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The Future of Genre Fiction (an interview by Marc Marion) Part 1

Not long ago, I was just another fresh face who was trying to learn as much as I could about the publishing world. I’d gotten a great internship at small SF/F publisher, but as it was my first time working in publishing, I had a lot to learn. Part of my curriculum was reading articles and blogs about the changes and challenges a digital world was bringing to a paper-pushing business, and I was amazed at some of the things I was reading and how much our concept of reading might change before the end of the decade.

At first, I was in denial. They couldn’t get rid of books. I love books; nothing like the feel of paper between your fingers. And there was nothing worse than having to read lots of text on a screen. But, the more I thought about, the more I believed that the economics a digital world presented would win out in the end. But then, what do I know, I was just a newbie in the business. I decided to ask some of the bloggers I had met about what they saw as the future for genre fiction.

The panellists today:

Mark Chitty from Walker of Worlds

John Ottinger from Grasping for the Wind

and, Ana & Thea from The Book Smugglers

Here’s the interview I conducted with them.

1. How has genre fiction changed over the years since you first started reading it?

MARK

Because I tend to read sci-fi more than any of the other genres, I don’t always look for trends across the genre as a whole. Compared to fantasy and urban fantasy, science fiction does take up an awful lot less shelf space. While the publication of sci-fi isn’t shrinking, it definitely isn’t growing either, especially when looking at what is due out this year from the UK genre publishers. So, not much of a change from my point of view, although that isn’t to say that things are stagnant – far from it!

JOHN

How hasn’t it changed? Subgenres that were little known (paranormal romance) have taken over where others (epic fantasy) used to dominate. Science fiction has become much less hopeful in its outlook for humanity, showcasing a pessimistic view of the future of mankind. Much science fiction has also changed and we no longer use words like ansible regularly (except in rare cases of authors from the golden age sticking to their guns) but instead talk about satellite technology, nanomachines and more. It can be said that many of these things were predicted by science fiction authors, but they did not have the immediacy they do now in an age where these marvels are already becoming commonplace. More importantly, I think that slowly but surely, genre fiction is gaining a broader and broader audience.

ANA

Confession time. I am actually really, really new to genre reading. Not because of choice, because I know that if I have had any I would have chosen Genre reading since childhood. But I am Brazilian and unfortunately, other than Tolkien (which I read when I was about 17) and Harry Potter, genre fiction is not a big chunk of the Brazilian publishing world especially not from American/European authors. It is interesting to note though, that I always navigated towards the Fantastic. From a very early age, I read all sorts of mythological tales I could find: Norse, Celtic, Greek, Egyptian mythologies, you name it, I read it. And the interesting thing is this, as soon as I moved away from Brazil 6 years ago and discovered the world of genre reading and immersed myself in it, and I found that the basics are all there and are not all that different from mythological tales.

THEA

Ever since I could read, genre fiction has been my poison of choice. And, the cool thing is, since I’m relatively young, a lot of my favorite writers when I was a child are still active, influential voices in genre fiction today. I am thrilled, too, that there is a greater appreciation for Young Adult genre fiction from adult readers (see, for example, the awesome reception Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels), as well as the overall accepted and popular position that manga and comic books/graphic novels now enjoy with a larger, mainstream audience.

On a more micro level, I’ve noticed a shift away from orcs, elves, dragons and their ilk in fantasy, as werewolves, vampires, and modern witches/humans of supernatural abilities have replaced them. While the Western European mold/pantheon for magic and locales seems to still be dominant in most fantasy and horror, in my reading I’ve seen a (greatly appreciated) variation of race/ethnicity and gender of protagonists (and authors) and in settings of books. On the negative side, there seems to have been a decrease in truly awesome, theoretical, hard science fiction. A lot of the sci-fi focus of late has been on military/war type of titles, which is all fine and good, but we need a few more Stephen Baxters pushing out novels each year. Please.

2. How has the make-up of genre readers changed? Looking ahead, how would you assess the health of the readership?

JOHN

I would say that the audience for genre fiction is considerably wider. In addition to appealing to more women, minorities, and international readers (something it has always done, but not to the more visible extent it does now) – as others from those groups have become more vocal and have contributed more fiction to the field – more readers and writers of the same have taken up residence in subgenre once dominated by “old white guys”.

The readership is also getting younger and younger. Students such as the ones I teach are preferring books by Rick Riordan over the realistic fiction by Lois Lowry (who also writes SF now) or Katherine Paterson that was taught when I was the same age. Fantasy and science fiction are more accessible to teens, tweens, and youngsters of all ages than ever before. Kids are more likely to pick up books set in the Star Wars universe than books by Beverly Cleary. Even the girls prefer some form or another of genre fiction that once appealed mostly to boys.

Is this healthy? You bet. Genre fiction has wider and wider appeal as more and more subgenres are born from the minds of writers. This, in my opinion, can only mean that the genre is getting stronger and stronger as it gets more and more diverse in readership and authorship. Take a walk through a chain bookstores “general fiction” section and you will see almost as many novels that belong in the “science fiction and fantasy” category as realistic, historical, or spy novels. Increased reader diversity of audience and the continued willingness of writers to push the boundaries of genre are only going to strengthen already strong genres.

ANA

Young Adult books from Stephenie Meyer, JK Rowling, Melissa Marr, and Holly Black are a wonderful introduction to genre fiction to teenagers – some YA books are awesome fantasy and sci-fi novels. As more and more teens start to read early and join the ranks of genre reading that early, the likelihood of them becoming genre fiction readers as they grow up is huge. So I would add the burgeoning YA market to the list as well as a very good thing for genre fiction.
THEA

The speculative fiction umbrella of genres has certainly undergone a metamorphosis since my youth. Take, for example, the popularity of the burgeoning Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance sub-genres. On the positive side, I’m thrilled that there’s a larger share in the SF/F/H market for female readers and authors – contemporary authors like Jacqueline Carey, Sarah Monette, Naomi Novik, and Robin Hobb have crossover appeal to not only seasoned readers, but to newcomers to genre fiction as well. Authors like Patricia Briggs, Rachel Caine, Kim Harrison, and Jim Butcher have written some of the best new contemporary/Urban Fantasy available today, and are widely read. On the negative side, as with any popular trend, there is a glut of tiresome, uninspired UF/PNR on the shelves, attempting to ride on the coattails of Laurel K. Hamilton (Anita Blake), Charlainne Harris (Sookie Stackhouse of True Blood) and Stephanie Meyer (the dreaded Twilight Saga). But, I have to say that overall I find the growing, diverse readership to be a good thing in determining the direction, breadth and health of genre fiction, especially in the SF/F/H market.

If anything, the mass appeal of Urban Fantasy – to the point where these titles are appearing as top titles on the NYT Best Sellers list – is a very good thing for genre fiction readers.

MARK

I think that the older group of genre readers are still around, but there aren’t too many younger people coming into the readership, or at least not as much into sci-fi as they are with fantasy and urban fantasy. The Twilight and Harry Potter books have given the younger generation a reason to read, but I just don’t see that they have grown up and joined the adult reading community. There are the obvious publications that aim specifically for this market, but with so much else to distract them I don’t think that the encouragement to read more is there. Hopefully they’ll mature and the readership will grow and become stronger, but in today’s age of everything at the touch of a button, I’m not so sure.

Return to this blog on Wednesday for Part 2 of “The Future of Genre Fiction”.