What’s the current state of the SF/F genre?

Renovation, the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention

What’s the current state of the SF/F genre? Where’s it going? My answer: nobody knows. However, I hope to get some insight into this next week at Renovation, the 2011 World Science Fiction Convention.

Lately, I’ve been feeling my genre “presents” like a case of Multiple Personality Disorder (to use House diagnosis-speak). The publishers appear as one personality, the readers as another, and writers are all over the board—we’re pretty confused.

For instance, several writers in the SFWA bulletin have mentioned that Science Fiction “is struggling,” meaning writers are having a hard time selling Science Fiction to publishers because publishers can’t sell Science Fiction. This has been the case for years. We also all know that, for a long time, Science Fiction hasn’t sold as well as Fantasy—but now writers are also told that traditional Fantasy doesn’t sell well either. Apparently publishers are looking for Urban Fantasy—well, no, it should be more like Paranormal Romance—no, it should have a YA-angsty voice—no—they just know what works when they read it. And, of course, publishers have the weight of numbers and dollars behind them; they know what readers are buying.

Per those numbers: every year Locus reports the number of titles published in the previous year (remember: number of titles published, not number of books sold). They categorize the titles as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror or…. Paranormal Romance, which isn’t considered within the SF/F/H genre. They started the Paranormal Romance category recently, after they found many of the books they received were coming from Romance imprints. In the past, they had been incorrectly categorized as Horror. Well, it turns out that Paranormal Romance whips everybody’s butt when it comes to number of titles published, but that hardly seems fair, does it? After all, it’s a sub-genre of Romance, which has a huge readership.

SF/F/H imprints are trying to benefit from the Paranormal Romance bandwagon—or at least get into that loyal readership. In the April 2011 Locus, I looked at the Ace/Roc advertisement and my jaw dropped. Surely someone had sent the wrong ad to Locus? The headlining book was an author I didn’t recognize, with a cover that had a woman draped around a man’s torso. It had to be romance. I was still convinced it was paranormal romance after looking up the author/book on the internet. The only point to the contrary was the SF/F imprint on its spine. Most of the rest of April’s ten-cover line featured modern-day females—only the bottom two books depicted male characters. There’s gender diversity for you. It made me wonder if SF really was read by males any more. At the bottom of the ad was the URL: penguin.com/projectparanormal. Project Paranormal? I was obviously behind the times.

But hold on—recently we’ve heard from the readers themselves. National Public Radio (NPR) just did a survey asking readers for their favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy books. I think this survey is statistically significant, given that 5,000 people made nominations and more than 60,000 answered the survey. On this list, we find the obvious greats: Tolkien, Clark, Asimov, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell, Heinlein, LeGuin, etc. There were entries for the seminal authors: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Robert E. Howard, etc. And there were books listed that are currently in print with active authors: Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville, Stephen King, Patrick Rothfuss, Robin McKinley, George Martin, Robin Hobb, Jacqueline Carey, etc.

There was another interesting point about this list. Most of the Fantasy was traditional, with a few humorous, slipstream, or contemporary examples thrown in (Adams, Pratchett, Gaiman). There was no Urban Fantasy, resulting in the surprise that Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera Series made #86, but his Dresden Series was nowhere to be seen. One might make the case that Sunshine, #92, by Robin McKinley is Urban Fantasy because the description has the word “vampire” in it, but come on—Robin McKinley nearly transcends into the literary with her re-imagined fairy tales like Deerskin, so I’m not going to label it Urban Fantasy.

To me, there seem to be schisms between publishers, readers, and writers. I suppose we could assume the NPR audience never intersects the set of readers that Penguin, for instance, is trying to attract. Perhaps the NPR audience never buys books (but I think that’s a bad assumption, considering the boosts NPR interviews have given the sales of books). Or, it could mean the books and stories that readers remember and re-read, are not like most of the books publishers are producing today. It appears that the most memorable books of all had brave new worlds and created tropes—they didn’t re-use them.

I hope the NPR survey makes more than one editor pause.

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