I look at the ceaseless back and forth of opinion, declaration, review, argument, excitement and comment that SF, Fantasy and Horror are engaged in on the internet, in print and in conversation (the latter generally in the pub, it must be said) and it is clear that we are having a very informed, passionate and ongoing conversation with…ourselves.
Make no mistake, this is wonderful. I can’t think of another area of literary endeavour that is both supported and critiqued quite as strongly as SF, Fantasy and Horror. We’ve been talking like this since the first fan magazines, the first conventions. The internet has taken the conversation to a whole other level. It’s fantastic and it’s a model (like all the best models this one grew by accident and was honed by use) that other parts of the industry are now looking to repeat with their own newsletters, twitter feeds and reading groups; trying to create and then trying to reach out to an informed and dedicated following for all sorts of literary (and not so literary) genres. This level of conversation within SF, Fantasy and Horror’s support networks means that we have a core readership that are uniquely engaged in what we do.
There’s that worry again; we’re really just talking to ourselves aren’t we? Preaching to the converted. Or arguing the finer points of our theology with those on the other side of a schism in our faith. Who is talking to the unbelievers? Who is taking the message out to the heathen mainstream? Where are the missionaries? Where, in short, are the hell we going to get new readers for all these wonderful books from?
I mean, look at our awards. I’m sorry to say that for all their abundant significance to us, for all that we should celebrate the profound achievement of the authors who win them, their award makes not a jot of difference to sales of the winning books. Let alone the shortlisted ones. You see, we’re all so well-informed (or think we are), we’re such a small coterie, that the genre awards simply can’t bring enough new to enough new readers. And isn’t the whole point of an award to celebrate the best and by so doing bring new people to it? To be fair, this is true of pretty much every award in every area of publishing outside of perhaps the Orange Prize, the Costa or the Man Booker.
If only a ‘proper SF book’ (whatever that means) could be even shortlisted for the Booker (don’t worry I’m not going to get onto that particular hobbyhorse)…
I sometimes wonder whether the mainstream and literary markets, even by just occasionally indulging in older genre ideas and treating them with (from religious analogy to art world) broader brush strokes and colours that are easier on the untrained eye, are not going to be more successful at showing to a broader readership what SF and Fantasy can do. Whether it be Audrey Niffenegger, (not Margaret Atwood – she’s just one of us OK? Argument closed), Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Roth, Will Self or even, God help us all, Martin Amis aren’t those mainstream writers who dip into genre actually doing more to take our argument out there than we are? And this is without considering those fantastic and unashamed genre writers, the likes of David Mitchell and Lauren Beukes who are published under the aegis of mainstream houses and who therefore have the chance of getting their conversation heard by believer and heathen alike.
Now this is not to say that I think our genres should turn the volume of their ideas down from 11 to 4 (from religion, to art, to music! See how my ragged style jumps from unsuitable analogy to unsuitable analogy!), pull their indy and their hip-hop and their grime back to the middle of the road. Far from it. You don’t apologise for your genre, you celebrate it. Much of SFF’s appeal, much of its importance comes from its willingness to be narrowly directed, to pull the reader ahead , to push at boundaries. But I do think it would do us no harm at all to stop being so bloody sniffy about the mainstream and literary (whatever that means) world’s occasional ‘misappropriation’ of ‘our’ cool stuff. Yes they are going to claim (in the broadsheets, on the radio; all those places we don’t get to go) that they had the idea and are better than us (just like we do) but they are at least talking to other people. We should be happy that they are, we should celebrate what they are doing. Some of the people reading them might get a whiff of the divine (back to religion; keep up!) from their books and come in search of the real, old-time religion that’s preached in our neck of the woods.