Thursday, August 19


On the Great Bring-SFF-into-the-Mainstream (or, at least, Profitability) struggle --

That's it. The war is over.

We lose.

It's a simple, blindingly obvious fact of human nature, that came out while I was at the dog park tonight, chatting with a new friend who's even older than me, an even harder-core RPG geek, and big-time SW fanboy. I was telling him that I ended up in SF because my big brother had a huge collection of sf paperbacks, plus subscriptions to WORLDS OF IF, GALAXY, and ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION. I mentioned that my mother had a huge library of detective and mystery fiction (roughly five hundred back issues of ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE), and a whole bunch of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stuff, and how I almost ended up a detective/crime writer, because I love that shit too. It's just that I have too much imagination to settle for our everyday consensual reality.

And that's when it hit me: why we'll ALWAYS be the ghetto. Because there just ain't enough imagination to go around.

The fact is, you have to be SMART to read SFF. It's that simple.

It even explains why SFF films can earn more money than Stephen King's, John Grisham's and Tom Clancy's fondest wet dreams COMBINED, and SFF will still be a tiny little corner of the bookstore, mostly ignored.

Because movies don't require imagination. They lay it right out in front of you. They pry open your mouth and force-feed you everything that a novel can only spark in your imagination.

If you have an imagination.

Which most people, frankly, don't.

That's why you see SFF on the NYTIMES Bestsellers list once in a blue moon (okay, maybe twice, if it's a Star Wars tie-in and Harry Potter), but on any given day half to two thirds of the titles on the fiction list will be detective-suspense thrillers -- usually shitty ones -- with the balance made up of Oprah Book Club-style Learning-to-get-right-with-your-personal-relationships crap.

Like I said, we're permanently fucked.


Game over, dude.

The worst of it is, I knew this already. So do you. All of you.

We just wish it could be different.

But it won't.



Anonymous said...

Sorry, man, I gotta disagree with you on this one. There's no question that it doesn't look so good right now, but I just have faith that people are smarter than that, and if they are given the opportunity to (whether it's word-of-mouth or good marketing or it just hits at the right place at the right time)they can be turned onto SFF literature. In large numbers.

At any rate, I'm not giving up on it.


Anonymous said...

What the masses crave isn't usually what I find myself enjoying anyhow. Look at the 38 million dollars Alien vs Predator made this past weekend. The only reason I saw that movie was to make fun of it. My plan backfired, as it became hard for me to keep up with the awful script which was full of plain asshat nonsense. I'd even guess that's not what most people paid to see, they wanted to see Aliens fighting Predators and what they got was some stunted, icky feeling "love" triangle and very little ass kicking.

Hollywood blockbusters have the one up on most actual good films, be they Science Fiction/Fantasy or not. It's sad that independent films can't get more spotlight. I'll be going out to see Garden State as it opens tomorrow here, a month after it came out in New York and Los Angeles. Thus it is with limited releases.

And you brought up Harry Potter. Harry Potter is Fantasy, no? Its outselling the Bible, last I heard.

Enough of that though. What I want to say is that despite the need for money makers and gross appeal, I live for what I myself enjoy. That's easy enough to understand. I don't care if X media isn't popular, or hell, if X media is banned. If I like it, I'll enjoy it. It's not worth caring about much else.

So sayeth the selfish, lazy, snobish, elist bum that is I. But that's my problem.


Mastadge said...

Eh. You don't have to be smart to read SFF. Only "good" SFF.

And a good part of it is frame of mind. My mom is not a stupid woman. Her reading tastes these days tend to run to Oprah's Book Club type stuff which my aunt (who reads nothing else) recommends her, plus nonfiction that I give her. Before that she was on a Dick Frances/John Grisham/Jeremiah Healy run. But before that, she read Marge Piercy, Margaret Atwood, Ken Follett and (shudder) Jean Auel. Yet when she was recently looking for something to read and I handed her Liz Hand's MORTAL LOVE, she rejected it within 20 pages for being "too weird." So a woman willing to read a story about a hot white chick having sex with a bunch of cro-mags and invented civilization while she's at it, finds Liz Hand too weird? What? It's incomprehensible to me. I tricked her into reading some Graham Joyce by giving her his less overtly fantastic stuff and letting her think it was mainstream, and she loved it, but once she found out he had written a book about witches, she lost interest.

