Monday, November 1, 2010

Short Fantasy Fiction: Too Much of a Good Thing?

When I began this blog, I intended it to be more than just a collection of reviews of books I'd read and films I'd seen.  It was my intention to practice my essay writing by inflicting it on whoever happened to be reading my words.  Until this post, that really hasn't happened.  Dayjobbery, family commitments, parttimesecondjobbery, and my own fiction writing have prevented that from happening.  (Not nearly enough of my own fiction writing, and far too much of the other.)  I considered weighing in on the brouhaha surrounding Elizabeth Moon being uninvited as Guest of Honor at Wiscon, but haven't had the time to craft a well thought out essay.  Which is not to say I won't sometime soon.  That would be something I would want to spend some time on, and time is in short supply at the moment.

Then Friday I read a couple of postings that I felt I had to respond to, which is not the same as taking issue with, something I would have done regarding Elizabeth Moon's treatment.  The first posting appeared on Black Gate, and the second on the Cyclopeatron blog.  In order to do that, we need to look at the subject of those posts.

Most people who have more than a passing interest in fantasy as a genre of fiction, especially short fiction, have probably heard by now the tragic news that the magazine Realms of Fantasy has ceased publication for the second and possibly final time.  The magazine was purchased last year by Warren Lapine after the original publisher, Sovereign Media, pulled the plug.  Sovereign, you may remember, was also the publisher of Science Fiction Age from 1994 until about 2002, when they decided to shut it down to publish a professional wrestling magazine.  It wasn't that SF Age wasn't making a profit, but that the company felt it could make a better profit if resources were diverted in that direction.  From a business perspective that made sense, but I didn't (and still don't) have to like it.  Science Fiction Age was one of the best, if not the best, new magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction in the last couple of decades.

Realms managed to hang on with Sovereign Media until last year, when it got the axe.  Enter Warren Lapine of Tir Na Nog Press, who valiantly tried to continue it.  At the time it started it was the only magazine I'm aware of devoted entirely to fantasy that had a wide circulation with distribution in most of the major chains.  Realms did its best to cover a wide range of fantasy topics, from movies and television to art and folklore.  In this endeavor it should be applauded.  At least to a point.  I felt there were too many covers with photos of Harry Potter and other media stars.  Again, from a business perspective that perhaps makes sense.

But ultimately, the fiction content was why people read it.  The magazine was edited by Shawna McCarthy for its entire run.  Ms. McCarthy started her career editing Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine from 1983-1985 before moving on the a couple of publishing houses.  She eventually ended up running her own literary agency, in addition to editing the magazine.  (Can someone please explain to me how being a literary agent and a fiction editor at a major genre-magazine does not constitute a potential conflict of interest?)

The bloggers essentially took the stand that one of the main reasons RoF died was because there is too much short fiction on the market.  Now we've been hearing for years about the death of the short fiction magazines, the large formats as well as the digests.  Amazing Stories has died more than once, only to be resurrected, although the most recent death (2005) seems like it might be permanent at this point.  Circulation of all the print fiction outlets has fallen steadily for years, something anyone who reads the Annual Review issue of Locus or the summations in Gardner Dozois' annual The Year's Best Science Fiction is painfully aware of.  The one bright light is that with the advent of Kindle and Nook and other ebook readers offering subscriptions at a lower rate than print subscriptions, circulation may be going up again.  Time will tell.

Anyway, there are a number of culprits who are routinely blamed for short fiction markets dying:  the internet, media tie-in novels, falling literacy rates, competition from video games, etc.  The argument that we lost a major magazine devotedly solely to fantasy because there is too much fantasy takes a little getting used to.  The authors of the above posts have good, well-reasoned arguments, which go as follows.  There's too much competition in the form of new and especially used books: anthologies, single author collections, and novels.  And furthermore, when a reader picks up a collection of stories by Robert E. Howard (and you should), or Fritz Leiber (what are you waiting for?) or Poul Anderson (you mean you haven't read him yet?) or whomever, the reader has a pretty good idea what she or he is in for.  Whereas with a magazine, it's a crap shoot.  Their argument basically goes that, with a few exceptions in the case of an established author, you don't know what type of story to expect from most writers in a magazine because the author has yet to establish a strong track record, and furthermore isn't likely to be as good as the established names.

On the other hand, many of the comments posted in response to the two blogs above took the position that, rather than too much fantasy, there isn't enough.  At least of the right kind.  The right kind being action-adventure oriented.  Several people went so far to say that RoF failed because it printed stuff people weren't willing to read.  Directly or indirectly, some of the respondents blamed the editorial decisions behind the content.

