What is the the demographic for the fantastic?

I just took a stride through the SFF section of my local Waterstones. I do this regularly but I don’t tarry as long I used to, there are rarely enough new additions to hold my attention for more than a moment. For many reasons the books I really want to read often aren’t to be found there.

What I did find today were a group of late teen / early twenty something kids hanging around the stacks. Three boys all of the Trenchcoat Brigade (one sporting a very fancy leopard dyed three stripe mohican), and a girl who had obviously read more than a few Lenore comics. IE…standard issue emo-goth-indie-metal-geeks. No surprise finding them looking at the SFF books. The weird, speculative and fantastic has always attracted the kids who make a space for themselves outside the mainstream in one guise or another, the Alt. kids.

(Hence the mission of the upcoming Alt.Fiction festival ((Derby, June 2010)) to stage a literature festival that appeals to all those Alt. people outside the mainstream who love books.)

When I was an Alt. kid, I loved SFF  because it was as weird as I was. It was written by nutty Oxbridge academics, or insane Californian hippies, or bearded kaos wizards. I had little if anything in common with these people save our shared passion for the fantastic. Which was really the point. The fantastic took me to places I could never go, through the minds of people I could never be. Those people weren’t writing for me, or even for people like me, they were writing for reasons all their own and I was just tagging along for the ride.

Thinking about the Alt. kids today I wonder if they are getting the same experience from that section of the bookshop as I did. It could well be that I’m turning into a grumpy old man who thinks the kids of today are missing the point. But to be honest, I don’t think so. Today it feels like the Alt. kids are a demographic that the genre is dedicated to attracting, rather than one it accidentally picked up on the way to a more interesting destination. If was an Alt. kid now I don’t think the SFF genre would be all that interesting to me, if only because anything trying that hard to suck up to the twenty something me would have instantly lost my trust.

Whatever the demographic for the fantastic is the last things we should do is cater to it, or we stop being fantastic at all.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

3 thoughts on “What is the the demographic for the fantastic?

  1. Well things have certainly changed in the Waterstones SFF section and I find myself browsing there for shorter and shorter periods each time.

    The key difference I notice is that there has increasingly been a lack of any real breadth or depth. There is a fairly good selection of the “classics*” and a selection of books by current authors. But there’s no real way for someone to find a niche and tunnel down into it.

    An issue of store size and the way Waterstones operates as a bookstore.

    Of course, there is the growth of paranormal romance and the constant attraction of horror fiction to throw into this. But this is maybe the Twilight, Stephen King, Anne Rice factor. Constantly there for the past thirty years in some form

    I’d also argue that SFF was alternative fiction (outsider fiction) because it was the fiction, at the time, which explored ideas that mainstream literature refused to engage. This has changed somewhat with books borrowing ideas from SF winning major literary awards and historical fiction, which is surely just fantasy wearing real names instead of made up ones, also becoming the norm.

    Reading the cheap truth zines by Bruce Sterling there was a note of dissatisfaction that SFF had become stale back in the early eighties. Maybe it is cyclical process and it is time for a new new wave.

    Yes, I am rambling now.

    – Will.

    * A whole other problem.


  2. All good points Will. I like the term Outsider Fiction. That is the thing genre has really lost, the kind of outcast chic it once had is gone, at least for now. And yes it is certainly a cycle. I think the ebook revolution might well be the thing that shakes up genre this time around.


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