Lois Tilton August 4th, 2006
When we last saw our chimerical Literary Personage, she was protesting that her novel, despite its future setting and its sciencefictional subject matter, was not science fiction, not a genre work; that genre is crap. I demonstrated a schema to make it clear what sort of thing genre fiction really is, that genre does not in fact imply a low quality of writing, that it is even entirely possible a given work could be described as both science fiction and as literature, whatever that is.
But the Literary Personage still isn’t having any. She continues to protest that her book is not science fiction, even if her book is science fiction. At last it becomes clear that the L P is not thinking of genre in terms of the book’s content. The reason for her protest is quite simple: she doesn’t want her book on the Science Fiction shelf. Next to All That Crap. Her concern is not with reality, but with perception, with appearances. In short, our author considers genre solely as a marketing category.
Thus, for her it does not matter that many genre works can not, in fact, be considered crap, that good writing and genre subject matter are not incompatible. For her, all that matters is that people think of genre books as crap, so that if her book is labeled science fiction and placed on the science fiction shelf at the bookstore, people â€“ prospective buyers and readers — will conclude it must be crap. If, on the other hand, her work finds its way to the shelf labeled “literature” those same prospective buyers and readers will assume it must be a good book.
Now where did the notion come from that genre is crap? Why does genre fiction have a reputation for crappiness, and is this reputation deserved? We are all acquainted with Sturgeon’s Law, which states that 90% of everything is [crap], so why should genre fiction, in particular, be so stigmatized?
It would seem that genre fiction is known by its worst examples. Or if not exactly the worst, then what is often called the lowest common denominator. Now, this reputation is not distributed equally among the genres. Mystery is often elevated to the ranks of the literary, whatever that might mean, whereas romance don’t get no respect from nobody outside the genre. It is not, as I have suggested previously, that there is anything in the content of the romance genre that implies its works are necessarily of low quality. I have argued that Jane Austen’s works fit into this genre, and this author occupies one of the loftiest literary peaks. No, the problem stems from the genre as a marketing category. Indeed, works written in any genre before this genre became a marketing category are quite often esteemed for their quality and given a high place within the literary ranks.
But once marketing rears its evil head, matters are different. Marketing is all about sales, and sales are all about numbers, not quality. If marketing thinks that quality will produce the highest sales numbers, they’ll push for quality. If marketing thinks that crap will produce the highest sales numbers, they’ll push for crap. And when marketing drives acquisition, we get crap.
But we can not simply blame marketing if genre publishers print a lot of crap. Because it wouldn’t sell unless someone is buying it. Do readers of genre fiction actually prefer crap? I went to amazon.com and took a look at their Top 100 sellers in the category of Literature and Fiction, as they interestingly put it. Of these 100, I found two works of generic fantasy: one from Terry Goodkind’s series and one from Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake series â€“ both egregious examples of crap, the sort of stuff that make our genre look bad, which make authors of respectable fiction object to having their own books near them on the shelves. [Note: if you disagree with this claim, you might not want to read further, as you will probably not like the rest of what I have to say.] Interestingly, the Top 100 also listed Audrey Niffenegger’s definitely non-crap The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was published not as genre fiction but as fiction fiction â€“ Not That Sci-Fi Crap.
What is there about fantasy as a marketing genre that attracts buyers who prefer crap? I have noted with a great deal of misgiving, here on this blog, the reasons that people give for enjoying fantasy: for “comfort”, for “entertainment”, for “escape”. I have seen people describing the preferred fantasy reading process as “falling into the story”, not engaging consciously with the prose, not wanting it to be too difficult, too much work. In short, the consensus of these remarks suggest that fantasy readers want to read passively, without doing any work to dig below the surface of the story, without thinking. They almost want to read with their brains turned off â€“ or rather to read with the limbic system instead of the cerebral cortex.
This preference for the mindless is, I believe, why there is so much crap in fantasy. [It also suggests why the sales of science fiction have declined while fantasy has risen, because often in science fiction there comes a point where the reader is required to think, perhaps even to do math, while it is apparently possible to read fantasy without thinking at all.] If not an actual preference for crap, it implies at least a tolerance for it. It enables the existence of the crap, and far worse, it makes it harder for authors to sell the good stuff.
In the June 2006 issue of Locus, Christopher Priest, who is definitely not an author of crap nor an author whose work can be read without thinking, says:
I strongly believe that reading isn’t a passive activity. To somebody who doesn’t like books, just sitting around and reading looks as if you’re doing nothing, but actually you’re active. Readers should be made to work a bit and they shouldn’t take anything for granted. For me, the unreliable narrator keeps people alert. Some people get fed up with it and can’t be bothered, but the people I think of as serious readers very much like it.
More serious readers, that’s what I think genre fiction needs: readers who don’t mind doing some work, readers who can appreciate the stuff that a writer puts into her work below the surface story, the stuff like symbol and metaphor and allusions, complex sentence structure, or techniques like Priest’s unreliable narrator.
But instead of actively seeking out such readers, it sometimes seems that genre publishing is taking the opposite direction. I see a significant increase recently in romantic fantasy, in kinky sex fantasy, the kind of stuff clearly intended to engage the limbic system rather than the brain’s critical and analytical faculties. And in so-called science fiction, there is the sort of military SF that is meant to engage the reader’s primitive hindbrain in identifying with the good guys and vicariously pounding the shit out of the bad guys/evil aliens. It is not that I believe every work has to be serious or difficult to read. I, too, will often read for escape and mere entertainment. But when readers’ preference for the mindless stuff overwhelms their appreciation for more serious genre works, when the serious stuff doesn’t sell while the mindless stuff gets snatched up off the shelf, the consequence is the dumbing-down of the genre, creating a marketplace in which books for serious readers can not survive.
There is in economics a principle known as Gresham’s Law, which states that bad money drives out good. But Gresham’s Law is applicable to a much broader range of activities, such as publishing, in which we can say that bad fiction drives out good. This is what I see happening in fantasy as a marketing genre: more crap, less good stuff. Sales of the crap go up, sales of the good stuff go down, and eventually the authors of the good stuff are never heard from again, or they start publishing crap under a pseudonym.
And if this dumbing-down of genre fiction occurs, or if I am correct in saying that this has already been occurring for some time, then we can not just blame the publishers for rejecting the good stuff and deciding with malice aforethought to bring out nothing but crap. I have frequently noted attempts by publishers to bring out more ambitious, more serious fiction, only to have them discontinue the effort when sales figures make it clear that the buyers are not interested, that they prefer the crap.
Yet we can see, from the example of the Niffenegger book, that good SF can sometimes sell very well indeed. Particularly when it is segregated from the generic fantasy and placed on a different shelf where it can appeal to a different set of readers, to readers who do not mind thinking when they pick up a book. To readers some of whom may be readers of generic fantasy but who also include those who normally avoid that section of the bookstore, people who consider themselves serious readers.
So I begin to realize that our Literary Personage is right, after all, when she says she doesn’t want her serious novel on the science fiction shelves. She is looking for a better class of reader, and she isn’t likely to find it there.