It seems like these days we’re breeding a whole new batch of purists. No, not puritans. Oh, those too, sure, but not the point of this article. The point of this article is that I keep hearing myself cast into the external darkness of science fiction where there’s crying and gnashing of teeth.
It’s not just me, and it’s not just with science fiction.
When I wrote Draw One In The Dark, I was told it was not “real” Urban fantasy, because it has multiple point of views, and while there’s a romance, there’s no sex till book three, and even then it’s implied.
Silly me, I knew it was different, but since it was fantasy and set in a city, I thought “urban fantasy.” Baen agreed. Is it? I don’t know. Sometimes I feel that, by not fitting the niche exactly I hit the fans sideways, and the books are finding fans of their owns, some of them covalent with other Urban Fantasies, and some of them completely different.
I don’t mind, because ti’s with Baen, and they’ve let the series find its fans, instead of cutting it off at the knees. It seems to be on a slow and steady growth curve.
Which is why I need to finish he fourth, Bowl of Red, soon.
But that’s ultimately what genre labels are like – not to constrain you, not to tie you in knots or to restrict your imagination, but to help you find the fans that are most likely to like your stuff.
In the past, this worked with the establishment publishing to publish more of whatever had just hit big.
I know writers who had their book derailed mid stream, to make it “more like Harry Potter” and writers whose books were twisted into very kinky pretzels to emulate Fifty Shades. With the sort of timing I usually have, I managed to send out a series of proposals for historical mysteries, in which Leonard DaVinci invents forensic science. I kept getting back puzzled rejections informing me that my books were not the DaVinci code. The rejections in turn puzzled me, because I thought people frowned on plagiarism and the DaVinci Code had, after all, already been written.
That type of narrow focus, not just on type of book but on specific imitations of certain books tended to burn out genres. Horror, in the seventies. And there are indications that UF/Paranormal Romance are getting burn out glut now. Same with Young Adult Dystopias after Hunger Games.
OTOH you can’t blame the publishers for running things that way. Or rather, you can, of course – why not, I do! – but you can also sort of kind of “get” it. Their success and the success of the books they printed necessitated claiming as much shelf space as possible over as short an amount of time as possible, right when book came out – for placement and visibility and all that other stuff.
It was easier to catch the sex-addled woman coming in looking for the next fifty shades, than to capture someone absolutely new, in an incalculable way which would require them to take risks, which might backfire.
And so you saw books and whole genres being pushed depending on what had succeeded next/what movies were big at the time.
Part of the reason I sold the Shakespeare trilogy was that the acquiring editor had just watched Shakespeare in Love. (I had too. They almost threw me out of the theater, due to an outbreak of Pfui and Pshaw, but that’s something else.)
There was also an element of purist, even back then. To put it bluntly, just like women dress to impress other women, New York editors bought books to impress other editors. “Look how cool and knowledgeable I am” they’d say, while publishing things that no one could possibly really want to read – and making their bread and butter usually on outright sex, like most PNR.
This is why they killed subgenres like the cozy or the space opera. They sold well – they sold reliably. In fact, some of the biggest names in the fields worked those sub-genres (specifically Agatha Christie and Robert A. Heinlein.)
But they were old hat, and not cool and cutting edge, and while they sold reliably, they were not the sort of thing you could push at the just-graduated from college chain bookstore managers as the “hip” thing. (And they too, mostly, stocked the stores to impress their friends with either their daring or their erudition.)
This led to in the early nineties cozies being declared “not real mysteries” because, you know, the investigation wasn’t realistic.
And Space Opera was not “real science fiction.” “Real science fiction” is supposed to either have an overarching philosophical point or a cool new “scientific” idea.
Of course, none of those sold as well as the uncool popular forms, and print runs fell, but hey, no one had to admit they weren’t quite hip.
The ban on cozies was mostly walked back – craft mysteries came in. Reviled by the publishers themselves, and often obviously badly written (though they’ve improved a lot) they were nonetheless bought by people like me who like a little bit of a puzzle and a lot of character development and some funny in their murder mysteries.
Space opera was not so lucky, though Baen continued to mine the rich vein of space adventure, military SF and the occasional space regency.
But Baen is just one house.
Which explains why, now that people are publishing indie, so many of the people hitting the jackpot are writing cozies with a little bit of Women in Peril ala Patricia Wentworth or space opera.
It’s not really a mystery. Editors might get tired of seeing the same thing, or they might want to impress their colleagues with how hip they are, but readers mostly want the same sort of thing, preferably updated for their time and done well.
What is shocking is that even as the gatekeepers fade, and even as the old genres are rewarded, I’m seeing a new generation of purists, trying to impress other readers with their strictures. It wouldn’t surprise me if they said space opera isn’t really science fiction. But instead they seem to have shifted the label to where the only space opera is what we used to call hard science fiction, and space opera as the rest of the world understands it is just “adventure.”
It would make me smile, if the universal propensity of humans to say “you must do it my way” weren’t so annoying.
Fortunately, though, these purists can scream, but they’re a tiny minority. And they are not the boss of me.
I say it’s science fiction. And I say it’s space opera. And I say I like writing it.
And enough people seem to share my definitions to find and enjoy my books.
The purists can go suck on a lemon.