And then my dad, who's, hyperbole aside, just about the most frighteningly intelligent person I know, pretty much doesn't read fiction at all. Hell, he rarely reads for pleasure anymore. Doesn't have time. But every once in a while when he does, he "doesn't get it." Not SFF. Fiction. His subject matter when he's on his seven days he takes off work a year is Jonathan Ames, Bill Bryson, stuff like that, but he has the nerve to bust my chops for reading science fiction crap like, say, Jeff VanderMeer or Edward Whittemore. The same guy who enthusiastically gave me Speigelman's MAUS books scoffs at V FOR VENDETTA and THE SANDMAN -- "You waste your money on *this*?"

It has less to do with intelligence, and more, I think, to do with a willingness to think. Or, like you say, imagine.

Which I find odd. So many people I know, devout Jews and Christians. Take the Bible as Truth. And yet insist that there be no hint of the supernatural, of anything Larger Than Life, in their fiction. They insist day-to-day that there's a Truth, a Meaning, a Big Picture to the universe, and yet they don't want so much as a glimpse of that in their literature. If they read at all, which is a big iff.

I also find it odd because SFF is my preferred genre, and I don't have much of an imagination.

MWS said...

Maybe it's just that your imagination runs in a different course. I've heard you talk about not being able to visualize stuff; that doesn't mean you have no imagination. It just means your imagination doesn't run toward the visual.

Re: Harry Potter

It's not fantasy, it's fairy tale, which is really not quite the same thing. And how much imagination is required? Reading Harry Potter is pretty much identical to watching the movies.

Further, Harry Potter was hyped into a cultural phenomenon, so that for a certain age group, NOT having read Harry Potter is a social stigma, at precisely the age when a developing human is most vulnerable to such things. Once you can start moving product by peer pressure, you're in. Just ask the tobacco companies.

barb said...

I'm not sure that it's only SFF that people don't read. I'm beginning to think that more and more people don't read, period.

When I taught a research paper writing course, I was extremely disheartened when I realized my students couldn't think critically, could only comprehend the surface meanings of a particular text. Talk about no imagination.

Like you said, people now are spoon-fed everything, so younger people, especially, tend to not look at print media for information: why do actual research when you can find it on the Internet? Why read a book when you can rent the movie?

In that same course, I showed an episode of "Law & Order" so the students could understand and witness how to conduct research and construct an argument--gather evidence, distinguish unreliable sources (like most of the stuff you find on the Internet), things like that. I felt like I was pandering and dumbing down what I was teaching, but at least it worked.

As for intelligence and the SF genre, I don't think a reader needs to be "smart" to read an SF book, but comprehending it does require imagination and a willingness to suspend disbelief. And an ability to think critically--big surprise there.

However, writing SF is a different story. The authors of the SF books I've read have a strong science background--Timothy Zahn was a physics PhD student, for Christ's sake! I'm currently experimenting with SF, and I know nothing about physics, or mechanics, or anything like that. I have to rely on my knowledge of language and ability to do research.

And if you think SFF doesn't get attention, take a look at poetry. I realize that there's a lot of bad poetry out there, but there are contemporary poets who are very good.

Bah. Sorry for the diatribe.

Mastadge said...

"Like you said, people now are spoon-fed everything, so younger people, especially, tend to not look at print media for information: why do actual research when you can find it on the Internet?"

