Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Discussion: Input Wanted

I have a problem with prescience: to me, it’s always been useless. There are days it seems as if I’m condemned to live in the future I envisioned, with absolutely no hope of changing its course.

For example, today, I’m going to get all self-referential and—well, reference myself, or more specifically, this interview I did with Lynne Jamneck for Strange Horizons more than 13 years ago.

Lynne Jamneck: What's your opinion on the current state of SF writing?

Bruce Bethke: I believe you've actually asked at least three questions here. In terms of pure writing, the current state is better than it's ever been before. Compare any current issue of any major magazine to the clunky prose produced by the Grand Masters during the Golden Age or the psychotic fugues whipped out by the Young Turks during the New Wave, and I think you'll agree that for sheer literary quality, there are more highly skilled writers working now than ever before.

In terms of the market, on the other hand, things right now are as bad as I've ever seen in my adult life. From what I've read, you'd have to go back to around 1960 to find a time when the paying market for new SF was as tough.

What this means for writers, then, is that there are a lot of very talented people doing a lot of extremely good work, and publishing it in some pretty marginal venues. It's a difficult time to be trying to earn your living as a professional science fiction writer.

Lynne Jamneck: Are you seeing any interesting avenues in which the genre finds itself expanding?

Bruce Bethke: I think it's a mistake to talk about "the genre" as if it were a monolith. There may have been a time when it was possible for a dedicated fan to read a good sampling of all the new SF being published, but that time—if it ever really was—was long ago. What we've been going through for at least the last 30 years has been a sort of literary cladogenesis, with "the genre" fragmenting into dozens of related but distinct daughter-genres and microgenres.

The interesting part of this is that, between print-on-demand publishing, e-publishing, web publishing, and all the other emerging technologies, it's now at least semipractical to publish fiction that has no hope of ever appealing to a mass audience. If you wanted to, say, launch an e-zine devoted exclusively to publishing stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama, you could do it, and do a very professional-looking job of it. Not only that, but thanks to the Internet, you would actually stand a pretty fair chance of reaching the 500 people in the world who want to read nothing but stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama. So there's more fiction being published than ever before.

The downside for the writer, though, is that there's no money in it. The general interest magazines appear to be following the general interest anthologies into extinction, and extreme specialization and small-niche marketing seem to be the shape of things to come. Readers now have unprecedented power to find only exactly the types of fiction they want to read, without risk of accidental exposure to anything else. I suppose they've always had this power—I can think of entire years when I subscribed to Asimov's and only read two or three stories in each issue—but at least with a general interest magazine, there was always the possibility that after you'd read the Michael Swanwick and Lucius Shepard stories, you might take a chance on Karen Joy Fowler.

But this trend towards extreme narrowcasting—it's both fascinating and disturbing. When the reader can exercise such fine control over the input he receives, how does a writer crack through that protective shell?

Well? Your comments, observations, and/or suggestions? The lines are now open. 


Mark Keigley said...

Hooey, hmmmm, yeah, exactly. I doubt I'll ever crack into the Big Three (or is it 4 or more now?) because general interest story magazines are pretty meh stories for my personal tastes. (and, as for for my stories, it seems, the taste of the editor types at those places).

Then there's Stupefying Stories, who, I hope, always takes on STUPEFYING STORIES.

That's my niche.

Jacob said...

Your prescience is a feature, not a bug. Consider that you nailed it 13 years ago. It's not for the money. Why bother then? Writers are artists with a talent that needs to be exercised, and shared.

Judith said...

Who's this young blade in the photo? I like.

GuyStewart said...

I think this "niche-ee-ness" is a huge problem in SF. It would almost be GOOD to return to say, a series of monoliths, lining the shore faced in one direction. At least people would LOOK in that direction and wonder what they were all were seeing.

Instead, with "niche" writing (even more fragmented that Science Fiction and Fantasy and Horror and Mysteries...) you really DON'T have to ever read about centaurs who live in trailer parks in Lagos, Nigeria and your view will be forever limited and narrowed to the ones who live in Alabama.

Even adopting the phrase "speculative fiction" and lumping cyberpunk (yeah, there it is, I SAID IT!) together with biopunk just before it on the "niche-ee-ness" shelf, then dark fantasy; then eldritch cleaver fantasy... insane.

The Science Fiction community doesn't have a single coherent thought between them and differently idea-ed writers CERTAINLY aren't considered by anyone who doesn't read in THAT niche...

If SF and F and H had been this fragmented in the 1940s, I doubt that we'd have ever made it to the Moon. It would have been colonized by centaurs who used to live in trailer parks in Alabama.

[end rant, leaving room]