I'm not sure that either of these arguments doesn't oversimplify things (and the bloggers did acknowledge other factors may have played a role), but if I had to choose a position, I'm inclined to lean towards the latter.  I quit reading Asimov's back in the 80s for a couple of years primarily because of the type of story Shawna McCarthy was publishing and didn't resume reading the magazine until Gardner Dozois took over.  I was not really impressed with much of what I read in RoF either, at least as far as the fiction went.  I can't recall the details of a single story I read over the years.  The art feature was by far the best thing of its kind I'd seen, as was the Folkroots column.  I almost dropped RoF in the early 00s after McCarthy published a few editorials essentially bitching about why she and the magazine hadn't gotten any nominations for one of the major awards, the Hugo if memory serves, that she felt were deserved.  I found the editorials to be in poor taste.  However, out of a sense of loyalty to the field, and because at the time I was enjoying at least some of the stories, I kept buying and reading it as I could find the time.  (I tend to buy from the newsstand rather than subscribe; I've found the savings from a subscription aren't enough to compensate for the number of copies that arrive tattered and ripped through the mail.)

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit I haven't read much of the fiction in recent years.  The last couple of years of my life have been interesting, in a Chinese curse sort of way, and two major job searches (one currently going) haven't left me with a lot of time to read.  In spite of that I continued to pick up the magazine.  I have to say I wasn't impressed with what I saw, in terms of fiction as well as the other content. I remember reading some of the stories, but have no memory of them.  Most of the ads in the last few years seemed to be from small presses that specialize in erotic fantasy, if not outright porn, with full color one and two page spreads.  This was not the sort of thing I wanted either my wife or more importantly my son to walk in and see, the former because I didn't want to have to explain I wasn't reading porn and those were just ads, and the latter because I don't want my son exposed to that sort of material at his age.  Since I wasn't reading the magazine much, I decided to stop buying it just before its first death.  I picked it up again after Lapine took over, but sadly not much had changed except for the price, which went up by three bucks, a 75% increase, with no increase in page count.

Now please don't misunderstand me.  I take no joy in the loss of RoF.  None whatsoever.  The loss of a major outlet is a major loss to the field regardless of whether that outlet aligned with my tastes.  It affects all of us, and in a negative way.  But the discussions, which have continued since the original postings at both Black Gate and Cyclopeatron, bring up some interesting points that merit further consideration, beyond just the fate of RoF.

Is there too much fantasy available today?  I'm inclined to think not, although I certainly understand and can agree with the arguments made, at least to a point.  There's certainly more than any single person can read in a short period of time without limiting said reading to certain subgenres.  But if you as a reader prefer one of the subgenres that's not a current hot area, then the fantasy and/or science fiction landscape tends to resemble a wasteland.

I can buy the idea that the contents of any single issue of any magazine probably isn't as good as the stuff already available.  That's always been the case, at least as long as reprints have been available cheaply and readily.  Ballantine's Adult Fantasy series in the early 70s, Del Rey's, as well as Pocket's, Best of... series in the mid to late 70s, DAW's Asimov Presents the Great SF of the early and middle 80s. All of these and others did change the landscape permanently by preserving a number of great stories in affordable editions.  At least they were then.  If you can find any of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy volumes today, be prepared to fork over the moola.  And I can't remember the last time I saw a Best of or Asimov Presents in a second hand bookstore.  (And I'm of the opinion that when cetrain titles or types of books can no longer be found second hand with little difficulty at reasonable prices, there's a potential market going untapped.) Other publishers, many of them small presses, have continued the practice of classic reprints, though, so most of these stories and books are still available in some form.

But my argument here is that except for Astounding from the late 30s to early 40s, the brief run of Unknown, and Galaxy in the early 50s, plus some of the Weird Tales from the late 20s to mid 30s, most magazines don't publish consistently at the level of quality that's available in reprints.  There's a reason those books and stories are in reprints.  They have not only stood the test of time, but they were groundbreaking tales in the field, and important to the history of the genre.  Look at any single issue from any magazine over the 20th century to the present, and most likely much of the contents will be forgettable and the contributors unfamiliar to most readers.  Sturgeon's Law has never been repealed.  Ninety percent of everything is crud, always has been, always will be.  Even magazines that consistently print stories nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards also print stories you won't remember next month.  The editors have to fill the magazines with content, even if that content isn't always of the highest possible quality.  So while I agree that there is more competition for a fantasy or science fiction reader's time and money, I don't agree that this is the only, or even the main, reason why RoF folded.

I don't think there's enough fantasy published at short lengths.  At least not the kind many people want to read.  Particularly heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery/call it what you will.  If there were, would there be as many smaller outlets of the stuff starting up.  Now I've heard it said that the average fantasy reader wants a thick book they can get lost in for hours, if not days, at a time.  They just aren't interested in short fiction.  I can see how this might be the case for a portion of the fantasy buying public.  But I also think that the people who responded to the blog posts bring up an interesting point.  And that's that there is not enough pulp in today's fantasy. 

