The Incredible Shrinking Genre


I make it a point, whenever I browse the local grocery store, to wander through the book section and see what folks are reading. I figure that if something is popular enough to find its way onto a small town Walmart shelf then I should look and see why.

For a long time Nora Roberts dominated the top ten—and some folks who know me well have told me that I would enjoy her work.  Yes, I do read more than just science fiction.

One day, not too long ago, I noticed Orson Scott Card‘s newest at the time, in number 8 or so as I recall. As a science fiction writer myself, I must admit it is a little bit disconcerting to see so few SciFi novels make the list.

Science fiction for the masses is hard to write, and some say it’s hard to read. In a recent blog entry by British author Mark Charon Newton entitled “Why Science Fiction Is Dying & Fantasy Fiction Is The Future“, he and several others who comment on his post discuss a few of the possible reasons for what he has observed as a shrinkage in the Science Fiction market, compared with dramatic growth in Fantasy.  In a follow-up post, he replies to several side discussions to support his claim.

Now let me start by saying that I agree with Mark, except that I don’t think the disease that is afflicting printed SciFi is terminal.  Seasons change, and so do the markets for any product.  I am a firm believer that science fiction will reinvent itself in some way and rebound.  I don’t see any product that can fully replace it for its cult following.  One of the things that such a recovery will require however will be for those who write and promote it to understand the causes of the current slump.

Some causes under discussion in Mark’s blog are:

  • Less interest by readers in the complexities found in science fiction.
  • Some recent blockbusters in contemporary fantasy (i.e. Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.)
  • Not enough science fiction is written for the women audience, who read more than men.
  • Rapid scientific advances are giving science fiction less to talk about.

I am unwilling to argue with any of this, because I think it is all true.  However, there are no new Harry Potter books coming out, I think that paranormal romances are a fad, scientific advances will sprout whole new development paths for Edwardian SciFi writers to project, and writers like me who seek women readers will learn to write to their needs.  It is all just an issue of business evolution.

However, there are two other problems, more or less related to one and other, that annoy me about a lot of the science fiction that I read; and I know they annoy others and drive readers away from the market in droves.  But before I go there, let me ask you three questions.

  1. Who is purported to be the second richest woman in England, after the Queen?
  2. What do the Harry Potter books, the Twilight books, and Star Wars have in common (besides just being popular among both children and adults)?
  3. What one written word could disqualify a writer from ever becoming a teen market runaway hit?

You may have your own answers to these questions, if so then please share them—here are mine.

  1. J.K. Rowlings.
  2. Limited sex and profanity.
  3. The “F” word.

I am reminded of a popular saying…”When you find out that you have dug yourself into a hole, put down the shovel.”

Any manager, of any business, who is confronted with the impending shrinkage of their market share should look at all of the things that contribute to that shrinkage and try and eliminate them.  Publishers and booksellers know that they are businesses and an author should look at there craft as a business also and behave accordingly—and I submit to you that for fiction publishing excessive profanity and sexual content are two huge market shrinkers. 

I have spoken with people who hate the “F” word.  They loath it.  They rarely if ever use it and they work to prevent it from sneaking into their vocabulary by avoiding their exposure to it.  These people might tolerate seeing the word once or twice in a very good book written by a particular author, but they might not buy another.  If they see repeated and frequent use of it on the printed page it could eventually cause them to just close that book and not pick it up again.  After that, they will speak of the experience to like-minded folk who will refuse that author themselves.

But how does one define “frequent”?  I know some people who use profanity occasionally in casual conversation, but these same people have also said to me of something they’ve read, “It’s nothing but ‘F’ing this and ‘F’ing that”, so I have to conclude that most folks have some kind of threshold for harsh profanity.  I’ve also noticed that even fragrant users of it don’t mind reading books and seeing movies that are completely devoid of it.  Therefore, I am forced to conclude that every use of it chips away a corner of a writer’s market.

The vocabulary of a language is the writer’s toolbox, and profanity is a sledge hammer.  If a sledge hammer is needed, then an author might use it, but when they use it too much they end up beating their story (and their reader) to a pulp and every use of it will chase someone away.  So each and every time profanity is used, it needs to have a solid purpose in the story that offsets the damage done.  Even given that, every writer should seriously consider adopting a policy of never dropping the “F” bomb.  Even if the villain in the story is a potty-mouth, there are lots of fun ways to depict that without quoting it.

Now on to sex.

Yes, sex. 

By the way, by even using that word here, thrice, I’ve probably blocked this page from getting hit by Google searches with the “Use strict filtering (Filter both explicit text and explicit images)” option selected.  It is why I had to remove The Naked Scientists from my RSS feeds in the sidebar of this blog a while back.  There is nothing wrong with The Naked Scientists, it’s great, quite clean, and themes right in with the blog.  But the word “Naked” in the title triggered filters that I found were leaving this site effectively invisible to some folks whom I didn’t want to exclude from its contents.

The same goes for fiction writing.

Now I know what you’re saying…there have been many popular fiction stories and books that contain that stuff—and they seem to get by just fine.

Well…we are watching the slow shrinking of the popularity of science fiction…it is not going to automatically “get by just fine”…and I think we writers need to create interest in our work among the adult readers of today and tomorrow.

Notice I did not say to my fellow authors, “Write children’s books.”  What I said was that “Write adult material” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “explicit sex and bad language included”.  It could just mean, “Write of topics of interest to adults—other than explicit sex and bad language”.

Because if all being an adult means is sex and cussing, then that’s just plain sad.

~ by Bill Housley on December 10, 2009.

47 Responses to “The Incredible Shrinking Genre”

  1. I really enjoyed this article.
    I’ve found the writting trends interesting as well. I don’t find the “fad” books of late to be very well written, and feel they are leading a new generation of readers to develope a taste for “candy” rather than “steak”. It’s sad to see GOOD writting get washed away by an “easy read’ or authors using “slegehammers” instead of descripive laugage.
    I find the statment about Sci-Fi not being written to a female audience to be very insightful. I think this is leading to the drying up of the Westerns Gendre as well, which used to be huge and timeless. Last time I was in a POPULAR bookstore CHAIN , they had 1 shelf of westerns(about 10 books)…UNBELEIVABLE!

