Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Notes towards a manifesto • 5


The Department of Useless Prescience checks in, reinforcing the idea that I am trapped inside a time loop. As I was writing this morning’s post I began to get a profound feeling of déjà vu all over again, so I checked and—yep.

From the July 2005 issue of Strange Horizons, with a few pertinent edits:

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 [~brb: make that 45] years has been a sort of literary cladogenesis, with “the genre” fragmenting into dozens [hundreds] 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 semi-practical 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 readers can exercise such fine control over the input they receive, how does a writer crack through that protective shell?

And more germane to Rampant Loon Press and the future of Stupefying Stories: how does a publisher do it? 

—Bruce Bethke 


In the meantime, while you’re pondering the answer to that question, please take a moment now to make an affordable donation to the Campaign to Save General-Interest Magazines from Extinction, by clicking the following link:

stupefy (ˈstü-pə-ˌfī) to stun, astonish, or astound

Edited by award-winning author Bruce Bethke, STUPEFYING STORIES is a bold attempt to grow a new general-interest science fiction and fantasy magazine from the ground up. For the past ten years we've been a part-time purely-for-the-love-of-it affair publishing on a wildly erratic schedule, but our goal is to grow to become a regular monthly magazine that pays pro rates—

And here's the radical part: we want to do this not by chasing after foundation grants, asking people to contribute to our crowdfunding campaign, or begging passers-by for spare change, but by selling books and magazines that people LIKE TO READ!

Available on Kindle, in paperback, and free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Why not take a minute now to check us out?  


Lawrence Person said...

I remember people saying that the 1970s were the last time you could still read everything in the genre, that everyone in the field had read both The Mote in God's Eye and The Dispossessed. By the 1980s that was no longer true.

~brb said...

That tracks. By 1980 the juggernaut that was Star Wars had hit the market, publishers who had been ignoring SF/F readers for years suddenly rushed in to get a piece of that Star Wars action, and enormous amounts of new content were being published. I suppose it's only natural that Sturgeon's Law took effect with a vengeance.

~brb said...

amended: ...and an enormous amount of new content was being published, by people who didn't know from science fiction but knew how to package and market product that looked enough like science fiction that it filled up the shelves in all the big chain bookstores and made the inventory numbers spin like the reels in a slot machine.

For example, remember Laser Books?