One day, while flensing a sea elephant, I was interrupted by a phone call from my editor at a prominent New York publishing house. He was calling to discuss my next book, owed under contract. Feeling my oats (or should I say blubber?), I limned the contours of a grand new novel I had in mind. Let’s call it Gone with the Winds of War and Peace, a saga of love and revolution set against a sweeping historical background, guaranteed to be a blockbuster. I gave my editor a précis of the storyline in the proverbial twenty-five words or less.
His response? Well, he liked the idea, but had reservations; namely, that he could not give me the kind of advance this kind of book would demand. In other words, he had not the budget for what this best seller would fetch on the market—a whale of a lot of money, presumably.
This brought me up short. For this publisher I had been writing “genre” books, sci-fi /fantasy novels (the two genres are Siamese twins, irrevocably fused), but what I had just described to my editor obviously did not fit into that rubric. It was something else. It was not a genre novel.
Genre vs. Non-Genre
Publishers do not treat non-genre novels the same as genre novels, which is to say, not shabbily. They are given substantial advances and respectable print runs, and are afforded at least some advertising, publicity, and promotion, all of which lends them the gravitas necessary to be reviewed in respected periodicals. In pitching my new novel idea, I had, however briefly, crossed a line; I had transgressed some tacit but very definable boundary and was shooed back across.
“You should probably try another department of the house,” my editor suggested. Not the genre fiction shack in the back. Go to the manor house. In other words, I had told my editor that I now wanted to be a real writer. Not a genre writer, but the genuine article. An author, even.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t my editor’s department.
This peculiar attitude publishers have toward genre fiction writers persists in spite of daily entries on the best sellers lists that are inarguably genre fiction. Authors such as Robert B. Parker and Lawrence Block (mystery), Michael Crichton and Ray Bradbury (sci-fi/fantasy), Stephen King, and Anne Rice (horror) have been icons of popular fiction for decades. And all that before Harry Potter came on the scene and shattered what was left of pre-Cambrian notions about genre fiction. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a YA (Young Adult) fantasy novel that took the world by storm—unprecedented, inexplicable, and probably unrepeatable, for all that publishers are still trying to repeat it. Good luck to them.
In fact, J. K. Rowling and her universal success prompts a central question: if genre literature is defined as the kind that appeals to a coterie of readers, a limited circle of enthusiasts, how was Potter possible at all? Those novels of Rowling’s are some of the most universally bought and read books in human history. People who never read, much less bought, a book in their lives bought and read those books. How could they be genre novels?
The answer is that the Harry Potter series “broke out” of its genre. The first one, looking for all the world like a competently written YA title destined to sell a few thousand copies to school libraries, slowly built to an international phenomenon. It was a “break out” book. Publishing people use this term all the time. Some agents give lectures on “how to write the break-out novel.” All genre fiction writers lust after the break-out novel, the one that will burst the confines of its genre like a chrysalis its cocoon.
All very well and good, but we all know most genre novels don’t do that. For every Stephen King, there are dozens of writers of horror/dark fantasy who have careers, readers, and awards, but their names are not household words. These writers don’t command huge advances and have print runs and sales in the millions. Some of them are brilliant writers. But they are genre writers, whereas Steve King is a mainstream writer who writes genre fiction. There’s a difference.
Genre as a Bestseller
The fact persists. Publishers treat their genre books differently from the way they treat best selling books that happen to be in the same genre as their genre books.
I am not even sure I understand it myself, but that is the truth. The chief characteristic that distinguishes genre books from “real” books is the way they are treated by publishers.
Let’s just assume that in today’s fiction market, there is no objective criterion for distinguishing a genre book from a non-genre book. Not in the Age of Potter. Any given novel in any given genre can become a mega-best seller and be accorded all the amenities deserving of major books. So how do you know that what you’re writing will break out?
The trouble is, you can’t know that. You probably can’t set out to write a genre novel that will break out. I am sorry to contradict the how-to books, and if I could tell you how-to, I would, believe me. For a small fee.
Let’s face the basic issue. Why would you want to write genre fiction in the first place? Why live and work in a literary ghetto? It just so happens there are some very good reasons. Let’s narrow the focus and talk about the field I know best.