  2. Very interesting article. Just one thing: GRR Martin has been very succesful with his Song of Ice and Fire saga. It is fantasy, with dragons and magic and warriors, although it has no elves or orcs. But it has a lot of sex (very explicit) and a lot of “profanity”. Two features that have made this saga very popular among adult readers of fantasy…

    • Thank you for visiting and replying, Laura. While you’re here perhaps you could click the link to read Another Man’s Terrorist and tell me what you think of it. It’s a free read in the Satirica preview through Google Books.

      Well, I couldn’t remember having ever heard of George R. R. Martin or A Song of Ice and Fire, so I looked up book 1 in that series (“A Game of Thrones”) on Amazon to see if I recognised the cover, and it looks familiar. No one that I associate with have said anything to me about it however, which is probably why I didn’t recognise it right off when I read your comment. I also noticed that tonight its sales rank on Amazon is #1349. If you have read it, then maybe you could tell me your personal opinion of where it ranks with you compared to Twilight (Amazon ranking #16) or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (#168). I was left disapointed in Order of the Phoenix (HP Book 5), I didn’t think it was all that good, and it ranks #476. Ice and Fire Book 2 (Clash of Kings) ranks #4711, and Book 3 (A Storm of Swords) ranks #2514.

      If the Ice and Fire books are better than the three that I named, then there could still be a lot of reasons why they didn’t sell better, but somehow their target market wasn’t broad enough to take in the higher numbers, for whatever reason. Amazon sales ranking is only one measure of sales success, and can also be be effected by a lot of things. My argument is that one of those things is content that constricts the book’s market, sales venues, and word of mouth connections. It sounds like Sword and Sorcery, which is a different market than the examples I named anyway.

      You could probably name even more examples than just Song of Ice and Fire which were successful in spite of their market-limiting content. I say if they were that good then they maybe could have been even more successful (and the author even more wealthy) working within a broader market.

      • Hi, Bill! Not much to add, though having just written my first book, which turned out to be YA fantasy before I really realized what was going on, I’m especially interested in your thoughts on what can and can’t go into same. (I hope the very occasional s-word is okay!)

        I also wanted to mention that A Song of Ice and Fire is popular enough among many of my friends that I am going to have to check it out in the very near future. I have the vague sense that someone’s making a film version, which may change some of those Amazon numbers.

      • Thank you, Saphira.

        I agree.

        I should note that it is a known fact that PG-13 movies market better than R. They will be faced with a choice between cleaning it up to PG-13 levels…if only barely…or take the risk of making less money.

        You watch. They’ll more than likely opt for door #1.

  3. I do not have numbers, but maybe it would be more useful to compare adult fantasy with mainstream literature. It is unfair to compare adult books to children’s or teenagers’ books (like Harry Potter and Twilight). Not everyone will write for kids.
    Regarding sex and profanity, maybe it would be interesting to see how these subjects are used in dark fantasy, in horror, in historic novels (I remember Pillars of the Earth with a lot of explicit sex and profanity, btw, and you have to admit that it is a good example of a best seller), etc., which are targeted to adult audiences. If they are doing well that means, to me, SF is not shrinking because of that kind of factors and we have to look somewhere else…
    I will look at Another Man’s Terrorist 🙂

    • Laura,

      I completely agree that the comparison is unfair, in fact that is basically my point. If both children and adults are marketed, then it will of course tend to show better numbers than only adults.

      I did not mean to imply that the sex and profanity are the only cause of the slump, but if a patient is dying from multiple ailements, then it is worth considering the effect of each problem in turn.

      I for one will. Slumps like this are opportunities. He (or she) who solves the most problems, the quickest, could revive the genre and become the next runaway hit.

      BTW…The Pillars of the Earth ranks #656 on Amazon today. I have heard that Ken Follett is an excellent author. Good call.

      Now name another. Also, please tell us how you think The Pillars of the Earth compares, as far as literary quality, with other similar works with similar popularity…but softer content.

  4. It is a TV series, produced by HBO. Well, they have just filmed the pilot, so, we will have to wait to see if they produce the entire first season or not. 🙂
    Bill, I have read your Another Man’s Terrorist and I liked it a lot. Is it a resemblance of recent American wars? In a way, I feel sorry for the Shriva Marines. They are not to blame of political decisions, just as the case of many American soldiers stucked in Irak or Afganisthan… Anyway, a good example of entertaining SF short story the way I used to enjoy many years ago. 🙂 Ah, thank you for the strong female character (Jess) 😉

    • On HBO they’ll probably make money regardless, but I honestly don’t know how the advertising and exposure will effect book sales. We’ll watch and see.

      I am very pleased to hear that you liked Another Man’s Terrorist, and yes it was inspired by recent American wars. The focus of the news coverage annoyed me and AMT is my rant. I wrote it to discuss the more down-to-earth human cost of such conflicts.

      My other published story is “Where’s the Cat?” and it also has a strong female as the main character…though not quite as strong as Jess in AMT. The man you see holding the cat in the poster is a “Mysterious Stranger” type figure and you’ll recognize him from other stories you’ve read and heard before. Unfortunately, this story was only recently published, so I can’t post it on my website. You’ll have to get the magazine.

      My novel will be out in the spring. It has two strong female characters, one is a thief/rogue and the other is a patriot/lawyer. Both fight with bravery and passion, in their own particular way, for things they care about…and influence the outcome of the story significantly. Like AMT, the theme is relevant to current issues of importance to you and me in the here and now.

      BTW, these posters were painted by my illustrator, Chelsea Conlin, and she is actually the one who chose the scene for the AMT poster used on the main page of the website.

      I wrote all of these stories for adults and they address adult issues, but are also accessible and useful to children…though AMT and the novel may be too violent for pre-teens. I designed these stories so that adults of every sexual ethic can enjoy them.

