Markets, versus what we think they want
I was at a convention not very long ago, and listening to a conversation going on between a number of my peers — to include several aspirants I knew would be breaking in very soon. There was much excitement over a supposed subgenre of a subgenre within Science Fiction and Fantasy, to the point that every single author in that circle seemed convinced that this subgenre was going to go out and take over the world. Each of them had plans for stories and books to be written in that subgenre of the subgenre. All of it sounded very interesting to me. But I also knew that the market for this material was going to be fantastically narrow. Which is really saying something, considering the extant narrowness of SF/F as a form of literary entertainment.
But that particular circle was on fire about their subject, and I am not keen on throwing cold water across creative people when they’re hot about their work. That’s not my style.
Nevertheless, I’ve yet to see this subgenre of a subgenre go on to become the genre-dominant force many say it will be, even to this day. Not because it’s not a worthwhile flavor of SF/F — I think it’s deservedly intriguing, and there are a great many people investing a great deal of time and energy in it. But because I think this is a (common) case of authors becoming fixated on a thing because it pushes our love buttons, without the market following suit.
I think we are, as a class of creative professional, incredibly susceptible to this inverted fish-eye view of the marketplace. Once we latch onto a thing, we can latch onto it with almost fanatical energy.
Which is not always bad. Sometimes I think we look around and we say, “I am not seeing X or Y type books and stories,” and that becomes the spark that drives our prose. I know it’s certainly been true for me, and I think I’ve been fortunate to tap a genuine vein within the SF/F audience that has been — according to my reader mail — underserviced and neglected. It was a case of author perception (mine) roughly matching audience perception (theirs) and the marriage of supply and demand has been a happy one, which I hope to enjoy for a long time into the future.
But then there are moments where I think we, as writers, overly fetishize our own innovation, to the point that we’re talking way past the readers, and are instead writing books and stories strictly to ourselves, about ourselves, for ourselves, and concerned only with our own desire to see a given kind of book or story reach print — even if there is not really any consumer interest waiting on the other end.
A lot of this fetishization can be traced to SF/F’s hoary old expectation that no wheel be re-invented. Going all the way back to the pulp era, a common conceit arose, stipulating that once a given concept or idea had been “done” that concept was more or less used up, and it was expected that future authors — having dutifully studied and read all which had gone before — would not re-mow the same patch of grass. A kind of faddishness grew from this expectation, such that topics would rise, explode, and die, in almost supernova-like style. But once that supernova had reduced to dwarf status, it was time for everybody to move on. The thing had been seen and done and read enough. It was time for something new.
Except, after a century of feverish activity, SF/F really has been just about everywhere it can go, in some form. There aren’t any new ideas under the sun, as the saying goes. So, people resort to improbable mash-ups, or extremely deep, hair-crack dives on old ideas — drilling down, at fine-tooth-comb detail, in an attempt to extract mileage from the tiniest shreds of unexplored real estate.
None of which is bad, mind you. I do hate how this kind of analysis can turn into a bad/good false dichotomy. Rather, I want to suggest that such electron-microscope exploration — while fascinating to students of the field — risks leaving the larger audience behind. That larger audience probably hasn’t read even one one-hundredth of the field’s books and stories. They don’t know this decade’s evolving iteration of the “classics,” as defined by the cognoscenti. They’re blissfully unaware of the yellow and black-striped caution signs saying, THIS HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE, MOVE ON.
The public just wants to be entertained — and they’re prepared to take any book or story at face value. Just because it’s been done before, doesn’t mean this generation of readers knows, or cares.
I believe this is how a concept like Weir’s The Martian captures so much attention. There was absolutely nothing new about it. Men-go-to-Mars stories have been around from the very beginning of the field. Weir just happened to tell a particularly detailed, hard-science version of that story — one which this generation of consumers was ready to embrace. All else grew from there, and Weir reaped the fruit thereof. And good for him. As an admirer and practitioner of Hard SF, I found it hugely gratifying to see a genuine Hard SF story not just succeed with a broad audience, but succeed to an overwhelming degree; both in print, and on the big screen. After enduring a lot of backhanded scorn from the softer side of the genre — obsessed with sociological explorations of SF — I was heartened by the idea that the public still wanted and appreciated a genuine Hard SF “nuts and bolts” approach to a classic Jack London man-versus-the-elements story.
So, I temper my enthusiasm for the latest talk about sailpunk wereshark post-apocalypse antihero pirate-crossover transexual romances, being the thing that will now light the genre on fire. This is speculation driven almost entirely from within — from that place where we desperately want to forge the new, from the old. We may pick up a thing, and marvel at how it sparkles in the light of our mind’s eye — but to the wider audience, it’s just another beach rock. Nothing worth getting excited about. Expecting that the broader audience will become enamored with it, to the degree we ourselves may be enamored with it, can produce a lot of frustration, and even anger.
Now, an artiste won’t give a damn. “Real art” is never, ever supposed to be about the desire of the unwashed masses. “Real art” is about pouring salt water on the paper cuts of the soul. To hell with what the audience wants.
For my money, a professional walks a middle path. Not slavish to market forces, but not prone to belly-button infatuation with overly strange and esoteric ideas, either. The number of artistes surviving on subsidy, is legion. The number of pros who discover how to routinely provide a product that speaks to a lot of people in the commercial pel mel of the entertainment universe, is much smaller. Thus the task is (in my view) much harder. But it’s a challenge worth undertaking. Not only because of the financial incentive. But also for the sake of readers who will appreciate being given a resoundingly solid experience.