Yesterday, Dave Truesdale, editor of Tangent Online, sent me a classic interview he did with science fiction great, Poul Anderson. He warned me it was a short interview, but that didn’t make what Anderson said any less substantive. It was eye opening to see how Anderson saw the genre in 1975 — already in decay from the great pulp era of the 1940s-1960s. I’ll highlight some interesting points and show how Anderson warned us decades ago how culture was on a downward path which led us to this point today where the genre is nearly dead in sales, and the group of self-purported artist professionals who run the big publishing elements actively try to blacklist people over political affiliations.
This all started to come to light a few years ago when the Hugos were shown to be an insular group of people shilling political content over good stories. But this road started a long time ago:
Inevitably, all such rewards are controversial, of course. The Nebula and Hugo awards together are rather interesting in that respect, too. Although they cover the same field, they are awarded on quite different bases. So, I think it gives a chance for a little more variety of recognition.
Controversy has plagued these awards since the 70s. However — there was a big enough a fan base to have a variety there vs. now, it’s the same 500-1000 people voting in both, giving very little variety. As it’s become more controversial and more political, the general public has tuned out, and this problem goes back to the 70s.
What about the short fiction market?
Well, the pulp magazines are dead, and the magazine field generally is in a bad way. But I’d say that the old-fashioned pulp novel at least is flourishing as well as ever. It seems they’ve moved over into the paperback books.
TANGENT: What about the short story anthology as a replacement?
ANDERSON: To some extent they’re stepping in to fill that need, but the fact is though, that for whatever reason, by and large, short story collections don’t sell as well as novels. Evidently fewer readers wish to buy a short story collection.
The magazines are deader than ever. Their readerships are lower than ever. And anthologies were starting to be a replacement then, but anthologies are deader than doornails now as well. The bottom line is there’s no path for a writer to be able to sustain themselves with short fiction anymore, and it’s because of the political drivel being peddled as stories for so long. Audiences have tuned out. Anderson, interestingly, has advice on that front as well:
I think the first duty of all art, including fiction of any kind, is to entertain, that is to say, to hold the interest. No matter how worthy the message of something, if it’s dull you’re just not communicating.
And this is the crux of where the industry went afoul. They created dull fiction. They pushed it to somewhere where nearly everything released is a shoddy message with very little to hold the attention. Science Fiction is about excitement, about wonder, and when you remove that from your writing to try to be more “literary” the stories end up communicating less of that as well. Which is why the elites are struggling so much with their fiction, even to write it. It’s a slog to write and a slog to read, and this is why us in the indie markets are focused on making science fiction fun again.
The same things have been going on since the 1970s, but now they’ve reached a critical mass where big publishing has become so insular, it’s turned off readers. The readers are still around, but they’re not going to buy their books. On the indies front, we keep gaining more market share because we keep producing more fun. It wasn’t an option in Poul’s day, which created the stagnant market because impressing a small oligopoly of editors in a niche field was the only way to get published. Now, anyone can put out a good product if they work hard. The gates are torn down. And it’s making them more desperate.
It’s interesting to look back and see this interview as a warning of what was to come, however. Industry vets like Anderson knew there were problems coming, but didn’t see how far it would regress the industry and the culture. While the fight now may seem hard and overwhelming, it’s going to take a generation to right the course, and it’s our duty to do so. I recommend reading the full interview because it presents a pretty interesting historical picture of the market. Interesting food for thought.
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