  5. Interesting post, but IMO your making a number of mistaken assumptions here.

    First of all, you seem to assume that everybody in the world shares the extreme sensitivity to sex and explicit language found in the US. That’s not the case. In my own country, the main hang-up is violence while sex and explicit language don’t raise a whole lot of eyebrows, unless coupled with violence.

    Secondly, the SF genre is not exactly full of explicit sex. It is and has always been a sexually rather restrained genre whose readership doesn’t seem to like even fairly tame sex scenes. So an overabundance of explicit sex is not what is killing science fiction, if it is dying for real this time.

    Thirdly, paranormal romance and urban fantasy, which are booming, are actually a lot more explicit with regards to sex and swearing than SF and epic fantasy (and even epic fantasy is getting more explicit with writers like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie or Scott Lynch). It is possible to find urban fantasy or paranormal romance without explicit sex and bad words (try Shanna Swendson – lovely books and unlikely to offend anyone), but it’s comparatively rare. And it’s the explicit writers like Laurell K. Hamilton who are the big sellers of the subgenre.

    Erotica and erotic romance have been booming these past few years. Many mainstream publishers have erotic imprints these days and particularly the romance genre has become more sexually explicit in response to the explosion of erotica. Lora Leigh, who regularly hits the NY Times trade paperback bestseller list, writes explicit erotica. Another very popular and NY Times bestselling author is Gena Showalter, who started in erotic romance and then moved to a mainstream publisher. Her books (paranormal romance BTW) are still rather explicit. And who buys most of the erotica and explicit romance novels? Women.

    Outside the explicitly Christian lines or imprints, it’s very difficult to sell a romance without sex nowadays. Swearing is still taboo in most of the category lines (Harlequin, Silhouette, Mills & Boon), but all over the place otherwise. In fact, I suspect that the Christian lines were founded (and are experiencing a growth as well) to give people uncomfortable with swearing and explicit sexuality something they could pick up without worries.

    You mention Nora Roberts in your post. Nora Roberts’ books contain sex, sometimes quite a bit of it. As for swearing, the f-word and others of that kind show up a lot in the “In Death” series she writes as J.D. Robb (which regularly hits the bestseller lists). I’m actually not certain whether the f-word appears in her books written as Nora Roberts. But then I am not at all sensitive to explicit language and don’t notice it unless it’s used either excessively or not at all, even in situations where it would have been appropriate (e.g. Navy SEALS talking about those darned terrorists).

    I think what we’re seeing at the moment is a diversification of markets. Explicit erotica for those who like it hot, squeaky clean Christian fiction for those who are extremely sensitive and all sorts of gradations in between for everyone else. Which is how it should be.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Cora. All of the points that you make are excellent ones, let me take them one at a time. I have summarized them, I hope that’s ok.

      1>The U.S. has different sexual sensitivities than other (I assume you mean English speaking) countries.

      Completly agreed. But do very many people in the U.S. or other countries refuse to read something just because it lacks a certain amount of sex and bad language? Is the number of sex and F-word fans as large as those in the U.S. and other countries who refuse to read something that contains what they consider an excess of that kind of content? I claim that even without including readers between age 13 and 18 (who have no popular access to certain materials because of content) the answer to the second question is no.

      Let’s set aside those people who tolerate or don’t mind such material for a moment. Do those who prefer sex and f-words in their reading slam a clean book closed in disgust, pitch it across the room into the trash, and vow never again to touch a book by that author without washing their hands afterwards? Do they feel so strongly about it that they use strong metaphores like “turd in the punch bowl” or “cockroach in the ice cream” to describe the lack of sex and f-words in an otherwise great story? Does a man hide his StarWars novels in the garage so that his wife and children don’t catch him reading clean scifi? Does a mother find her 14 year old son in the closet with a book, snatch it out of his hands and say, “Why are you reading this J.K. Rowlings crap when you’ve got a whole shelf full of R.R. Martin books in your room?”

      I am not saying that sex and the f-word in reading is not popular with a lot of people, I am saying that those people with whom it is popular will usually still read a very good story that lacks it, but the reverse is not true for a large group of readers who would prefer not to read material that they view as “tainted” with unwanted sex and harsh profanity.

      Do us both a favor…click here and then tell me if you HATE the fact that there is no harsh profanity or explicit sex in that story.

      2> SciFi is already comparitivly clean.
      Agreed. Explicit sex is often an addon to the scifi I’ve found it in. It is almost as if the author finished the story and then said, “Oh, wait! There’s no sex in here; I’d better add some.” The f-word, for that matter, is actually a verb…not the meaningless throwaway adjective or adverb that colors spoken dialog with it. Both explicit sex and the f-word are throwaway componants of the story. To scifi, which folks already claim is too complicated, sex often seems to further complicate and distract.

      BTW. I did not say that too much sex is killing SciFi, I said that it is helping to kill it and that authors who clean the genre up some more will fill an important part of the market that is currently neglected, and profit therefrom. What would happen to the scifi genre if couple of skilled authors made themselves unbelievably wealthy writing block buster hits for all ages?

      3>Paranormal romance and urban fantasy contain plenty of sex and profanity and are booming.
      Well, maybe you could name some. You did specifically name Joe Abercrombie, so I looked him up. All I could find by him were sword and sorcery novels, but they’ll do to make my point. Here is where some of these novels rank, as far as total books sold on…

      The Blade Itself (The First Law: Book One)……..Sales ranking #3,243
      Before They Are Hanged (The First Law: Book Two) Sales ranking #4,073
      Last Argument of Kings (First Law: Book Three)….Sales ranking #4,140
      Best Served Cold ……………………………Sales ranking #5,454

      These are very good rankings BTW, but they could be much better. I flipped through a couple of pages of “The Blade Itself”; it is excellent work and appears on the surface to deserve the three digit sales rankings of J. K. Rollings novels or the two digit rankings of Stephanie Meyer books. So why is he stuck in the low to mid four digits?

