A Counter Proposition

I recently linked to John Scalzi's post about SF writers jumping ship to become Young Adult writers, and Mediabistro's additional notes on the subject. Scalzi expands more on this, but the bottom line is the same; books in the Young Adult section of the bookstore sell better (and therefore pay better) than books in the SF section of the bookstore.

"As a final kick in the teeth," Scalzi observers, "YA SF/F is amply represented at top of the general bestselling charts of YA book sales, whereas adult SF/F struggles to get onto the general bestselling adult fiction charts at all." The overall effect? Adult readers, he proposes, "are missing a genuine literary revolution in their genre because the YA section is a blank spot on the map to them, if not to everyone else."

As an example, consider Cory Doctorow's new YA novel Little Brother which is the first of his novels to make it to a New York Times bestseller list (granted it's the kids bestseller list, but still).

There have been a number of explanations of the reasons for this discrepancy, but let me put my two cents in: SF titles sell better in the Young Adult section because they're mixed in with non-SF titles as general fiction aimed at a certain age group. On the contrary, adult SF is segregated from the rest of the "Fiction and Literature" as if it were not fiction or literature, but instead the embarrassing power fantasies of people who think making women wear "touch-my-boobies" pins is acceptable adult behavior.

Let me say this to all you SF/F people out there: sometimes it's really hard to take you folks seriously. And there's plenty of talk about stigmas and ghettos in the SF world and even talk about how the constant death of SF is part of the nature of the beast. But so what? How low do your sales have to get before you finally abandon ship?

Now consider this: as much as superheroes and comics are often linked in the public imagination, it's not the superheroes that are making comics' popularity rise while SF's popularity dies. In fact the bestselling comics in America right now are all manga, which tends to use many, many genres, including SF.

In fact, I'd argue (admittedly absent statistical data) that the SF most read right now is that in the "Graphic Novel" and YA sections of the bookstore, which have in common that SF and non-SF is mixed together without any thought of separating them.

So to all you SF people out there, let me ask you this: What advantage is there to maintaining SF as a separate genre? Can it possibly be outweighed by the disadvantages?
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Comments

The seduction of the young

Basically, in the 60s and early 70s, the class lines in the arts broke down. And now, the people who read the edgier fiction can find that without the sf marketing label. And the fans have taken over s.f.

SF started as YA literature (see Robert Heinlein, the letters columns of any 1940s era s.f. magazine) and grew up with the audience.

I think that SF turns on a proposition about technology's effects on human culture. The conservative position is that technology doesn't change things as much as create a Red Queen's Race where more and more technology is necessary to keep more and more of us alive, but the human condition hasn't changed at all, really, and Homer's Gods and Goddesses reflect or are the CEOs in terms of pitting their underlings against each other for amusement.

The technophile position (C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" is the manifesto of this) is that technology creates different human relationships. If that's true, art about this should be of great interest to any thinking adult.

A lot of s.f. seems to fail to grasp that and is juvenile in the worst sense power or powerless fantasies.

The most significant reality of our time is the fluidity of the battlefield -- the things that people do that can't be defended against with the usual personal heroics. Our side has predator drones; their side flies planes into buildings or sends suicide bombers (suicide bombers tend to make their victims quite nuts to the point that if a Kamakazi lived and fell into US hands, he was likely to be shot out of hand even if the ship crew had hauled him half starved off a life raft).

A traditional warrior might go out to fight to the death in the face of certain defeat, but his enemies could kill him, could exercise warrior virtues against him. It's hard to do that if the person is a 24 year old woman who blew herself and ten of you up.

(I'm currently employed as a technical writer and am much happier than trying to fight fannish ideas of what s.f. should be and how we should all start writing YA to get the kids back to reading s.f. I don't mind if other people do this, but I see trying to make me do it as roughly as cool and civilized as the empowerment of "Touch My Boobies" buttons.

I stopped reading Heinlein or any s.f. between 13 and 21 and focused on adult fiction. I think intelligent adolescents do that. What anyone wants most to be at those ages is not a child anymore, as lacking in sophistication as the attempts to seem adult can be. YA is an oxymoron and the actual readers for that are probably about ten.