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Thread: Things I Have Noticed
January 22nd, 2007, 11:10 AM #1
Things I Have Noticed
My local chain superstore has separated fantasy and science fiction from each other. The sf section is smaller, but the ratio of non-category sf is increasing.
Norman Mailer's latest -- and possibly last novel -- "The Castle in the Forest," is a fantasy about Hitler. The narrator is the devil's assistant.
Emerald City, a website that reviews sff, has apparently gone under.
January 22nd, 2007, 03:11 PM #2
My local B & N hasn't changed a bit. I wonder if yours is a test case.
Emerald City shut down the week before WFC and Cheryl didn't come to Austin this year.
January 22nd, 2007, 09:50 PM #3
I haven't noticed any particular change in B & N stores; to me their SF/fantasy section (all intermixed) has seemed fairly stable for a while. They used to have a lot more Star Trek/Star Wars materials, but with the source shows for those now drying up those sections have changed from nearly an entire rack to at most about two shelves worth.
Borders seems a bit more interesting; at least their manga/anime sections seem to have grown tremendously. There are at least four full racks of this stuff at the stores I go to (including graphic novels and a host of related things). The actual Japanese language stuff is all grouped together and there seems to be nearly a whole rack just of it.
Most of the independents I go to have a much smaller selection of SF/F, and so far all I've seen there is the same big name stuff you can get at the chains. Nothing that you would go to an independent for to seek out something new and different. There are some exceptions, but they are driven more by the individual enthusiam of the particular buyer at that store, not necessarily by an overall buying philosophy toward SF/F genre material.
As far as other things I've noticed, a popular blogger named Bookseller Chick, who was an assistant manager at a chain and posted great insider info on how such stores actually function, is losing her job as her store is closing. This is a great loss, I think, for authors and others to hear about the day to day happenings in stores and what they need to do to penetrate them. The good news is that she's considering offering consulting services to authors with info that she's learned, which should be helpful at least in the short term while her knowledge is still fresh. She's a very funny lady and writes a nice blog, which I hope she continues with even if it's no longer 'Bookseller' Chick but becomes something else.
January 23rd, 2007, 12:14 PM #4
About ten years ago, Michael Swanwick wrote an essay in Asimov's magazine about how category fantasy had come up under the umbrella of sf and now stood on its own, about how more and more sff authors were going to end up chosing one or the other genre, and how bookstores were separating sf and fantasy into different sections and the two markets would be permanently divided.
I thought the idea that authors who wrote both sf and fantasy having to chose one was unnecessary. (And sort of funny, as Swanwick said he'd go with sf, and this wasn't long after "The Iron Dragon's Daughter," if I remember right) If anything, the trend was going in the opposite direction, with authors dabbling in all sorts of fiction areas, and in childrens and adults, etc. And with a lot of non-category sf and fantasy being published.
But the separation of category fantasy and sf into separate markets has long been an issue of debate -- would it come, what would happen if it did. Some stores were beginning to separate them, but this usually only occurred in large chain stores which had really large sff selections, and they still kept them near each other. Would this occur more frequently?
As it turned out, it didn't. Most stores find it much easier to keep category sff together, and sff publishers have not reproduced into multiple imprints to handle them separately, except for the occasional experiment with horror lines. At one point a few years ago, it looked like the entire sff market was going to shrink, but they've rebounded, more or less. The prophesized split never really materialized.
Which is why it was a surprise to walk into my local Chapters store and discover that they'd done it. Now, it may just be a temporary store re-design. They like to do that -- move sections around, change the shelf alignment, move books in and out of categories. Then they move them back. I think it makes the head office feel that they are properly making use of store staff or something. And even if it's permanent, it may just be the one store or so.
Still, it did re-raise that old issue for me -- might there be a split coming down the road, and if so, what would happen.
January 23rd, 2007, 12:57 PM #5
It has always kind of bothered me that they are lumped together. I almost never read Sci Fi. I don't think of it as the same genre, no more than I do mysteries or thrillers. All novels are fantastic in some sense. They are the products of imagination, not fact.
KatG, you would probably know this: Were they always together on the shelves? Who made that decision and when? What is really so similar about them?
Both are speculative, but in very different ways. I suppose you can combine them and blur the boundaries, but then the stores like to come up with new categories for them anyway like steampunk or new wierd. So why not just keep them as totally separate categories? Do the same people who shop the fantasy shelves then turn around and browse through the Sci Fi shelves? I don't. I never did.
January 23rd, 2007, 01:07 PM #6
...and if so, what would happen.