      In every other industry the mantra they preach is, “The customer is always right”. Well these sales numbers look to me like there are a lot of customers out there who jump at the chance for cleaner books to read. And please don’t tell me that Twilight and The Host are children’s books; there is no way Stephanie Meyer could hit those kinds of numbers being read just by children.

      As for Erotica and Romance; if I pick up a book in one of those genres, I’ll get what I expect to find. Oh, and you mentioned Gena Showalter…
      The Darkest Whisper (Lords of the Underworld) ………….#12,891
      The Darkest Kiss (Lords of the Underworld, Book 2)………#11,828
      The Darkest Pleasure (Lords of the Underworld, Book 3)…#12,910
      Heart Of The Dragon (Atlantis, Book 1) ……………………#26,572

      You say that we are looking at a divesification of markets and I agree. But I say that there appears to be a very quiet, very large demographic that is under-represented within that diversification. Should all those adults who want to read good, adult themed science fiction, without the harsh profanity and sex, be stuck with reading only church books and children’s books and watching Sponge Bob Square Pants on TV for the rest of their lives? Or is someone here going to sell them some science fiction they can use?

  6. I should show this article to my old sexist/racist/anti-Mormon English teacher…Particularly the part about profanity causing market shrinkage. I tried explaining the same thing to him years ago, but he was deemed incapable of a mature debate.

  7. I have very mixed feelings about your article. On the one hand, I think a number of your points are valid. On the other hand, every time I’ve run across a storyteller who emphasizes the “cleanness” of his work, it ends up being an excuse for mediocre, if not horrendous, quality.

    I am utterly against gratuitous sex or language. Throwing it in when the story doesn’t warrant it is self-defeating. But not necessarily for the reasons you list. I’m against it because it damages the story. I don’t believe in gratuitous sex, gratuitous language, gratuitous violence. But then, I don’t believe in gratuitous anything when it comes to telling a story, and I don’t have to resort to moral or marketing arguments to feel that way.

    My feelings are artistically based. Nothing gratuitous should be in a story because of artistic integrity. Only those things which contribute to the quality of the story should be there.

    This means I also don’t believe in gratuitous cleanness or gratuitous happy endings. If the story requires sex or harsh language or violence or whatever other potentially controversial material it might need, then the storyteller has an obligation to include it. To do so violates artistic integrity. Navy SEALS talking about “those darned terrorists” is a perfect example.

    My philosophy does not excuse excessively graphic detail when including these things–that’s as much a form of gratuitousness as including something that has no business being in the story. The controversial matter should be included when necessary, with as much detail and graphicness as necessary, but no more.

    Every individual is going to have a different threshold of where that line is. Because of this, the effort to “clean up” a story to the point where it will offend no one means the story will be written to the lowest common denominator, and it’s my firm conviction that’s why stories whose creators hold “cleanness” as a high priority often end up being of mediocre quality.

    My highest priority when telling a story is honesty–honest to the characters, to the events, to the story. If it’s dishonest to include something, I don’t include it. If it’s dishonest to leave something out, I don’t leave it out.

    I never object to a storyteller having values that preclude him from including certain things in his story. That’s his choice, and I have no business interfering. But if honesty to the story he wants to tell requires including material that he feels uncomfortable including, the worst possible solution is to “clean it up” and remove the required material, or worse yet, euphemistically include whitewashed forms of the material, which usually just stand out as dumb (that includes the silly ways I’ve seen authors portray profanity without actually including it, a tactic you recommend–e.g. Larry Niven’s use of the profanity “tanjing” in “Ringworld” drives me nuts!)

    The correct way to handle this situation, in my opinion, is not to clean up the story, but simply don’t tell the story that requires the material which makes the storyteller uncomfortable. Tell a different story where uncomfortable material is not essential to the story. And if you CAN clean up the story without damaging it, then the stuff you took out was gratuitous after all, by definition.

    I don’t believe for a minute that science fiction is dying because of “uncleanness.” Science fiction thrived for decades without being cleaned up.

    Science fiction is dying because the population generally is dumbing down, and SF is an intelligent genre. SF is dying because reading generally is dying. SF is dying because the primary reader these days is female and she prefers fantasy over SF.

    SF is dying because SF authors are running out of things to say about the cosmos. It’s the phenomenon of “Is that all there is?” How many different kinds of aliens and their planets can we imagine up before readers start saying, “Been there, done that”? SF virtually by definition requires a materialistic view of the universe, and there’s only so much you can do to squeeze wonder out of a materialistic universe. This requirement to avoid spirituality in SF I think is a major contributor to its decline.

    Whereas fantasy can not only include the sense of wonder that SF fans love, but is perfectly at home including all sorts of spiritual themes as well. The mission of fantasy is “to boldly go where no materialistic science fiction has gone before.”

    Even though I’ve been an SF fan all my life, I’m growing weary of science fiction myself for this very reason. There’s no wonder left in it. Even with new gee-whiz technological devices to write about, it will still be the same familiar themes already covered in the great SF literature of our heritage.

    These are the real reasons why SF is dying. If “uncleanness” has any impact at all, it’s a negligible one. And while I wouldn’t throw an individual book against the wall because it wasn’t “dirty” enough, I WOULD throw a genre against the wall if all it offers me is unrealistic, cleaned up stories that as a collection do not reflect life honestly.

    Finally, I have a question: so what if SF dies while fantasy grows? I don’t believe SF will die completely–even Westerns still have that one shelf of books. But SF and fantasy have been sibling genres to such an extent that hardly anyone differentiates between the two–many authors will easily move back and forth between both genres, and many readers will read both genres. They’re almost always shelved together in the same section in bookstores. They’re often perceived as the single genre of “speculative fiction.” When I think of a story to write, it rarely occurs to me to step back and notice whether I’m writing SF or fantasy. It’s just an interesting story that I want to write.