I would extend that to say the same about science fiction as well.  The reason I say this is that there are people within the field, editors, writers, and pundits, who almost act like they're ashamed of traditional fantasy and science fiction and want to distance themselves (and by extension through whatever influence they have, everyone else) from the lifeblood of the genre.  They give the impression sometimes that they're trying to apologize for the field, like the rest of us are the inbred cousin locked in the basement.  They seem to think that the field needs the respect of the literary establishment or something.  (I won't name names because I don't know who they all are, and it's not my purpose at this point to attack any particular individual, particularly someone I don't know.  And that includes Shawna McCarthy, to whom I extend my sympathies for the cancellation of RoF along with my best wishes for her future endeavors.Just because our tastes differ doesn't mean I wish her ill.)  The attitude is that if a certain piece of fiction doesn't have certain qualities, or if it does have certain other qualities, it isn't worthy of serious consideration.  And heroic fantasy seems to be a favorite target of these people.

Like any genre that undergoes a boom and bust cycle, sword and sorcery has had a lot of dreck published over the years that has been more than subpar.  And much of what Hollywood puts out doesn't help the gente's standing in the eyes of the general public.  I do want to see the genres of fantasy and science fiction have high literary standards.  I think those standards are not negotiable, and neither are well rounded characters and original plots and settings.  But the main reason I read, and I think probably most other people as well, is that I want to read a good, entertaining story.  I don't read fiction for the pretty words or dense sentence structure.  Nor do I read to be enlightened about The Human Condition, converted to or from a particular political position or philosophy, or have my consciousness raised about an author's pet social issue.  If I want that, I'll read nonfiction.  (And I do.) 

Good fiction can accomplish all of those things, of course, and should attempt to.  But not at the expense of entertainment and telling a riveting story.  As an example, look at the parables of Jesus.  He taught truth in the form of a short story that his audience could relate to, about people they could care about because those people in the parables could be the listener's mother, or son, or self.  The Sermon on the Mount is one of history's greatest discourses, but it's the exception to Jesus' teaching approach.  Jesus interested his audience with stories because He knew how much people value a good story.  Aesop did the same thing with his fables.  Scheherazade, if the legend is true, saved her own life by being able to tell a riveting tale.  Too many writers today have failed to learn this lesson:  story comes first.

People like stories with character and plot and excitement, suspense and mystery and romance.  They want action, adventure, and escape from day to day drudgery.  Tastes differ, but the bottom line is, when reading fiction for pleasure, people don't give a rip about the literary establishment's opinion.  They just want to be entertained.  And when a magazine fails to do that, that magazine is doomed to fail.  (I'm speaking in general terms here now, not specifically about RoF.)  No matter how high the ideals an editor or publisher has about the literary quality of the magazine, the political correctness of the contents, or the diversity of the contributors, if story is not the top priority, the magazine will not be worth the time and money.

Call it literary survival of the fittest, if you will.  The reading public knows what it wants.  It wants good a good story.  What it considers a good story, not what someone with an agenda thinks it should be reading.  How many of you read can remember the name of the novel that was the talk of the literary establishment 10 years ago?  How about 5 years ago?  Last year?  My point is that much, if not most, of what endures as literature starts out as popular fiction.  Consider these names:  Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, H. P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick.  What do they all have in common, besides being genre writers who started out in the pulps or digests?  They're all in the Library of America, one of the premier publishers of literature today, along with Mark Twain, Flannery O'Connor, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, H. L. Mencken, the list goes on.  While not all of these writers are to every one's taste, anyone who has read these four authors knows they could tell a gripping tale and provide exciting reading for a large portion of the readers in their genres.

The reasons for the second failure of Realms of Fantasy are almost certainly more complicated than too many markets for short fiction.  The economy, the changing state of publishing, and competition for the reader's time and money all probably contributed to a greater or lesser degree.  It's not my purpose here to answer the question of why RoF went under.  What I do hope to have accomplished is to have made the point that there is a market for short adventure fiction, especially sword and sorcery, sword and planet, sword and sandal, that hasn't been tapped.  Space opera underwent a resurgence a few years ago that seems to still be going.  There are some indications that sword and sorcery might be in the early stages of its resurgence, along with straight histroical fiction.  I certainly hope so.  In the weeks to come, I'll take a closer look at some of the publishers we do have and the role they're playing in the resurgence.

In the meantime, maybe someone will resurrect Realms of Fantasy and try again with a different slant.  Lapine has said, although I'm not sure how serious he is, that he will sell the magazine for a dollar.  Any takers?


  1. And furthermore, when a reader picks up a collection of stories by Robert E. Howard (and you should), or Fritz Leiber (what are you waiting for?) or Poul Anderson (you mean you haven't read him yet?) or whomever, the reader has a pretty good idea what she or he is in for.

    God bless you, sir.

  2. You absolutely nail it. Both publishers and writers in the specfic field are off in their own little world, affecting contrived "hip" writing styles like second person present tense, and giving each other self-congratulatory popularity awards like the Hugo and Nebula. They've forgotten that without *readers,* we're nothing--and readers want to be entertained, first and foremost (and often, only).