Who Sets The Agenda?

Yesterday, I caught an article on Twitter:

This is an interesting analysis of the state of the genre. I read the blog referenced, but did not listen to the podcasts; my reactions are entirely in response to Buhlert and Felapton’s analyses.

I think there are a lot of good points here, and some fascinating observations (discussions about how and why writers write are always interesting to me), but two things (well, maybe three) stood out for me.

I’ll get to that in a bit.

I’m not particularly involved in SFF fandom (which may, in a way, disqualify me from commenting here). I paid a lot more attention before I got published; I read widely in the thick of the Puppies melodrama, and in fact voted in the Hugos once (maybe twice?). For most of my life I thought of fandom as a home, of sorts, even though I was always the quiet kid in the back of the room. Things changed when I got published; I retreated to being an ordinary reader. Undoubtedly my reaction to this piece is heavily influenced by observing fandom from the outside, as well as interacting with a lot of writers who don’t write SFF at all (and a lot of writers still working toward their first sale).

Speaking of other genres: Thing One (or perhaps Thing One-Half) is that none of this is unique to SFF fandom.

What SFF fandom does have that I think is lacking elsewhere is an intelligent, thoughtful set of fan writers–journalists, really–who observe and read and analyze what’s being published right now. There are, though, enough people writing about issues in other genres that I recognize nearly all the SFF complaints compiled in these blogs. There are aspects unique to SFF, because like all genres there are things that set SFF apart from the others. But hopeful themes, “younger” voices, diversity (or lack thereof)–all of these issues are discussed (and complained about) across the literary spectrum.

(I’ll speak briefly to one of these: the “younger”, sometimes YA-ish voices people perceive in some fandom-popular books. I mean…a lot of these books were written by young people. One author Felapton mentions–probably more, but at least one I know–was in their early 20s when their debut sold. The acclaim for this author’s work is entirely deserved, but observing that sometimes the characters seem young? Of course they do.

My Twitter stream is full of published authors saying “I was OVER 30 when I first sold a book! You’re never too old! Don’t give up!” Which, as my kid would say: LOL. Media is dominated by youth, and carping about that seems churlish.

My one and only complaint about John Scalzi’s beautiful Old Man’s War is that I disbelieve a critical mass older people would be willing to take a young body when the trade meant likely five years or less of bloody conflict and loss. But Scalzi wrote this book before he was 35 years old. I suspect he might tweak a phrase or two if he were writing it now.)

Thing Two that struck me was this idea that all of these themes were somehow deliberately chosen by the writer, that every book began with the writer thinking “I must write fiction about <socio-political issue>! What kind of story can I wrap around that?”

Which is an oversimplification of what was said. But I did have a pretty strong reaction of “Dude, I’m just writing stories.”

Of course I shouldn’t extrapolate my experience to everyone else’s. I know more than one SFF writer who is indeed deliberately tackling major issues, and designing narratives to make some very particular points.

But I really think a lot of writers–maybe most–are just writing stories. As Buhlert points out, we’re all influenced by the media around us, perhaps mostly by the media we grew up with. (I cheerfully cop to that.) And we’re all influenced by the world we live in.

All art is political; if you think your art isn’t, you’re probably expressing a comfort with the status quo.

Stories come from people’s lives. One small human brain can posit universes huge and wide and different and ugly and beautiful. All that imagination, all that synthesis is a product of an individual life lived. Radical social ideas, horrible tragedy, the perfidy and violence of humanity–and hope, and beauty, and love–all of these things appear in a story because of the author’s experiences.

Do some authors write knowing they’ll piss people off? Maybe they do. I don’t. The story comes first; I often have no idea what it “means” until I’m done with it. Then I’m aware that some aspects of it might annoy folks; but then it’s too late.

But all of this ruminating on process is mostly irrelevant, because of

Thing Three: Publishing.

The elephant in the room in all these discussions is publishing–or, more specifically, capitalism. Because all of these books that are lauded and complained about and snubbed and awarded exist because some corporation decided they could make money selling them.

Which isn’t a bad thing, and I say that as an oligarchy-hating socialist. Trade publishing is a capitalistic industry that’s been incredibly successful at getting artwork into the hands of readers who might otherwise never have had access to it. Books are produced with enthusiasm and affection and real attention to quality.

But the bottom line is publishers have to make money. They couldn’t pay all the people who edit and market and design and print all those amazing books if they didn’t. Which means what gets sold and what gets read are–predominantly–books publishers believe people will pay for. And they base those guesses (yes, they are guessing) on sales that have already happened.

It’s a feedback loop, for sure. Organizations like Worldcon and the SFWA, with awards that have earned their prestige by singling out excellent work, absolutely influence what publishers will buy. But the big, gating organization here is the publishing industry, and because they are, by necessity, motivated by money, change is careful and slow. You can write the most brilliant, subversive, beautiful, literary thing, and if it’s seen as too much of a financial risk, nobody is going to read it.*

*For large values of nobody. Self-publishing is a thing, and many self-published authors have readerships larger than those of trade-published authors. Additionally, many authors publish both ways. None of what I’m saying is cut-and-dried.

The success of a particular trade-published book depends, most of all, on how much marketing power a publisher puts behind it. (Not all marketing campaigns are created equal; viral books happen; YMMV; etc.) Publishers do sometimes take chances, but for the most part, those chances are little stretches in directions they believe might hold promise.

In short: if you buy what you like, more of what you like will appear.

As a writer who’s seen it from both sides, it’s always interesting to me when these kinds of conversations ignore the massive influence of the distribution engine. There’s an implication that the books being sold are everything that’s being produced, or at the very least the best and most varied representation of what’s out there. I think that’s maybe 80% true; but I think readers often abdicate their own influence on the pipeline. Even money-driven trade publishing doesn’t produce a homogeneous set of stories (as Buhlert and Felapton both point out). In a genre as sweeping and popular as SFF, there is almost certainly something out there for everyone. If hopepunk is being published, it’s because hopepunk is selling. (Personally I suspect this is because we could all use some hope right now, but WTFDIK?)

TL;DR: If you don’t like what’s being published, read something else. And pay for it, if you can. (Get it out of the library if you can’t.) Because when it comes down to it, what you’ll see in the pipeline tomorrow will reflect what’s generating income for publishers today.

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