    So who cares if fantasy dominates over SF for the time being? But even if you do care, I seriously doubt “cleaning it up” is going to accomplish more than a blip on the radar screen of SF sales. And as an author, it’s much more important to me to preserve my artistic integrity than to compromise it and get a few percent extra in sales. If I want to write a blockbuster young adult series like “Harry Potter,” then I’ll choose a story that can be told to that audience with integrity. I will NOT “clean up” a story that requires the controversial elements to remain honest, just to sell more books.

    (Let me emphasize again that I’m talking about essential controversial material. Gratuitous material should always be removed no matter what it is, no matter how controversial or benign it is, because that does impact quality and artistic integrity.)

    • You make many interesting points, but I can’t help but feel you may have misinterpreted the above article. I agree that a story needs to be told honestly and realistically. My personal philosophy is that there are stories that need to be told, and I am but the means with which they tell themselves.
      On that note, I agree with the article. It did not say that SF is shrinking because it is unclean. In fact, you and he agree on one very important point: “gratuitous” vulgarity only detracts from the story. I laughed a bit at your comment, “Science fiction thrived for decades without being cleaned up.” Do you know why that is? Because SF was wholesome. The SF this article is talking about is different than the old stuff. SF writers got lazy and afraid. They resorted to an easy way of getting SOME readers. Most of the Science Fiction today is nothing BUT your so-called “gratuitous” sex and profanity. Only a small crowd wants to read it because it’s BORING to everyone else. There’s no art in it, as you so beautifully pointed out. It’s crap. It’s no better than the fluffy, happy-go-lucky fairy-tale endings you referred to.

      As for the bit about SF shrinking because of a lack of interest, I agree partially. Science Fiction is worn out. It doesn’t have the OOH-AHH effect as it did in years past. However, thankyou so much for pointing out that the majority of readers now-a-days are women. I do not know whether this is true or not, but let’s pretend for a moment that it is. If, in fact, most fiction readers are women, then this is an entirely different situation. Women like character depth. Women read things that are emotionally thrilling. Of course, there are exceptions, but we are talking about the majority. Most women do not read because they can explore new high-falutin’ wonders about space. They read so they can experience another’s feelings and connections. Be it SF, fantasy, fiction, or non-fiction, it’s all about the characters. If your characters are strong and deep, if your readers can become emotionally involved, women will want to read it. Trust me, I not only know quite a few women. I also AM ONE. Oh yeah, and guess what? The writers of “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” the two most recent big-sellers, are WOMEN. In other words, I suggest you step it up, men 😉

      That being said, I believe there is another reason why SF is shrinking. People used to read for intelligence, but now they read for relaxation. They want something that’s thrilling and exciting still, but they want a smooth read. Take “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”. They’re both great examples of smooth reads. Anyone can read them, they contain depth, and they’re very interesting and thrilling to read.

      Saying that people don’t like Sci-Fi because they’ve “Been there, done that” doesn’t really say anything. Most fantasy is based very soundly upon Lord of the Rings. Even Harry Potter is chalk-full of Lord of the Rings influences. I laugh at how much there is. Yet I still enjoy reading it. It’s creative in it’s own way.

      My point of that last part was that SF and Fantasy really aren’t so different. If fantasy has room to expand, so does SF. It’s not about the meager classification, it’s about the story and how well it’s written.

  8. I appreciated your comments, and I agree with most of them.

    I never said that SciFi is shrinking because it isn’t clean, I agree with you about the reason why it is shrinking. My comments reflect what can be done to grow it again and make room for new talent since there is an unsold segment of the population available to grow into. I think reenlivening the genre can reverse the “dumbing down” trend that you referred to.

    Did you read “Another Man’s Terrorist”? It is available online on Google Book Previews by clicking its poster in the sidebar. It is a good example of the issue to which I am referring. In it, there is opportunity to share certain dialog, comments that might be made by the Marines depicted, or by certain villans in the story, both of which might be characters who would use excessive harsh language. Those peaple simply weren’t given a voice and that part of the story is told another way. This is a story with children as the main characters, but it is by no means a children’s story because these particular children have been thrust, through the selfishness of the adults around them, into circumstances in which no child belongs. It is an adult story, with lessons in it for adults.

    The words “Those darned terrorists” would actually be plausible in a story containing Navy Seals if the charactor speaking those words was properly developed, however, I would probably develop him (or her) as a person who shuns expletives in general as just being a poor use of the language. Let’s say her name is Sally Dresdin, daughter of a highschool English teacher who believed in the concept very religously and drilled it into her from a young age and it stuck. That way, I am not “cleaning up” the story in any way that appears distracting, and am just adding character depth and exploring the pros and cons of a particular viewpoint.

    Perhaps (and this is VERY realistic as I have seen this in real life on numerous occasions) a Navy Seal might say something more like, “Those da…darned terrorists” because I have placed a highly respected Mormon or other religiously devout charactor in the story and within earshot of the conversation. If the speaker speaking these words is from the deep south, and of sterotypical deep south upbringing, all I have to do is put a female within earshot. All of these charactor-mix options are unique enough to contribute to the plot in interesting ways and add depth to the story, yet common and plausible enough to justify them being there.

    In Tom Clancy’s book “The Hunt for Red October” he does something like this to have some non-offensive fun with Mormons. A Navy doctor in charge of treating an injured Russion pilot is mixed in with a pair of ignorant Russion agents who misinterpret the “No Smoking” signs on board the U.S. Navy hospital ship as being the result of that particular Mormon officer’s religious extremism only.

    The Mormon officer then looses his temper and…almost…uses profanity when one of the agents lights up near the patient and almost starts a fire.

    It reminded me of a real-life experience at the Army base where I grew up, at a medical clinic there. The administrator was sitting right under a “No Smoking” sign…smoking. My mother was with me, and starting to have difficulty breathing and I began poignantly looking at her, the sign, and the cigarette.

    The administrator looked up at me and sneered, “Oh, I guess you’re one of those damned Mormons aren’t you?”

    “Yes,” was my calm reply, “but also she’s an asthmatic.”

    I think he may have actually burned his fingers snuffing the cigarette.

