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The Quality Fantasy Debate

So, there appears to be some debate around the Internet, about ‘quality fantasy’. Firstly, there was this from literary guru, M John Harrison.

Substitute imagination for exhaustiveness, and inventiveness for research. As a reader I’m not interested in a “fully worked out” world. I’m not interested in “self consistency”. I don’t care what kind of underpants Iberian troops wore in 1812, or if I do I can find out about it for myself. I don’t want the facts about the Silk Road or the collapse of the Greenland Colony, sugared up & presented in three-volumes as an imaginary world. I don’t want to be talked through your enthusiasm for costume. I don’t want be talked through anything.

Then there was Mark Chadbourn’s call to action, against the threat of RPG saturation.

And it’s all been summarised, for now, on Ariel’s Genre Files site.

Essentially, fantasy literature is being challenged from all sides. I thought that since I’ve worked in bookselling, work in publishing, and am a mere babe at putting pen to paper. So perhaps I’ve got quite a well rounded knowledge on some of this.

The problem isn’t simply commercial vs art. My angle is one of economics. Over the last few years, large publishing houses have merged to become conglomerates, and there are few major genre houses left standing. This has meant that their sales expectations have gone up. Publishing is a business, let’s not forget that. But marketing departments have increasing input, some might say too much, in acquisitions of novels. What that means is editors face sales people and are asked the question is it commercial, will it sell x,y,z? If not, it’s unlikely to be taken forward. This doesn’t mean that nothing truly artistic will ever be published. But even at the front line, in bookselling, chains have to face supermarkets for market share of title. If less people go into bookshops, more into supermarkets, this means that sales expectations go up. There is less room for midlist authors. There is, generally speaking, less room for artistic experimentation. And yes, that means those pushing boundaries are less likely to see publication.

However, from the reader end of things, it means they are being presented with a certain type of novel. It means they have less choice at the mass market. The real question is that if they are presented with an innovative book, would they buy it? What type of innovation would they purchase? And we’d be very rich if we knew the answers to that. Also, it’s important to say this: not everyone wants innovation. Some people want a steady, easy read. Whether this is good or bad is something as wide open to opinion as you can get, and is another blog posting entirely—why people read in the first place.

What this does mean is that the small or limited edition presses can have a good deal more fun publishing experimental fantasy fiction, that which isn’t of a certain shape and form. They have creative freedom, and produce some wonderful books. If we want to see more innovative fiction, we must look to the small presses, and we must support them. This goes for any creative industry, surely, that the indies can produce more innovation. Or at least look a little harder, past the multi-buys, and spend more time browsing. Large publishers do take risks. Just look at Hal Duncan’s Vellum, for a recent example. Or indeed for mass market success combined with innovation, look at Sir Steven Erikson.

On Ariel’s blog:

David Hebblethwaite wonders: “…how many writers of unchallenging fantasy actually do make a comfortable living from their writing? Are there any writers of good quality material who make a living; and, if so, what differentiates them from writers of similar stuff who do not?” Good questions. Any writers out there care to comment?

Speaking from a publishing angle, of course it is hugely more likely that unchallenging fantasy authors can make a living, but it is the rare exception for any author, or at least 90% of authors, to make a comfortable living. I would never advise an author to give up working for a living to write, because of the uncertainties of the book industry. Unless in very rare circumstances. For example, in US publishing it is harder to publish a book by an author who has had an unsatisfactory sales record, as buyers for the chains will buy the new book based on how the last book sold, and order in to that level. So there is a risk of a downward spiral in an author’s career.

It’s not a pretty picture, but be happy that SF and Fantasy writers are in a community, which is far friendlier and greater than any other genre. Look at the amount of blogs out there. The amount of conventions. If anyone is in this for the money, whether they want to be the next M John Harrison, or the next be$t$eller, be prepared for disappointment, is all I say. You might be lucky, you might not.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.