SF & Fantasy need to stop being so damn eager to please

“It just seems to me that, from Ballard to Herbert, SF was on a mission to invent and explore unknown fresh new psychologies. It was a fascinating, daunting task. We were on to something- and we lost the nerve to do it.”

There’s nothing less interesting than something which only exists to please you. And sometimes things of this kind aren’t just dull, but radically off putting and even offensive. Because something that only aims to please is by its nature manipulative, maybe even exploitative. It’s only trying to please you because it wants something from you. And if the thing it wants is money. Well that’s the most boring and offensive thing of all.

The quote at the head of this post was left by my friend Jim Worrad on a Facebook thread sparked by the idea that that Ursula Le Guin would not be published as a debut author today. Jim’s quote really sums up what I’ve felt festering inside for the last few days since publishing my latest Weird Things column on Le Guin’s new selected stories The Real and the Unreal. Thinking about Le Guin’s writing I really found myself wondering why there are so few writers in the fantasy genre producing work of the kind of quality – creatively, intellectually, technically – that Le Guin has produced throughout her career.

Clearly there are some. Lavie Tidhar scooped a World Fantasy Award for his novella Osama today – a book so original and challenging I dedicated a whole column to it back in October 2011. I could list a fair crop of other writers creating high quality fantasy writing, many of them World Fantasy award winners or nominees. Of all the genre awards it is the most consistently focussed on rewarding quality in fantasy fiction.

I’m going to guess that many, many SF & Fantasy readers will be less than pleased by the experience of reading Osama. It is a novel that goes out of its way to challenge its readers. If I was to pin one quality to Lavie’s writing as a whole it would be that. Tidhar is a steampunk author who hates steampunk, and an SF writer who hates SF. But this is exactly why many, many readers of SF & Fantasy enjoy Lavie’s writing. Because they believe that SF & Fantasy are supposed to be original and challenging, not just desperate attempts to please a nebulous mainstream audience.

Many of the current batch of bestsellers, particularly in Epic Fantasy, read exactly like calculated, desperate attempts to please some platonic ideal of a fantasy readership. Brandon Sanderson’s novels read like they were written by a committee of marketing executives, which from the author who sailed Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time franchise home is hardly surprising. Trudi Canavan’s books are basically Mary Sue coming of age fantasies. Pat Rothfuss novels are like post-modern simulacra of of fantasy novels, a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a fantasy novel. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series are well described role playing source books with a feint stab at character that misses more often than not.

SF & Fantasy have a self-destructive tendency to behave like eager to please employees at a new job. You want a five part magical quest story with a singing sword? YOU GOT IT! You want a steampunk romance with zeppelins and robot armies? YOU GOT IT! You want a poorly disgusied sex fantasy / power trip? YOU GOT IT! You want a violent mysoginistic romp with some rape and torture scenes? YOU GOT IT! In short order the strategy of giving people what they want conforms to the law of diminishing returns, because actually people don’t know what they want. If they did, they wouldn’t need artists to give it to them. Do you expect to just get what you want from a doctor? Or a teacher? Or a parent? Or a friend? Then why would you carry that expectation in to the deep and complex relationship an author has with a reader?

SF & Fantasy are, in the words of my friend Jim Worrad, on to a good thing. I say that in present tense because I think we’re still far from losing it all together. It’s made the artform that is SF & Fantasy storytelling one of the most powerful in contemporary culture. But SF & Fantasy don’t thrive on being eager to please. They thrive on being challenging. On being original. On describing both reality and unreality in ever more innovative and beautiful ways. So let’s please carry on doing just that.

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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.

32 thoughts on “SF & Fantasy need to stop being so damn eager to please

  1. Hi Damien.

    Interesting point of view. I think, to dig into the “Why” instead of just the prescriptive, is that genre fiction has roots in low fiction, where entertainment is valued over other virtues. Thusly, genre fiction’s role is first and foremost to entertain, to please.

    I don’t think that all genre fiction has to do this, but if genre fiction went Joycean en masse, it would be suicidal for the genre as a whole. People read genre fiction to be entertained, as well as for other reasons.