That's a phenomenon I've noticed with my two youngest siblings. Whenever they have to write a paper for school, they're used to finding EVERYTHING online. They get very frustrated when they can't find appropriate information. When I point them toward the encyclopedia, they look at me like I'm crazy; I don't think the thought of visiting a library has crossed their minds. But they are simply unwilling to open a book to do research.

I've also noticed that the papers they end up handing in tend to sound suspiciously like rearranged online encyclopedia articles, and tend to get pretty good marks from the teachers, which aggravates me. If a teacher can't tell that a third grader is plagiarizing from an encyclopedia, or is unwilling to call the student on it, that's a serious problem.

I had another point I wanted to make, but it's slipped my mind. Damn, but I could use a good night of sleep.

barb said...

I admit to eating up some of that spoon-fed stuff, certainly, and I can't condemn others who do--as long as there's a balance between being spoon fed and being self-reliant. Well, preferably more of the self-reliance.

The Internet is a convenient way to do research, if you know where to go for reliable sources--how to use libraries' databases and such. Unfortunately, a lot of younger people these days think most Web sites are authoritive sources. If they wanted to, they could simply purchase a paper online. Why bother writing one?

It's unfortunate, too, that some teachers let plagiarism go. With third graders, especially, the teacher should be able to recognize how the student really writes and easily detect when a plagiarized assignment is submitted. Unfortunately, the tendency to overlook this only reinforces the convenience factor of things such as the Internet.

Why bother having an imagination when someone else can imagine things for you?


Anonymous said...

Sad but true.

For the most part people view SFF books as childrens fodder and geekly distractions, but SFF movies they see as blockbuster goodness.

Is it lack of imagination or suppressed imagination? Is it a lack of intelligence, or an egocentric-based innability to relate to a written character from a far away place?

Alot of explanations apply, but the lesson stays the same. SFF fiction will never be recognized with the respect it sometimes deserves. Not unless the mainstream media latches onto it with vampiric fervor, like it does to the Harry Potter franchise.

Call me strange, but I'm kind of proud that we're all into a blend of storytelling that most people "don't get" or "don't wish to understand". SFF has the potential to examine the nature of a character, and the conditions of the human mind in ways that no other brand of fiction can.

So in a sense, we should look at ourselves as priviledged and enlightened, in ways that alot of the common-folk never will be....

Ben said...

I think someone made a good point when they brought up how SF often takes place in space so quantum physics and relativity are usually involved. As a computer science and physics student, this part of the genre appeals to me a lot, but might turn off others.

I agree that students these days aren't educated to read critically. But they don't test that on the SATs so high school English teachers spend most of their time trying to get students to develop vocabulary, grammar, and writing skills. I don't think I was ever really challenged wth reading until I took a college lit class and had to read Faulkner.

I think another issue is that SFF is perceived by a lot of people as being petty, pulp writing. Just think of the damage that the live action Batman series did to comics. A lot of people have never read really good SFF, which is sad. I picked up a copy of Zelazny's Isle of the Dead after Matt referenced it in a review and it's amazing. Zelazny was a genius when it came to thinking up powerful imagery. More people need to be aware that there's SF like that.

barb said...

Indeed, SFF tends to be lumped with Romance and Mystery. Go to your local Borders. I'll bet these 3 genres are all next to each other. But SFF is more than just fluff and, perhaps mystery as well. Hell, sometimes I feel glad just seeing someone reading an actual book.

The mainstream media has embraced SFF, but only in film, where again, no imagination is required on the part of the viewer. But I think a lot of the genre's popularity in the mainstream is due to merchandising rather than the books themselves. Alien vs. Predator has to have a video game. LotR has to have its very own Trivial Pursuit. Even SW has its version of Monopoly.

I wouldn't, however, go as far as to say that SFF is the only fiction genre that can fully examine a character's depth and frame of mind. Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is a great example--and I mean the book, not the stupid made-for-TV movie. ;)

Anonymous said...