    My point is that a creative approach to the story writing can be used to broaden the market for the story, without leaving a “gratutious cleanness” footprint on it.

    That is also my answer to the SciFi genre running out of things to talk about. I have heard folks describe a couple of my stories as covering a particularly common SciFi topic “in a fresh way that feels new”.

    Cultural SciFi can be as deep as our culture and never run out of topics. “Another Man’s Terrorist” talks about child soldiers in a way that points a finger at a terrible problem, without pointing it at any particular Earth country or group, allowing me to discuss the issue itself more directly, bipassing the cultural, political, or religious baggage that many groups use to cloud an issue like this or justify the means by which a particular “worthy to them” objective is being pursued.

  9. Your examples of how to avoid “dirty” content is precisely what I’m talking about. Am I supposed to only write stories that have children or Mormon characters hanging around so people will “naturally” censor their own language? Am I supposed to only write about characters who have made the decision to never use profanity?

    As a storyteller, my goal is to tell compelling, entertaining, impactful, and honest stories. Your primary goal seems to be to tell “clean” stories. Distort the story however you have to to clean it up.

    I don’t object to people wanting to tell clean stories. I’ve written those kind myself. I do object to twisting and distorting stories to become clean which can’t be told honestly that way. I object to cleanness being the highest priority in storytelling, at the expense of quality and honesty.

    It seems clear you’re a Mormon=–so am I. I know where all this obsession with “cleanness” is coming from. And it’s my opinion that this obsession with cleanness over quality or honesty is precisely why so much LDS art is mediocre, if not awful. Invariably, whenever someone markets an LDS book or film or whatever as being “clean,” that work ends up being of poor quality. And whenever I see a marketing campaign that emphasizes cleanness, my reaction is, “Okay, but is it any GOOD?”

    If I saw ample examples to the contrary, that would be different. Then I would concede your premise. But I don’t.

    If you need to go to contorted gyrations to write Navy SEALS with clean language into your story, then it’s my conviction that artistic integrity compels you to write about something else, and leave the Navy SEALS to someone willing to write about them honestly.

    If you want to include a single Navy SEAL who has chosen to avoid profanity, fine. But if all your Navy SEALS speak like they’re in Sunday School, you’re writing dishonestly, and you should write about something else.

    • My goal is to write “compelling, entertaining, impactful, and honest stories” that will be read and enjoyed by the broadest possible cross-section of readers, again and again, so that the impact will be amplified across as many sub-cultures as possible…even to the point of impacting the broader culture itself.

    • I feel you are highly mistaken about why LDS art is mediocre. Can we all just open our minds for a minute? Step away from our own self-righteousness and pre-supposed notions? I’ll tell you EXACTLY why LDS art is mediocre. It’s actually quite simple: THERE ISN’T VERY MUCH OF IT.
      There’s nothing to judge it against. I’ll compare popular music to EFY music. In the wide world, it’s DIFFICULT to make is as an artist. Let’s say I wanted to make it as a singer. There are SO many out there. How do I make myself known? I have to push my way to the top. I have to be the best of the best or no one’s going to even look at me. On the other hand, if I recorded an EFY song today and sent it in, I would probably receive a hearty thank-you and my song would be on the next EFY CD, no matter how well it was written.
      I assure you that there is much more mediocre non-Mormon art than there is Mormon art. There is also much more excellent art. Mediocre art gets tossed to the side simply because there is excellent art to replace it. What Mormon art needs is more COMPETITION. It has nothing to do with cleanliness.

  10. I completely disagree with your assessment in respects to sex and language. When I look for a good sci-fi movie, book or other I am concerned about sex and language and violence as if the story is artificially infused with it or has been overly passified to be devoid of it then it takes away from the whole story. One of the main reasons that sci-fi has floundered in the movies is due to poor writing, attempting to rewrite, assumption of low I.Q. audience and several other reasons. Will Smith had the same argument about RAP music however Eminem still wins awards.The problem is not does it have it or not it is is it justified to the telling of the story. Out of all the Artur C. Clark book I have read I can not think of any profanity but Starship Troopers, Blade Runner, Logans Run and many others would not have been right with out the nudity, profanity or violence. The problem as I see it is that people use these as ingrediants to be added after the fact. A rose is a rose, even ugly roses or pretty roses are roses. if you take an ugly rose and cut and paste to make a pretty fake rose it was still an ugly rose but now it is fake as well.

    • Were any of the movies you named as popular as the following?

      Books :Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings
      Movies :StarWars (episodes 1,2,4,5), Lord of the Rings
      T.V. Series :Stargate SG1

      If you are going to write a very good movie, book, or T.V. Series would you write it to a broad audience or a narrow one?

      How many folks have you met who would say, “I’ll NEVER go to another movie by (insert producer here) because he NEVER uses any sex or nudity!”

      In contrast, how many folks have you met who would say, “I’ll NEVER go to another movie by (insert producer here) because he ALWAYS uses to much sex and nudity!”

      Now understand…SG1 and LOTR are way to violent for children, they are not kids shows. Yet almost no sex (some episodes of SG1 have a little) or nudity (Two Towers has one quick little thing, but you’ve gotta be real quick and observant to see it). Are you saying that you think that these would have made more money if they’d had Starship Troopers levels of “mature material”?

      I say they wouldn’t have.

  11. Wesley, if all we cared about was being mercenary hacks who maximize our profits instead of being true to the story we’re telling, you might have a point.

    • Hmm…
      I must say that is a very unique review of Isaac Asimov, Hans Christian Anderson, C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein.

      I’ve never heard them described that way before. 😉

      • And you still haven’t heard them described that way. Unless you’re saying none of those authors cared about the story. Caring about the story does not preclude success–but you seem to be arguing that we should only do that in stories that maximize success, and that is mercenary.

      • Of course they care about the story and their work exceeds yours or mine in quality and readership in spite of the fact that it lacks mature sexual content, even when such could have been shoe-horned into the story. I am talking about speculative fiction writers striving to write more work like theirs and I think that more work like theirs would expand the genre.

