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.
- Who is purported to be the second richest woman in England, after the Queen?
- What do the Harry Potter books, the Twilight books, and Star Wars have in common (besides just being popular among both children and adults)?
- 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.
- J.K. Rowlings.
- Limited sex and profanity.
- 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.
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.