    1. I don’t want things to go all Joycean! I would like them to go back to being a lot more Delaneyesque, Gibsonian, Le Guinean, PKDickish, Ballardian, Tolkienlike, Lewisonian … and … I could do this all night…:)


  2. I agree that our genre has a tendency to spin its wheels at times. I actually stayed away from high fantasy for years because I thought it was the most stale thing ever. There I was in college and it was the same sword and sorcery I started lifting from my parents when I was 11. So I went six or eight years digging around other subgenres.

    And I think a lot of it can still be derivitive. But with the ways publishing and how we connect with others involved with our genre are expanding, I think there is room for those who want wish fullfilment or a popcorn read alongside the works that are pushing the envalope. For me personally, it’s often a mood thing. Sometimes I just want someone to stab an ogre repeatedly until it bleeds out. But that relaxation of a read will never diminish the joy of finding that new author pushing the limits of what we’ve seen before. Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds or Madaline Ashby’s vN.

    I can wax poeticly about genre theory from back in film school, but it all goes in cycles. All the tropes that are stale now were new and edgy once. Maybe someone will inject new life into them someday.


  3. As an indie sf/fantasy author whose manuscript is just sitting, waiting for several publishing houses to read it, I feel your frustration. My novel, the first in a trilogy, is a frightening allegory of our time, depicting a future false utopia in which workers/soldiers are too drugged and programmed to see reality. Scanned and jacked in, they are run by a small group of administrators and have no idea the elite have lives of privilege. Workers/soldiers see flowers instead of a pile of trash, for instance. A few start to “see,” wherein the plot gets messy. The novel was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s not pleasing, porn or “hurt the child,” and I’m not a celebrity. Therefore, I’ll likely end up self-publishing it, and very few will read it. This is what happens when you run outside the groove. Meantime, I’ve self-published two books and am starting the second novel of the trilogy. I have the satisfaction, at least, of knowing I tried to get the message out. Yet too many were concerned about Snookie’s next boyfriend to care.


  4. I agree with Mike that there’s room for both entertainment and enlightment in SFF, but I’d like to add one more factor: publishing itself. In the late 20th century, publishing became more and more bestseller-focused and self-publishing was still mired in vanity presses. If you wanted your work to see the light of day, you wrote commercial fiction.

    The fact that innovative writers like Lavie Tidhar and Madeline Ashby are now getting published by smaller presses such as PS and Angry Robot proves that this is where (and when) SFF is getting interesting again. Not in the realm of Amazon and the Big Five, who only want the ogre-stabbing painted-by-numbers stuff.


    1. PS have been around for a while, as have many other small presses. And they’ve typically published anything but Extruded Fantasy Product. But they rarely get their books onto the shelves of high street book stores, Amazon demands an exorbitant discount and won’t stock them anyway… So the books have always been there, it’s just that the distribution sucks – which is no surprise as it’s dominated by the commercial publishers.


      1. What Ian Said, basically. There’s the associated issue that those of us now writing for smaller houses, and indeed, most of us writing for the big ones, can’t make a living out of it and have to rely on other work for the primary income. I spoke to someone recently who copped a six figure advance from one of the big UK houses, having drawn word of mouth attention from self publication, who is wondering whether to go back to self publishing because it’s more lucrative for them. Interesting times.


    1. Maybe not solely, but the days are long gone when editors called all the shots. Now it’s central book buyers who have the final say – which is why cover art is largely in the doldrums as well.


      1. I tend to agree with you here Anne. Everyone I meet working for the major imprints – editors, publicists ettc – is passionate about good fantasy writing. But they’re facing a market that demands a very generic product. I think the internet is chnging this under peoples feet though. I do expect much more interesting books in the next few years.


  5. And again, I feel this is not particularly true to SF/F more than it is to any other genre in the media industry. Must every comedy flick be about teenagers burping? Must every pop song be a catchy chorus repeated until it becomes an ear-worm?
    Anyway, the fact that you (and other readers/authors) perceive it as a problem with SF/F (but not, say, romance or detective stories, though both are genres that suffer from the same illness) tells much about SF/F readers and authors, who they are, and what they aim.