        The authors I named cared about their stories, as do I, and they cared about leaving out explicit sexual content (even when their stories had room in the plot for some) as do I. They kept there work clean for personal reasons, as do I. Their work has broad and timeless reader appeal, as I hope mine will one day.

        I believe that there is a lesson to be learned from that. “True to the story” is often used by authors as nothing more than a lame excuse to shoot their story, and themselves, in the foot. A writer leaves a lot of details out to keep the flow going. Certain details add substance to the story and support the plot while certain other details don’t add anything to the story at all and end up being only a distraction. But here’s the thing…certain types of details are more of a distraction for more readers than many authors think they are…or perhaps think they should be. Sex is a sledge hammer and if you add sex to a story it becomes a story about sex…for most readers. If you add harsh profanity to a story then it throws many (if not most) readers off balance and the more subtle plot and theme elements become lost in the noise. This happens even when the sexual behavior and profanity is realistic for the characters. Now, if you want to write a story about how much sailors cuss, *then* let ’em cuss like sailors *then* that would be “true to the story”.

        And, in addition to my “true to the story” comments in the above paragraph, I also hereby publically challenge the mantra, “Sex Sells”. I don’t think it does anymore; I think that it does the opposite. Explicit sexual material in entertainment has lost its “novelty” status and turns more people off than on. Perhaps a writer wants to include mature content for their own personal reasons, and use the excuse of “true to the story” if they want to, but I say that fewer people will read the story than might have otherwise and the writer should not delude themselves in that regard.

  12. Oops, addressed that to the wrong person.

    Bill, if all we cared about yada yada…

  13. You’re just re-arguing what you’ve said before. I don’t believe in shoe-horning anything in, nor do I think sex should be added because “sex sells.” But I do believe being true to the story is most certainly a valid reason to include things that others might not want to read. What offends the reader runs the gamut, and I’m not about to tailor my work to the lowest common denominator, because the lowest common denominator is usually dumb.

    If you want to argue gratuitous sex and whatever else you object to harms a story, I’m with you. But as sick as you are of people saying “sex sells,” I’m sick of people telling me just because people wrote around the forced restrictions of Hayes Commission days and still produced something worthwhile, that’s the only way I should do it. I’m sick of people telling me, “If you don’t abide by my standards, then you’re writing filth.”

    I write according to standards–pretty high standards. But my standards aren’t necessarily your standards, and I’m sick of people like you telling me your standards are superior to mine.

  14. you may be onto something. I don’t enjoy profanity. I don’t cuss at all. In some books it is a huge distraction and maybe just a ploy to get word count up. I can handle it from specific characters more so than others. If a space marine is cussing up a storm, I look at that as realistic. Note, all the space marines should not be that foul mouthed, but one character is fine.

    Sex scenes are usually not relevant to the story in scifi books and are usually only there to have a sex scene. these can be alluded to without damaging the narrative in most cases.

    a fix for the naked scientist problem you had, would be to make a graphic that says it and link the graphic to his site.

    I do think that authors have noticed the YA explosion and therefore feel that they need or should be more adult in order to seperate themselves from that. YA is generally considered poorer quality wise and there are a lot of authors who would prefer to not be found on those shelves. YA novels have lots of sex though or allusions to it. I bet a lot of parents don’t realize this.

    I have a 10 year old and she is an accelerated reader and I like to recommend books to her, but I usually find that I can’t do that because of language or sex. I have to skip a lot of scifi movies or tv shows due to this as well.

    • Budd : Into the Dark might be a too violent for your daughter. There are two brief scenes with some close-in fighting in which some people get shot and die or get injured and there are some fleet level battles in which starships are destroyed, sometimes with all hands.

      Also, even though it contains no sex and very limited, very mild, and very contextual profanity, it isn’t a children’s book. It is a story about adults solving adult problems in adult ways. There are no charactors like Jar-Jar Binks who appear to be a cute talking animal and some of the humor might require some interest in and knowledge of science, politics and physics to “get”. There are also some tactically intense moments which some children might be be able to follow closely enough to find entertaining.

      • Well, I don’t know. I think some very mature 10-year-olds could enjoy it. I think more boys would enjoy it than girls, though. Also, it’s an intellectual read. It’s not a peaceful stroll in the park like Twilight. It’s more a brisk run.
        As for appropriate material, I think it’s more child-friendly than the 4th Twilight or the 7th Harry Potter.

  15. I loved this post. I have adopted a policy of never dropping the F bomb or including explicit sexual content in my books. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, not everybody wants to read and see ammorality depicted all the time.

    • I do not think that there is any financial reason to include such content. Sex does not sell, that has been proven time and again.

      But there is more…

      We are taught as writers to trim our stories of unnecessary and distracting elements, yet movies and books will trim all distracting elements except the mature content. They leave it in there, distracting or not, just so it can be there. In so doing they limit their market footprint, saying that they are “preserving realism” that they would have trimmed in the name of conciseness if it had been any other type of detail.

  16. Wow. I loved this article. I’m first going to analyze your points, then I’m going to add onto it.

    Swearing: You know my personal stance on swearing, but for the sake of everyone I’ll reiterate it: When you swear you give the impression of having a limited vocabulary and/or limited ability to express yourself. When it comes to writing I would personally only use it in the vocabulary of someone I was trying to portray as brash, coarse, and stupid. However, it isn’t necessary: Gaston in Beauty and the Beast would be a character to whom I would attribute swearing… but he is easily portrayed without it.

