and less amenable to the stories of SF. Go on, pull the other one.

Two. Chadbourn is comparing "serious" SF with "bestselling" fantasy to make his point. There is also "serious" fantasy, which often sells at about the level of "serious" SF. And there is also bestselling SF, which these days is mostly media tie-ins. (And popular adventure stories like Anne McCaffrey's "Pern" books and Orson Scott Card's "Ender" series.) And there might be more SF that sold at that level if there were more people writing in a crowd-pleasing style similar to that of the big fantasy series. Nothing forces SF to be serious literature for the ages, or keeps fantasy from being such.

Three. New Wave SF desperately wanted the prestige and seriousness of the mainstream novel. And now it's got all of that -- and the sales to match.

Four. Once you correct for the near-complete collapse of mass-market distribution in the US, SF is only slightly down. This may be no consolation to readers or writers; but a greater number of mass-market titles used to have wider distribution, in lots of small outlets frequented by people who don't go to book stores. Those books aren't in those places anymore, and those sales have been lost.

(The equivalent problem in the UK seems to be derived from the collapse of the net pricing scheme, and the consequent rise of mega-discounting by supermarket chains and an ever greater emphasis on fewer and fewer would-be bestsellers.)

There are a few mass-market winners each year, but even they aren't as big winners as they were a decade ago. It's possible that the mass-market format itself is in a death spiral, or just settling down to a new, lower, level of sales after the recent increase in sales of hardcovers and trade paperbacks.


Shaun Farrell said...

Nice post, Andrew. I'm going to link it on my blog,

There really is no reason why serious SF and seroius fantasy can't also be entertaining with engaging characters and fast moving plots. I just finished reading Hyperion. It's full of big ideas, complicated situations, metaphysical questions about humanity and God, and all the while an entertaining, engrossing read.

I also find it curious that MM sales have dropped while more expensive books are selling better. It might be that television, the internet, podcast fiction, video games, ect., have replaced MM as cheap means to escape, while readers are still willing to pay for nice editions of books they really want. Just a thought.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Shaun: You may have something there; the lingering death of the mass-market paperback does seem to have put us into a world where there are serious readers (more of them than there used to be, and willing to pay more for books) and people who don't read at all, but not the formerly large group of people who used to read a paperback now and then to pass the time.

Whether that loss is cause or effect is up for debate, and it's a complicated question. But those people certainly have found other things to do with those formerly book-reading moments, whatever reason you give for it.

Shaun Farrell said...

I thinks that's a big part of it, Andrew. Less free time and more options.

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