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But, before the end, consider that the distinctions at the moment can be viewed as sheer marketing convenience, like locating all the dairy products at the furthest corner of the store from the main entrance. Book stores locate books by category to make them convenient to find even though they have no idea what the categories are and/or what should be in them. Consider:
(1) You want to write an alternate history story such as a certain Lady of the Shire is currently engaged with. Now, she is adding magic to her story so it won't become science fiction, it will be come modern fantasy. Perfectly sane and reasonable, yes? Then, I ask you why doesn't "All Quiet On the Western Front" fit into science fiction? It is most certainly an alternate history of WWI because the events in the book did not happen to the character in the book in real life, only between the covers of the book. So, it is a WWI that could have happened, may have happened to other people composited into the hero of AQOTWF, but did not happen as written. And, there is in my memory, an element of magic in the story so I think it merits a place in scifi.
(2) Suppose you wanted to take current events, say as described by Woodward in "State of Denial." and extrapolate a few years hence using the trope "if this goes on." You might get a version of Orwell's "1984" but, that book, you see wasn't science fiction because it was literature, so you must be careful that your version is not too well written or it might become literature and never make it to the scifi bookshelves.
(3) Suppose you wanted to address the interconnectedness of everything and how death doesn't really sever the connection. Some folk might think you were writing a modern fantasy but not the booksellers because they know Amy Tan only writes literature so you will not find "Saving Fish From Drowning" in the fantasy section.
(4) Suppose you think ERB didn't get it write with his Tarzan series, and besides, tigers are much more interesting than lions, you could write a book of self-discovery that would definitely be literature. "The Life of Pi" will never end up in the fantasy section.
(5) Say time travel is your thing, and working out a plot how the present affects the past and the past the present is the kind of fantasy you want to explore. Make certain your name is not Tracy Chevalier and your first novel is not "The Virgin Blue" because you will never make it to the fantasy section.
(6) Is Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" a fantasy or a time travel story? Then why isn't it found in sff shevles?
(7) Isn't "The Iliad" a fantasy?
(8) Isn't Christine de Pizan's "The Book of the City of Ladies" a fantasy?
Actually, instead of beating this dead horse, how about proposing that all literature is fantasy of one kind or another just as dairy products are a kind of grocery store staple. Separating them makes some things easier to find - or some things easier to sell - but is a purely arbitrary notion. You could just as easily arrange a grocery store in alphabetical order and be as efficient as they currently are and you would still be selling groceries.
January 23rd, 2007, 01:20 PM #7
instead of beating this dead horse, how about proposing that all literature is fantasy of one kind or another
I did Hereford. I did indeed.
January 23rd, 2007, 01:38 PM #8
HE! You're taking lessons from KatG on how to write phonebook-sized posts!
I suspect the statement you made early on about marketing convenience is the simple answer. As we all know too well, many consider all genre fiction to be somehow "less than serious." Thus the initial shelving distinction to separate all the genre stuff from "normal" fiction. On the other hand, there are readers who are genre-only readers (Gary himself says he only reads fantasy, not SF), so one could also argue that separate genre shelving is simply good marketing, making it easier for customers to find what they're looking for.
So, back to the question of why SF and fantasy are lumped together. Perhaps because only old lonely guys read westerns, only lonely spinters read mysteries, but lonely geeks read both SF and fantasy? (I'm kidding...). I don't have a good answer, but I seem to recall KatG saying at one point that "fantasy" as a category never used to exist; it was all lumped under "SF" (and sometimes still is, not in bookstores per se but in various online categories of things and sometimes in conversations I've had with people [not readers, usually]). If I have it right, I think Kat said that fantasy really broke out as a category in the '70s, although clearly not enough to separate itself entirely from SF.
Kat - phonebook post in order here?
January 24th, 2007, 03:35 PM #9
What, are you guys kidding me here? My daughter's due home in ten minutes! A phone book post for Gary and one for HE, answering most questions as I am able, but it will have to be later tonight. (Didn't I do a long history thing in Gary's Questions thread in the Fantasy Forum awhile back? Well, I'll repeat.)
Meanwhile, some other things I've noticed:
"Blood and Chocolate" -- new werewolf movie coming out, is based on the bestselling and award-winning YA fantasy novel of the same title by Annette Curtis Klause. Sounds a little violent to me for YA, and the film is going after the young males Underworld audience, but love the title.
The significance of the movie is that it is one more example that we've got a movie Renaissance going, with Hollywood turning to written sff for material, instead of just doing their own, or coping to games and comics. This was not always the case before. I'd like to see more written sf being produced, but the signs are good all the way around. Movies based on sff books help the sff market out and bring in new fans.
Mieville's new YA novel, Un Lun Dun, is being marketed with him as a master of dark, literary fantasy, not New Weird. I have seen the term New Weird increasingly infrequently lately, with authors formerly termed New Weird being referred to instead as dark fantasy writers. So it seems that there will not be an official New Weird market sub-category, and instead, such writers will be absorbed into the old sub-category of dark fantasy. This may mean that other sub-category splits in the market are not likely to occur as well, and only supernatural fantasy got the official market title.