    Sex: First of all, removing sex does not necessarily mean removing sexual tension. Sexual tension (along with -hopefully- other compelling story lines) has been proven to lock in audiences. X-Files, Bones, Sword of Truth, Twilight (which shows you can, somehow, use ONLY sexual tension and no other plot). However, if you look at the history of those series, after the characters are secure in their relationships, the series dies unless you give the reader a different but similar drama (Bones did a good job learning from X-Files and they have handled the transition much better). I personally LOVED the end of the drama in twilight, and I found the 4th book to be the best in the series (plot, anyone?), however, the grand majority of people I talk to hated the 4th book compared to the other 3, so if you’re writing stories for the masses, then maintain the sexual tension to keep your audience.
    I agree that if you want to widen your readership you take the sex out. However, I don’t think that sex in books is always going to destroy them. Here’s both sides of it: Sword of Truth started out as an EXCELLENT series until the author gave in to the “smut” demands, sex destroyed those books. Game of Thrones, however, would not be what it is without the sex. The sex in GOT isn’t smut (until it became an HBO series- lol). It’s not what you find when the hero and the heroine get it on. It is life. It is sex being used for power and control. It is used to create the characters, the whole scene of Bran accidentally discovering the queen and her brother, completely creates those characters in a single swipe. Or when the women under siege think they are going to die, that that is the worst that can happen, and it is realized that the guard in the room with them isn’t there to protect them, he is there to kill them in the case of defeat, before they get raped by the attacking army, and the reader knows that yes, that could happen – GRRM would go there, so you’re suddenly glad that the characters could die instead.

    But moving on, the thing that Sci Fy has seemed to lose is the 1984 appeal. Meaning the plausible dystopic future (which Into the Dark and Another Man’s Terrorist does a great job of capturing). That is what truly great sci fy like Ender’s Game brings to the table. The main idea is when you ignore the creation of the atmosphere and characters, and just rely on cool technology, violence, and sex to promote your book/genre, it is going to die.

    • If it doesn’t spoil the story it hijacks it.

      Most of my point is that a good story (or even a so-so story) with no sex or harsh profanity has more money making potential than a good story with sex and/or harsh profanity.

      You’ll also be interested in the comments exchange in that article. Predictions were made that have now had time to work their way through. Did they come true?

      • You tell me. I assume you’re referring to the Game of Thrones predictions. You personally got to sit in the Targaryens’ throne of swords, and posted a picture of it to this blog.

        I know you would love Game of Thrones. For a while, when I was reading it, I was tempted to “clean flix” it for you with a marker. And then write in with a pen the essential plot elements that you were missing by me crossing things out… It just became a super huge project…

        You’re right though; if the point is to make more money, take the sex and language out. However, low reading level is what really ramped up the ratings and purchases of Harry Potter/Twilight. You can create content for regular readers, or if you are truly talented, you can create content which a regular reader has the potential to enjoy, but that can be understood and consumed by the (relatively illiterate) masses. That’s how you get to be number 1. LOTR will never have as many readers as Harry Potter/Twilight, not because of quality, sex, or language, but because of the general literacy level of the masses.

      • Ok, I looked it up. There are so many Game of Thrones products (5 books, paperback and hard cover) that going through them one by one would take too long. So I just went straight to the Amazon Best Sellers list and looked through it from 1 to 100.

        As of just now, the four book boxed set is ranked #36 and has been on the top 100 list for 684 days. A Dance with Dragons is #79 with 656 in the top 100. There are no other George R. R. Martin or J.K Rollings books on the top 100 list currently.

        I do not have any way to compare how long the Harry Potter books were on the top 100 list, together or separately, during their hay-day. Only book retailers and the publishers have access to those stats. However, I do know that it was measured in years. I’m fairly certain that her first book stayed up there pretty much throughout the run of all of the sequels and for years after. The numbers that I took originally were in 2009 but there were HP movies running at the time, so that might have reflected a resurgence–but I doubt it. My recollection is that it stayed up there in or near the top 100 for nearly that entire time.

        Some would say that those two authors target different markets and so this isn’t a fair comparison. I say that just saying that makes my point.

      • This means that if you are shooting to be the next Harry Potter/Twilight, then you can measure your potential success by one simple factor.

        Mommy told me that Twilight was the first series she ever remembered finishing. It did wonders for her self confidence when it comes to reading. When Mommy picks up your book and can’t put it down, that is when you have hit the jackpot.

      • She’s in a book club now and reads a lot.

      • Yep! I know! She reads a lot now. That’s why I said “can’t put it down”

      • You’re right, GOT doesn’t have as many purchases as Harry Potter or Twilight. While sex is probably part of it, I think it mainly doesn’t have as many sales because of the high reading level.

        Have you read The Host by Stephanie Meyer? It is SO MUCH BETTER than Twilight. It’s also not a very high reading level (just higher than Twilight/HP). I would put it in the category of science fiction (along w/ a sprinkle of the trademark Meyer sexual tension). I have a friend and coworker who likes a lot of the same stuff as me (when it comes to television) – which means she is a syfy/fantasy nerd. She is currently working on a Masters Degree in something literature related. Now, SHE couldn’t really comprehend The Host, and eventually gave up trying to read it. It was her copy that I read. Once the movie comes out this year, a lot more people are going to finally be able to finish reading it, because the movie will connect the dots for them. That book made its sales on the coat-tails of Twilight. It was better! But audiences understand romance a lot better than symbiotic bipolar people.

        Writers are smart. They read true literature. They want to write true literature: 1984, etc. They dream of having a book make it onto the classic reading lists. Unfortunately, books like 1984 wouldn’t sell anymore UNLESS they were on the classic reading lists in schools. You can write an intellectual book and get small to moderate sales, or you can write HP/Twilight (and I think it’s a pride issue that holds a lot of authors back – they want the intellectual, and the pat on their back by fellow authors). Tolkien once said that he wished that he had written The Hobbit in a similar style to LOTR. I guess that he meant that he wished he hadn’t dumbed it down to a lower reading level. I loved The Hobbit. Read it in 6th grade. It was my first introduction to Tolkien. I wish that he had done the reverse, and had written LOTR in a similar style to The Hobbit (except the Shelob part… *heart-throb sigh*… you can leave that exactly how it is).

  17. […] is now obvious to me that Hollywood agrees with my earlier post here (The Incredible Shrinking Genre) about the importance of Family Friendly entertainment.  I say this because they appear to be […]

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