  6. Thanks for this Damien – it perfectly captures the boredom I feel at much of the SF&F that adorns bookshops and bestseller lists at the moment. I gave up reading epic fantasy several years ago for precisely this reason; I’ve been picking it up again recently, only to discover that, sadly, little has changed. And much of space fiction is equally derivative.

    You are correct to say it’s up to us, the writers, to challenge the status quo; and while Anne, Lisa and others are also right to point out that the publishing industry is partly responsible for maintaining it, it is only fair to bear in mind that they are businesses, and it is their job to publish books that they are reasonably certain will sell. And one of the things that plagues much of SF&F – both mainstream derivative and innovative indie – is poor craftsmanship in the writing itself: shoddy character development, clumsy prose, inconsistencies in the world-building and holes in the plot. At the risk of introducing a note of controversy here, a less than thorough editorial process and a simple lack of literary awareness.

    Now I find that a problem for any book, but I suspect that for publishers it is an even greater problem in a book that is also attempting to plough a whole new furrow, to innovate and challenge in the way your friend Jim recalls with such longing. Gibson, Le Guin, Dick, Tolkien et. al. weren’t just inventing new worlds and exploring new forms, they were doing so with exquisite skill, care and respect for the literary quality of their work. They broke new ground not just because they told challenging stories, but because they told them so very, very well. If we want to recapture their daunting magic we must do the same.


  7. But it’s not the writers. I read really well written, challenging and radical stuff every day, but it’s convincing agents and editors to take it on, especially those that have bought into the whole “it’s-the-wrong-length-for-genre” mindset. Agents, to be fair, are only going to take on something if they can get a decent slice of a large enough pie and they are trying to place a growing number of works with a shrinking number of publishers. Which is where the problem lies. Many of the established publishers have been putting out the same stuff for so long that they really have no idea of what is exciting or fresh, and if they ever do get to see it, they are often frightened of it. If it doesn’t conform to some conservative idea they have in their heads it doesn’t stand a chance. That goes from word count to content, from covers to cost. They are all the same, interchangeable, and very few of the authors that get contracts seem to have read anything outside the narrow field they work and certainly nothing as cautionary DW Jones’s ‘Tough Guide…’.


  8. Part of the problem is identifying which authors are writing tosh and which are writing good, original stuff which is tosh-fan-compatible. Rothfuss, for example, leans towards the toshesque, and I think his execution is highly flawed, but at the heart of his series is this idea of writing an anti-epic fantasy. His hero isn’t the promised one who is going to save the world (though his PR says he is), and is in fact a bit of a tosspot, and the whole series is riddled with misdirections, unreliable narration and flat-out lies. It’s Gene Wolfe for the Eddings-raised masses (but without one-tenth of the wit or writing ability). Laudable, if rather failing to hit its target.

    Much harsher – though understandably so – is your critique of Erikson. His early books indeed feel like D&D sourcebooks with a lack of character depth (and he does have this problem with character differentiation throughout the series; too many characters with the same voice). His later ones (probably starting around the fourth or fifth) show a surprisingly successful move towards the literary, with more nuanced prose and an obsession with developing themes using the standard epic fantasy template to sneak the ideas in. It’s often flawed, but I think lumping him in with the more straightforward, unsurprising likes of Sanderson and Jordan is quite unfair.


  9. A brief word from my favorite soapbox: There’s a circular blame game in mainstream publishing that keeps things in the too-safe, unsalted-mashed-potatoes middle (and by no means just in fantasy or SF). Modern marketing is supposed to be research-driven, i.e. rather than looking at the sales figures alone, one also looks at what the feelings and needs are out there proactively. Publishers don’t do and won’t pay for modern marketing research; the people in publisher marketing are mostly what, in other industries, is called “marketing support”, i.e. those who carry out decisions made by marketing. It’s an army of supply sergeants without any line officers. So the editors, designers, art directors know that they have to get approval from a department that likes to do the same thing over and over (hence all those websites dedicated to how alike all the covers are). To keep “marketing” off their backs, they steer writers and artists toward doing the Eternal Same Old. Writers and artists who make money are increasingly drawn from the ranks of those who want to get themselves paid rather than want to get something said, so since the industry is already shrinking, more and more of what stays in the tightening circle is same-old-to-order specialists.