This does not mean, of course, that fans can't talk about New Weird fiction, only that the term won't be used much by publishers in marketing such fiction to booksellers and the public. The term noir fantasy also seems to have been pretty much junked.
January 24th, 2007, 10:30 PM #10
Phone Book #1 -- Genre
It’s important to distinguish between science fiction and fantasy as genres – types of fiction – and fiction markets in the publishing industry in which sf and fantasy may be sold. Most of the confusion seems to arise when people forget or are unaware that there is a difference.
Science fiction and fantasy as genres – as a type of story -- share a basic similarity – they both create imaginary realities. Instead of telling a made-up version of reality, like novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front, sff stories contain elements that exist only outside of current reality.
But science fiction and fantasy also have a fundamental difference between them that defines each of them separately as genres, and defines how they approach creating an imaginary reality. Science fiction must, by its definition/nature, base its story and its outside of reality elements in science and scientific theory. Fantasy must contain fantastic elements – magic, supernatural, unexplainable phenomena. Because of this difference, you cannot truly blend or splice sf and fantasy into the same story, as you might by doing a fantasy thriller or sf romance. If you add fantastic elements to a sf story, it by definition becomes a fantasy, because science fiction cannot contain fantasy elements. The science in a sf story can be fuzzy, quantum, satirical, or part of the background setting, but the existence of a fantasy element nullifies the scientific basis for the story. SF and fantasy as genres thus can be said to have similar story goals, but are diametrical opposites as to how they go about pursuing those goals.
(Scifi is a term that developed to refer to both science fiction and fantasy stories/series that are done in film and television, not in print. Therefore, you may confuse people when you call written sf by the term scifi.)
A novel such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has story elements that exist outside of reality – a 19th century American is transported to King Arthur’s court. Is the story then sf or fantasy? Since the man does not climb into a time machine, but instead simply wakes up in a different time, this element is fantastic and the story is a fantasy. The man uses science from his time, which appears as magic to others, but this does not turn the story into sf, because the time travel element is a fantastic plot device, not a science-based one.
Much vaunted tropes are largely irrelevant to defining genre. A spaceship doesn’t make a story sf and a dragon doesn’t make a story fantasy. Time travel, vampires, telepathy, and on down, are story devices only. Why and how those devices are used becomes the important factor. If the spaceship is a machine built by humans or aliens, then it’s a sf spaceship, even if people on it don’t know it’s a spaceship. If the dragon is a magical creature and not a biological or bioengineered animal, then it’s a fantasy dragon. SFF writers have often delighted in taking a story device common to one genre and spinning its origins to properly fit the other.
These definitions can be argued and frequently are, but they’ve been the working models for sf and fantasy genres, and the ones that produce the least headaches. Because both sf and fantasy create imaginary realities, even if they go about it differently, there is a great deal of overlap between them of fans, and always has been. You could call it a thirds pie – about a third of readers only like sf, a third only like fantasy stories and a third like both. In the current day, fantasy’s third may have gotten a bit bigger and sf’s a bit smaller, but dividing it into thirds works well enough for discussion.
January 24th, 2007, 10:32 PM #11
Phone Book #2 – Markets
SF and fantasy fiction are regularly sold in fiction markets. Some of it is studied as literature in academia. One of the markets through which sff works can be sold is the specialized category sff market. How did we end up with a specialized category market just for sf? How did this specialized market spawn an additional specialized market for fantasy fiction?
Up until WWII, paperbacks were not regularly sold in bookstores. In the 20th century, printing companies put out a variety of magazines, comics, booklets, paperbacks, gum, small toys and so on, which were sold in places like general stores and pharmacies. The market for these items were mainly boys and young men, and so a lot of the written material produced was sf, fantasy or horror, which interested such an audience. Novels that were technically sff were sometimes published in hardcover fiction, but there were lots and lots of these stories produced on the cheap outside of regular book channels. SF became slightly predominant, especially when it came to the magazines.
After WWII, these sf mags and writers got a bit more organized, and paperbacks became a bigger business and started moving into the bookstores. A definite paperback market for sf emerged and start-up presses and major publishers became interested in doing sf novels on a broader scale. In time, sf became a niche category market with a reliable and decent-sized fanbase. Bookstores started giving category sf its own shelf or small section, usually at the back of a store – as Terry Pratchett put it, like a VD clinic.
