Thursday, April 5, 2018

State of Publishing: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Fiction in 2018



In spare moments the past year or two I have been thinking about many aspects of the current state of science fiction, fantasy, and fiction at large.  A few things have been mulled numerous times.  First is the sheer volume of books being published today.  From the big, traditional publishers to individual self-publishing, indie publishers to vanity publishers, mid-tier publishers to the innumerable magazines, fiction is flooding the market from seemingly every conceivable source.  Regular readers, or at least myself, feel truly overwhelmed, even fatigued trying to stay abreast of all the books and stories.  (Perhaps for others it even leads to the anxiety of they are always missing out on something.) Where half a century ago there were maybe one or two hundred ‘books of genre interest’ being published each year, we now have more than a thousand.  It’s literally impossible to know about, let alone read everything being published.  In terms of quantity, we are in the second Golden Age of genre fiction--the epulp era.

In terms of quality, however, I’m not sure we have a Golden Age.  With greater quantity you naturally have a greater chance of getting high quality fiction, and indeed there are many good books coming available.  But the majority of what I see and read is middling to poor.  Most of these books don’t commit any overt sins of writing.  The prose is clean enough.  Plots are reasonably well thought out.  Overall cohesion is acceptable.  Premises have a unique idea or two.  The author appears to have some knowledge of what they are attempting.  And yet, most does not seem to make a lasting impression, almost as if the writers want to be writers more than they are writers.  ‘Soulless’ to ‘derivative’ is the spectrum I would say the majority of genre books on the market today fall on.  Fifty years ago editors were more judicious in their choices for publication given their limitations, but current publishing possibilities open the gates wide.  Yes, the riff-raff is getting through--at least in far greater numbers.

I take Gary K. Wolfe’s perspective on literature with a grain—a block—of salt, but one thing he’s nailed is the evaporation of genres.  In an effort to remain innovative, science fiction and fantasy writers have branched out more and more over the decades.  Where science fiction and fantasy were once relatively insular, i.e. easily identifiable taxonomies, they are now fully synthesized with fiction as a whole--‘fuzzy sets’ as Brian Attebery writes in Strategies of Fantasy.  I’m aware writers like Asimov were combining detective fiction and science fiction long ago, but it was nothing like we see today with micro-genres.  Weird west, urban dark fantasy, supernatural menace, post-ap epic fantasy, etc., etc. all are part of the array of sub-genres currently on the market.  The tried and true fields of space opera, sword & sorcery, hard sf, etc. trundle along, but beyond are niches for everything and seemingly every combination.  Finding a new entry point in the current market that does not already have multiple fingers scrabbling for their own hold is almost impossible.

Overall I would say this is a good thing: fresh blood is needed for any medium to remain viable.  At the same time—particularly given the volumes on the market, the current spectrum likewise feels desperate, even cold, mechanical.  Many times I encounter novel premises that feel more shoe-horned than organic—like the author identified a (pin)hole in the market and rushed to take advantage of it rather than starting with a solid idea for story.  Vampire robots, mech warriors in a Medieval castle, wizard aliens, etc., etc., such ideas can be developed in a positive, relevant fashion, but I have yet to see it. Overall, I can’t help but feel this is doing its part to dilute overall quality and make fiction feel more programmed than natural.

This is all not to discuss the other portion of the current market which has major influence: the media, which has grown and diversified in tandem with the fiction being published.  Where the number of outlets was relatively small half a century ago, it has exploded—perhaps even in grander fashion than the books themselves—in the past decade.  The internet is truly ubiquitous.  Blogs, vlogs, emagazines, home pages, official sites, reddit, twitter, facebook, etc.—content is available in the widest variety of forms and channels we have ever seen.  And media has likewise atomized beyond taxonomy. From left to right politically, high to low brow, short to long fiction focus, classic to contemporary, lo- to hi-fi, hobbyist to professional, one can find any type of coverage they desire—and it will even find you (if cookies are turned on).  Each reader has their own set of browser bookmarks for the media covering the fiction and authors they are interested in, and no two sets are alike.  Core media channels still exist, but their coverage can never be comprehensive due to the volume, not to mention many readers dislike or are distrusting of major media for the potential influence publishers and other corporate interests may have over them; there is a place for the little guys.

This leads to the quality of said media.  Given anybody, middle school student to professional critic, can open their own site, blog, youtube account, etc. and be a ‘recognized contributor’, we are seeing all levels of quality in content.  Like the fiction coming available, however, most seems middling to poor.  The number of objectively minded, informed content creators is smallest in proportion.  Again, fresh blood and the democratization of the internet (at least for now) are great, but for these we must pay the price that much content is negligible noise serving creators’ egos more than the reader.  There is nothing morally wrong with this, but it hasn’t served to keep the quality of media surrounding fiction, high.

In a nutshell, that is how things stand.  Which leads to more questions: What’s next?  What does the future hold for publishing?  Are we only in the first stages of further diversification, spread, and atomization?  Will consumer fatigue ever reach a tipping point?  Will there ever be a (relatively) mutually agreed summary of the current explosion in history books?  Or will said history be dependent on perspective from within the current media/political spectrum?  Has the genre explosion reached its max and things will shrink back to ‘normal’ in a few years?  Conversely, can the current science fiction and fantasy binge continue indefinitely?   

Looking at the wider cultural context, I’m quite concerned.  Put simply, speculative fiction is not the only exploding medium.  Everything from music to film, video games to board games, tv series to books, and of course their supporting media—all are in the greatest heyday humanity has seen.  In terms of sheer quantity and availability, we are experiencing a cultural Golden Age (that everyone would do well to pause for a moment and ponder).  But, if history is any teacher, the balloon must burst.  How it bursts remains to be seen, but here’s hoping it’s a slow and steady deflation rather than sudden and abrupt *pop*…



*Note: I changed the title of this post because I didn't want it to be confused with the video game content I have been posting the past year.  The original title was "State of the Game: Science Fiction...."

1 comment:

  1. Sturgeons Law: 90% of SF is crap?! Yes, well 90% of everything is crap. As for the quality of SF reviews, the field is swamped with what I take to be your "middle school bloggers" - credulous, oblivious to good writing, suckers to every cheap plot trope out there.

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