HOW MANY LAYERS TO THIS CAKE?: CONSIDERING SF WRITERS

I am spending a good deal of my holidays reading SF, this time not so much at random and for pleasure but, rather, trying to update my (always tottering…) knowledge of the field in a more systematic fashion. Like any other contemporary genre, SF is fast evolving and it’s very hard to grasp which new names and titles are worth reading –it’s actually impossible to keep up to date. Whenever two SF fans meet, we swap reading lists and, yes, I also receive the corresponding bulletins from the SF Site (https://www.sfsite.com/). Still, there is no way around: I have spent long hours reading SF, studying, checking endless database and Wikipedia entries and finally making overlong lists of what I should read asap (thinking also of how to combine my personal interest with the research project on US masculinities I work for, and wondering whether SF is as advanced gender-wise as I hope it is). It’s been GREAT fun, dear students, believe it or not. And there’s SO MUCH MORE to come!

A genre is never completely mapped out and with SF one of the obvious problems is that many writers tend to combine this genre with others, mainly fantasy and horror but also, to my surprise, detective fiction (and children’s fiction). From a Gothic Studies point of view, this should be no surprise, as all these contemporary genres descend from, well, gothic romance. The main awards do distinguish particular novels by genre (clearly, the British Fantasy Award is not the same as the Arthur C. Clarke Award), yet even in that case curious overlappings happen. You might think that because SF is a (so-called) popular genre, sales are the principle on which canonicity (the list of the best) is organised, but this is very wrong. The awards are what matters: the Nebula, the Hugo, the British Science Fiction Award, the Locus Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial, the Philip K. Dick and the Arthur C. Clarke. There are others, of which I am considering for research purposes the James Tiptree jr. Award “to the work of science fiction or fantasy published in one year which best explores or expands gender roles” (www.tiptree.org).

If you check the website World Without End, you will see that the awards, precisely, have been used to establish a list (a canon) of the best SF/Fantasy/Horror writers in English born in the 20th century (yes, all combined) (see: https://www.worldswithoutend.com/authors.asp). It has 62 names: 61 are white, 9 are women, 20 are British and 3 Canadian (the rest American), 5 are dead… They are all also part of the website’s database, which contains exactly 1,115 names (62 is 5’56%). Just take the letter A, as I did, and see how its 49 names defy classification by, let’s say ‘relevance’ to the genre rather than ‘quality’. Yet, check GoodReads or Amazon and you’ll see that a good guesstimate is that perhaps 80% of those names, major or minor, have found a reader willing to leave an opinion. It’s mindboggling. Particularly so if you consider that SF/F/H writers tend to be VERY prolific. Just take patron saint Philip K. Dick and consider: he published 44 novels and 120 stories, a not so uncommon average, and multiply that by, let’s say, 62. Who can claim a command of this field? You need a super-reader, like John Clute, to barely understand what’s going on.

Some thoughts: 1) I know nothing, as usual. 2) The whole scholarly construction of any contemporary literary genre is based on a very superficial collective knowledge of the field (5’56% sounds about right). 3) We cannot understand popular fiction well enough because of the sheer prolificness of the authors. 4) I simply cannot make sense of the market. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (founded 1965), which awards the Nebula, “has over 1,500 members” (https://www.sfwa.org/). The SFWA distinguishes between active members (“Established authors with three qualifying short story sales, one qualifying novel sale, or one professionally produced full-length dramatic script”) and associate members (“Authors with at least one qualifying short story sale”). There’s no expectation, then, that all members are PROFESSIONAL writers. Yet, even so, how can the US market stretch so far?

How many layers are there to this cake? (Please, see the comment sent by Patti to my post of 10-III-2012, on the pulp magazines…)

2 thoughts on “HOW MANY LAYERS TO THIS CAKE?: CONSIDERING SF WRITERS

  1. Thanks, Sara, for this wonderfully informative entry! Your attempt to cover and systematize contemporary SF is admirable. A question: could we have excerpts of your post published in the newsletter of the Catalan Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy ( https://www.sccff.cat/butlletins/ )?
    I very much look forward to the promised SO MUCH MORE to come!

  2. Our knowledge of any field will eventually be based on received opinion and on our personally reading of less than 1/1000 of the works or seeing a fraction of the films… a humbling perspective. Well, actually it could be a liberating one, for readers, but academics are supposed to master whole libraries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.