A fair amount of fantasy was published in the category sf market, since that had worked before in the drugstore days. Sometimes it was dressed up and called sf, and sometimes it was just called fantasy. A number of writers did both. The children’s market, which was a separate market, always had a strong need for fantasy, though they mostly left the sf to the adult market. In the 1960’s, the Youth Movement embraced both sf and fantasy. Eastern mysticism and foreign cultures in which fantasy was a literary tradition were also popular. When the paperback version of LOTR was put out in the U.S. through the category market, it sold widely, and other fantasy titles did well in its wake. This caused sf publishers to put out more fantasy titles and officially launch a fantasy category as an adjunct market in the 1970’s or so. This allowed them to grow their “niche” considerably on two fronts.
In general fiction and sometimes in other category markets, sff titles continued to be produced – futuristic medical thrillers like Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, horror and ghost stories, and more “serious” works by major writers in hardcover. These works were seldom also marketed through the sff category market. They were considered separate with their own audiences, even if they were in the same genres. The sff category markets remained largely paperback, and so were looked at as the Wal-Mart to the literary set’s Saks Fifth Avenue.
In the early 1990’s, the mass market paperback market collapsed, primarily because non-bookstore vendors dropped the number of titles they carried, most of the paperback market having moved into the chain superstores. Specialty markets – called genre markets – which relied on paperback sales, were hit hard. Horror shrank, romance scrambled, westerns died, mystery lost most of its mid-list. SF also took the hit and has been rebuilding since. Fantasy got hit too, but it was a very young, still growing category and it had an ace in the hole – big, fat epic fantasy series. While other sub-categories like contemporary and comic fantasy dwindled, epic held things together enough to get the category over the hump, and got more authors onto the mainstream bestseller lists.
And in the mid-nineties, category fantasy got another gift. In the 1980’s, when adult fiction had grown, children’s fiction had struggled. But in the 1990’s, when things were bad for the adults, children’s started to rebound. Its core fantasy fiction was a major contributor to this, with a lot of series setting new sales records. Then came Harry Potter, which broke all the records, and also brought in waves of adult readers and a new set of fans. Potter was followed by the LOTR movies, which brought in more fans to the adult market, and category fantasy entered the naughts as the hot sector of fiction. Category sf has enjoyed some growth from this, as they are part of the same specialty market and share fans, but also has gotten less attention. But there really hasn’t been much incentive to separate the two category markets yet.
January 24th, 2007, 10:34 PM #12
Phone Book #3 – Sub-categories
Sub-categories are designations primarily due to the general content of a story – the elements used.
Official sub-categories are used by publishers to help booksellers distinguish category offerings from each other and better sell those titles to fans. They are also useful in getting bookstores to stock more fantasy titles overall than they would if fantasy had no sub-categories. If you’re buying ten epic fantasies, then you may not want to buy ten more because it may be too many to sell. But if you buy ten epic fantasies, then you may be willing to buy ten contemporary fantasies, which will appeal to other groups of fans.
Publishers also use sub-categories to help fans identify the type of stories they like, by putting the sub-categories on cover copy and pr materials. Booksellers will sometimes do displays by sub-category, but mostly it works for them to shove everything into the sff section and handsell if a fan specifically ask for a certain sub-category.
Fans generally say they dislike sub-categories, but they also like to keep coming up with new ones. There are a lot of unofficial sub-categories that publishers don’t bother to use but fans like to talk about. Sometimes these unofficial sub-categories get so popular as a concept with fans that publishers adopt them as official sub-categories.
Writers don’t like the sub-categories because being defined as belonging to one group or another may be limiting. For some reason, many people assume that if you write in one category or sub-category, you are somehow incapable of writing in any other one, even though this is done all the time. (Call it the Hollywood Syndrome.) It can be useful, though, for writers to know what sub-categories are out there, how their own writing may be perceived by fans, and what authors may be working in the same ballpark or ballparks that they are working in, given that the fiction market is symbiotic.
Market/fan sub-categories may sometimes be adopted by the academic community studying genre literature for the purposes of discussion and debate. Or they make up their own categories and sub-categories. Both practices tend to add to the general confusion.
All the groups seem inclined to attach merit rankings to different sub-categories, even though sub-categories are purely organizational.
Anyone who gets through all three of these posts gets a, well I don't know, Kevin will send you a picture or something. Anyone who wants to argue with me or correct me about anything in these posts is welcome to do so, but right now, I'm going to bed.
January 24th, 2007, 10:43 PM #13
Good night, Kat. And thank you!
January 25th, 2007, 12:04 AM #14
I think New Weird should have it's own shelf.
January 25th, 2007, 01:07 AM #15
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Well, I can comment a bit about books stores, as my daughter at present works for Waterstones, and has recently been given charge of the SF, F and Horror section. She was told to include all three on the display table to give a better selection, she also included a few of the less popular authors.
As to all these genres and sub -genres I give up I honestly don't know what I write except they are stories.
Oh note to HE; HofG has a supernatural element, not a magical one. Though are "supernatural elements" a type of magic???
Double oh, I would do telephone sized posts if I wasn't so lazy...