I like to think I’m fairly upbeat on this blog, but I’ve been thinking about something lately, and I wanted to air it here, where maybe it’ll provoke some discussion. I think when I do stuff like this, I’m subconsciously hoping some wise voice will come out of the woodwork and tell me that everything will be okay, which is what I really want to hear.
(Keep in mind, I’ve done no actual statistical research here, I am MUSING. I am thinking out loud. If you’ve got hard numbers to prove me wrong, please do so. It would actually make me feel a lot better).
I just got off a mini signing tour (I hit Pandemonium in Boston and Flights of Fantasy in Albany, supposedly with Tobias Buckell, but he was taken ill at the last minute). In Albany, I had the opportunity to chat at length with Joe Berlant, who has (like my dear friend the late George Scithers) led a life in fandom and been the organizing hand behind many cons.
The conversation turned (as it always seems to these days) to the future of publishing. Maria Perry (who owns Flights of Fantasy) talked a bit about how all the major publishing houses were cutting back on sales staff (most importantly the reps who come out to stores like hers to pitch titles) directing folks to websites instead. We wondered if the Peer Comparison Model for executive salaries is part of the problem for major publishing houses (it sure is for many other big businesses), with the people who actually do the work of making/selling the product (sales reps, marketing and publicity staff, editorial and art staff) getting cut in order to afford higher and higher executive compensation in the face of shrinking profits. We talked about amazon’s predatory business style, the rise of ePiracy, the increasing competition for reader time and dollars in more sophisticated video games and better, cheaper and more readily accessible video entertainment.
The light at the end of the tunnel, we hoped, was the voracity of readers. And here’s where I got really sad. We agreed that the key was young people doing what I had done in my youth: discovering science-fiction and fantasy, getting addicted to it, and becoming committed to reading pretty much everything I could get my hands on for the rest of my days. We talked about examples of that and I began to think I might be witnessing a trend.
Just as there’s a streamlining/centralizing of businesses providing books (only ONE book superstore – B&N, and only SIX major publishing houses, and only really ONE or TWO major places to buy books online), there seems to be a streamlining/centralization of the things people are fans of. I remember being a very broad reader inside genre even in my youth, typically following as many as twenty authors at once. I didn’t care if it was a blockbuster or a midlister. I didn’t wait for Oprah or the Today Show to start buzzing about a book. I explored on my own. It was the *genre* I was committed to, and I couldn’t wait to read every story that existed in it.
So, yeah. Kids are reading. But are they reading *more* than Stephanie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and now *maybe* George R. R. Martin? Are they using these as jumping points to move on to Steven Gould, or Greg Van Eekhout, or Sam Sykes, or rediscovering Piers Anthony, or Steven R. Donaldson, or Robin Hobb? And sure, they’re eating up the recent blockbuster franchises in the cinema (Jackson’s Lord of the Rings flicks, the Spider Man and Iron Man movies, Frank Miller’s 300), but is that leading them to read paper comics or their digital equivalent, and once they do, are they moving on to the more obscure titles? Garth Ennis? Warren Ellis? Bill Willingham? Mark Smylie?
Maybe someone out there has done a statistical study on this. I’m not sure, and it troubles me.
Here’s something else. I grew up in fandom. I was a fan LONG before I was a pro, and I still go to cons (now for work) with the same wide-eyed wonder I did in my youth. My very first con was Lunacon in Rye, New York, and I remember running around the halls of the Hilton LARPing a game based on Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series. I just went to that same con again. I had an absolute blast (meeting Howard Tayler and listening to his keynote speech was the highlight of the con), but I had to admit that the event was much smaller and much . . . well . . . grayer, than I remembered. Joe (who has got a few gray hairs himself, lord love him) nodded sagely at this point and agreed. You see it at all the major city cons, Philcon, Balticon. He pointed out that Albacon 2011 had been cancelled due to a lack of members.
I remember attending Arisia and Boskone roughly a month apart. Both were in Boston at the exact same hotel. Boskone is a literary con, and it showed the same signs of shrinkage and age that the other city cons I just mentioned did. Arisia was vibrant and bustling by comparison, but it wasn’t literary at all. The primary focus of the con seemed to be anime, sexual kink and the sort of rampant celebration of geekdom that you get at the major “professional cons” (for-profit cons organized by pros, instead of fan run events – I’m referring to SDCC, NYCC and maybe DragonCon, does ICon fall into this category as well?). What little literary programming there was played second fiddle to the other stuff I was seeing there. Here were the young people, the next generation of SF/F fans, and I wasn’t convinced they were reading beyond the blockbusters.
All this worries me. The SF/F genre and community are my lifeblood. They reared me, drove me, sustain me even today. It’s my tribe and my home. And a tribe is only as vibrant as the next generation coming up within it. I understand that I can’t say that SF/F fandom is dying any more than I can say that publishing, bookstores or print media is dying. But I do think it’s *changing* just as those other arenas are.
I just hope that it’s changing for the better, and that there’ll be room for dinosaurs like me in the new order that evolves.