I was at my local Barnes and Noble tonight. I went to the Science Fiction and Fantasy section, and after reading a few pages of Greg Keyes' new book, The Charnel Prince, and deciding to use my gift card to purchase it I browsed the rest of the section, even though I had what I came for, because I had nothing else to do on a Friday night. Well, okay. Garden State was sold out at the theater in Midtown.

Anyway, I spent some time there, in the back corner of the store and I remembered the line of thought expressed in the conversation here. Yep, as predicted the section was small and pushed to the back of the store. You have to walk around the large coffee cafe island to even see it. I glanced at my fellow browsers and noticed that they all fit the nerd archetype: some old guy looking at Anne McCaffrey novels, two loud teenagers trying to find a novel they had heard about recently (it started with a P!), some other loud teen that looked to be collecting the ENTIRE store's collection of Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks while his friend was reading a manga comic, and a pair of Asians also looking at mangas. Most of them were loud, and young (with the exception of the old guy obviously) and discussing such nerdtascular topics as Doom 3, Alien vs Predator, and Dragon Ball Z. Not my cup of tea, but I had knowledge of the topics they were all conversing about, none-the-less.

So yeah. I'm a nerd. They're nerds. We're happy about it. We're not mainstream, but we are spoon fed a bunch of shit even in our own beloved genre. I could have sat there and made fun of Dragon Ball Z until the sun came up, but I was too busy at trying at that point to block out the loud, 'greasy' noise surounding me. But that's beside the point.

Eventually I decided it was time to leave. But I knew I'd be moving into my dorm soon for school and that money would be short then . . . so I decided to see if I could waste any money at that moment. I had my 25 dollar gift card to cover Keyes' hardcover. I glanced in my wallet and knew I had to find a mass market paperback, as I only had 11 dollars plus change. Tired of the Science Ficton section, I moved off to find the mainstream "Fiction" section. I thought about getting something neurotically pleasing, possibly a Chuck Palahniuk or Haruki Murakami novel.

The Fiction section was not a happy tale. This long winded expose is all leading up to this. The Fiction section itself, at Barnes and Noble, is further back in the corner than any other section, BEHIND the Science Fiction and Fantasy shelves. Why? I looked to the rest of the store, and realized that all it was just tables and shelves full of new releases, best sellers, pulp paperbacks that house wives masurbate to, and non-fiction. I like fiction. I have nothing against non-fiction and enjoy reading it (being a History major), but when I think of going to the book store, I think of going out to find a story to entertain me, just like going to the movies. Most films at your local cinema are not documentaries, they are fiction. And it hit me, in my ignorance and lack of any sort of clear vision, that half of most book stores are non-fiction. It makes sense, books are either fiction or non. It's is a nice thought that so much print is devoted to facts and needed social commentary. But it shocked me to realize all this, I must say, almost as much as finding the small section of fiction hidden away in my local book store. I'd been there hundreds of times, and everything I realized tonight I had truthfully known for years but it didn't hit me until I remembered the conversation brought up here.

It doesn't scare me, this information that I've laid out, it just bitch slaped me hard in the part of my mind where I keep my cherished blissful thoughts, the ones that my growing pessimism haven't yet touched. But then I'm a prude at times. And ignorance is bliss.

Sorry, this is not my blog and I've rambled long enough. It was all kind of dry too, wasn't it? I probably lost you after the third paragraph. However for those kind enough to care (those that are probably looking down on me as you would some injured child), I ended up buying Asimov's The Caves of Steel. Yes, it's true. I haven't read the Robot Series. Gasp! The reason for my eventual choice? All the other trade paperbacks books I was interested in buying were over 13 bucks. And that's a rant for another day.

-Capriccio (a.k.a. Wedge 88)

Mastadge said...

No chance of finding Murakami or Palahniuk in mass market. Nor Jim Crace nor Graham Joyce nor Vladimir Nabokov nor Angela Carter. Apparently there is no mass market for them. Only the twice-as-expensive trades.

Mastadge said...