Fans of science fiction and fantasy are special people; they are above average in intelligence, and these days, as many of them are adept in the computer field, they are above average in income as well. They like to read. They have always taken pleasure in buying and owning books and magazines. Some of them are ardent collectors of such reading matter and have been known to plunk down cash money for rare and collectible items. The book/magazine/memorabilia collection of some fans is legendary. These are your readers. They buy books, lots of them.
Conferences and conventions
Some of these fans hold conventions across the country on just about every weekend of the year. These “cons” are gatherings of fans, writers, artists, and other professionals. Each year the Worldcon is held in a different city on the planet, and the world of SF/fantasy comes to spend the weekend to hobnob.
The point here is that if you write and publish SF or fantasy, you have a ready and receptive audience to appreciate what you are doing.
The SF/fantasy community likes to award trophies to their favorite authors. The Hugo Awards are presented at the Worldcon each year. The SF writers’ professional organization, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, each year awards its Nebula for outstanding fiction.
There is the lineup of awards named after prominent SF practitioners: the Theodore Sturgeon, the John W. Campbell Award (for new writers), the Robert A. Heinlein, the Arthur C. Clarke. . . . One of these shiny objects may have your name on it. For a beginner, this is something to shoot for. What are the chances that any new mainstream writer will win the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, or the PEN? Frankly, I don’t know, but there’s an old saw about ponds and the relative size of fish that one should keep in mind.
There are other perquisites beside awards. Although SF/fantasy books tend to have limited initial print runs, they have long shelf lives. Classics of the field have been in print for decades. Reprints, new editions, and small press limited editions guarantee that these works will live. If you are lucky enough to write a classic of the field—a Foundation series, a Lord of the Rings, books that transcend their genres—your immortality is assured.
Who reads yesterday’s best sellers? They may sell a million copies this week, but in ten years or less, they will be gone from collective memory. When was the last time you heard the name John P. Marquand? He won the Pulitzer for fiction in the 1940s. He is rarely read today. There are classic science fiction novels from the 1940s still in print. SF/fantasy seems to live, if not forever, for a good stretch of time. They are cherished books that keep being reprinted and read decade after decade. One of them might be yours.
The real extra added bonus in our field is this. Take the following as an example. Go on Amazon.com and look up The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Read the Reader Reviews. People who love this book keep it in a special chamber of their hearts. They don’t just love Ray’s novel. They’ve adopted it. They will remember it always as part of their reading lives, part of growing up and realizing that the universe is a wide and wonderful place. That’s what Ray did for us (me, too!). People will remember Ray Bradbury into the distant future, the future that he foresaw and helped, in some ways, to bring about. Asimov’s robots are with us today. Clarke’s communications satellites bind the world together. Sir Arthur is gone, but his fiction will live. Readers revere Robert A. Heinlein as they do Mark Twain. He is an American original. He wrote of the Age of Space before anyone dared to dream of it, as if it had already happened.
SF/fantasy is not a ghetto. It is an exclusive country club.
It’s What’s Familiar
The final and ultimate reason to write genre fiction. Get ready for this. Here it is.
It’s what comes out of your word processor. You probably didn’t even think about it first. You sat down to write a first novel or short story, and you wrote. . .genre fiction. Face it. Live with it. It is what you write. You probably love it, harbor a deep affinity for it. It is part of you. As Thomas Wolfe put it, it is in the wash of your brain and blood. That’s pretty darn deep. That’s in there, for keeps. Don’t be ashamed of it. Don’t sit there at your computer daydreaming, oh, if only I would have gone mainstream, I’d be something today. I’d be treated with respect. I’d be a real writer.
Nonsense. Most of the world’s literature is in one genre or another. The Iliad is a martial arts novel, the Odyssey a fantasy story. Huckleberry Finn is a YA adventure. The Count of Monte Cristo? A thriller. Nineteen Eighty-Four is sci-fi. We can go on listing great works of literature that could conceivably wear a label. Publishers deal in labels; they have to. Shelves have to be hung with arbitrary markers, to direct the book buyer to what is wanted. Even best seller is a niche. It’s one we all want to be stuffed into; but that is not up to us. We write what we write.
Don’t worry about what to label what you write. You don’t write labels; you write fiction. Make what you write so good that it will smash through the barriers, so good that readers will never bother to categorize your work, and publishers who do will simply slap on a label that says Damn Good Book!