    Meanwhile, since marketing is comfortably doing the same thing over and over, the covers get more generic and alike because the product is being sold like canned beans, i.e. the most important thing the can does is tell you there are beans inside. This retains more readers who are looking for predictability and loses more who are looking for variety. The bookstore shelves get less varied … and more adventurous new writers and artists see “Nobody’s interested in what I want to do” and more flexible ones see “Oh, that’s what’s selling.” And downward we spiral till eventually there will be about three plots and three covers.

    What will break the spiral is somebody, anybody, out there deciding to just do what they like (as reader, writer, artist, whatever) and evolving a way to explain it to the others. Which is why I started with marketing — not just because marketing analysis is my day job, but because that’s where you could make that connection, starting the explaining that “you read it like this.”

    (Marketing in the real industries is well aware that the package is not just an enticement to buy but a set of directions on how to use the product and fit it into your life; for a great example, look at anything Apple did between about 2002 and 2009. Alleged-marketing in publishing is about “enticement to buy” and will get very shirty if you point out that the cover is promising something that the book isn’t, because, they will say, once the book is sold the job is done).

    My totally utopian fantasy: we do a breadth study to identify five or so underserved (i.e. they don’t like most of what they read very much) frequent-reader demographics. We do depth work on all of them until we have a profile of the dissatisfied reader. We bring in twenty-five writers, assign five to each profile, and have them sit down with an editor, whose question to them is, “Which of your oddest/strangest/most personal ideas do you think you could prove, to this specific demog profile, is the coolest thing they’ve ever seen?” Beat the resulting concepts around till ready to outline/write; as soon as the ideas are clear, including “how people who love this book will read it,” put real marketers — not analysts like me and certainly not the sort of people who just buy advertising and set up bookstore receptions — on the gig of figuring out how to explain it in 100 words and one good picture. Proceed from there.

    Wouldn’t require much money, and the talent and techniques all exist already. All it would require is a wittle, tiny, itsy-bitsy bit of nerve. Which, for a variety of reasons, was plentiful in the 1920-70 era, and now … well, we have what we have now.


  10. Hasn’t it always been the case that the challenging and innovative work in any artistic field was never, or very rarely, what the masses were lining up for? While I agree with Damien’s overall desire to see SFF be a genre where all bets are off and the sky is the limit, and every book is a boundary destroyer (as well as his assessment of the sheer mediocrity of the absurdly overrated Pat Rothfuss — I thought I was a lone voice crying the wilderness on that one), this has never been the reality, and I’m surprised this comes as such an apparent epiphany.

    Thing is, it’s all too easy to see pandering where there is none. Most writers write the books they like to read, and that inspired them to write. That they’re plugging in to a well established escapist fan base doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being cynical and meretricious.


  11. I just saw the translation of this in Spanish yesterday. And I want to thank you because you have opened my eyes. I wrote my first short fantasy novel four years ago and I haven’t been able to publish it yet. I guess I will opt for an ebook publication. However, what I want to say is that at some point in the middle of all the rejections, (and with this I am not saying my novel is great or bad, I am no one to judge my own work), I was thinking that editors are just looking for something that sells, maybe looking for vampire or sex stories, trying to find the next Twilight or a 50 shades of something replace. I guess what fantasy writing means is truly to find a way to let go… get immerse in creativity without thinking what others would like to read. At the end of the day I am convinced that an author writes for himself first. And if others follow is because they have found something in that story that can rely to their own experiences, but it’s up to them. So thank you, hopefully one day I can receive criticism from someone like you.


  12. Having written a science fiction novel with some very innovative concepts and ideas behind it, I cannot get an agent for it. That’s despite some of the agents actually enjoying reading it. I’ve all but given up hope of seeing it published.
    So basically your article backs up recent experience.
    But you would have thought that with all this creative talent, somebody must have found a way to break the circle by now. The fact that they haven’t suggests to me there isn’t a way. Which I find very very sad…



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