Just adding Gene Wolfe to the list. There are plenty of others, but I thought Wolfe particularly deserved mention.

Basket Of Puppies said...

This is offtopic: I'd say I'm sorry, but that would >SO< be a lie. I'm way too egomaniacal to care that I'm intruding, except that by this explanation, I've exposed that I do in fact care and am afraid you'll all know it. This really should be internal dialogue. Please skip!

So I search Google for Matthew Woodring Stover: it'd been a while, and I knew he had gotten the other SW books so maybe there's news about the new one, when this place shows up at the top of the results.

Start reading, and it's like seeing someone you know to be unstable walk in with a bazooka: "Oh my god... HE'S GOT A BLOG!" (room scatters). Arrogant, pompous, loud, overconfident... yes, that's it, it's him. :)

Hello Matt. Paul Kroll here. Thought I'd say hi. Tell the wife I said hello as well. Looks like all is well with you folks, and that's good to know. I assume you've not been struck with the urge to say hello, because finding my web site address, if you know my name, is Slightly Trivial.

Hope you're right about EpIII showing EpI and II in a much better light, because I was annoyed at both (well... I loved the lightsaber battle at the end of I, of course...).

I'll try to say something on topic: "Ever" is a long time. How much SFF was popular in 1506? By 2506, assuming humanity isn't gone, we may have reached an educational system that doesn't purposefully crush imagination in trying to build language and test-taking skills. It could be earlier, if someone would just make me overall dictator of the earth...
- Yes, I know I overuse the ellipsis, bite me.

MWS said...

Hey, Paul.

No desire to get in touch? My email hasn't changed in 12 years.

Robyn is well.

Basket Of Puppies said...

OK, so your e-mail hasn't changed for 12 years, but A) I have no idea what it was, 12 years ago. And B) mine is basically any username at, or near, (So yes, really odd usernames will get to me). Drop me a note!

Anonymous said...

The literary world is high school. Its writers are the jocks, cheerleaders, band members, glee clubbers, computer dweebs and stoners. Its publishers and editors are the teachers. The consumers who buy book are everyone else – the gen pop – and orbit around whoever inspires admiration in them.

Now, the gen pop all knew the computer dweebs were the smartest kids, but they were not admired and always hovered at the bottom of the popularity scale. Why? They were weird. They were unattractive. They dropped the ball in PE. They bickered about things that the gen pop didn’t understand. They valued things that seemed equally as meaningless. But probably the dweebs’ greatest sin was that they couldn’t score. As everyone in high school knows, anyone who can’t catch a ball or nail a cheerleader is probably a homosexual.

But the dweebs were the ones who got the full scholarship to Harvard and MIT and went on to become Bill Gates in some form or another, while Bubba Q-Back could look forward to blowing out his knee by junior year and spending the rest of his life selling used cars and talking about What Shoulda Been Gotdamnit over a pitcher of beer and mild sauce wings.

If you apply the same logic to the government, it starts to freak you out.

Chimeco said...

SFF isn't popular because "popular" people don't like it. That might be obvious. And getting them to like it is the obvious answer.

I believe more people read SFF than anyone would like to believe, but those (popular) guys don't just come out and admit that. Sports players, Actors (especially actors/resses), day-to-day respected professionals.

I'm gonna go so far as to say it's easy to do this. No has done this yet though. You ask how it's done so easily (this guy's naive)? Think of coca-cola commercials, Nike commercials, and McDonald commercials, anti-drug commercials. Who's selling these products/messages, and why?

Of course, don't get Brittney Spears to figurehead the next MWS release. That'd be awefully hysterical if we saw her dancing in front of her Groupies with "Blade of Tyshalle" in one hand, "Shatterpoint" in the other (heheh).

No, lay her down in a white satin bed, dressed casually (discreety) sexy, with a MWS book. Watch her flipping pages, then narrarate a message while people are eye-balling her. I bet that would generate sales.

