I’ve been mulling over this question for some time, following the Hugo Awards brouhaha in recent years, and the growing debate over ‘message fiction’ in various genres. I thought I’d put some ideas out there, and let you, dear readers, continue the discussion in Comments below.
The Hugo Awards imbroglio (see here for one side of the issue, and here for the other) demonstrates what happens when (to use battle imagery) a clique captures a strongpoint and won’t let go. They fortify it against all comers, and refuse to yield ground even when their continued occupation becomes meaningless, because the battle has moved onward from the position to which they cling so fiercely. To them, the message they espouse and proclaim is the genre – or, rather, they’re going to make sure that the genre continues to proclaim it, and nothing else. The genre serves the message, rather than the other way around. In other words, the genre is nothing more than a tool to be exploited in a wider ideological battle. As one commentator noted recently about the Hugo affair:
The Marxists infiltrated at almost every level except the one that really mattered. That was the readers. The big problem was that, unlike countries where Marxism was the rule, the infiltrators, some of whom didn’t understand that they were supposed to be Marxists in the first place and went right into creating the same old propaganda that and stuff that nobody wanted to read. The stuff might [be] PC, but it’s also mind blowingly dull, filled with porn in the idea that the sex might replace actual story telling.
He’s right, in my opinion. Overwhelmingly, ‘politically correct’ science fiction (of the sort embraced and celebrated by the Hugo Awards in recent decades) sells very poorly indeed. As a result, the genre is increasingly dominated by independent, non-politically-correct authors, publishing their own work through outlets like Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct program. The mainstream publishers in the SF field (with the notable exceptions of Baen Books, which dominates military science fiction in particular, and more recently the fast-growing Castalia House) are increasingly being ignored by SF readers (presumably because the message they preach in their preferred fiction is unpalatable to many). Author Earnings pointed this out recently.
The numbers say it all. Independent, self-published authors are increasingly dominant in the SF and fantasy genres. If their sales growth continues, they will shortly occupy the largest part of the market. Traditional publishers, particularly those who hew to the ‘politically correct’ line, are steadily losing ground.
The question then becomes: if traditional science fiction and fantasy publishers are concentrating on their message (to the detriment of their actual product), what are independent authors doing? Are we writing to a ‘message’, or are we writing to and for our market? Are we even consciously aware of this dilemma when we write? I suspect many of us aren’t. Let’s consider a few possible approaches.
First up is the artistic approach; those who write because they feel driven to it as a means of artistic or personal expression. To them, writing is a labor of love, an expression of themselves, a creative art. They may not take their potential readership into consideration at first; they’ll regard themselves as successful if they put out a book that expresses what they want to convey, even if readers don’t like it very much. It’s like an artist who puts his heart and soul into a painting. To him, it’s part of his very being, and a lack of public appreciation for his painting (much less criticism of it) amounts to rejection of himself. (The well-known saga of the novel ‘Empress Theresa‘, and its author’s reaction to criticism [do, please, follow those last three links for details of truly extraordinary authorial hubris], is an extreme example of this attitude in the literary world. The currently available reviews of the book are a tiny fraction of the hundreds, even thousands, that greeted its initial publication.)
Then there’s the combination of a message-oriented, but market-driven approach. This requires that one’s message be tailored to what the market will accept and/or tolerate. I’ve heard it described as the ‘camel’s nose’ approach. If one sneaks in just enough of one’s message to get one’s audience accustomed to it in broad outline, one can (hopefully) add more of it to subsequent books, just as a little of a new and unfamiliar seasoning in a meal can lead to more being used later, as diners become accustomed to it. I know a number of authors with personal religious beliefs have used this approach to mention God and faith in passing, knowing that many readers have no interest in the topic, but hoping that such innocuous references may make them think about the subject. Opinions are divided as to whether or not it can achieve success.
There’s the more specifically market-driven approach. This is one I’m forced to follow myself, as those who’ve read the tale of why and how I became a fiction author will understand. I have to earn a living. Most traditional avenues of doing so were closed to me by a disabling injury. Therefore, I’m going to write what I think readers want to buy, because my livelihood depends on it. Sure, I’m going to write in genres I enjoy, and where my background gives me ‘writing fodder’; but at all times, I have to keep in mind that I can’t afford (literally) to go off on an artsy-fartsy tangent. I have to write to the market, because I can’t survive without it! That may seem appallingly mercenary to some authors and readers, but for me, it’s the exact and literal truth. The food on my table is only there because readers buy my books. That’s a heck of a motivation, believe me! It’s why I’ve (so far) written, or am writing, in no less than four genres; science fiction (specifically the military sub-genre), fantasy, Westerns and memoir. If I can find others where I think I have something to bring to the table, and which readers will enjoy enough to buy, I’ll write in and for those genres, too.
There are plenty of other reasons to write, and motivations for authors. I can’t possibly go into all of them in a short article like this. Nevertheless, it behooves us as writers to be aware of why we write, because that directly and immediately affects what and how we write. It also affects who will buy our output – a not unimportant consideration!
So, dear readers: why do you write? In the same light, why do you read? To what extent are you consciously aware of your motivation, and how does that motivation affect your book writing and/or purchasing decisions? (That’s not as simple as it might sound. You might buy a book because you know the author, even if you don’t particularly like it, because you want to show your support; or you might buy it because everyone’s talking about it, and even if you don’t enjoy it, you want to be able to take part in the discussions.)
Let us know your reactions in Comments. This could be fun!