Ve know your trope makes ze genre tick, ja. But ve vill interrogate it until its resistance is exhausted and is it villing to TOCK!”
I happened to read yet another critic saying that a book in a competition lacked what its competitors had – They defied classic genre conventions, interrogated tired tropes, and celebrated inclusivity, and it merely reflected the sort of sf that was popular in the 80’s.
The writer appeared to imply by this that it wasn’t popular now. Of course, no figures to substantiate this… but his opinion, anyway, which we’re all entitled to. If I am taking business decisions (and writing is a business for me, anyway) I do prefer my decisions backed up by numbers, verifiable, and where I am able to correct for the various factors.
It’s hard to get those numbers, partly I suspect because no-one in publishing wants shareholders having kittens and demanding changes, but effectively, since the 80’s and accelerating from the noughties, and going even faster in the 10-19’s, traditional publishing has been losing ground, and, in the last fifteen years lost market share, to indies and has now probably lost dominance. It’s exceptionally hard to find – from most of the traditional sf/fantasy publishers — anything that DOESN’T ‘defy classic genre conventions, interrogate tired tropes, and celebrate inclusivity’.
So: it occurred to me – after FORTY years, and at least 20 when it’s been hard to find anything that wasn’t… when does ‘defying classic genre conventions, interrogating tired tropes, and celebrating inclusivity’ itself become an old-school, conventional and an utterly exhausted trope in itself? It’s almost impossible to find a trad sf/fantasy novel which does not ‘celebrate inclusivity’, which I believe is newspeak for ‘kick straight white men’. That IS the tiredest of tired tropes in sf/fantasy right now. If that trope was a runner, it would have collapsed and be on a drip in an ambulance on the way to ER.
You know, fashions, be they in clothing or hobbies or music or art… if they’re not circular, do appear to at least spiral. Some individuals and creations defy fashion, and just keep on – and eventually fashion comes around to them. Authors like Tolkien and CS Lewis spring to mind, but in general fashions come and go, and to the fashionista, better dead than out of fashion (it’s chronic insecurity, if you ask me, understandable in teens, bizarre in mature intelligent adults). Even ten years is a long time for fashion to endure (and it is a fashion): it’s almost certainly past its sell-by – at which point you can’t give it away to the followers of fashion. One has to wonder: what will come next?
In the way of fashions… it will resemble, closely, something that went a long while before. And in the way of fashions, and those who follow them… last year’s style will be something for old people. Heh. There’s a little bit of schadenfreude in this. The current dahlings of trad published sf, have been trashing ‘yesterday’s authors’ HARD for the last ten years or so. Everyone from Lovecraft to Heinlein to Tolkien has come in for sneering condemnation. Welcome Dahlings, to the environment you created! You’re going to be yesterday’s people. I hope you enjoy having your tired
tripes tropes interrogated.
A couple of my friends –all long term sf/fantasy readers– were trying to work out where this fashion came from, and where it would go to.
As one of them put it, the field was born in the pulps, but rose to strength on the writing of actual scientists and engineers during and after WW2. It was a growing thing… and then the MFA in creative writing crowd got a foothold and began to crowd out the scientists and the pulp writers. The MFA crowd often ended up in publishing because they couldn’t cut it as writers. (not every writer can be a great editor, but I have met more than a few who could do a reasonable job of it. But, frankly, the great editor who can move to be a good writer… those are very, very rare. I’ve met… one.). They weren’t God’s gift to publishing, but they were willing and available in a field where for NYC the wages are not great (but it has social cachet in their set).
Unsurprisingly, MFA editors liked buying from MFA authors. And sf/fantasy gradually became more ‘acceptable’ as ‘literature’ in academia, and less fun as reading among readers. Increasingly – particularly with the whole ‘awards’ scene, it became more about credentials for those academic positions, and less and less about pleasing readers. It became the goal of many of the inner circle of writers to get a position teaching creative writing (rather than living off sales of their novels) out of their writing… which meant positive critical reviews from their literary ilk, and prestigious awards full of other ‘literary’ people, to show how refined they were, became more valuable than trying to sell to the hoi polloi (which is why, despite them dropping sales numbers, some publishers used the system as bait).
Rather like taking a degree at college, which only leads to two employment avenues – one that includes the words ‘do you want fries with that’ and the other, teaching more people the same ‘skills’. The other options were a wealthy partner or parents, or begging on patreon, (or combinations of the above.)
Equally unsurprisingly the MFA in Creative writing crowd, in general (there are exceptions, of course), came from a narrow social, educational, political and class background. And yes, you’ll find the data shows them to be predominantly female. All of this reflects in modern Trad publishing staff, (the chance of finding a young heterosexual white male, let alone a moderate or conservative from a rural background with a science or engineering qualification, are vanishingly small – these people still read, and write books, but their chance of being employed, bought or read by trad editors is microscopic). The trend is reflected in what books are available from trad publishers, and what books get awards.
Of course in 2020 we had the Wu-flu and the panic it caused… which is going to have some huge social and economic knock-ons. Academia is certain to take a pounding, particularly in areas that don’t have obvious lucrative career paths outside academia. Traditional paper publishing, reliant as it was on controlling the gate to traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores also got a kick in the ‘nads as these were closed. It was the one area where they did not have to compete with Indies. Some of those stores are circling the drain. Even those that survive will not wield the sales power they once did. I gather there is some soul-searching and staff trimming going on in publishing. In the way of these things I am sure HR will decide that HR needs to stay and the people who did anything need to go.
It’s notable that early sf was generally very forward and outward looking, positive about the future and humanity, focused on physical achievements and looking out to a whole universe – that it expected us to explore and colonize. Sure there were dytopias and Nuclear disasters, but the tone from Depression era pulps to the Niven era, remained generally upbeat. These things were reflected in the physical and measurable impact they had on society. Asimov and Heinlein both had substantial influence in driving the Space Program for example, which in turn led to technology that bettered countless lives.
‘Defying classic genre conventions, interrogating tired tropes, and celebrating inclusivity’? Well, it’s the inverse: examining the past, introspective in the extreme, negative about humans, and specifically in the extreme about some parts of humanity (overtly so, something the older sf really wasn’t. It might have been incidentally sexist or racist, but that wasn’t the purpose. Direct denigration often seems the purpose of the modern lot). As to what benefits: I think opinion varies, but I feel it would be hard to quantify any benefits in physical terms, that were driven by this. It followed social-political trends popular with the arts set who came write it and buy it for publishers, it did not set those trends.
The former was really born of the depression era. The latter out of growing up in the wealth and comfort that flowed from postwar America.
Times are changing. So will sf/fantasy.
Just a quick mention: Dorothy Grant’s book will be released today. The notice will be up here later. And I promise this much: It will be a lot closer to what I think the future of the genre holds, than yet another introspective tired trope self-proctology exercise.