Catch Shaq in the locker room changing into his uniform and then pan into his locker to see a copy of Traitor. Then get him to do one of his cheesy smiles that every kid loves.

Simple, effective, you generate new interest, new sales. A slow dismantling of the ages-old stigma against SFF. It'd take time, but nothing is unbeatable.

The publishing houses are where the first steps need to come from. That's the REAL problem. Not people's interests, lack-of (imagination). The Publishing houses are where it starts. They're content in their ways right now, no changes are necessary to them. Someone has to be the black sheep of the literary community.

I suggest a slow movement of SFF writers, some small, kindling pressure from the leaders in the field.

Basket Of Puppies said...

"this guy's naive"

Well yeah. :)

How many copies of a novel would have to sell just to pay for the production crew Spears or O'Neil would want for the shoot, much less for their time and name being attached to something, I'm guessing, they haven't read, AND the TV ad time? To quote an early John Connor, "Uh, all of them I think."

Nike, Coca-cola, and McDonald's are all things that people CONSUME... OK, most folks don't actually EAT shoes, but they do wear them out. That's not the case with books. Someone can own a book for twenty years, but your pair of Nikes is sitting in a landfill after how many months? So not only will there be MANY more sales of these things than there would of a book, you also have base physical needs that these fill. Someone needs shoes, people eat and drink, they're going to get SOME product... but not everyone reads for recreation. Take a look at for some sobering information.

Oh, and the anti-drug commercials... that haven't done a thing? What about them?

I do believe there are things that can be done to expand the market for SFF. >I< don't know what the heck they are, but I believe it can be done because I'm generally an optimist. And I do believe in "spend money to make money" but you have to spend a reasonable amount of money... unless it's yours. If it's yours go for it.

Don't assume that the publishing houses want to be poor, or that all of them have utterly failed to try new and different ways of increasing the market. Assume some of them have tried and failed. It could be that they tried the wrong thing at the wrong time, or that this whole era is the wrong time. There's not a "flick this switch/spend this amount and the problem is solved" answer here, as per Caine's Law. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm sure when the Edsel rolled off the production line, its designers said, "If it doesn't sell, we'll blame Ford."

Be nice to see the people who actually _make_ the product take the heat when it doesn't sell. What do you think, should I hold my breath?

MWS said...

Until you choke to death.

Basket Of Puppies said...

Matt, that's so wrong, I can't believe you said that. He'd obviously go
unconcious and then start breathing again. You should have suggested he
choke on something large, like a toboggan.

Chimeco said...

You're likely right about consummable products vs. books. The money probably isn't there to do grand advertisements.

Then again, where readers are concerned, you may find a high profile celebrity that enjoys a book to the fullest, and wants to push it for little money. Cable networks aside, there's inexpensive advertising media (vs. prime time television) such as the web.

My point is that a method exists to overturn the type of stigma SFF books are harnessed with today.

But I believe it would need to begin with successful authors in the field. Because a publishing house (or whatever other controlling mechanism) doesn't care enough to put money into making this change.

Once they see there is profit and revenue coming out of the project, they'll jump on board like they never had a doubt to begin with.

And by the way, advertisements today should be selling authors, not their books.

Alaska Wild Rose said...

On the bright side SFF can still work towards intelligent and immaginative readers. You say that we should accept that it will never be mainstream. We don't have to make it for the mainstream then. So many things become utter crap when they cater to the masses.
You mentioned crappy mystery books. There are some truly absorbing and intellectually stimulating whodunnits out there. Ones that lead the reader along, but make you constantly think, consider, and re-evaluate their convictions. But now a mystery reader has to wade through this bog of pulpy best seller crap to find anything worth reading. Writers are thinning out their work to suit the morons.
Intelligent audience who read to think are in the minority. SFF is a genre that caters to that minority as the majority of their audience. As a reader this is great for me. Probably sucks for you poor fools trying to make a living off of it though.